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Photographing Buildings Using Your Digital SLR

Buildings, whether they’re landmarks, churches, architectural wonders, or of interest just to you — are fine subjects for you and your digital SLR. Buildings don’t forget to smile, don’t fidget, and are always photo-ready. Your challenge may well be to find the vantage point or create the composition that brings a new perspective to an often-photographed structure.

The William Danforth Chapel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The William Danforth Chapel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Choosing camera settings for photographs of buildings

In general, photographing buildings requires fairly standard settings for your digital SLR:

  • Metering Mode: Evaluative

  • Drive Mode: Single Shot

  • Shooting Mode: Aperture Priority for a large depth of field

  • Aperture: f/11 to f/16, which gives you a decent depth of field; in a pinch, you can stop down to f/9.0 and still get good results at night

  • ISO Setting: 100 to 400, depending on the available light; shooting at night, you may want an 800 setting

  • Focus Mode: Single Shot

  • Focal Length: 28mm and 100mm; use 28mm for a large building from close range, 50mm for smaller buildings farther away, and 100mm for a structure in the distance or to zoom in on the detail of a nearer building.

    Zoom in to capture one aspect of the structure.
    Zoom in to capture one aspect of the structure.
  • Auto-Focus Point: Single auto-focus point

  • Image Stabilization: Optional; disable it if you’re using a tripod

If you’re shooting architectural details, you want a shallow depth of field, so use a larger aperture/smaller f/stop — f/4.0 to f/5.6 — and a medium focal length of 50mm with your telephoto or macro lens.

Weathered buildings with original hardware make for interesting photos.
Weathered buildings with original hardware make for interesting photos.

Taking pictures of buildings

Buildings have all sorts of interesting details you can use to compose a photograph that draws your viewers into the image. Lighting is also very important, so avoid bright, sunny days that produce glaring light and harsh shadows in your photos. Instead, choose the golden light and soft shadows of early morning or late afternoon; overcast days, with their diffuse light, are good too.

Use an existing detail to lead your viewer to the focal point of the picture.
Use an existing detail to lead your viewer to the focal point of the picture.

If you’re photographing a building that’s taller than it is long, flip the camera 90 degrees (Portrait mode) and take the picture.

Exclude extraneous landscape and focus in on the aspect you find interesting. You can alter your position for a good perspective — try kneeling down to include some of the foreground in the picture, and circle the building looking for fresh vantage points.

Setting the steeple off to one side and using the dark grass to draw the viewer’s eye to the
Setting the steeple off to one side and using the dark grass to draw the viewer’s eye to the church is good photo composition.

Make sure you don’t have any unsightly objects — utility poles, garbage cans, electrical wires, and the like — in your picture, which can detract from your picture’s subject.

Sometimes, you’re so close to the building, you tilt the camera up to get everything in the frame and end up with a photo in which the building looks like it’s falling over. The solution is to back up until you can hold the camera level to the ground and see the whole building in the viewfinder.

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