5 Lessons from the World’s Best Architectural Photography Studio

The best architectural photographers create images that communicate the dynamic experiences that a building has to offer; they tell stories that invite viewers to explore the architecture in their imaginations.

Hannah Feniak Hannah Feniak

Architectural photography does more than simply document the formal aspects design. Architectural photographers interpret the atmospheres created by changing light and shadows, the relationship of the project to its site, the human connections that emerge in spatial configurations, and the intricate — often ingenious — details that elevate the building from structure to architecture. Beyond conveying the architect’s intentions, the best photographers create images that communicate the dynamic and multiple experiences that a building has to offer. They tell stories that invite viewers to explore the architecture in their imaginations.

This is what the One Photo Challenge, Architizer’s architectural photography competition, calls for. Participants are invited to submit an image that tells a powerful story about architecture and its inhabitants for a shot at $2,500, a Fujifilm camera and worldwide recognition. Enter your own before the Regular Entry Deadline on March 26th:

Enter the One Photo Challenge

Julien Lanoo’s body of work exemplifies the hallmarks of stellar architectural photography, and his studio was named Best Architectural Photography Studio in the 2021 A+Firm Awards. Which aspects distinguish Lanoo’s body of work from the pack? As you select your entry for the next One Photo Challenge, consider the following five approaches for distilling compelling stories into a single frame.

Remember, we are interested in architecture in its entirety — from construction through to inhabitation, and even demolition. As Lanoo demonstrates, the architectural world encompasses more than just design; it is about historical layers, social integration, interactions with the natural environment, and urban transformations, and dwellers. Good luck!

Rigot Stalars, Dunkirk, France by Coldefy

1. Find a Story to Tell

The most important quality of an architectural photograph is its ability to communicate the narrative behind a piece of architecture. Whether you are shooting a historic building, a vernacular structure, or a famous modern design, it is important to gather information about your subject before you begin shooting.

You want your photograph to highlight the most significant architectural aspects, whether it be: people, light, shadows, mood, atmosphere, weather, spatial layout, details, materials, connections between architectural elements, relationship to site, the transition between spaces, etc. Remember, a good architectural photograph is more than just beautiful; it does not promote the consumption of a project but rather an understanding of it.

Lanoo has said that an important part of his working process is first looking at the initial sketch that the architect made of the project. This allows him to consider the pure essence of the idea. When documenting Rigot Stalars, Lanoo’s photographs give insight into Coldefy’s interpretive approach to the rehabilitation of an old industrial building.

The photos capture the relationship between the forms of the historic structure and their new interventions: The architectural discretion of creating horizontal extensions at ground level (to emphasize the historic building); the use of light-colored wood throughout to create a warm atmosphere; and the intentional juxtaposition of new and old.

Gymnasium and Town Hall Esplanade, Payerne, Switzerland by LAN Architecture

2. Perfect Your Timing

In architecture as in photography, lighting is fundamental: It creates contrast, reflections, shadows and textures. The experience of a building can change greatly depending on the weather and time of day, and a photograph’s success is equally contingent on these shifting atmospheric effects. No precise formula exists for choosing the right timing (although you are more likely to find better-balanced light at later and earlier moments in the day). You may even consider devoting a few hours to capturing a building in a variety of light. Mainly, it is important to avoid harsh conditions that can make a structure appear flat.

Notice how Lanloo chronicles this Gymnasium and Town Hall Esplanade. We get a sense of how the building’s relationship to its context changes throughout the day, as the glass facade either reflects its surroundings or emits artificial light. This was a central concern for LAN Architecture, who designed the building to address pre existing urban issues. We associate different times of day with different moods. Lanoo’s photographs have three distinct vibes, each connoting a distinct range of feelings and associations that reflect the diverse experiences of the surrounding public space. The building’s form is also articulated differently due to the changing appearance of line and depth.

Bon Lait Sports Hall, Lyon, France by Dietrich | Untertrifaller

3. Make Sure Everything Lines Up

In order to grab viewers and convey relevant information, successful architectural photographs display both arresting aesthetics and compelling narrative. A harmonious relationship between the two is not so much a static balance as it is a dynamic dance, visible in the composition’s movement. So, in addition to light and the shadows, play with lines in your photos!

Attention to detail is at the heart of this approach: in addition to properly lining up your camera, you should first consider your subject’s structural qualities. By emphasizing the lines and patterns of the building, you will often communicate its central design principles. For instance, Lanoo’s images of Lyon’s Bon Lait Sports Hall calls attention to the linear patterns created by the timber frame construction. In doing so, the composition reinforces the constructional logic and materiality by making the stunning and extensive use of laminate wood slatting the subject of the images. Meanwhile, the viewer’s eye darts along the images as it follows the rhythmic combinations of verticals, horizontals and diagonals.

Hangzhou Gateway, Hangzhou, China by JDS ARCHITECTS

4. Provide New Perspectives

In addition to lighting, shooting from strategic angles can imbue a scene with the bold qualities that make an image memorable. This technique will allow your viewers to consider the building from a new perspective, literally and figuratively foregrounding different architectural details. We often snap shots at eye level; however, height also plays an important role in the mood, tone, and impact of an image. In short, photograph your subject from all sides and heights: Find staircases, crouch low to the ground, and consider oblique angles.

Notice how Lanoo offers experiments with angles and perspectives in his photographs of the Hangzhou Gateway, with each perspective giving rise to a unique composition. While a low-level shot connotes dominance, power or monumentality, an image that looks down on a structure may instead communicate its spatial shapes and circulation patterns. Likewise, we get different senses of the urban context when viewing the building at street level instead of a birds-eye view. It all boils down to which architectural aspects you want to emphasize while also creating a lively and engaging composition!

Lucky Knot, Changsha China by NEXT architects

5. Breath Life into the Scene

There’s an old philosophical question that asks, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” A similar question could be asked in our industry: If a building stands empty, out of the public eye and void of human use, is it still architecture? After all, architectural design is always bound to its wider cultural, societal, economic, and political context. At its best, a photograph can reveal these multivalent aspects. People tell stories, and capturing a building in-use will reveal something about architecture’s relationship to these broader forces. 

Across the board, Lanoo’s photographs capture the people and the buildings that define a location. In fact, this is one of the resounding themes of his work. “Human beings reveal as much about our environment as architecture and its creators do,” Lanoo says; “the spatial relationship between a user and their surroundings uncovers hidden stories and meanings, marking history at a single, specific instant of time.” Humans provide scale and animate space; they also invite viewers to imagine themselves experiencing the building, making the architecture and its story more accessible and therefore engaging!

Aspiring architectural photographers: the Regular Entry Deadline for the One Photo Challenge of March 26th is fast approaching. Snap a powerful photo with a compelling narrative for your chance to win $2,500 and have your work seen by millions. What story will you tell?

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