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Buildings as Subjects

Photographing buildings and interesting architecture is a great introduction to photography for the budding amateur. The reason for this is that your subject will never move nor complain, changes relatively little compared to a landscape and is well documented and very easy to find. However taking an interesting picture of a building (as opposed to just a regular picture that fails to inspire) is where the challenge lies; photographing buildings is very much so an exercise in your composition skills. This is one area of photography where you do not necessarily need the best equipment or be the most practised with your camera settings to produce stunning images; the trick lies with how well you compose your image and the lengths you are prepared to go to to get that elusive wow factor in your photographs.

It is up to you as a photographer to decide exactly how and why you wish to photograph architecture. Is it an interest in the urban environment? Are you a historian interested more in ancient sites and places of historic interest? Are you an admirer of modern architecture? Do you wish to focus on high-rise buildings? There is a multitude of different types of buildings in existence for you to photograph and if you can narrow down your subject matter somewhat you will be able to plan your composition ahead of time to a certain degree. Many buildings (particularly if they are relatively famous) will already be very well photographed and documented so it is worthwhile doing some research and looking at how other photographers achieved their own shots. Of course, you can always simply photograph interesting buildings as and when you see them. The choice is yours!

A word about your legal rights before we continue; in the vast majority of countries you will visit one does not require any particular permission to take photographs of buildings as long as they are on "permanent public display" but it is worth checking out local laws if you are on holiday in a country who's laws you are unfamiliar with. Due to recent terrorist activities around the world chances are that photography is more likely to attract attention than in the past, however if you are approached by private security or members of the local police force be courteous and polite and chances are they will leave you to go about your business. If you are photographing inside buildings (particularly on historic sites) it is always polite to ask if photography is allowed and if there are no signs indicating either way, do not simply assume that just because there are no signs prohibiting it that it is allowed. Occasionally you should expect to pay a small token fee for a photography pass that will allow you to take photographs indoors. You should always be wary of exactly where you are and if the land your subject building is in is private, and if you are intending to take photographs on private land you should always seek permission of the landowner first. Be careful around military installations and government buildings as in some countries photography is strictly prohibited in the vicinity of these areas even if you are shooting in the opposite direction.

If you are planning to use your photographs for commercial use then you should complete a serious amount of research before even contemplating taking your pictures; many buildings, lighting installations, signs and even general clutter that can appear in your photographs may be trademarked and using your images in a commercial context would a breach of copyright. This is a particular problem for the architecture photographer in holiday areas as the seemingly innocuous can turn out to be trademarked; things that you would not normally think twice about before photographing can turn out to be a legal grey area if you plan on reproducing, displaying, selling or marketing your photographs.

Generally there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to the equipment you should use when photographing buildings and architecture. An amateur with an entry level DSLR can achieve similar results to studio quality professional equipment if care is taken when composing the image. Obviously a good quality lens will perform better than a cheaper, lower quality version (lower quality lenses may have a certain amount of distortion due to the shape of the barrel which will become very apparent when photographing straight edges on buildings), and buildings allow you to experiment with equipment you might not normally use in day to day photography such as wide angle and fish eye lenses. It is important to experiment with as many different techniques as you can until you are able to snap a stunning image. Obviously a tripod will help for the majority of photographs you will take of buildings, however if you are seeking unusual, little-photographed angles then it can prove cumbersome and more trouble than it is worth.

When you have found your subject building, either through weeks of long, hard research or by stumbling across it when out for a walk one evening you should make an effort to visit the site at least three times during a 24 hour period to discover how the lighting affects the scene. A building can take on a completely different character at dawn, and will change during the noon sun, and will again change at dusk. Many photographers refer to the early evening period as the "magic hour" due to the unique properties of the light at this time, but as with equipment there are no hard and fast rules when photographing architecture, this is why it is so important to research your subject and visit as much as possible. If you can you should also try to visit during different weather conditions as this too can affect how a building looks on camera, although obviously this may not be an option depending on your particular circumstances.

You've found the building you wish to photograph, you have all of your equipment with you, the lighting is what you would consider to be perfect for the shots you are about to take, so now you take the photographs, right? Wrong. The next step requires you to push your photographic skills to the maximum if you wish to take a unique and interesting picture. A good eye for picture composition cannot really be taught so it is up to you to interpret the scene before you as you see fit to produce a photograph or series of photographs that you can be proud of. In my own experience the most spectacular pictures of buildings and architecture (with a few exceptions) are those that have been defamiliarised; that is to say due to a combination of unusual lighting effects and/or unusual angles the familiar building appears far less familiar as a photograph. What settings you use on your camera are left to your own discretion; since buildings are static shutter speed rarely plays a part unless your subject is set against a moving background (taking a photograph that has a busy road in the foreground, or street with lots of walking pedestrians for example). Focus may prove to be an issue, particularly if you are shooting a large building. Attempting to get both the foreground and background elements in perfect focus may prove to be something of a challenge, for this reason it is imperative that you avoid using the auto-focus feature on your camera. You will get photographs of a far higher quality when setting your focus manually. Fortunately since buildings are static you can take a variety of photographs using many settings, and even come back to the site at different times during the day to experiment with the lighting. Don't be afraid to explore around the building you are shooting in an effort to locate a unique angle; just because a lot of photographers are shooting from a certain position does not mean that you have to.

When photographing buildings and architecture there is a lot of trail and error; but if you have patience and take some time to experiment with your camera and the building you are shooting you will be rewarded with stunning images. Thanks to cheap digital storage there is no real upper limit to how many photographs you can take, the trick is to have fun.