How to Tell Stories with Architecture Photography
At first glance, it might seem like architecture photography is all about prestige projects, glittering corporate headquarters, and well-paid specialist photography gigs. However, there can be much more to architectural photography if you look a little deeper.
Architecture is a vast and diverse field. It basically means the design and construction of buildings or the style in which a building is built. Styles vastly differ from country to country, even from town to town. Very local architecture that is heavily inspired by the local conditions and traditions is known as “vernacular architecture” – and that is the kind of built environment that inspires me most in my architectural photography.
On weekends, it is quite common to find me out and about with a camera in The Cotswolds – the beautiful area of England that is on my doorstep. There I seek out beautiful examples of buildings crafted from Cotswold Stone – the local building material. The stone itself varies in color from beautiful honey to a rich golden hue, and it’s these variations that tell you where you are!
Head a little further south, and you’re in the city of Oxford, famous for its prestigious university. The story of the city and the university is told through its architecture and is a vernacular architectural photographer’s dream. It’s here in Oxford that I’ve based this article on architectural photography, but hopefully, you’ll find it full of tips and tricks for shooting any of your surroundings or those you visit on a trip.
1. Do some research
Before you grab your camera bag and walk out of the door, the first thing you’re going to want to do is a little research. See if you can read up on the most important buildings in the place you’re heading out to. Then see if you can work out why they’re considered the most important.
Look at images of the place that other people have already taken and see if you can pick out any themes. Other photographers might have had some smart ideas for locations – no harm in making a note to check them out while you’re there too. Is there a predominant style of architecture? A set of repeating motifs? Or perhaps a common building material? If there does seem to be patterns in the buildings, ask yourself why that might be and see if you can get to the bottom of what they could perhaps mean.
In Oxford, there is a long-running fight over which architecture styles best reflect buildings dedicated to learning and research. Are the Roman and Greek inspired Classical style buildings the most appropriate because of their obvious connection to ancient civilization? Alternatively, are the tall, soaring, pointed towers of Gothic architecture better for a university because it seems to be reaching ambitiously skywards towards God? The designers and patrons of the city have argued this backward and forwards for many centuries now, so it is the perfect place to tell stories about the architecture!
If nothing else, think of some themes that you might like to shoot while you’re out with your camera. I can never seem to resist a good photograph of a door, and nor can many other people judging from the subject’s popularity on Instagram.
2. Look for contrast
Images that juxtapose different but related buildings or themes can be very powerful when you’re photographing architecture. Well-considered juxtapositions of images can show both positives and negatives about architecture. In the first image above of the Radcliffe Science Library, I’ve tried to capture the contrast between the ancient Headington Stone used in the original Victorian library building, and the modern glass extension.
Both materials express different ideas about what it means to study science, and so together they tell the story of what science has become over the last two hundred years. The reflection of the tree brings the two together – reminding us that science is all around us and not just found in libraries and laboratories.
If you can capture scenes like this all in the same image then that is great, but do not be afraid to place two or more images next to each other as I did above in the images of Keble College.
3. Plan to shoot a series
Creating diptychs and triptychs in photography is as old as the medium itself. Setting out to specifically capturing two or three images that work together (and could perhaps be mounted together as prints) is a fantastic way to tell a story.
It might be that you plan these images specifically to be a series while doing your research, but often you might make connections while you’re out and about. The best tip I can give to you is to write down the connections that you’ve made while shooting in a notebook; otherwise, you’re bound to forget them while editing!
The two images above were a happy accident. I didn’t realize that there was a brand new physics building constructed in the last twelve months, and it perfectly reflects the chapel of the college across the road. This juxtaposition of science and religion is quite powerful, but also I enjoyed the way that the facade of the new building draws inspiration from the old. The tall rectangular windows of the new Beecroft building seem almost to be a modern version of the tall rectangular windows in Keble College built around a hundred and fifty years ago.
If you see an interesting image that wasn’t on your original itinerary, then stop and take a few minutes to photograph it. Don’t be so focused on your research that you miss unexpected gems – they might turn out to be some of the best photographs of your trip.
4. Bring the architecture to life
Regardless of how spectacular the buildings themselves might be, it is how the inhabitants of the city use the architecture that’s important. In Oxford, the primary mode of transport is the bicycle. There simply isn’t enough room in this medieval city for cars, and so pedal-power is far more efficient.
Every street and building has space for parking bikes – and if it doesn’t – the cyclists soon find somewhere to put them! To photograph the city of Oxford without photographing the bikes would be to miss out on a large part of what makes the place come alive.
Think of how you can show the life that lives alongside the architecture in your images. It could be something as iconic as a bright yellow taxi in front of the iconic Flatiron building in New York. Alternatively, it might be as simple as a reflection of a busy city street in a brilliant local coffee shop.
Try to capture what makes the place you’re photographing unique, both in the buildings and in what is happening around them.
5. Shoot the icons
While you’re focusing on the details and the hidden stories, don’t forget to tell the big stories too! Iconic architecture is iconic for a reason, so don’t keep it off your itinerary. The important thing is, once again, to find the story that you want to tell and try to capture that.
The above image shows the Classical versus Gothic war of architecture in Oxford in a single shot. The front building is the Radcliffe Camera, an historically significant library built in the English Palladian style inspired by the classical temples of the ancient Greeks. Behind its defensive wall is the soaring tower of All Souls College built in the Gothic style. You couldn’t get two more contrasting buildings in the same shot if you tried.
These contrasts and histories are the keys in photographing architecture. If you can seek out the interesting stories to tell, you’ll have no problem shooting great images.