Especially under the sun, Mein kleines Mondlicht,

(50mm, 1/500 sec @ f/16, Kodak GC 400)

(50mm, 1/500 sec @ f/16, Kodak GC 400)

For when it comes to crafting quality architectural images we must as the question, ‘when is the best time to photograph a building?’
The answer: ‘when it looks its best’.

 

Best Sides

Yea, just like people, buildings also have their ‘best sides’, from which they look their most striking, imposing, or cosy. Imaging these sides is sure to make the viewers take notice, and honour and delight the architect.

When the photography is being conducted for display or archival purposes, we usually make images of most locations, features and angles of a building. On the other hand, when only one or a few images are required for promotional or artistic purposes, we focus on the best angle(s). A combination of both is also some times required –say, a piece on a magazine or journal necessitating a thorough photographic record. In the latter case, the best sides are more likely to appear on the cover and truck pages.

Being prepossessing is not enough, however, as even the most striking building can be rendered drab by dreary light. Small buildings such as houses might be helped a bit with strobe lighting, but in the case of large edifices or high-rises, flash lighting is mostly impractical when it comes to full-size images; thus, we are mostly forced to work with natural light, and in some cases to mix it harmoniously with the building’s own lighting when the client asks for an evening shot.

To keep things succinct, I’ll tell You here of day time images only, where the sun is both the main and the only light. Furthermore, I’ll focus on full-size images, although most of the concepts and techniques can be applied to details as well.

As in all other photography, we need decide what we want before we grab the camera, which in this case means having found the building’s best side, or the side(s) we want to portray.

Then we study the relationship of our chosen angle with the sun.

The purpose of having the sunlight strike the building at the right angle is twofold:

  • the building must look tridimensional, and
  • the dynamic range of the scene must be within the camera’s capabilities.

That’s pretty much all there is to it to choosing the best time of the day to photograph a given building.

 

Dances with the Sun

A building is a tridimensional object.

A photograph is a bidimensional object.

A photograph of a building is a bidimensional representation of a tridimensional object. The previous statements might sounds rather dumb, but contain the key to composition, placement, and lighting (and not just for buildings, but for any photographic subject).

To put it differently: shape, volume, and depth on a photograph are illusions. They are created by careful placement of the subject with respect to the light or lights illuminating it. Do You recall how I’ve railed elsewhere against photographers striving to capture and portray every detail in a scene and producing images so flat and boring because they’ve successfully eliminated the shadows? Well, the need to represent shape, volume and depth is one of the reasons why I decry their approach.

Shadows are Your friends.

The richness and power in a photograph come from the shadow areas of the image.

When it comes to buildings, the shadow areas are elemental.

 

Illustration 1. The direction from which the sun strikes a building determines how well (or how bad) its volume and depth are portrayed.

Illustration 1. The direction from which the sun strikes a building –making some sides bright and leaving others in shadow– determines how well (or how bad) its shape, volume, and depth are portrayed.

 

Plate 1. This building does not look tridimensional: the sun strikes it head-on with a sterile light that obliterates texture and does not shew shape, volume or depth, but in effect makes the grain elevator look like a cardboard cut out pasted on the frame.

Plate 2. This building does not look tridimensional: the sun strikes it head-on with a barren light that obliterates texture and does not shew shape, volume or depth, but in effect makes the grain elevator look like a cardboard cut out pasted on the frame. (24mm, 1/30 sec @ f/16, ISO 100)

 

Plate 2. Moving around the building so as to have the ~45° with respect to the building, brings in the shadow areas needed to give the illusion of shape and volume.

Plate 3. By moving around the elevator so as to have one side of the building not touched by the sun, one gets the shadow areas needed to give the illusion of shape and volume. (24mm, 1/30 sec @ f/16, ISO 100)

 

Travels Across the Ecliptic

Then we come to the issue of having a dynamic range the camera can take fully in.

Which means neither the highlights nor the shadows must clip (i.e. come out as pure white or pure black, losing all their original detail and/or colour). In other words, a blue sky should record as blue, not as white (Plate 4 & 5); likewise, areas of the scene that are not dark to the eye (the mid-tones) shouldn’t be rendered so (Plate 6).

Let us look at a case study: a high-rise facing southwards.

 

Plate 5.

Plate 5. This is the best angle for this high-rise, as it shews its facade and one of its sides. From this angle, however, the building is backlit at dawn and during the morning hours and we have the same problem as in Plate 2 (although in reverse): no tridimensionality. Furthermore, the dynamic range is too high and a big portion of the (blue) sky is blown out to white. Thus, morning is the worst time to potograph this building (and any other similarly oriented).

 

Plate X. Attempting to render the sky with its true colours...

Plate 6. Attempting to render the sky with its true colours makes things worse: the sky is properly exposed, but the building is severely underexposed. The camera just cannot handle this scene at this time of the day.

Plate 7. Trying to

Plate 7. Trying to make the building lighter, obliterates any hint of colour in the sky. Even worse: the building still does not look like a 3-D object. A photograph like this one is completely useless for professional purposes.

 

Plate X. Late morning is the best time of the day to photograph this building:

Plate 8. Late morning is the best time of the day to photograph this building, for then its facade is fully litten by the sun whilst its west side still has some shadowing that makes it look tridimensional; furthermore, the sky is not washed out, but properly exposed since at this time of the day the camera can perfectly handle the scene’s dynamic range. (24mm, 30 sec @ f/16, ISO 100)

 

Plate X. For a building whose facade faces west, late afternoon or early evening (depending on the season and latitude) are the best times of the day to photograph it.

Plate 9. For a building whose facade faces west, the best time of the day to photograph it is either late afternoon or early evening, depending on the season and latitude (this photo was made in June); conversely, morning would be the worst time. (24mm, 1/60 sec @ f/16, ISO 200).

 

Old bad eyes, almighty… tech?

Some may ask, ‘well, but isn’t the technology there to capture all that dynamic range if I want my photo in the morning?’

I answer with the rather illogical proverb that ‘a man can’t have his cake and eat it too’.

As You read above, the ideal time of the day involves more than just dynamic range. Verily, the first consideration is basic geometry. Even with a camera sensor capable of such a dynamic range that we can see the bugs inside a dark sewer and the sun spots in the same photograph, a building that is not litten by the sun at an ideal angle will still render as a bidimensional object instead of as the tridimensional structure it is in reality. Furthermore, digital enhancing techniques such as HDRI do not provide the same quality and accuracy as single-shot photographs: hence I’ve moved away from them some time hence.

At the end of the day, ultra-sophisticated circuitry and software trickery can never substitute a disciplined approach to architectural photography (or any other photography for that matter) that takes into consideration the order of all things in Creation: especially the daystar and the geometrical forms and shapes it shines on.

Hoping to have enligthened You a bit (even though, thanks to God, I am not the sun), I take now my leave and continue to remain

ever yours,

HVG