Photographing Historic Buildings
‘The minimum standard [in architectural photography] is to achieve a correctly exposed, sharp image, and the next most important quality is that the vertical planes of the building should be represented as vertical in the photograph,’ writes Steve Cole in the early pages of Photographing Historic Buildings. ‘This continued a standard that painters and draughtsmen had been adhering to for centuries, but it was important to re-establish it for photography as the new invention could produce very inaccurate representations of buildings. This standard for representing vertical as vertical is one we should still strive to achieve.’
That injunction to ‘keep the verticals vertical’ is indeed generally accepted as the first rule of architectural photography. Dare we ask: why? If we look at a building from fairly far away, with our eyes looking more or less towards the horizon, the building’s verticals will indeed appear vertical. But usually we look at buildings from fairly close up and looking upwards, in which case the verticals will appear to converge, in the same way as the horizontal lines on the ground plane appear to converge in what we understand as perspective.
So why do photographers not photograph buildings in ways that show the convergence? Well, they do sometimes, and there are a few examples of such photographs in this book, but professional architectural photographers do not do it very often. Architectural photographers avoid showing verticals converging by choosing a viewpoint (high or far away, for example) that prevents it, or by using a specialist perspective-correcting lens, or by later manipulating the digital image.
Generally architectural photographs with verticals shown as vertical look good, but they sometimes look rather odd, due to the fact that the convergence that we would expect to see in reality is missing, and the top of the building looks too wide. But to some extent our brain adjusts and ignores that distortion, in the same way as it sometimes (but not always) prevents us from noticing the converging verticals of an actual building that we are looking at.
When is it appropriate to break the golden ‘vertical verticals’ rule and show verticals in a photograph converging? How can the photographer work out how much convergence will look right? (For example, a very slight convergence in a photograph usually looks incompetent. Too much convergence may make the building appear to be falling over backwards.) It would have been good to have had some discussion of those tricky questions in Photographing Historic Buildings.
Cole notes that ‘the power and ease with which images can be manipulated in an editing programme is an ever-increasing temptation to modify what the camera saw.’ True, but the manipulation does not start there: what the camera saw depends on what the photographer showed it. The camera never lies (don’t blame the camera), but the photographer always interprets.
Those quibbles aside, this is an exceptionally good book. Steve Cole, former head of photography at English Heritage, provides a wealth of advice that would benefit any photographer, from beginner to professional. Each of the book’s many photographs has a caption that explains an important point. Particularly useful and well-illustrated sections explain how to photograph specific subjects (staircases, for example) and how to carry out a photographic survey.
There is much detailed technical advice. Some of it will probably soon become redundant. This, as Cole explains, is due to the new Light Field system of capturing images, which seems likely to revolutionise photography by doing away with the need to focus the camera and choose the correct aperture.
But Cole’s guidance on the art of taking successful photographs will be of value as long as people are trying to convert the experience of seeing buildings – which usually involves being on the move, looking up and down, with our glance flitting over the surface of what is in front of us, seeing some things in focus and others in peripheral vision, and with our brains interpreting what we see – into two-dimensional, rectangular, static images.
At £20 the book is good value.
Find out more
Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Anthony Weller - Architectural photographer.
- Architectural photography.
- Grant Smith - Architectural photographer.
- How to commission architectural photography.
- IHBC articles.
- Photographing buildings.
- Simon Kennedy - Architectural Photographer.
- The Institute of Historic Building Conservation.
The IHBC Director's top pick this week: an opportunity to transform a church into a community centre of environmental awareness, valued £555k, closing 25/11.
SNH has published new guidance on how best to fit pollinators into urban design and construction with a series of easy steps to suit all project budgets and sizes.
Applications are invited for the Sustainability Scholarship 2020, with successful applicants to receive £3000, support and mentoring from experts, and closing 29 November.
It was hoped the 1.4 mile (2.3km) Victorian Queensbury Tunnel could be used by cyclists travelling between Bradford and Halifax, but plans have been threatened.
Completing works that widened public access to the hidden architectural spaces and collections of Durham Cathedral showcases exceptional project management.
This month HSE is carrying out its latest construction inspection initiative with a focus in particular on measures in place to protect workers from occupational lung disease caused by asbestos, silica, wood and other dusts when carrying out common construction tasks.
Peterborough and Birmingham are the latest places to benefit from the Government Hubs programme to regenerate city centre sites.
Graffiti by Banksy has been taken off a bridge in Hull as the Grade II (GII) listed Scott Street bridge itself faces dismantling.
Liverpool landmark the Everton Library, a Grade II (GII) listed building that has been the focus of calls to restore it to its former glory continues to lie leaking, vandalised and derelict, when £5m could renovate the building, reports The Liverpool Echo.
A landmark on a list of the UK’s most endangered buildings, Shotton steelworks’ Grade II-listed general office and clock tower, is to be brought back to life in Flintshire.