All pictures in photography have some distortion in them. Usually, we can’t perceive it because the image doesn’t have many straight lines or our perspective minimizes the effect. Buildings, roads and other subjects with straight lines show this distortion quite clearly. Perspective shift is the narrowing effect that you see in most architectural pictures. The parts of the picture that are furthest away from the lens are the narrowest parts of the picture. We’re used to this distortion because we see it with our eyes, so it doesn’t seem so strange when we see it in a photograph. The lens adds its own distortion to an image, so a picture of a building can have a pronounced effect. There are a couple ways to deal with this distortion.
Straight lines have a tendency to narrow in the distance of a photograph. You can balance the perspective shift by centering the picture, or minimize it by adding elements into the foreground.
There are camera lens that correct for perspective shift called… perspective or tilt shift lenses. These lenses use special optics and shift the light path through the lens to correct for the narrowing effect. This is the most expensive choice, though. Most perspective shift lenses are very expensive because they serve a very specific photographic purpose and require sophisticated optics to achieve the effect. For most people, this is not a viable option. There are digital ways to correct for perspective shift. Photoshop has a tool that will correct the effect during a picture crop.
Left: Taking a picture from a greater distance will minimize perspective shift. Right: Incorporating curves into your picture will also minimize perspective shift.
I don’t usually change my pictures beyond adjusting the color curves or brightness/contrast. I prefer to use perspective shift in my photography because it’s a natural visual effect, and much of photography is about presenting something familiar in a slightly different light to the viewer. You can diminish perspective shift by moving further away from you subject, or increase the effect by moving closer. If you can get to a height about halfway up the building, you can balance the perspective shift and minimize how much of a narrowing you get in the picture. Since the bending effect is balanced between the top and bottom of the building, it’s less evident in the final picture.
Left: Aligning your viewfinder with the side of a structure gives the picture an unnatural tilt. Right: Rules are meant to be broken.
One of the things that makes architectural photography harder than other types is the smaller margin of error in composing the shot. In a normal picture, skewing the frame by a few degrees can convey a sense of motion and become part of the artistic statement. Since perspective shift is already changing the lines of a building, even a small change in alignment of the photo translates into a large perception of crookedness for the viewer. Many camera manufacturers have etched lines into the viewfinder to make a square shot easier to achieve. The most important alignment is at the base of the building. When you’re standing directly in front of the building, squaring the bottom of your viewfinder with the base of the building will balance each side of the building, and the picture will look more natural. Resist the temptation to align your viewfinder with the side of the building, that will give the picture a pronounced skew that doesn’t look as good. It’s not always possible to get right in front of a building to take a picture. In that case, it’s better to align the bottom of your viewfinder with the horizon. It’s also a good idea to include some other elements into an off center architectural picture. A tree or person in the frame gives the viewer something to reference, and straightens out the picture in their mind. It’s a tough picture to take. You’re metering and focusing for the building, but relying on the foreground subject to straighten the picture.
A very high or low angle creates more perspective shift than a picture taken at the middle height of a building.
Architectural pictures can be very challenging to take, but architecture represents so much in our society that it’s worth taking the time to master it. Buildings are more than just shelter, they combine our ambitions and technical expertise into one art form. The Parthenon was designed to counteract perspective shift by incorporating curved surfaces and pillars into its design. Most architects don’t account for perspective shift, so unless you’re in Greece, you’ll have to take some care when you take pictures of buildings.