If you live in a town that has a historic district and picturesque downtown with a beautiful tree-lined Main Street which has lots of architecturally interesting buildings, count yourself lucky. Living in Maryland or Pennsylvania does have it’s advantages, since practically EVERY town has a well preserved, WORKING historic district, and there is nothing as rewarding as a quiet walk through town, a camera in hand, happily clicking away. But wait… there’s a problem.
As we saunter along, we notice how difficult it is to actually photograph the old buildings – it’s easy enough to photograph street scenes and people, but buildings are well nigh impossible. By now, you must be wondering – what’s he talking about? Do I need a permit or something that I did not know about?
The problems I am referring to are the stately old trees. Since they are usually large, mature specimens, they cover the buildings, making it very difficult to compose a decent shot. Besides, irrespective of the time of day, the facades are heavily shaded while the roofs may be in bright sunlight. A second, less serious problem in Historic districts is that due to the paucity of parking lots, cars are parked all along the street. A third problem may be large service trucks that may be going about their business. Cars along a street curb may be acceptable in Streetscapes and Architectural photography, but large trucks that block the view certainly aren’t. And I won’t even get into the issue of the utility poles with their spaghetti wires strung haphazardly all over the place.
When I first moved to Westminster, I made several attempts to photograph the well preserved Main Street and the neighboring Green Street with its beautiful residential buildings. Green Street was undergoing some major sewer replacement, and for months I drove by frustrated since the roads were all dug up and earth-moving machines were everywhere. As for Main Street, the traffic and trees made it very difficult. So I waited, and waited some more. Finally, in late Fall, when all the leaves had fallen and blown away, I suddenly saw all the buildings in their entirety, beautifully illuminated by the low sun.
Mid to late Winter and very early Spring are perhaps the very best time for architectural photography and streetscapes. The buildings are visible, the old trees with their twisted trunks and bare branches add an organic, living counterpoint to the linear architectural lines of the buildings – Also, the sunlight is never harsh and flat at this time of year, unlike the summer months when only a couple of hours in the morning and evening are suitable for photography. In fact, the winter sun even at noon is low enough to cast enough shadow to provide some very interesting modeling.
For anyone seriously contemplating anything more than the casual saunter with a camera, and have an opportunity to visit the street or district a few times, I would advise against shooting right away. If the opportunity exists, I would suggest a slow drive through of all the streets, noting the direction they face, and how the sun strikes them. In most cases, it will be discovered that one side of the street is ideally lit by the late morning sun and the other street in the late afternoon.
As the sun drops below the buildings (roof line) very rapidly in Winter, late evening photography is not advisable. I would recommend 9 to 10.30 am in the mornings and 3.30 to 4.30pm in the late afternoon as the best time. Any earlier or later than that will probably have the sun too low in the sky to have the best results. The roofs will be well lit, but the façade and street will be too dark and underexposed at normal meter readings. If you can manage it on a Saturday or Sunday, all the better, since there will not be as many parked cars, and you will have the streets pretty much to yourself.
What about equipment? Since we will be mostly likely be shooting building facades from across the street, we will be about 20-30 feet away, and moving slightly diagonally away can give us a little additional leeway as far as distance, and perhaps allow us to work around the massive trunk of a giant Oak or Sycamore. At this distance, a 50mm lens will be able to completely encompass a 2-3 story building, and will cause no perspective distortion.
If we are working closer than 25-30 feet or with larger public buildings, a 35mm lens will be ideal. This lens should be able to capture even large buildings such as a State Capitol or a Courthouse without any problems, and with very little perspective distortion. Taller buildings may call for more distance, or a 28mm or even a 24mm, although I would advise against it, if at all possible, avoid the temptation to go really wide angle unless you wish to capture multiple buildings or entire streetscapes. Remember, the wide angles will cause substantial distortion, and the buildings will lose some of their grandeur, because of the smaller image sizes. For individual buildings, a 50mm or 35mm will suffice.
The Camera? Any manual, auto focus or digital camera will be fine. As this site is (mostly) about manual cameras, Olympus in particular, I will recommend the OM-1 and OM-2 as being especially suited to this task –and the Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 and 35mm f/2.8 lenses make it a no-brainer. With either camera, remember that the meter readings are likely to result in under-exposure of shadowed areas if there is a lot of lighting contrast between different areas of the building. This is especially true for buildings that are whitewashed or painted white or other light color. Brick also tends to appear redder in late afternoon light. The other alternative is to use the Olympus Trip 35 or the excellent semi-automatic Ricoh 500G rangefinder. Both have a 40mm f/2.8 lens that is a suitable compromise between the 35mm and 50mm, and will give you great results with minimal distortion.
What about a Zoom lens? Shorts zooms such as the Zuiko 35-70mm f/4, Kiron 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5, Vivitar 28-85mm f/2.8-3.8 and Sigma 35-105mm f/3.5-4.5 are all suitable since they are fast enough for hand held photography, and will provide additional flexibility if one is unable to approach a building, or wish to close in on some architectural detail. I would not recommend any focal length longer than 105mm, unless you wish to get really close up details of some molding etc. The exception would be Chicago or New York city where a wide angle AND a zoom is a necessity.
Since we are photographing static subjects, a 100 ASA or 200 ASA film is ideal. Slower film like Fuji Velvia 50 will be fine with the Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 and 35mm f/2.8 but impractical with the Zooms unless you use a Tripod. The setup and take down time with a Tripod will take far too much time, and there is nothing worse than a photographer who makes a spectacle of himself (or herself) fiddling with cameras, lenses and tripods. If you’re shooting Black & White, you can use 400 ASA, either E-6 or C-41 process films. I like both.
As far as filters go, you will need a Polarizing filter in the sunlight – this will also work very well for Black & White film, although a Yellow filter is usually preferred. If there is no haze or snow to scatter light, you can shoot with an 81A or even without a filter. Make sure you use a lens hood if you are not using a Polarizer. A Polarizer is always recommended for the 50mm, but be careful of vignetting on the 35mm and the wide end of the Zoom lenses.
Above all, be safe, and be constantly aware of your surroundings, and watch out for pedestrians and moving vehicles. Don’t get in peoples faces. If a downtown merchant requests you not to photograph his/her premises, please be courteous and respectful of their wishes. There’s always another building. Also, since this is winter photography, all the precautions regarding keeping yourself and your equipment warm and dry apply. Happy shooting! 🙂
text and images © 2007 ajoy muralidhar. all names, websites, brands and technical data referenced are the copyright or trademark of their respective owners.