10 Tips for Architectural Photography

We are often impressed by beautiful buildings but when we lift the camera (or our smartphone) to capture what it is that has impressed us, the result is often a little flat. James O. Davies gives his best tips to taking architectural photos so that the next time you snap, hopefully you’ll come away with something that may even be worth framing.

1. Before taking a picture, walk all the way round the building, acquaint yourself with the site.

James O. Davies is Head of Photography at Historic England and has over twenty five years experience of photographing historic buildings.

Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Grade II*. Frederick Gibberd won a competition in 1960 after an earlier scheme by Sir Edwin Lutyens was abandoned after the war as too expensive. His design, built in 1962-7, is circular, with large areas of glass and a central corona supported on giant piers. The design has been likened to a crown of thorns appropriate to the cathedral's dedication, and has also earned it the popular epithet of 'Paddy's Wigwam'.
Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Grade II*. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England

2. Decide exactly what you want to say about the building, what it is you want to communicate through the photograph.

Radio mast for the Durham County Police, Aykley Heads, Durham.
Radio mast for the Durham County Police, Aykley Heads, Durham. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England

3. Use the ambient light and time your photograph accordingly. Watch how a building responds by the way light changes from dawn till nightfall.

Farnley Hey, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire1954-5, Peter Womersley, Grade II. (c) James O. Davies
Farnley Hey, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire 1954-5, Peter Womersley, Grade II. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England

4. Try to keep the composition simple. Try not to over complicate the frame. Remove unwanted clutter and remove superfluous items.

Post War Buildings. Sports Pavillion at King Edward VI Grammar School, Manor Road, Stratford -On-Avon, Warwickshire. General view of sports pavillion lit at twilight.
Sports Pavillion at King Edward VI Grammar School, Manor Road, Stratford-On-Avon, Warwickshire. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England

5. Look for even illumination across an elevation and beware the elevation that’s half in shadow. Try to shoot either early morning or late evening when the the light is more sympathetic.

Oxford Road Station, Manchester 1959-60, Max Clendinning of British Railways London Midland Region; grade II (c) James O. Davies
Oxford Road Station, Manchester, Grade II. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England

6. If shooting whole elevations, don’t truncate the building, step back, use space and let the building breathe.

The Folly, Gatley, Aymestrey, Herefordshire. General view of elevation designed by Raymond Erith.
The Folly, Gatley, Aymestrey, Herefordshire. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England

7. Photographs don’t always have to taken from eye level, look for elevation, this will give a better sense of proportion.

Scargill Chapel, Kettlewell, North Yorkshire 1958-61, George G. Pace; grade II* (c) James O. Davies/English Heritage
Scargill Chapel, Kettlewell, North Yorkshire 1958-61, George G. Pace, Grade II*. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England

8. Keep looking. Your initial ideas and viewpoint may well encompass everything you want to say, but don’t rely on it. By changing position and watching how the light changes other shots may present themselves.

DP099302
Royal College of Physicians, Regent’s Park, 1960-4. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England

9. Be persistent. Successful photographs take time, so slow down and never rush a photograph. If the conditions are against you don’t succumb to the act of taking the image, return the next day, the next week; the building and architect deserve the best.

Apollo Pavilion, Peterlee, County Durham 1969-70, Victor Pasmore; grade II* (c) James O. Davies
Apollo Pavilion, Peterlee, County Durham 1969-70, Victor Pasmore, Grade II*. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England

10. Shoot RAW files, use a prime aperture, use a tripod and endeavour to keep verticals true. Use your eyes and feet to compose the image before setting up the camera.

Cromwell House, Barbican 1963-74, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, grade II (c) James O. Davies/English Heritage
Cromwell House, Barbican 1963-74, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, Grade II. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England

Remember, the perfect picture doesn’t exist, but you can get close!


space-hope-brutalism-book

The first major book to explore English architecture between 1945 and 1975 in its entirety is published today. Written by Elain Harwood and illustrated by James O. Davies, this book reveals the logic, aspirations and beauty of hundreds of England’s post-war buildings. Read more

8 responses to 10 Tips for Architectural Photography

  1. “The first major book to explore the architecture built during the rebuilding of England…”

    I find that /very/ hard to believe. There is an untold story in the Social History of the New Town movement, but I rather suspect the buildings of the 50s and 60s have been explored ad nauseum.

    Like

    • Thank you for your comment. We are expanding our description of the book here to be clear that this it is about the rebuilding of England after the Second World War and the first major book to study English architecture between 1945 and 1975 in its entirety.

      Like

  2. Reblogged this on History, Archaeology, Folklore and so on and commented:
    10 Tips for Architectural Photography
    We are often impressed by beautiful buildings but when we lift the camera (or our smartphone) to capture what it is that has impressed us, the result is often a little flat. James O. Davies gives his best tips to taking architectural photos so that the next time you snap, hopefully you’ll come away with something that may even be worth framing.

    1. Before taking a picture, walk all the way round the building, acquaint yourself with the site.

    James O. Davies is Head of Photography at Historic England and has over twenty five years experience of photographing historic buildings.

    Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Grade II*. Frederick Gibberd won a competition in 1960 after an earlier scheme by Sir Edwin Lutyens was abandoned after the war as too expensive. His design, built in 1962-7, is circular, with large areas of glass and a central corona supported on giant piers. The design has been likened to a crown of thorns appropriate to the cathedral’s dedication, and has also earned it the popular epithet of ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’.
    Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Grade II*. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England
    2. Decide exactly what you want to say about the building, what it is you want to communicate through the photograph.

    Radio mast for the Durham County Police, Aykley Heads, Durham.
    Radio mast for the Durham County Police, Aykley Heads, Durham. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England
    3. Use the ambient light and time your photograph accordingly. Watch how a building responds by the way light changes from dawn till nightfall.

    Farnley Hey, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire1954-5, Peter Womersley, Grade II. (c) James O. Davies
    Farnley Hey, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire 1954-5, Peter Womersley, Grade II. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England
    4. Try to keep the composition simple. Try not to over complicate the frame. Remove unwanted clutter and remove superfluous items.

    Post War Buildings. Sports Pavillion at King Edward VI Grammar School, Manor Road, Stratford -On-Avon, Warwickshire. General view of sports pavillion lit at twilight.
    Sports Pavillion at King Edward VI Grammar School, Manor Road, Stratford-On-Avon, Warwickshire. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England
    5. Look for even illumination across an elevation and beware the elevation that’s half in shadow. Try to shoot either early morning or late evening when the the light is more sympathetic.

    Oxford Road Station, Manchester 1959-60, Max Clendinning of British Railways London Midland Region; grade II (c) James O. Davies
    Oxford Road Station, Manchester, Grade II. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England
    6. If shooting whole elevations, don’t truncate the building, step back, use space and let the building breath.

    The Folly, Gatley, Aymestrey, Herefordshire. General view of elevation designed by Raymond Erith.
    The Folly, Gatley, Aymestrey, Herefordshire. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England
    7. Photographs don’t always have to taken from eye level, look for elevation, this will give a better sense of proportion.

    Scargill Chapel, Kettlewell, North Yorkshire 1958-61, George G. Pace; grade II* (c) James O. Davies/English Heritage
    Scargill Chapel, Kettlewell, North Yorkshire 1958-61, George G. Pace, Grade II*. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England
    8. Keep looking. Your initial ideas and viewpoint may well encompass everything you want to say, but don’t rely on it. By changing position and watching how the light changes other shots may present themselves.

    DP099302
    Royal College of Physicians, Regent’s Park, 1960-4. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England
    9. Be persistent. Successful photographs take time, so slow down and never rush a photograph. If the conditions are against you don’t succumb to the act of taking the image, return the next day, the next week; the building and architect deserve the best.

    Apollo Pavilion, Peterlee, County Durham 1969-70, Victor Pasmore; grade II* (c) James O. Davies
    Apollo Pavilion, Peterlee, County Durham 1969-70, Victor Pasmore, Grade II*. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England
    10. Shoot RAW files, use a prime aperture, use a tripod and endeavour to keep verticals true. Use your eyes and feet to compose the image before setting up the camera.

    Cromwell House, Barbican 1963-74, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, grade II (c) James O. Davies/English Heritage
    Cromwell House, Barbican 1963-74, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, Grade II. Photo by James O. Davies © Historic England
    Remember, the perfect picture doesn’t exist, but you can get close!

    Like

    • Keir Polyblank says:

      From the absense of fore-shortening in these photos, it’s clear that a camera with a rising front has been used, not something freely available to the amateur. What camara does James O. Davies use?

      Like

      • Hi Keir, thanks for your comment. I passed it on to James and he has responded as follows: ‘I switch between a Hasselblad and a Linhof camera but that is about the quality of file. To reduce converging verticals think about high vantage points and use wide-angle lenses but keep the camera level and give the subject matter plenty of room to breathe.’
        I hope this helps!

        Like

    • Hi Lavender, James suggests National Geographic magazine (not so much a book as a periodical) for quality imagery that both inspires and intrigues. He added, ‘Or do what I did at that age and indulge the photographic section of your local library’!

      Like

      • thank you! and i will pass that on. I just wonder if there is a book that ‘teaches’ the principles of e.g. composing a good picture, that I could give as a Birthday present?

        Like

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