THEORY

Whether you are an architect, a realtor or own a construction company, if you want to take the best possible pictures of the structures you are marketing, you need to understand lens focal length and its effects on resulting images. 

For our purposes here, focal length is simply those numbers stamped on your lens telling you how wide of a view you will have. A common kit lens may have a zoom range of 18-55 mm, so its focal length is adjustable by way of "zooming" in or out. Prime lenses like a 50 mm for example, have only one focal length which obviously can not be adjusted. 

So, does zooming that little ring in and out affect your architecture pictures? It certainly does. Even if you get the same exact composition, what you are seeing in the photograph will change drastically with differing focal lengths. What we'll discuss today are the basics of what is happening to your photographs when you zoom in and out, and I'll leave the fun stuff, like applying what you've learned, to you. 

I am going to be using one word a lot today to help me explain this concept. The word is "emphasize". When you want to emphasize certain areas of a photograph, focal length and lighting I would say are probably the two most important factors. Focal length and composition are probably far more important than lighting in most cases, because if what you are trying to emphasize is small and obscured, you wont be emphasizing it no matter how good the lighting is. 

When something is emphasized in a photograph, there is almost always another area that is being deemphasized. Our job is to emphasize all the important stuff, and deemphasize, or even eliminate, all the stuff we'd rather people not pay attention to, like a sidewalk for example. 

EXAMPLES

To teach the concepts, let's jump into an example. Just for fun let's say your friend is a landscaper architect and he comes to you for help taking photos of his last job. The landscaping he designed looks wonderful. He did a great job, and now our job is to emphasize the landscaping - and here is the tricky part - we want to know the house that he designed the landscaping for is there, but we don't want it to be the focal point. How in the heck do we do that? 

I am just going to give you the answer and show you some pictures, because it is so much easier and clearer that way. What we'd probably want to do for our friend is put his landscaping designs in the foreground with a very wide angle lens on the camera. Now I am going to bold this because it is the number one take away point from this blog: wide angle lenses emphasize the foreground, quite dramatically I might add, while longer focal lengths will tend to do the opposite and emphasize objects in the background more, while deemphasizing objects in the foreground. 

I just walked outside, and I will admit I kinda quickly took some shots to try and give you an idea of what I'm talking about. They aren't the best pictures for our example, but the important part is to understand the concept anyway. 

This is at 12mm on a crop sensor (that would be 18mm on a Nikon full frame). The lawn and driveway are greatly emphasized here. Unfortunately for our example the garage is in the foreground as well, so it is emphasized quite a bit too. The point is however, that the closer you get the camera to that grass, and the wider the focal length, the more it will be emphasized because it is your foreground. And when I say "emphasized" I am really talking about the amount of real estate an object takes up in the frame. Notice how small the rear roof behind the fence is relative to the zoomed images.

This is at 30mm on a crop sensor (that would be 45mm on a Nikon full frame). First and foremost, look at what is happening to the lawn. Our landscape architect friend would be quite unhappy at this point, don't you think? Look at the rear roof in comparison! This isn't trickery of any kind, this is what happens when you increase the focal length. What is really happening here is the rear roof is becoming more of its "actual size" relative to its surroundings because we are using a near "normal" lens. The roof back there in the 18mm version is clearly deemphasized and diminutive. 

This is at 55mm on my crop sensor. Look at the rear roof, it appears as if it is coming toward us, doesn't it? The whirlybird ventilators on the top of the roof have at least doubled, perhaps tripled in size relative to the 18mm focal length version. The lawn is even less emphasized, it is just a very narrow strip now. The million dollar question at this point becomes, what if we want to emphasize the house, but we don't want all that street and sidewalk emphasized in the foreground. We'll definitely get to that. 

My photographs weren't perfect in that I really just did run outside, and I got sick of the oncoming traffic, but again I think they are fine for depicting the point. If you want to do your own tests, which I highly recommend, get two solid reference points that you will be able to easily keep at the edge of the frames as you back up and zoom in. Something like two fence posts would be great, and make sure you back-up in a straight line away from them and zoom in accordingly doing your best to maintain that original composition. And try to choose a spot where the ground is fairly level. 

So, what do we know at this point? Wide angles emphasize the foreground and deemphasize the background, while the opposite is true of longer focal lengths. Just as important of a point is that wide angle lenses will tend to distort objects, especially if they are located toward the edge of the frame. Longer, and medium focal lengths are a lot better about not distorting the objects. This is one of the reasons why we see portrait photographers using longer focal lengths. And lastly, long focal lengths bring objects together, or compress a scene, whereas wide angle focal lengths make objects appear as if they are further apart.  

And we can see all of this in our examples above. Doesn't the corner of the near garage in the 18mm version look as if its relatively far from the fence and the section of house behind the fence in the other versions? Look at how long the side of the garage wall is in the 18mm image, while it appears progressively shorter with the longer focal lengths. Now, if that garage wall was something we wanted to emphasize in our image, we may actually want to go pretty wide on the focal length. Lastly, doesn't the structure in the 18mm version look distorted relative to the the other versions? The closer we look, we can see all the effects right there in those three images. 

APPLICATIONS

We know the basics now, but how do we put it to good use? There are only a couple of scenarios that I see coming up all the time: 1) foreground emphasized too much with a wide angle lens, while house is distorted (as in 18mm example above) 2) street is emphasized too much with a longer focal length (as in 55mm example above).  Let's cover them one by one. 

When you are very close to a structure with a wide angle lens, really the number one fix is to back away and go longer on focal length. You don't necessarily want to back away as far as possible either. The compression we talked about, where things tend to get "closer" to each other with longer focal lengths will work on structures too. You don't necessarily want the rear of a home to compress forward toward the front, as you lose some depth there. Where is the ideal middle ground? I would say it all depends on the space and what you are trying to do. The important thing is that you understand what is happening as you back up and zoom in, and you can choose the amount to do so accordingly.  

As you probably noticed in the above photo examples, when you back up, the street and sidewalk become too prominent and take up too much real estate in the photograph. I have found a couple of ways to counteract this: getting lower, and getting higher. What happens when there is a flat surface in front of you like a large lawn, and you don't want it to take up too much of the picture? You can lower the camera almost to the level of the grass. As you get closer to the grass, that plane of grass takes up less and less real estate in the image. This same technique works with any flat surface, such as beds and tables when shooting interiors. Want to deemphasize the top of a table? Get a little lower. This is a great technique with a grass lawn because it gives us a sort of landscape photography feel with the grass or whatever landscaping is in the foreground, yet it decreases the amount of real estate the grass takes up in the photograph. 

Let me just say, good photography is difficult. For example, sometimes you can't back up away from the structure at all, you are compelled to go as wide as possible, and you don't want to emphasize the foreground. We do the best we can, but there isn't always an available method to emphasize what you want, and you just have to do the best you can. Sometimes lighting, or lack of light, and the blending of images is the only feasible way to emphasize what you want in a particular scene. 

We went lower with the camera when there was a nice, manicured lawn taking up our entire foreground. But, we can't really get down close to concrete when we are taking an architectural image in a city. You could try it, but it probably isn't going to work as well. In these cases, I have gone up with much better success. Eye level is really one of the most boring, monotonous places we can take a picture from anyway, so get your camera up there, however you can. What happens is we are able to point the camera down and include the front yard and the house, all while excluding the elements we want to deemphasize such as the sidewalk, the street and the retaining wall in this instance. If you took this picture from eye level, it is going to really emphasize that retaining wall, and the garden would have obscured the main subject. 

Going up is a great solution to strong compositions in many situations. This was shot from about 15 feet off the ground with the camera on a large light stand. Notice the street and adjacent sidewalk are almost completely eliminated. We know they exist, which is really all we want. The garden and retaining wall get an appropriate level of emphasis. We simply could not accomplish all of this from near eye level. Also notice the focal length is not too long so as to compress the back of the building toward the front corner too much, and not too wide to unduly distort or emphasize the surroundings. 

In my estimation, what is a common mistake I see all the time when it comes to choosing correct focal lengths? For example, when a beautiful view from an interior should obviously be emphasized and we are far too wide on the focal length and the view becomes diminutive within the frame. We estimated above that the whirlybird ventilators in the images grew by at least a factor of two, imagine if that was the effect on a window's ocean view in your photograph! 

Now, everybody out there is selling something different. Some are selling a view, others are selling a feeling, and others are selling square footage, so you need to know what you want to emphasize and use the right tools to get there. The important part is to have the knowledge in the field, and choose the appropriate focal length according to what you do, and do not, want to emphasize in the scene. So get out there and play with these techniques, have a great time and infuse it appropriately into your photography. Thanks for reading, and feel free to leave a comment if you wish! 

 

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