Photographers love breaking the rules from time to time, but architectural photography generally follows set rules. Some photographers make a career out of shooting buildings, but there’s an art to creating powerful images that match the imagination of the architect’s creation.Apart from great lighting and the right angle, one of the features that distinguishes a good architectural photograph is how the vertical lines are reproduced: they should be vertical. This might sound rather obvious. After all, don’t all buildings have vertical sides? Most buildings do, but unless you’re careful, the photos don’t look vertical.

If your photo of a building doesn’t have vertical verticals, it is immediately apparent. This is because your print is a rectangle, so any lines in the photograph that are not parallel to the edges of the print are easy to see. The convergence (or divergence from the edges) is obvious.The problem happens when we take a photo of a building and the top recedes into the distance. The edges of the building converge towards the top so the width of the building at the top is less than its width at the bottom. We know this isn’t correct and so the photo looks odd. When we use our eyes to look at a building, the same phenomenon happens.

The width of the building at the bottom is wider relative to the top, and the vertical lines do converge. The difference is that we have a brain attached to our eyes which makes mental adjustments for us, and so while we are seeing diagonal verticals, we perceive vertical verticals.In comparison, the camera is an optical system using a lens to focus an image on to the recording medium.

It records what we see, but without interpreting it.

Strangely enough, train tracks converging into the distance don’t cause us problems, either in reality or in a photograph. We happily accept convergence on the horizontal plane, but less happily in the vertical plane.

Keeping things straight

Fortunately, getting vertical verticals in an architectural photo is easy: make sure you keep the camera body vertical (and hence the recording plane is vertical and parallel to the building’s facade).  You can shoot landscape (horizontal) or portrait (vertical) format, it doesn’t matter. Just keep the camera back vertical. Unfortunately, most of the buildings we want to photograph are more than one storey high. To fit all the building into the frame, we have to tilt the camera upwards and as soon as we do, we end up with converging verticals – and disaster! Professionals use view cameras or perspective control lenses to solve this problem.Rather than tilting the camera upwards to include the top of the building, the lens is ‘shifted’ upwards.

The recording plane stays where it is. (This is why some perspective control lenses are also called shift lenses.) View cameras are designed so the lens can be shifted up and down or from side to side. If you keep the body stationary, by moving the lens higher you bring in a higher part of the image scene too. Here’s why: a lens has an angle-of-view. For example, a 35mm lens has an angle-of-view of 630 from one corner of the frame to the diagonally opposite. Although the lens projects a circular image, only a rectangular image is seen because the shutter gate masks the image to fit the format.

This is what the camera records when the lens projects its image on to the recording surface. Normally the size of the image it projects (the covering power) is just sufficient to cover the format – in other words, the corners of the rectangular frame touch the edge of the circular image. Imagine if this same lens had a much wider angle-of-view, but a lot of it was wasted because it simply wouldn’t fit on to the recording frame – ie: if the image circle was much larger than the rectangular frame.

If the top of your building is present in the image circle, but it is being chopped off because of the central positioning of the rectangular frame, in theory, you could include the top of the building simply by moving the rectangular frame, or the lens. In fact, this isn’t just theory, it’s exactly how a view camera works, and how a shift lens works. The view camera is the best and most flexible option. Ask at your photography shop about control lenses. For instance, Nikon has 28mm and 35mm perspective control lenses. Canon offers 24mm, 45mm and 90mm focal lengths. The downside of these lenses is their cost, so for most photographers, the solution requires a little lateral thinking.

Vertical verticals without cost

The first cheap option is to move back. Maybe just five or ten paces. If you’re way too close to the building, walking back ten metres might allow you to keep the top of the building in the frame without having to tilt the camera to the heavens. Of course, you’ll end up with quite a bit of unwanted foreground, but this can be cropped out of the picture later. Obviously, a portrait format image will offer more space at the top of the frame than a landscape format.

If you can’t move backwards, perhaps you can move up? Do you carry a ladder? Is there a building on the other side of the road which offers a third-floor vantage point? By gaining altitude, you may no longer need to tilt your camera up.

The third option is to use a wider angle lens. This will give you more headroom without having to tilt the camera. It will also waste more foreground which you can crop out later.These are all simple options which architectural photographers use indoors and outdoors.Even if they are using a view camera or a shift lens, sometimes the amount of shift available on the view camera or perspective control lens isn’t sufficient to solve a particular shooting situation and so even a professional will use a wider angle lens and crop the image.

So there – shooting tall buildings is easy. If you have a perspective control lens – or you know how to walk backwards.

– Better Photography. Reproduced for educational purposes.