One of the most basic (and essential) compositions for architectural photography is what I call the Elevation Straight On shot. A few examples below via Pinterest. Today I’m going to break down this composition and look for the patterns that make it work.
Breaking down the composition
Parallel Vertical Lines
The Elevation Front On shot typically has parallel vertical lines (perspective correct) so that the side of the building are parallel with the edges of the photo.
Parallel Horizontal Lines
The horizontal lines are also parallel. Elements like the ground line, widow sills and door heads are all parallel with the top and bottom edges of the photo. (This is often over looked, but one of factors that make a Elevation Straight On Shot pop). What you end up with is a strong grid of horizontal and vertical lines. Obviously if the building is not rectilinear, ala Gehry, then this effect is less obvious.
The building is centered
The subject building is at the center of the shot (left to right). If it’s slightly off then it looks sloppy. There are of course some exceptions. How the building is positioned from top to bottom however is a different matter, because you have a few choices. Likewise, the height of the camera will impact on the final look of the shot, but I’ll separate both those topics out into separate future posts.
Space around the building
If you look at the diagram above you’ll notice the building never touches the edge of the photo. It has a margin around the edges. If you clip the building with an edge you’ll end up with a distracting element problem. Crop the building in a big way and you no longer have a elevation shot at all. Instead it will be a detail shot, or facade shot, or something else depending on the subject.
Similarly if you give the building too much space around the edges it’s going to change the nature of shot. It’s going to include more of its surroundings and become a context shot, or a landscape shot.
So what’s the right amount? It’s subjective. Go have a look at the examples on Pinterest and you’ll see some margins that are too tight, and some that are too wide. Get a feel for it and test it out. (That said, I decided to do some rough maths on the images that looked better to me. On portrait framed shots I liked a min of 7% side margin and on landscape shots I liked 10%. Am I going to be doing pixel maths on every shot I take? No way, but thought it may be useful for anyone looking for a less subjective answer.)
Putting this into practice?
So here’s how I do it.
- I choose an elevation that I want to be the focus of the shot.
- I roughly guess the center of the building and stand in front of it (see diagram below).
- I now look through my camera and see how much margin is around the building. If I don’t have enough I walk backwards along the center line. If I have too much I walk forwards. And if I can’t get the margin I want I change lenses.
- Next I adjust my horizontal lines by rotating the camera left and right (see this tutorial) until the camera is parallel with the building elevation (see diagram below and the lines with // marks).
- In that last step I got my HORIZONTAL lines, but in rotating the camera left and right I screwed up my building being centered in the frame (This is because my center line was a guess at best and now I have to fix this inaccuracy. Even a few millimetres can make a difference.). To fix this I move (slide) the camera left, or right along the perpendicular line (see diagram below).
- The final step is to get parallel VERTICAL lines using a tilt shift lens, but you could also do this with photoshop (see this tutorial).
- Oh. One last thing. I included a sun on the diagram so I might as well mention it. I typically (with a few exceptions) want the sun to be behind me for an Elevation Front On shot, even at twilight, so that the building is well illuminated relative to the background sky.