Growing up rurally in a northern MN town, I remember my first trip into the city. I was seven and mom, dad, brother, sister and me pulled into our minivan. We drove, and drove, and drove for what seemed to be an eternity! Looking out the window at another farm site; flat land as far as the eye could see. It was only five hours to Minneapolis, but that moment would last a lifetime.
Now living here, I still catch myself downtown looking up, getting dizzy trying to find the top of those tall buildings. It is truly fascinating to think people built them 100 years ago and they still stand the test of time. Off in the distance these large structures seem to blend together, layering granite, brick, marble – new construction and historic buildings, creating a cake of delicious architectural moments. Diving in closer you see influences of Roman, French, Victorian, seen in the columns, window ledges, locks and doorknobs. Turn of the century buildings are my favorite, by structure they are similar, but in the details you’ll find many differences. I’ve since traveled to larger cities (Chicago, New York) where the architecture is bigger and busier, but still manages to preserve the craftmanship and vision of an even older time.
When I photograph architecture, I first look for something to catch my eye. Normally inspiration comes in the form of 3 things: personality, Shapes, and Smaller Details.
- Personality is that moment when the building is telling you its story. Everything about the scene is saying “This is who I am! Take it in.” In this case a local winter bar located in Upper Michigan. The Mosquito Inn blends into the woods with white siding, snow covered rooftop, snowmobiles aligned in the parking lot. Everything about it fits the place it was found. I use a wide angle lens to capture entire buildings. The Tamron SP AF 15-30mm F/2.8 is my new favorite providing a clean, sharp image in camera. When using an ultra-wide angle lens, stay mindful of your focal plane. To avoid perspectival distortion, your focal plane must be perpendicular to the front face of the building. In larger buildings this is increasingly harder to do. Take for instance the Milwaukee Country Courthouse photograph in the slideshow. I used a Perspective Transformation in Photoshop to correct the issue.
- Shapes equal simplicity. Look at your scene, break it down into the simplest form. Houses become rectangles with a triangle on top. Trees become rectangles with circles on top. Each shape should live in its own space within your image. When elemental shapes overlap, they connect. When we give them space, the foreground separates from background elements. A staircase framed within an archway becomes a focal point. In the photo below, enjoy its contrast. Look for dark balanced by light in opposite corners. The circular mirror stands out because its distinct shape is contrastingly different from the hard geometric lines seen everywhere else.
Telephoto lenses provide compression of elements in a photograph. The Tamron AF 16-300mm VC PZD is a favorite lens of mine. The most versatile lens in my bag used for travel and city walks when I just want to carry one lens. There are several “All-in-One” lenses in Tamron’s line-up, satisfying the different levels of each photographer.
I tend to shoot between 100-300mm for these photos. Compression allows the scene to perceptually flatten, allowing me to arrange shapes by simply shifting left, right, up, or down slightly.
- Smaller Details is where craftmanship is found. The simplicity of Art Deco design, the ornate detailing of Baroque architecture, looking for macro opportunities in mosaic tile work, doorknobs and etc. – each style shows the architect’s vision. Details are often overlooked by most who pass by. For instance, in this favorite self portrait of mine. Walking on a rainy day in Sacramento, CA I was off to photograph the Tower Bridge. I happen to notice its reflection in the sidewalk and immediately set up to shoot my rain boots in the scene. The hardest part was getting the bridge to line up just right in the frame, then figuring out just where to stand. I had so much fun!
One of Tamron’s strongpoints is an incredible focus on Minimum Focusing Distance. I seldom use a macro lens in architecture detailing. This inspiration is more about looking for “it” and admiring its part of the whole. I look for window latches, weathered paint, and rust. I’ll photograph signs to hang in my house. Notice how column capitals are different depending on their origin. Victorian Architecture has added trim to fascia, ornate turrets; an overall feeling of grandeur. Look for contrasting colors, they can provide a focal point or become a distraction.
Watch Jillian Bell’s ProShow Web slideshow showcasing beautiful architecture images.