JMP tips to take better photos of your projects

Part 1: Time of Day - Exterior Photographs

Time of day is one of the most important considerations in architecture photography. Good light can make or break an image. You could always fall back on the ‘fix it in post (photoshop)’ mentality, but at the end of the day you cannot magically create good, directional light.

The availability of light (natural and introduced) is a crucial factor in the design process, and its importance should not been overlooked when taking project photos. It is the number one tool in my kit, and arguably more important than the camera or lens choice.

  Clyde Quay Wharf - Athfield Architects

Clyde Quay Wharf - Athfield Architects

The best time of day to photograph architecture is a subjective decision and largely depends on the style of imagery you wish to create. That said, as a general rule most of my photography is shot at either end of the day. I usually prefer to shoot with the sun approx 20-45 degrees high in the sky, positioned at an angle to the elevation I am shooting to give my images a little bit of drama. This means that I am typically shooting exteriors at:

6am-8am, 9pm-10pm in summer
9am-11am, 3pm-5pm in winter

I often visit a site more than once so that I can shoot the various building elevations in the best possible light. This is the ideal scenario, but often I have constraints - time, budget, access etc and I need to make the most what is available.

The workflow I use for determining the ‘perfect’ light:

  • Look at the site plan and track the sun’s movements around the building.
  • Mark the plan with the features/angles I wish to shoot and the ideal and next best shooting times (always good to have a backup plan!)
  • Visit the site and compare my marked up plan with what I see: shadows, sun direction, strength and subtlety of light and building materials are all relevant. At this point I am also looking at the surrounding environment to ensure nothing is going to block the sun.
  • Review and update the plan and create a shot list with the final times.
  • Shoot!

An important thing to remember is that the human eye is a lot more sensitive to light than a camera, even a professional model. In practice, this means that a camera cannot see as much detail in the highlight or shadow areas of a scene. If you have identified the feature you wish to shoot and planned it using the method above you should not have any issues as the subject or building will be in direct sunlight

When using an automatic or partially automatic setting (including point-and-shoot cameras and Iphones), if you focus your camera on the subject and click it should expose the photo correctly. If you are taking photos when the subject/building is not in direct sunlight you may need to manually set the exposure and adjust the photo in post production to ensure it is looking its best. I will cover the basics of post-production later in this series. For more tips on using manual settings please watch the tutorials on the Canon website - they are fantastic!

  West Cost House, Waikato - Crosson Architects

West Cost House, Waikato - Crosson Architects

The most crucial thing to take away from all this is that in order to take good photos you need to have some basic understanding of light. If you take a photo of a building in shadow (like when you are shooting into the sun) it is probably not going to look any good. If you have the time, treat the sun as a tool and plan to have it in the perfect position. Get out there and just look at what is around you. One of my favourite things to do is to go running along the Wellington waterfront. During these ‘relaxing’ runs I am evaluating the surrounding environment. I am constantly surprised by how familiar buildings look at various times of the day. If there is a scene that looks particularly good, I pull it apart and ask myself, why does that look awesome, what is happening here and how can I recreate this moment or light on another shoot?

Good luck, and if you have any questions please get in touch! The topics I will cover in the rest of this series are set out below – keep an eye out for my next newsletter which will cover my recommendations for camera and lens selection.

  • Part 2: Camera settings
  • Part 3: Equipment: Camera, lens and Accessories.
  • Part 4: Time of Day: Interiors
  • Part 5: Site Preparation
  • Part 6: Composition
  • Part 7: Editing