Architectural Photographer Discusses the Sun and Lighting for Architectural Photography

Lighting

In photography, as well as in any other visual art form, light plays a key role and it should be considered as a critical compositional element. Lighting for architectural photography, as well as with interior photography, can be very demanding, because the light defines the space or structure of the building. Lighting for interiors is much more controllable than with exteriors, however, in both situations the architectural photographer must be able to “take control” – even when dealing with the sun Building Flooring.

Working as a Chicago Architectural photographer for over 30 years, I have learned patience! In the Midwest, and Chicago in particular, the required conditions for architectural exterior photography can come infrequently as one must work around unpredictable weather and cloud formations that develop very quickly due to the lake effect; not to mention the high humidity which produces grey skies. Many times I have had to wait days or even weeks for the proper conditions in which to photograph. A few years ago, I also set up an office in Arizona with the assumption that now as a Phoenix architectural photographer, my weather woes will be over. However, I had to learn of the weather idiosyncrasies of that area as well; namely the monsoon season, when most every afternoon, from July through August, the sky becomes cloudy, the light is gone and in theory, there is a high probability of rain. I bring this up as a background so one may better understand the challenges and parameters in which high- quality architectural photographs are made. In the studio everything is controlled; the architectural photographer on the other hand, must learn to deal with unpredictable and what would seem uncontrollable circumstances in order to produce the dramatic images that the client expects.

Sunlight is essential when photographing architectural exteriors and the architectural photographer, as any professional photographer, must be able to “control” the light at all times. This is one of the challenges for the architectural photographer, because the only light source he has to work with is the sun and “controlling” the sun can seem paradoxical! Obviously, no one can control the sun, however, one must control that which he can control in order to produce the strongest architectural photograph possible; that being the time of year, type of day, time of day and quality of light. Directional light is always very important when photographing architecture, so it stands to reason that one must wait for the best conditions to photograph; the clarity of the light, the type of sky, the direction of the sun and the quality of the light (hard or diffused) are all critical factors when photographing architecture and must be given serious consideration.

Direction of the elevation to be photographed with respect to the sun is critical in order to separate the planes of the structure and bring out the textures and details of the building. Front lighting, or light that is behind the camera, is not acceptable in most cases. One should always select the time of day when the sun is at approximately a 45-degree angle to the elevation being photographed. Usually, the best light is within a time frame of a few hours after sunrise or a few hours before sunset (as long as the orientation of the building allows for it). The “golden hour” – that light, which is either just after sunrise or just before sunset, is even better because the sun’s low angle will add warmth, mood and drama to the photograph with long deep shadows; something I like to use in the foreground if possible. The quality of this “golden hour” light is also mush softer as opposed to the harsher sunlight in the middle of the day. A north elevation (north facing view) can only be photographed within a short time span in the summer; as close to the summer solstice (June 20) as possible. At that time of year the sun is at its’ highest position and it is also the longest day of the year. The north light deteriorates each day afterwards as it travels in a more southerly direction, until finally after September 20 there is no north light at all.

Learning to work with the sun and the weather is an essential requirement in producing a high-quality architectural photograph. Many clients probably have no idea what goes into that “perfect” day. The professional architectural photographer must be patient and disciplined in order to take control of the uncontrollable; there is nothing accidental in the fine architectural photograph.

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