Architectural photography – The challenges of capturing construction and development

John Weston talks us through his approach to architectural photography – in both the construction and complete stages…

If you ran a Google search for architectural photography, the first page of results would likely show top architectural photographer websites that display superbly finished buildings before an interesting yet complimentary sky. The gardens will be immaculately landscaped and the interior shots well lit, clean, crisp and inviting. In essence, the shots are framed, composed, exposed and detailed with a formula that makes you want to be there, to live there or to work there.

Architectural photography during the construction phase, however, is quite different. It presents significant challenges that, with a little determination and the right formula, can be overcome and used to create images that the architect wants to see. And that’s the point: this genre of photography is primarily for the architects; they are the audience, they understand that construction obstructions are inevitable; the photo needs to allow them the opportunity to see the progress and visualise the finished building within its immediate surroundings.

The frame, just like that of a finished construction project, should encapsulate architectural features, portray a sense of size and space and include surrounding areas where possible to provide a location perspective.

Quite often this means the photographer will be walking around construction sites, climbing stairs, riding clunky hoists or hanging off of cranes to find the ideal frame that has all the elements the photo needs. Great fun.

Architectural photography Bluewaters Residential - Construction UpdateWide angle shot of Dubai’s JBR Walk from Bluewaters Island construction

Architectural photography can be quite technical; the finished article is often a combination of objective requirements that contain all the usual framing and composition, exposure, lighting and basic techniques. But most importantly, whilst you’re stood there looking up at a mass of scaffolding, or laying in the dirt trying to find the ideal composition with the perfect light and focus, the photographer needs to consider what the architect would want to see; the subjective element. The image does not represent what I, the photographer, wants to see; the photo represents what I as the photographer understands as what the architect wants to see. Are there any features the architect is particularly proud of? The only way to know what to aim for is to talk to the architect, ask the right questions and listen carefully.

Architectural Photography lessons

I learned very quickly that if the architect has given the building vertical lines, they probably want to see the vertical lines represented as vertical in the image, rather than converging.

What are converging lines? A 50 square metre building like The Edge (pictured below) is 50 metres wide at the top and at the bottom. To take a photo of the entire building, you often have to point the camera up, but because the top is further away from the camera sensor at ground level, the top appears smaller than the bottom of the building on the sensor of the camera. This causes the sides of the building in the photograph to appear to converge. If the camera is pointing at the building horizontally, then this does not occur, but the chances are that the top of the building won’t be in the image.

A tilt-shift lens is the solution that many architectural photographers use, and has become my go-to lens for most architecture and interior images. It allows the sensor of the camera to stay parallel to the façade, and the lens itself is able to shift up to capture the entirety of the building without the converging lines, or perspective distortion.

Architectural Photography - The EdgeWide angle lens pointing up at the building, with converging lines.

Architectural Photography - The EdgeTilt shift lens pointing directly at the building, without converging lines.

Another valuable lesson I learned very quickly is to actually go to the location before you are due to shoot and before you talk to the architects. What are the viable positions to shoot from? Where is the Sun likely to be? Are there any obstructions? And this is where you’ll make your new best friend: the Project Manager. A good PM will know the building inside out, he’ll know every single location and he can get you access to the best locations to shoot from. In return for this inside information, you’ll take great shots of his team’s hard work.

In short, construction photography requires the core elements of any good image: the rule of thirds, balance, colouring and composition etc., plus having the right equipment to capture the images; however, a great part of repeatedly producing successful architectural photography is about integrating yourself and  becoming part of the team that actually designs and builds the buildings; developing relationships with them, so that each time you go out and capture images of their work, you understand a little more than last time about what they’re looking for and what they’re proud of, and so the results improve each time.

That’s one of the reasons why working with BSBG and photographing our projects is so enjoyable. The design and build capability at BSBG gives me access to the teams across the lifecycle of projects from visualisation through to project completion, with input from key staff members every step of the way, meaning that each time I go out I understand more of what is needed, which significantly improves my results.

Architectural Photography - The Opus - Construction Update

Take a look at the BSBG project portfolio here