Creating the fine art architectural photograph
I love architectural photography. More specifically, I love fine art architectural photography. This begs a couple of questions. What is the definition of “fine art?” How do you make a fine art architectural photograph?
The first question has been the subject of debate for centuries but for the purposes of this article I’m going to ask you to accept my definition.
First, let‘s agree that the creation of art is a very personal act. When I make a photograph, I’m trying to recreate or express my emotional impression of my subject, which is usually a piece of architecture.
Let’s say that I’m on the streets of Chicago looking for a building to shoot. What is it that makes me choose one thing over another? For me, it’s what Rollo May called “The Encounter.” I see something that makes me stop because it touches something inside of me. I might not be able to initially explain what it is that moved me but I know I felt it. This encounter, this search for meaning, is what drives the rest of my photographic process. It’s a process that requires both technical skills and artistic vision.
Usually my vision for a piece of work is partial at best. When vision quits, technique takes over and finishes the job. But both are necessary. The result of working out this encounter is the fine art photograph.
So let me give you my definition of fine art photography:
Fine art photography is the interpretation and expression of the photographer’s initial encounter with his or her subject. This expression represents the inner world of the photographer at the moment of the shutter click and does not necessarily have any connection to the outer reality or appearance of the photographer’s subject. It requires both skill and imagination and is presented in a way that can be understood when seen by others.
So on to the second question: how do you do this? Here are six things I commonly do when making a piece of work:
First, when you get to a location you want to photograph, experience it without your camera in your hand.
Sit there for a few minutes and take it in. Ask yourself “what is it that moves me?” Maybe it’s the shape of the building or how it sits in its location. Maybe it’s the play of the light or the details and craftsmanship. Whatever it is, try to identify it. Then ask yourself how you feel about what you see.
What emotions are present? Is it awe or sadness? Does it make you feel small or proud? Then walk around and try to find a vantage point that “clicks” with your answers. Remember that there is nothing in a piece of architecture that is there by accident. Architects are also artists expressing themselves.
Second, take out your camera and begin to work the scene.
Work systematically from far away to close up. Shoot the entire structure and then shoot details to get a sense of the photographic character of the building. This is the time to begin thinking about composition. If you need a tripod, set it up only after you have found the ideal vantage point.
Third, think in terms of shapes, lines, form, surface and volume.
Most photographers already think in terms of shapes, line and form. Architecture is also about surface and volume. Try to think about an architectural piece as a series of spaces that contain volume. These spaces each serve a functional purpose. Some are large, some are small. Consider their relationship to one another and how they combine to make up the whole. Volumes are covered by surface, which gives a building its ability to reflect light and create shadows. The light and shadow each create their own shapes.
Use this to your advantage and incorporate them into your composition. If you’re shooting upward, also pay attention to the shape of the sky in your frame.
Fourth, try to avoid vertical or horizontal lines if possible.
This isn’t really a universal rule. It’s more about the way I work. Diagonals create more drama and tension. They’re easy to create in an architectural piece because straight lines are everywhere. Move around! Twist and turn, using your body to make the composition. Zoom in and zoom out. Use the corners of your frame as entry and exit points. This will create the illusion that the structure exists outside the edges of the photograph.
Fifth, simplify your composition.
Remove anything unnecessary from your frame. Once you think you have a great composition, simplify it again. Simplicity communicates much easier to your viewers because they’ll know exactly what you want them to see.
Finally, post-process with care.
Work your image until it fits your vision but don’t overdo it. Highlight the parts of the image that are important to you and downplay the rest. Try darkening your image in Photoshop or Lightroom and carefully reintroducing light to create mood and emphasis.
Take these ideas and put them to use and see if your photographs don’t come closer to your intention and experience. Happy shooting!