Lighting for architecture photography
Lighting may not be something you instantly think about when thinking about architecture photography but for small projects and lighting up specific areas it can be key.
This guide will give you a basic outline of the various different lighting techniques for the architecture photographer and also gives you some little tips to get you started.
Architectural photography with natural light
The easiest and most obvious place to start with lighting your architecture photography is just using available natural light.
This comes with a number of benefits, first, and probably most important if you’re just starting out, is that it’s free!
You don’t need any extra equipment to get started and in most cases you can just rock up with your camera, tripod and lens and away you go,
But the problem with natural light is that you can’t control it. If you only have a very short window in which to shoot a property and the sun just isn’t shining or is at the wrong side of the property then you will either have to try and make do with the natural light available or go to the dark side.
Lighting interior architecture photography with flash
The quickest way of counteracting the drawbacks of using natural lighting is by introducing some artificial light into your scene.
There are some great portable kits around at the moment that allow you to take the functionality and power of a studio based flash setup out into the field.
Some of the most popular today are:
If you’ve got a bit of money to burn then take a look at the Profoto lineup. Replacing the B1 flash, the B2 now offers TTL and HSS shooting offering shutter speeds of up to 1/15000thof a second!
This kit is also super small so it’s really easy to use if you’re on your own, you can just sling it over your shoulder and away you go.
The downside of this is it only offers around 215 flashes on a full charge, meaning if you’re going to be shooting all day, you either better nail your exposure every time or be prepared to buy a couple more battery packs.
The Elinchrom system offers a bit more power at 424W compared to the Profoto’s 250W and also 350 flashes from a full charge but is 25% heavier and doesn’t offer TTL metering on the basic kit.
If that doesn’t bother you and you want the extra power then you can currently save a fair chunk buying the Elinchrom over the Profoto kit.
Available in two power options 180 and 360W, the Godox system is a cheaper alternative to most mainstream flash systems.
Offering 450 flashes on the 360W version for just shy of £400 seems like a great deal, but the drawback comes from the reliability of this flash unit.
However, if you’re working somewhere where colour consistency is important this pack probably isn’t for you. With a rating of +/- 200 kelvin shift this could be a deal breaker.
Pair that with the cheaper plastic construction and you begin to see where the money is being saved. That being said, if you’re looking for a quick and cheap way to get into flash photography they’re definitely worth a look.
When working with any off camera flash with architecture photography, it’s a good idea to get your initial composition correct and then lock your tripod and settings in place, if possible using a remote for your camera to ensure it doesn’t move.
Doing this will allow you to take multiple exposures of a scene with your flash lighting different areas of your scene or at different exposures and combining them in Photoshop afterwards to create the image.
Interior architecture photography with speedlights
The place that most people start with lighting interior photography is using your standard speedlight. This is far cheaper than buying any of the dedicated flash units above and it doesn’t have to be anything fancy – as long as it produces a consistent flash then you’re good to go!
Triggering your flash wirelessly is so important for interior photography, as you will want to put the light into very specific areas which you just won’t be able to do with it attached to the hotshoe of your camera. Buying a cheap wireless trigger such as this will get the job done but more expensive and reliable options, such as the this from Pocket Wizard are the go-to for the professional interior photographer.
Having your flash wireless allows you to position it wherever you want within a scene in order to add light exactly where you want it. Taking multiple exposures with the flash popped at different points of interest around the room allows you to build the scene back up afterwards in Photoshop exactly how you want it.
A monopod or even just a traditional lighting stand is another great addition to your wireless flash kit. It allows you to position the flash and then go back to your camera to take the picture (or if you’re really fancy you can get a CamRanger so you never have to go back to your camera again). It will also double as a boom arm and if you’re having an issue with high ceilings, for example, you can lift the flash up manually to cover the area you desire.
Using your speed light for architecture photography
If you already have some speed light flashes lying around then they are a great place to start with your architecture photography lighting, as it won’t cost you anything to get practising.
One of the biggest benefits of flashguns is they are usually powered by the humble AA battery. This means unlike the external power packs of studio lighting ,which need a plug to recharge, you can just keep replacing the batteries and shooting all day long.
If you are new to the market of flash guns, there are loads of options available with the big names offering their own brand speed lights as well as some third party manufacturers offering great alternatives too.
It’s important to know that you won’t be able to get anywhere near the same amount of power from a speed light as you would from a portable studio flash and, just to complicated everything, where as portable flash is measured in watts, flashguns use a guide number which is worked out by multiplying the subject distance from the source of the flash by your fstop i.e. A flashgun with the guide number of 20 in metres, (64 in feet), at ISO 100, with a subject at a distance of 2.5 metres, (8 feet), would give an answer of ƒ8, (Guide Number 20 ÷ 2.5 Meters = ƒ8).
This may seem complicated (and only gets worse when you’re bouncing flash off walls) but there are accessories and apps out there which can help you work it out and as you get more confident you will be able to work this out on the fly fairly easily.
For the purpose of the below, all the guide numbers are shown at 100iso at their maximum zoom.
As flashguns are a lot less powerful than a portable studio flash, it means you’re probably going to need multiples of them if you’re looking to get the shot right in camera or you’re going to need to use your flashgun to light specific parts of the image and then combine them all in post-production afterwards. Doing it this way is fine and gives you great control over where you can add and remove light later on.
Also, if you are hoping to use a speed light for your architecture photography and your camera doesn’t have an inbuilt system for controlling external flash guns, you will need to purchase a wireless trigger system, such as the Pocket Wizard range.
So if you’re not already put off from using your speed light, here are a few different models to give you an idea of what is available.
This is the flagship flashgun in the Canon lineup and offers a guide number of 60, making it one of the most powerful flash guns available and offers a zoom range of 24-200mm so will cover most situations you are put in.
As would be expected from Canon, the build quality is amazing and it is completely weather sealed, meaning you really can put it through its paces and it will come out of the other side smiling. It also offers HSS mode and an RF (radio frequency) mode for syncing multiple flashes together without needing to buy multiple triggers.
The robots are coming.
This flashgun features an “AI bounce” mode, compatible with cameras launched after the second half of July 2014, which works by firing two pre-flashes and then self adjusting to calculate the optimum bounce angle.
That may seem like a great idea but it comes at the cost of other desired features, such as the RF feature of the 600EX meaning you need some way to trigger the flash off camera and it can’t function as a master flash to trigger others.
It does come with a respectable guide number of 47, but it can burn through batteries, with Canon giving it a very wide “115 to 800” shots on a set of 4 AA batteries.
Nikon’s high-end offering comes in with a guide number of 55 and offers HSS, the ability to programme repeatable flash patterns as well as a slightly dumbed down RF system as it’s only fitted with a receiver and not a transmitter.
It does also have the ability to work as a wireless master, allowing it to trigger other flashes which comes in handy if you’re having to using multiple flashguns.
It does feature a zoom range of 24-200mm so can be used for a wide range of photographic activities outside of using it to light your interior scenes. If you are using it for other genres then one great thing about the speed light is the ability to rapid-fire off over 100 continuous shots at full power, meaning you’re never going to miss that important shot.
The baby brother of the SB-5000 only features a guide number of 38, which will probably leave you wanting more. However, it is packed with other features, which if interior photograph isn’t your main source of income, may turn your head.
It features a zoom range of 24-120mm so you should be covered in most situations, has HSS and RC modes built-in and also is able to function as a master as well as a slave for firing other flashes, which could come in really handy if you have some older flashguns but don’t want to have to pay the extra price of the SB-5000 just for the ability to trigger your other flashes.
Metz has been a great third party manufacturer of flashguns for years and this beast features a guide number of 64.
What is different about this flashing is it also features a secondary sub-flash module, which helps to get a nice even light by providing a fill flash, not important for interior photography but great if you’re shooting something else on the side too.
It has a zoom range of 24-200mm and features HSS, RC and repeat flash modes as well as the ability to work as both a master and slave for syncing other flashguns together.
Where this speed light does suffer is the recharge time could leave you wanting a bit more. On full power you’re waiting 3.4 seconds if using NiMH batteries. If you’re on traditional alkaline batteries be prepared to wait almost twice that, so if you’re shooting people be prepared to either ask people to wait a lot, and you sometimes may be missing that all important shot.
Architecture photography and HDR
If you’re still not sure about using flash for your architecture photography, or don’t think you will be able generate enough power, don’t be put off!
There is still one more trick which you can employ – the use of high dynamic range or HDR photography.
In its simplest form, this means taking multiple exposures of the same scene at different exposure and combining them afterwards.
For example, to pick a simple scene, you could be shooting a building which is partially in the shade. The exposure on the front of the building and the section which is in shade will be different.
To counteract this problem, you can take multiple exposures, usually 3-5 depending on how complex the scene is and combine them in post production afterwards.
There are specific programs that can do this for you such as Photomatix or Photoshop does have a rather rudimentary option to combine to HDR.
Photmatix offers a wide range of tools for combining HDR images
If you’re feeling really confident though and want true control, using blending layers and masks inside of Photoshop will give you total control of your image. This allows you to literally paint extra light into your scene and create a much more realistic look.
Of course, as with everything, HDR does have its drawbacks and if a scene is already lacking contrast, then using HDR to lighten shadows and control the highlights isn’t going to help one bit. Here is where you should be pulling out that off camera flash, so get practising!
Do you have any hints of tips for lighting architecture photography? If so pop them in the comments below and let’s share some of that knowledge!
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