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Architectural Photography – Taming Natural Light for Exterior Shots

We humans have a highly developed visual sense and our brain is used to seeing things in a certain way; generally illuminated by an overhead light source (the sun). Now depending upon the climatic conditions (time of the day, presence of cloud cover etc) the quality of light could be either hard (on sunny days with little or no clouds) or soft (overcast conditions where the clouds overhead act as a giant softbox).

using natural light in architectural photography
using natural light in architectural photography

Since daylight has been the dominant source of light in our everyday life, our subconscious mind expects subjects to be illuminated from an overhead angle and our brain readily accepts images produced with such lighting as natural.

In both variants of architectural photography (exterior and interior) natural light is more often than not used as the dominant light source. Photographers either adapt the light to fit their needs by using filters (for color correction and controlling intensity of light) and by using other light modifiers like scrims, gobos and reflectors (mainly in interior photography) or use supplemental lighting using artificial lights in order to reduce the contrast between light and shadow areas (also mainly used in interior photography).

However this reliance on natural light as the dominant light source makes things a bit complicated for architecture photographers as they have absolutely no control over the elements of nature.   It is to counter this vulnerability that architectural photographers are advised to develop a fundamental skill of timing; that is the ability to anticipate how natural light will behave during the course of the day and fix shooting order/sequence to make the most of the changing lighting conditions.

Some Basic Facts about the Sun

To us (read the residents of planet earth) sun appears to move across the sky from east to west.
Sun reaches different height in the sky depending on many factors like the latitude of the observer, time of the day and year.

Depending on the position of the sun in the sky (time of day and year) and also presence of cloud cover, sunlight illuminates the same building differently.

Color of light during midday is white and during morning and evening times its golden (more yellows, oranges and reds).

There are many mobile phone apps and computer softwares that help predict the precise position of the sun on any given day at any point on earth. And for those of you who are not that much into these gadgets there is always the good old sun finder charts to help you out.

Things to Consider When Preparing Your Shooting Schedule

The key to successful shoot (read most efficient shoot) lies in properly scheduling the shoot. The actual shooting sequence and timing of each element should be based on how the project is structured in relation to the natural lighting during that time of the year. The answers to the following questions will help you determine the right timing to shoot each aspect of a building.

  1. Which direction is the building facing?
  2. At what time of the day will a given facade get the illumination from the sun?
  3. Does the light penetrate to the interiors?
  4. Can a nearby building give us some reflected light at any time which will help us illuminate the structure better?

Considering the above aspects, plan your shooting schedule carefully so as to make the best use of available lighting. In the following articles we will discuss what light of different quality could do to your images and also take a look at many techniques that will help you master the use of natural light in architecture photography.

Related Reading

  1. The Importance of Styling and Detailing in Architectural Photography
  2. Perspective in Interiors Photography
  3. Controlling Perspective in Exterior Shots Using Focal Length
  4. Architectural Photography Composition - Line Dynamics
  5. Composition in Architectural Photography

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