Creating Stunning Architectural Photographs

One challenge facing architectural photographers creating stunning architectural photographs is how the human visual system views architecture. They say the camera never lies but it’s quite well known it doesn’t see the way the human eye does. This is where the photographer’s understanding of perspective and lens angles is called upon.

The camera’s visual system has similarities with the human visual system, the lens it’s eyes and the processor it’s brain. Since no processor has the abilities of the human brain, the photographer is its most important component. The famous twentieth century landscape photographer Ansel Adams said, “’The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it”. That thought is as true and relevant today with digital technology as it was when Adams said it.

The success of an architectural photograph largely depends on how the photographer manages: perspective, illumination, colour balance, focus and composition. In this essay I focus on horizontal perspective, vertical perspectives will be covered in a future article.

Creating stunning architectural photographs - The Kitchen, Kirklees Hall

One point perspective of a kitchen in a historic home. Shot with a 90mm lens on a 4″x5″ large format camera, approximately equivalent to 30mm on 35mm full format camera. Note how the lines of floor, furniture and ceiling appear to converge. Vertical lines in this image have been kept vertical by use of the camera movements.

Perspective

As the title suggests, this post will focus on how to control perspective in architectural interior photography. The concept of perspective is distant objects appear smaller than near objects. In architectural photography, this typically manifests itself as converging lines. If you look along a straight railway track, the rails appear to converge at a distant vanishing point.

To our eyes the rails always converge at the same point. Photographers can manipulate where the vanishing point appears by altering the focal length of the lens. The shorter the focal length (or the wider the lens angle) the closer the vanishing point. Using a “standard” focal length lens which mimics the perspective of the human eye will often exclude too much of the architecture being photographed, this is where the twelve inches behind the camera comes in.

Understanding how architects draw and sketch interiors with one and two-point perspective is a good starting point. Architects will however, always have the advantage of being able to exclude walls and other obstructions the photographer can’t see through. Photographers therefore have to make compromises in focal length. Using specialist camera movements enables the creation of realistic looking photographs that convey how human visual system perceives interior spaces.

Creating Stunning Architectural Photographs - Grand Prix TrackA wide angle lens was used to capture this image of the Singapore GP circuit. Camera is positioned close to the ashphalt to reduce the appearance of the track to slope uphill. Note how small the distant high rise building appears

One-Point and Two-Point Perspective

The railway line example is a single vanishing point perspective, usually referred to in architecture as a one-point. One points are often used to portray long rectangular interior spaces. The camera is placed precisely on the centreline of the space and perpendicular to the end wall. This is a time consuming image to set up, as accurate camera positioning is critical.

Creating Stunning Architectural Photographs - One Point Perspective Sketches

Sketches of one-point perspective. Left, ultra wide angle lens camera positioned mid room height and right a longer lens camera closer to the floor. Note how the wide angle lens makes the end wall appear small

The two-point is created with the camera pointed at a corner of the room. Ceiling height at the corner appears lower than elsewhere as it’s the furthest point from the camera giving separate vanishing points for the walls on either side. This technique is often used in smaller rooms and can make the space appear larger than reality.

Creating Stunning Architectural Photographs - Study in London Apartment

This image of a small study has been stitched together from two portrait images then cropped to fit A4/A3 paper. A wide angle tilt and shift lens was used to minimise distortion, camera was located in the doorway.

Long focal length lenses make the end wall dominant in the composition and show little of the side walls. Switching to a wide angle lens will make the end wall appear smaller and floors and ceilings slope. The technique to mimic the human eye is to refrain from using the widest angle lens and stitch multiple images together using the longest lens with sufficient coverage. To do this without distortion, either a specialist tilt and shift lens or large format camera with optical movements can be used.