primer on architectural photography

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Basic architectural photography techniques for surveying for historical houses




    HISTORIC STRUCTURESby David L. Ames, Center for Historic Architecture and Design, University of Delaware

    They also suggest certain attributes of the buildinginferentially. The distribution of doors and windows,for example, can suggest the interior floor plan. A sin-gle photograph can include most of these elements.

    The second photo should be a per-spective of the rear and other sideof the building. These two perspec-tive shots now comprehensively doc-ument the exterior of the structure.The slope of the hill dictated a verti-cal view to maintain perspectivecontroL The James Stewart House ..

    If you were allowed only one photograph to doc-ument an historic structure, what would it be? Thebest choice would be a perspective showing thefront and one side of the building, when takenfrom a position 45 degrees from the front. Whenframing the building in the viewfinder, be sure thatthe entire building is visible including the pointwhere the building meets the ground and withoutclipping off the peak of the roof or chimney.Although this sounds obvious, beginning photogra-phers are often seduced by buildings and attractedby interesting details such as carpenter-cut jigsawporches, pointed Gothic windows, and GreekRevival columns. Unfortunately, the resulting pic-tures sometimes fail to record a view showing theentire structure ..To avoid thisproblem, includethe surroundingsof the building,its site, and land-scape context. Asthe subject of thephotograph, thebuilding shouldoccupy about 75percent of thepicture area,leaving the sur-rounding 25 per-cent of the frameto show visualinformationabout the contextof the building.


    This primer outlines the most basicapproach to photographic documen-tation and provides the photographicknowledge needed to document historicstructures. The first step is to determine theminimum number of views required to docu-ment a particular building as well as thephotographic equipment and informationnecessary to take them.

    The purpose of photographic documentation ofhistoric structures is to preserve as much visualinformation about a structure in as few photographsas possible. The photographer must identify theviews that reveal the most information about astructure. In looking for that view, you need to thinkabout the attributes of a building: overall shape,size, and major architectural elements such as win-dows, doors, construction materials, and architectur-al ornamentation. Photographs often directly indi-cate construction material--Iog, masonry, or frame.

    If you were allowed only one photograph to document anhistoric structure, the best choice would be a perspectiveshowing thefrant and one side oj the building TheJames Stewart House, circa 1748, Lancaster County,Pennsylvania All photographs taken by David Amesunless otherwise noted

  • If you were to take a second and third photo-graph, what would they be? The second photographshould be a perspective of the rear and other side ofthe building" These two perspective photographsnow comprehensively document the exterior of thestructure. The third photograph should documentwhat architects call the front elevation. An elevationis a drawing to scale of the side, front, or rear of abuilding. Projecting features such as window anddoor moldings, window sills, steps, and eves are allrendered as if they were totally flat An elevationphotograph shows the true proportions of one sideof a building. Because that side is parallel to thefilm plane, approximate measurements can be takenfrom the photograph. In fact, measured drawingscan be taken from a carefully controlled elevationphotograph shot with a view camera.

    What about interiors? First, identify the majorspace, room, or area in the building and then deter-mine how other spaces are organized. Interior pho-tographs should yield information about the floorplan, Some structures, such as hangars, barns, andsome industrial buildings, are architectural shellsenclosing a space. For such a structure, the firstphotograph would be taken hom a corner oppositethe main entrance and shot diagonally across thespace. As with exteriors, the second photographshould be from the opposite corner, or should docu-ment an important element of the interior.

    A photo of hangars, barns, and some industrial buildingsshould yield some information about its use" Wright-Patterson Air Force Hangar, Dayton, Ohio" Photo cour-tesy of David Diesing, HAER

    Most interiors of residential structures, for exam-ple, are laid out in hierarchical order from the mostimportant, most formal, most elaborate room, to theplainer more functional rooms" First, determine the

    This interior shot shows the hierarchical order of thebuilding, Buttonwood, New Castle vicinity, Delaware,

    order of importance and then begin to photographthe rooms. To gain information on the floor plan, setup the camera to shoot toward the main doorway, ifpossible, with the door open to reveal the spacesand rooms beyond" A three-view sequence mightinclude the entry hall, showing how rooms open offof it, the main formal room, and a functional work-ing space such as the kitchen. Three or four viewsshould be sufficient to document the significant ele-ments of the interior, rarely more than seven oreight.

    The six essential photographs:1) the front and one side;2) the rear and one side;3) the front elevation;4) environmental view showing thebuilding as part of its larger landscape;5) major elements of the building,including doors, windows, additions; and6) details, such as materials and hardware.

    If planning to take more than six photographs,first careful~ystudy the building and make a list ofwhat should be photographed. Rarely will it takemore than fifteen photographs to adequately docu-ment the exterior of a building.

    To say that a building can be well documentedwith six photographs--three exterior and three interi-or--may sound hard to believe for individuals whoshoot a 36-exposure roll on an outing. But, the pur-pose of photographic documentation is to be ascomplete yet as succinct as possible" The sequenceof views described here can be used for nearly allphotographic documentation of buildings, includingthe method recommended by HABS/HAER and the


  • National Register of Historic Places. Finally, whenapproaching a building, remember that probablyonly one photograph of the building will ever bepublished" In choosing the view to photograph, themain question to ask yourself is what one viewyields the most information about that structure?


    A good architectural photograph is one to whichthe viewer's reaction is, "What a great building!"not, "What a great photograph!" The photographictechnique should be invisible, Such a photographmeets four technical requirements. First, verticallines that are parallel in the building, such as theexterior walls, are parallel in the photograph,Second, everything in the photograph is in sharpfocus and clearly delineated. Third, there is as muchreadable detail in the photograph as possible.Fourth, the picture includes as much of the wholeobject being photographed as possible. In photo-graphic terms these requirements translate into aneed for depth of field, perspective control, a largenegative, and a lens with an adequate angle of view,These requirements are best met by a view camerausing sheet film measuring four by five inches, orfive by seven inches, or sometimes as large as eightby ten inches. View cameras are generally built likeaccordions, with a lens in the front connected by abellows to a viewing screen in the back. Focusing isachieved by moving the lens forward or back until a

    sharp image isseen on the view-mg screen,

    Whereas thelarge negative andperspective con-trols of view cam-eras are neededfor the finest doc-

    "What a greatbuilding'" Thephotographictechnique is invis-ible" 14153rdAvenue, Altoona,Pennsylvania

    umentation of historic structures such as that under-taken by HABS/HAER, most photographic docu-mentation for the National Register of HistoricPlaces and other programs is done with smaller, lesselaborate cameras. This primer assumes the use of asmaller camera that uses 35mm or 120 roll film.

    Let's start by sorting out film formats and cameratypes. Cameras are built to use three types of film:35mm film perforated in a metal cassette; 120 rollfilm measuring 6.2 cm wide; and sheet film of vari-ous sizes, commonly four by five inches. The 35mmcolor slide is the smallest type used and has becomethe standard presentation format for government,industry, and education. Photographic documenta-tion shot with black and white film by preservation-ists, cultural resource managers, and architecturalhistorians is donechiefly with35mm camerasand to a lesserextent, with rollfilm cameras, alsocalled medium-format cameras.

    Detail of doorshowing weather-ing, materials, andhistory of locksClearfield Farm,Smyrna vicinity,Delaware,

    The two basic types of 35mm cameras are theview-finder camera and the single-lens reflexcamera. On the view-finder camera, the image seenthrough the viewfinder above the taking lens onlyapproximates what the picture will be. Even themost sophisticated of this type of camera suffersfrom this drawback. The single-lens reflex camera,on the other hand, is designed, through the use of aprism and mirrors, to view the scene through thetaking lens, This allows the photographer to framethe subject precisely and to tell how much everypart of the scene, from foreground objects to thedistant background, will be sharp or out of focus"Among 35mm cameras, the single-lens reflex is the


  • best choice for architectural photography and photo-graphic documentation"

    The most common roll-f