7 advices to master natural light in architectural photography

National Center for Contemporary Art, Russia, Yekaterinburg branch by ARCHSTRUKTURA

Architectural photography is a specific photo practice. It requires a special knowledge often unknown by people that shoot architectural projects occasionally.

When you are an architect, you can ask an architectural photographer to shoot photos of your project for you. You certainly know the importance of good photos to make your project published and shared both online and in the architecture press. But perhaps you are on a budget or you’re just interested in practicing photography. So you want to do it your self and improve your style.

1/ Light is key in photography

Sun light is the most important factor to shoot stunning architectural photographs.

It is not specific to this type of photography. Light is the first and foremost ingredient of photography in general. A simple house can be as beautiful as a master piece when shot with the good light. At the contrary most famous monuments can look banal with a flat dull light.

2/ Learn how the project is lit

Architecture or public spaces projects are still. Their orientation relative to light generally cannot be changed. Actually it is part of the architect’s work to take into account the sun light, so that the project will take the maximum benefit of it. So when you schedule to shoot architectural photographs, you need to understand how the project is structured relative to natural lighting.

  • To which direction are the facades ?
  • At what time of the day will a given facade be illuminated ?
  • Does the light enter the interiors ?
  • Is there some light reflection that another building could give us ?
Ecole Les entrepots by Clément Guillaume
This photography of a school shot by a sunny day is very dynamic thanks the contrast between the white roof and the dark street.

You need to carefully plan your shooting schedule to have the best lighting of the volumes you want to shoot. You can also split your shooting in two sessions to have different lighting optimized for different part of the architecture volume.

Frontal light as for example a southern facade (or northern in south hemisphere) lit by a mid day sun light is not always the best as the shadow could be flattened because of the high position of the sun and the strong light. It could be better to have an angle between the facade to be shot and the sun rays directions.

Also it´s not mandatory to have all the facade lit. Some great effects could be achieved with only some part of it lit and other in the shadow. Morning and end the day light are great because of the mild color and soft contrast.

So the only thing you cannot change is sun direction and the current lighting conditions. You should definitely take advantage of the specific lighting of the moment. As light is always changing, hopefully it will help you make your photos stand out thanks to their original contrast.

by Ximo Michavila / White arkitekter AB. Kastrup Sea Bath
This copenhagen photo reflects the ever changing weather of this sea side city. The cloud texture is as important in this image that the wood lattice, emphasizing the protective role of this shelter for sea bathing.

3/ Try to forecast how the natural light will evolve

The natural light depends of different factors :

  • the weather
  • the hour of the day
  • the climate of the country

So when you prepare a photo shooting, double check the weather. You can even use more precise tools like this one for France that allow you to see the live cloud coverage on a satellite map.

Le Moloco Concert Hall Salle de Concert by Frenchie CRISTOGATIN / Le Moloco Concert Hall Salle de Concert
Just before the night is generally a good moment to shoot original and interesting images. The natural and artificial light get mixed and you can capture the movement thanks to long exposure.

4/ At what time is the light better for architectural photography ?

As we has seen previously, it depends of the orientation of the project. But there is also some general rules we can take into account.

In hot countries, even if the sun shines in the middle of the day there is too much light and warm fog that results in poor contrast.

In this case and in most cases every where on earth, the early morning and end of the day are special moments, where the light is better. The light is mild. The sun rays are long, which create long shadows and raking lights. This could emphasize the texture of the materials which is often a interesting thing for architectural photography.

by Clément Guillaume
Despite of the rainy day and thanks to black and white, the texture of the foreground stands out clearly with rich textures on the foggy background of Rio Bay.

5/ Difficult lights and how to manage them

There is definitely some difficult lighting conditions. When it is raining and when the weather is totally cloudy with no contrast at all and no shadows.

You can decide not to shoot this day, or alternatively you can shoot by night or at the end of the day with the artificial light coming from the building. Cloudy weather are good for night shots, as it diffuse the light of the city and make a luminous and colorful night sky. This is particularly true with long exposure shot.

by Fidgi

Blue sky can be original too with over saturated contrast like in this image.

6/ The blue sky syndrom and beyond

A good light is not necessarily that shinning sun blue sky light often used in post cards. Sunny day can definitely make a good lighting of course. But the alternation of cloudy and sunny weather can also make a very interesting light. Indeed the light changes are more dynamic and you can achieve more dramatic effects.

So don’t fear cloudy days, go out, and try to capture the subtleness of the clouds and less obvious lighting.

Les courtillères by Martin Argyroglo / La plaine est belle
Even if the winter sky is sad, you can achieve a subtle and pictural effect. Note that the sky is not white but has some details.

7/ Low key and high contrasted photographs

When the weather is completely cloudy but you can differentiate the cloud’s shapes, you can achieve a good result too by using a high key style. This style use over exposure to emphasize the flatness of the lighting. As all the colors are pales. We can better grasp the subtleness of forms like in a painting.

You can achieve over exposure either with the settings of your camera, or in post-production. With raw files, it’s even more easy to do it, so probably it’s better, to expose the photo correctly and over-expose later. In a future blog post of this series, we will talk about photo editing for architectural photography.

At the contrary another style use heavily contrasted photos often shot during a sunny day, where the shadows are black not showing any details and the walls bright. This style is also very pictural with inspiration in graphic design. It emphasize the architecture shapes, as it is more abstract and looks like a drawing.

by Aplogan Self Employed
Black and white very contrasted photo looks like a drawing and emphasizes the shapes of the architecture.

Light is the main ingredient of photography. You need to practice to understand what works and what does not. It’s worth trying, changing the exposure settings, trying backlit …

Choosing a light you prefer will help you define your style and make your architecture, landscape and cities images more stunning.

If you have specific techniques relative to light in photography, tell us about in the comments. If you would like to post your images on Archiref, create an account and upload your best architecture photographs . Archiref is the community of architects and architectural photographers.

Sébastien Lucas

About the Author

Sebastien Lucas is an architect, architectural photographer and founder of Archiref, the inspiration platform for architecture and Bricks, the collaborative web app for architecture.

Bricks library of architecture elements

Please take a look at my architectural photography works and follow me on twitter to learn about my new discoveries.


Originally published at www.archiref.com.

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