Twilight is a favourite time of day for many architectural photographers (me included), but I find myself choosing to shoot during the middle of the day more and more often. So much so that i’ve come to the conclusion that twilight is not the be all and end all of architectural photography and that strong daylight is a valuable tool for particular scenarios.
Why architectural photography during the the day normally doesn’t work
A typical problem in architectural photography is that there are different elements in your frame that will expose differently. Some will be very dark and some will be very bright. You’re camera can’t capture the extreme differences (google Dynamic Range for more info on this) so you’re forced to expose for either the really bright objects (like clouds or metal) and have murky dark areas (like the shadows under a tree) or visa versa, expose for the dark areas and have blown out bright areas, loss of colour saturation and glare. You normally overcome this by shooting at twilight when the light is softer and the difference between the bright areas and the dark areas is more balanced.
What you don’t normally get at twilight though is strong direct sunlight that can provide reflectance to things like glass and metal and it’s also difficult to give materials with strong colours their punch because the twilight is balancing everything out.
What to photograph during the day:
- Shiny materials like glass or metal.
- Materials with strong colours like reds, greens and blues.
- Dark materials like rusty metal. (The strong daylight will provide more detail in the image that may otherwise become shadows)
- Details. (You can isolate details with more ease than the entire building and therefore avoid the dynamic range issue we talked about above)
3 Tips for architectural photography during the middle of the day
- Photograph during perfectly clear days. This avoids white clouds which are typically too bright compared to your building. What you’re left with is a blue sky which acts like a blue screen in the movies. This allows you to expose for your building (Which will typically leave the sky too dark) and then adjust the sky in Lightroom or similar software afterwards. Because the sky is now one simple colour this adjustment is super easy, it’s just one slider (which i’ll show you in a future post). The other problem with clouds is that they diffuse the light which can take away from this technique.
- Keep the sun behind you so you have direct sunlight falling onto your subject. This will mean that your building is bright which will bring out colours, details and shiny materials. It will also balance the brightness (exposure) of the building with the already bright sky. If instead your building is in shadow this technique doesn’t work so well. Your building will be lacklustre and the sky too bright.
- Isolate your subject and focus on details. The challenge with architectural photography during daylight hours isn’t that it’s too bright, it’s that the range between bright things and dark things is too high, so you often end up with one thing that is exposed well and a lot of other stuff that is too dark or too bright. By isolating your subject you simplify the number of light intensities your camera is trying to deal with. Check out the bottom two examples below for this.
The Qatar Navigation Tower in Doha
Photo taken mid afternoon. The glass facade lends itself to strong light. I’ve gotten away with including the surrounding buildings and the foreground, but often these other elements will be too dark or bright, which is why this technique lends itself to details and isolated elements like the 2 image below.
RMIT Design Hub
Detail of the glass facade taken at approx 9.30 in the morning. In this case the sun is coming from the side so the glass discs are strongly illuminated while the circular frames create shadow and depth.
Black and White Example
The same technique of strong sunlight from behind the photographer with a clear blue sky. Because the blue is only found in the sky the blues in the image can be dialled all the way down to black and create this dramatic look.