Using Filters and Artificial Light in Architectural Photography

Architectural (or architecture) photography is unique from many other forms of photography – wedding, sports, event, and photojournalism are all fast paced. Architectural photography on the other hand moves much slower. It is about taking your time to capture the scene in just the right light. Shots can be planned well in advance to ensure the light will be perfect. In architectural photography, shots can take an hour to prepare – from finding the right perspective, staging the scene, and then taking the shot. Because architectural photographers can take their time with the photograph, using filters and artificial light in architectural photography can truly enhance a scene. Note that many of these same principles apply to Real-Estate Photography, however photographers often have to move at a slightly faster pace.

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Using Filters in Architectural Photography

Filters are an important part of architectural photography. They can be used both for interiors and exteriors to reduce (or eliminate glare), add contrast and pop, and remove reflections from windows or glass. These are just a few examples of why filters are such an important piece of equipment to have in your photography bag.

When photographing interiors as an architectural photography there are a number of ways that a polarizer can help your shot. A circular polarizer – such as the Tiffen Digital HT Circular Polarizer – can eliminate glare on multiple surfaces such as tables, walls, and floors. While a circular polarizer can’t remove all glare and reflections, it really does an excellent job and can save you lots of time on-site. Instead of putting up lots of black cloth to block light, try using the circular polarizer first to see how it works. You might not even need to start hanging cloths! Also, because it is a circular polarizer and you rotate a ring on the filter to “engage” the filter, you can spin the filter and eliminate glare say on the floor in one shot, then spin the filter and eliminate glare on the wall in your next photograph. Then, when post-processing your entire image, you can then blend these two shots together in Photoshop for a glare free image (or mostly free). One thing to remember when using a circular polarizer is that a circular polarizer blocks 1.5 stops of light (approximate). Therefore, you will need to compensate your shutter speed or ISO for the darker scene.

Another filter I use for interiors are neutral density filters or ND filters. There are two types of neutral density filters that I use in my interior architectural photography. The first are your standard ring, screw-on filters. I don’t use these very often but when I do they really make a huge difference on my photograph and post-processing. There are two primary ways that I use your standard ring neutral density filters for my architectural photography:

  1. I will use my ND filters to eliminate bloom in one tiny spot around a window frame. There are many techniques to eliminate window bloom but there are times where it is one little spot. Especially when the window frame is black, I will hold my filter up and just block the one spot that is blooming. Since the frame is black, it is very easy to then blend in a non-blooming area with a clean, crisp edge into the final photograph.
  2. If a light is blown out or way too hot. I will use the same technique. I will hold up a neutral density filter and just block the light in the scene leaving the rest of the scene untouched. The nice thing about this is that when using color accurate neutral density filters – see Tiffen’s NATural Neutral Density Filters here – there is no color correction that needs to take place. You can just blend in the light and surrounding area in your post-processing program of choice to taste.
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Both of these methods can be much faster and easier than trying to add flash or adjust settings to handle a single hot-spot in your photograph.

The other type of neutral density filter I use in my photographs are gel neutral density filters. Now gels aren’t gels, they are actually just sheets of what feels like a paper or plastic like material. I use these very similarly to the way I use option 2 in the section above. When a light source in your photograph is just too bright or casting too bright a glow, you can take your neutral density gel and wrap it around the light-bulb. As neutral density gels come in a variety of options – anything from a .3 to 2.0 stop neutral density filter you can use this to knock the light down a number of stops and allow you to fully control a light-source that otherwise would have been problematic to how you wanted to light the scene. These neutral density gels are fantastic, especially with really bright LED or Edison style bulbs.

Circular polarizer and neutral density filters aren’t just for interior architectural photography, they are just as important when shooting exterior architectural photography.

A circular polarizer filter for exterior architectural photography can be used similarly to that when photographing interiors. A circular polarizer can eliminate glare in water and reduce (or enhance) window reflections. Because the circular polarizer blocks about 1.5 stops of light, it can be used to slow your shutter speed a bit to allow you to show motion in your photo. Say a person walking by the building or a car zooming down the street. When photographing an exterior during daylight hours, a circular polarizer can create contrast and some color pop to your sky. Just look at the difference between these two shots. The one on the left was with the circular polarizer engaged while the photo on the right is without a circular polarizer with the exact same settings!

The spaces we shoot in architectural photography are static. The building, room, or space doesn’t move. As such, adding a sense of movement to the scene can create a sense of life in your architectural photography. Neutral density filters, when shooting exteriors, make it much easier to add this to your photograph. Blurring the motion of clouds or water can give the sense of movement and life to a static object. You do this by using your ND filter to slow your shutter speed and create a long exposure. Anything from a say a 2 to 30 second exposure with your exteriors can make a big difference with how the clouds or water are going to look in your photo.

Using Artificial Lights in Architectural Photography

Artificial light is also an extremely important tool in any architectural photographers toolkit. Whether photographing interiors or exteriors, knowing when and how to use your artificial light will allow you to create images that provide a realistic representation of a space with an artistic twist.

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Using artificial light on interiors allows a photographer to have more control over the direction and color of light. Additionally, it can create added texture and depth on and around furniture (think shadows!). This can really make an image standout. Additionally, as our eyes are drawn to the brightest part of a photograph, using artificial light allows us to control the light so that we can draw our viewers eye through an image.

Some of the more popular lights for architectural photographers include – but are not limited to:

  • Mono Lights or strobe lights – These are your big 750 to 1000w (or so) lights that can be used to really brighten up a scene, control light when the sun is blazing, or create light in larger spaces. Strobe lights are also great for lighting up exteriors at twilight due to their high wattage when other light painting techniques won’t work or aren’t available.
  • Speedlights – More common in real-estate photography than architectural photography, speedlights are great for smaller rooms or when you want to do “light farming”. Light farming is when you place your lights for a shot and then use them in the same spot for multiple photographs.
  • Floodlight – These can be used for both interior or exterior architectural photographs. Floodlights are static lights so they are great for interiors when you aren’t fighting the sun or exteriors at twilight.
  • Handheld spotlight (or hot light) – Great for light painting interiors and exteriors.
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Using a floodlight to light my scene.

I am not going to detail all the different ways that one can use lights for interiors as using them depends on your personal style, that of your client, the lighting of the space, as well as the room itself. Also, there are lots of tutorials on YouTube on how to use lights to enhance your architectural photography. However, here are a few things to keep in mind when using artificial light.

  • Keep it looking natural! Think about the direction of the light in the room from the sun. When using your flash, make sure the majority of your light is coming from that same direction otherwise it won’t look realistic.
  • Use your light to create a mood (ie, shadows are your friend). Shadows and light are what make a photograph. I like my light to come towards the camera as it creates the most depth. Light from the side can be great too. If your light is from behind (or on) the camera, it flattens your image out.
  • Think outside the box…or room. Want some nice light streaming into a room? Put your flash outside and have light stream in through the window mimicking sunlight.
  • A dark exterior facade at twilight can really benefit from some light. Some light painting or soft light from a floodlight can really make an image pop. Don’t overdo it though, make it look natural.
  • Don’t feel you have to use artificial light. If there is great soft light (maybe its an overcast day) or beautiful sun rays streaming into a well-designed and furnished room you might not need any additional light.

Using filters and artificial light in architectural photography takes practice. Take your time learning these new tools. As you master them, your images will improve – hopefully gaining you new clients.

Have questions about using filters and artificial light in architectural photography? Send me a note!

For more tips on how to improve your architectural photography – head to my post – 5 Tips to Improve Your Architectural Photography.

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