As with any line of work, having the right tools is essential in one’s ability to successfully accomplish the task efficiently and deliver a final product, which measures up to Professional standards. Photographing Architecture and Interiors requires specialized equipment, especially with regards to lenses.
In photographing architecture, or interiors, whether it be for the architect, or the interior design, hospitality, or homebuilder markets, care must be taken to keep all vertical lines perfectly plumb and true and 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 upwards if the camera is pointed up, or converge down if the camera is pointed down, and this is unacceptable. What is required is a special lens that can be raised and lowered to allow for more height or foreground, and still maintain the level camera position.
Up until recently (the past 8 years or so) the standard camera for photographing Architecture and Interiors was the 4×5 technical view camera, as 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 well as opposed to the more elongated 35mm format of the newer digital cameras. Since the advent of the 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, and 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 then the 35mm format allows, I just add to the canvass size and layer in the additional spatial content in Photoshop.
Essential equipment for the Architectural photographer
One of the most important features in the digital camera that one uses for architectural photography is the size of the chip. The camera with the largest chip – or at least a full sized 1:1 ratio to the lens is imperative. Wide-angle lenses are always required and 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 the wide-angle capabilities.
Another helpful feature is the automatic exposure bracketing so one can bracket up and down at least 2 stops from the base exposure. There also must be a setting for Manual 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 chip ratio will have these features.
As previously mentioned, having the right lenses are essential and that requires the PC (perspective control) or “Tilt Shift” lenses (I personally have never needed to use the tilt feature however). I use the 17mm Canon Tilt shift, the 24mm Tilt shift, and the 35MM PC (Perspective control) 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 is 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 (although one could crop). 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 Shift lens is that one can raise or lower the lens for more sky or foreground, then merge the layers in Photoshop.
It is possible to use older Nikor PC lenses with an adaptor 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 is nothing that minimal Photoshop adjustments can’t easily handle.
Another option that works well, although I have never tried it, is to use a 1.4 tele-converter on the 17 or 24 or 35 MM TS lenses, effectively converting them to the 24, 35 or 50MM focal lengths. There are other advantages as well, i.e. a larger image circle which translates into more coverage and movement with the lenses, with less distortion.
Tripod: I always a heavy tripod and a cable release on the camera 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 (even these will need adjusting from time to time).
Level: Always use a small level for leveling the camera or Tripod head. The “hot-shoe” levels are not accurate. Trying to find a level spot on the ergo friendly style of cameras today is impossible, so leveling the tripod first, then refine the camera angle and then take off the camera an level again, is the most accurate procedure. 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 postproduction 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 their design, and then present that design in the strongest possible way. As professional commercial Architectural photographers, it is our job to sell our client’s product.
Paul Schlismann is a professional architectural photo