Level up: how to improve your architectural photography

Discover the beauty in buildings, monuments and more with these top tips and techniques from multi-award-winning Canon Ambassador Fernando Guerra.
Against a bright blue sky, a man sits on the edge of a huge curving platform that's elevated several metres above the ground.

Canon Ambassador Fernando Guerra knows a thing or two about buildings. He graduated as an architect in his home country of Portugal, before spending several successful years working for an architectural firm in Macau. Despite enjoying his job, however, he could never quite let go of his childhood love of photography.

Fernando's passion for shooting buildings grew until, with his brother Sergio, he began photographing architecture for leading magazines and personal clients. Now with a string of awards to his name, he's never once looked back.

Here, Fernando shares some of the insights, tips and tricks that he's learned over the years.

On location: finding the perfect building

A man stands in the vast concrete gallery at the Saya Park project in South Korea.

"I didn't want to do what all the other architectural photographers were doing," says Fernando of his career trajectory. "I wanted to have some fun. I started shooting buildings with people in the scene and it really brought them to life. I feel that when I'm shooting architecture, I'm like a messenger. My photograph brings the building from the architect to the public." Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L lens at 1/8 sec, f/10 and ISO200. © Fernando Guerra

A woman and several children play with a skipping rope in the sunshine next to a stark white building. All but one of the children are seen in silhouette.

"I don't think about geometry or lines that lead the eye into a picture," says Fernando. "I'm just looking for shapes that please me aesthetically and how the light plays on them. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II lens at 1/2500 sec, f/8 and ISO200. © Fernando Guerra

Architectural photography isn’t just about imposing office blocks or ornate churches. While these will make for spectacular images, any building can be beautiful according to Fernando – if you look hard enough, or rather don’t!

"Don't think about finding the right location," he advises. "You can get incredible buildings in horrible locations. Think about individual buildings and what makes them interesting. It could be anything from a ramshackle barn or humble house to a magnificent museum or cathedral. I don't even think there are 'bad' buildings to shoot. It's just about waiting for the right light and the right moment. "

Once you’ve found and fallen in love with a building, something else Fernando recommends is adding layers to your imagery. It’s a technique he picked up from one of his biggest inspirations, Magnum photographer Alex Webb, and it will – as Fernando explains below – help add another dimension to your photography.

"His photography captivated me, in the way that he would use layers on top of layers to build more elements into a shot,” says Fernando of Webb. “For example, you might get people here, a dog there, a guy walking by with an umbrella over there. His shots are composed with several layers, and you get a real feeling of life and context.

"As an architect, I try to find the perfect proportions, the perfect material and the perfect colours and finish. As a photographer, I'm still trying to convey exactly that – to make things look beautiful," Fernando continues. "I'm not looking for geometry that 'works', I'm just trying to make the building look wonderful. That's the message that I'm trying to deliver."

Freeform photography: forgetting the 'rules'

Four people are blurred in motion as they walk along a large corridor inside a huge white building with futuristic windows and walls.

Fernando believes that photography should always be an expression of 'self', even if it means breaking the traditional rules of the genre. "Many feel that architectural photography is like classical music," he says. "Everything is laid out in the sheet music and you need to play what's written. For me, it's more like jazz. Forget the rules and just use your eyes." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L lens at 0.4 secs, f/9.5 and ISO200. © Fernando Guerra

Students walking along the colourful walkways of the EPFL Quartier Nord in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Fernando shoots handheld to give himself ultimate creative flexibility, utilising his camera's vari-angle touchscreen to see his images in real time, no matter the shooting angle. "I haven't used the viewfinders of my cameras at all, for many years," says the self-confessed maverick. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 lens at 1/13 sec, f/2.8 and ISO640. © Fernando Guerra

One of the first rules of architectural photography, you might think, is to use a tripod. Not so according to Fernando.

"I like to have freedom of movement, so I prefer not to use a tripod, which many think is a fundamental tool for architectural shooting," he elaborates. "I'd rather keep moving around, exploring a building from different angles, so I shoot handheld. From the moment I arrive on site, I'm moving non-stop until I leave.

"Another advantage of not using a tripod is that if you're in a crowded place, you can shoot without drawing attention to yourself. Otherwise, people in the scene can be intrigued and be looking at you and what you're doing, rather than just acting in a natural way. The vari-angle screens of many Canon cameras are perfect for this. You can shoot from different angles, and it doesn't even look like you're taking photos."

In fact, as far as Fernando is concerned, when it comes to the dos and don’ts of architectural photography, there’s only really one rule you should follow.

"Verticals need to be straight, so never point the camera upwards or downwards, unless you're using a tilt-shift lens which can correct perspective," he explains. "You can correct perspective at the editing stage in software, but I don't think it looks right. There are often many other rules discussed, but I believe you have to break rules to create your own distinctive work which stands out. Just keep the verticals straight and shoot like there's no tomorrow."

Into the light: choosing the time to shoot

An elongated and elevated wooden building at night. The surrounding trees are illuminated by two bright lights.

"Keep going and don't stop at sundown," advises Fernando. "Some buildings have a whole new life after dark. A building's windows can be like its eyes and at night, when the lights are on indoors, it's like you can look right into those eyes. Some buildings transform into magical boxes with glittering glass that are beautiful at night." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L lens at 30 secs, f/7.1 and ISO1600. © Fernando Guerra

Birds fly over an extravagantly shaped waterfront building at dusk.

"One thing I've learned is to never use flash," says Fernando. "When I'm shooting interiors, if I can see it with my eyes, my Canon camera can capture it. If there are extreme differences between shadows and well-lit areas, I might take two exposures using exposure bracketing and merge them together, or use the camera's HDR mode, but I never use flash or additional lighting." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L lens at 1/80 sec, f/5 and ISO800. © Fernando Guerra

Something else that’s a misconception according to Fernando is that the best light for architectural photography is in the early morning or late afternoon, often called the 'golden hour'.

"If I'm going to shoot a building, I like to go early in the morning and stay until the stars come out in the evening. In a way, it's the same approach that a photojournalist might use. I follow the light around the building and different aspects will look better at different times of the day. You also get to see how people use the building, adding that element of life again. It's like shooting 'a day in the life of a building'. I want to capture more than the building itself.

"If the light is harsh, you can play with the shadows. I recently got some great shots of a house at midday with the sun high in the sky. The light was pouring through skylights in the roof and illuminating the whole interior of the building, and it just looked fabulous. When the sun is lower in the sky, a building can look bad from one side but great from another. You just need to move around and keep looking. Even if it's grey and foggy, you can get some interesting shots with a real softness to them. Another wrong assumption is that once you've shot a building from one point, you're done with that view of it. Come back later in the day and see how the change in light has affected it.”

In the bag: choosing the right lenses

A large light installation featuring the face of a young woman can be seen through the window of a building as a yellow car drives by.

The Canon EOS R System is ideal for those starting out in architectural photography and looking to progress. Pairing a powerful full-frame mirrorless camera such as the Canon EOS R with a native RF lens such as the Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM – the combination Fernando used to capture this image – or the Canon RF 16mm F2.8 STM will give you the creative freedom to grow. Taken at 56mm, 1/100 sec, f/9 and ISO160. © Fernando Guerra

Huge wooden slats hang vertically from a large building painted dark cream. In a room on the ground floor of the building, two people can be seen in silhouette.

When you become more experienced as a photographer, Fernando recommends upgrading to tilt and shift lenses. "My go-to lenses are the Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L and the Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II," he says. "They are expensive but there's no substitute for the shift function. It enables you to control perspective and keep verticals of buildings straight and upright." Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L lens at 1/100 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Fernando Guerra

When starting out, Fernando recommends lenses which strike a good balance between a relatively wide field of view and low image distortion. "I love the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM and the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM," he enthuses. "They're small and unobtrusive so you can shoot unnoticed. The quality is great, and they're relatively inexpensive. I also use the Canon EF 24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM because it's so versatile. I can't accept any distortion in my architectural shots but, thanks to in-camera corrections in EOS R-series cameras, it becomes a distortion-free lens."

Another gateway lens that’s particularly suited to architectural photography is the Canon RF 16mm F2.8 STM. This prime lens with 16mm focal length is not only ultra-affordable, but also ultra-wide, allowing you to get more in shot, for example, an entire bridge. Architecture enthusiasts will also love the interesting effects on lines and angles the lens offers.

Once you’ve settled on a camera and lens that suit you, and got to grips with the genre basics, Fernando advises experimenting further with your architectural photography, everything from the angle of your shot to lens filters.

"A neutral density filter is great for enabling long exposures even under bright lighting,” Fernando explains. “For shooting architecture in a busy place, a long exposure will make all the people and traffic that are moving around effectively disappear, taking them out of the shot. A circular polarising filter is great for removing reflections from glass windows. It works equally well on buildings with a glossy finish. I had to shoot a concrete building that was painted red and was super-shiny. I just gave the circular polariser a twist and all the shine was gone, letting the colour sing out."

For Fernando, shooting architecture is more than just a job, it’s a calling. And one inspired by beating hearts as much as buildings.

"Ultimately, I shoot architecture for a living, but I still feel the people who are inside or who use the building are the most interesting element," he concludes. "To me, architectural photography is about capturing life."

Are you ready to get started?

Written by Matthew Richards

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