Vertical Perspective in Architectural Photography — Causes and Solutions

By Stuart Brown

Control of vertical perspective in architectural photography is in essence making the sides of buildings appear vertical. This will closely align your photographs to how your eyes see buildings.

I used a vertical lens shift in this shot of the Lowry Centre to control perspective.

How often have you seen buildings photographed where the sides appear to meet in the sky above the building? Have you wondered why buildings photograph like this? When in real life you only notice this effect by getting close to a tall building.

Photographs to explain vertical perspective. Left, perspective used for artistic effect. Centre, vertical perspective is making the building to appear to taper and lean backwards. Right, with the camera plumb and level the building appears vertical but around half the image is foreground.

In this post I explain with the aid of images how this perspective affects architectural photographs and to manage it.

Vertical Perspective

Vertical perspective is when paralell lines converge at an imaginary point above or below the subject. This point is known as the vanishing point. Your eyes and brains are the lens and processor of the human visual system. Your brain processes and adjusts what your eyes see in real time so you don’t usually notice vertical perspective. Camera processors are much less powerful than your brain. Leaving you to either: accept vertical perspective, correct with camera technique or attempt rectification afterwards.

Vertical perspective makes this stone pillar appear to taper.

I prefer to correct vertical perspective in camera using a lens shift movement. This won’t work if you can’t position your camera far enough from the subject. In this case, you can make an artistic decision, to either embrace vertical perspective, crop your image or rectify later.

I’ve found computer software works well with small amounts of perspective correction. Larger rectification is more challenging and the results less satisfactory.

Left , my low vantage point induced vertical perspective in this shot of a church. Right , I eliminated vertical perspective by moving to an elevated vantage point on a nearby bridge and holding the camera plumb and level.

Causation

If your camera is plumb and level, your photograph will have no vertical perspective. If you photograph a building like this with a conventional lens you could lose the top of the building and get too much foreground. By tilting the camera upwards to lose foreground and include the top of the building you’ll induce vertical perspective.

This image is much as the human eye would see it, I’ve controlled the foreground and eliminated perspective. My camera technique has kept the tall buildings vertical and prevented cropping.

Optical Solution

To make this solution work, you will need some specialist equipment, tripod, shift lens and spirit level. Place your camera on a tripod, use a spirit level make it plumb and level then use lens movements to control perspective This is achieved either by camera movements or lens shift depending on your equipment. Most architectural photographers I know use large format shift cameras and the others, tilt and shift lenses on DSLR cameras. Most large format cameras are supplied with fixed spirit levels, inexpensive hot shoe mounted spirit levels are available for other types of camera. Shift lenses aren’t available for all cameras so if you’re considering architectural photography check this when purchasing your camera.

Large format camera with lens shifted vertically. Note scale by the lens and bellows that enable lens movement and spirit levels to plumb and level the camera.

Other movements on large format cameras are: horizontal shift, swing and tilt. Swing and tilt movements control depth of field, this allows you to select areas in your photograph to be blurred or sharp. You can combine horizontal shift and swing to control horizontal perspective when the view of your subject is obstructed. Tilt and shift lenses for DSLR cameras allow you to make similar but less extreme optical movements. You can also use horizontal shift to make images to stitch into a panorama.

Tilt and swing movements are more complicated and for a future post.