As with any line of work, the right tools are essential in one’s ability to successfully accomplish a task and deliver a final product that measures up to professional standards. Photographing architecture and interiors requires specialized equipment, especially when it comes to lenses.
In photographing architecture or interiors, whether it be for the architect, the interior design, the hospitality, or the home builder markets, care must be taken to keep all vertical lines perfectly plumb and true. This requires that the camera be perfectly level. However, frequently one will need to show more ceiling or foreground, and tilting the camera up or down will cause parallax, where the verticals will converge upward if the camera is pointed up or converge down if the camera is pointed down. This is unacceptable. What is required is a special lens that can be raised and lowered to allow for more height or foreground, yet still maintain the level camera position.
Up until the past decade, the standard camera for photographing architecture and interiors was the 4×5 technical view camera. This camera had standards that allow for the lens or camera back to be raised, lowered, swung left or right (off axis) and tilted (for optimum depth of field). The 4×5 format was well-suited for architectural photography, as opposed to the more elongated 35mm format of the newer digital cameras.
Since the advent of professional quality digital cameras, most architectural photographers have switched to the professional level digital camera, which is the 35mm format. If money is no object, there are technical view cameras that have digital backs, but they are extremely expensive. If one understands what constitutes a good architectural or interior photograph, one can work around the limitations of the more affordable, yet excellent quality professional digital cameras, such as the Nikon or Canon series.
After shooting with the 4×5 view camera exclusively for over 30 years, I have had to adjust to the smaller and more elongated format of the digital camera, and my clients don’t see the difference. When I find that I really want more space than the 35mm format allows, I just add to the canvas size and layer in the additional spatial content in Photoshop.
Essential Equipment for the Architectural Photographer
One of the most important camera features for architectural photography is the size of the sensor. The camera with the largest sensor–or at least a full sized 1:1 ratio to the lens–is imperative. Wide-angle lenses are always required. One cannot afford the loss of image space when using a camera with a lens factor of anything less than 1:1, which allows for the full use of wide-angle capabilities.
Another helpful feature is automatic exposure bracketing so one can bracket up and down at least two stops from the base exposure. There also must be a manual setting, as that is the setting that will always be used. Most, if not all, of the professional digital cameras that are a full size 1:1 sensor ratio will have these features.
As previously mentioned, having the right lenses is essential. That requires perspective control (PC) or tilt-shift lenses. (I’ve never needed to use the tilt feature, however). I use the 17mm Canon tilt-shift, the 24mm tilt-shift, and the 35mm PC lenses on a regular basis. I also use the 28 PC lens occasionally. If one was to have only one lens to start out with, the 24mm tilt-shift would be the most important lens to have. That said, there are many times when the wider 17mm tilt-shift is essential and the 35mm would be very helpful. It may be possible to sometimes work around these scenarios with conventional lenses and correct the parallax in Photoshop. Keep in mind, however, that any correction made in Photoshop will infringe on the image space. The other benefit of using the PC or tilt-shift lens is that one can raise or lower the lens for more sky or foreground, then merge the layers in Photoshop.
It’s possible to use older Nikor PC lenses with an adapter to fit your camera. My 35 and 28 PC lenses are the old Nikor lenses (over 30 years old) and they work just fine on my Canon. There is a variation in contrast due to the lack of modern-day lens coating techniques, but it’s nothing that minimal Photoshop adjustments can’t handle.
Another option that works well, although I have never tried it, is to use a 1.4 teleconverter on the 17 or 24 or 35mm tilt-shift lenses, effectively converting them to the 24, 35 or 50mm focal lengths. There are other advantages as well (e.g., a larger image circle which translates into more coverage and movement with the lenses, with less distortion).
I always use a heavy tripod and a cable release and lock the mirror in the “up” position to minimize vibration. A tripod head that has flat surfaces on the sides is also very helpful for leveling if the tripod head doesn’t have levels built in.
Always use a small level for leveling the camera or tripod head. Hot-shoe levels are not accurate. Trying to find a level spot on the ergo-friendly style of cameras today is impossible, so level the tripod first, then refine the camera angle. Verticals can be more problematic if the tripod head doesn’t have a flat surface on which to place the level. As already stated, there are Photoshop fixes for parallax correction, but it is much easier and less time-consuming to get it level in the first place. And, more importantly, any post-production correction will result in cutting off some of the image, which may be very problematic.
Although these tools are essential for architectural and interior photography, the most important tool of all is an understanding of what makes a good architectural and interior photograph. One must understand and be sensitive to what the architect, builder, or interior designer is conveying in his or her design, and then present that design in the strongest possible way. As professional commercial architectural photographers, it is our job to sell our clients’ products.
About the Author
Paul Schlismann is a professional architectural photographer and has specialized in photographing architecture and interiors since 1980 for the professional architect, interior design, hospitality, architectural product and corporate markets (www.schlismann.com). Having been established in his career for over 30 years as a Chicago architectural photographer, he now also has an office located in Arizona. He’s working in Chicago, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, and California statewide.
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