Architectural Portraits

February 04, 2016

What do Architectural Portraits mean to a photographer? This is not about photographing buildings but instead, making a conscious decision to incorporate the environment as an element in your photograph, while keeping your subject as the major component of your image. 

Today, many professional photographers create images in front of churches, catering halls, or major buildings. While looking at the building or landmark, a viewer has to search the image to see if they can find the subject. A sort of "Where's Waldo?" situation. I'd like to share my ideas of how to keep your main subject absolutely visible while incorporating the background as a secondary subject. I choose to call it the secondary subject because the person you’re photographing is, and should always be, the primary subject in your portraits. When you cannot find the person or main subject in your images, the roles will have reversed themselves and the background becomes the primary subject. My job as a portrait and wedding photographer is to make my client look their very best in every photograph I take. 

Let's define a few terms that I find to be rather important in the language of the photographic industry. There are three layers which we need present in dimensional photographs: these are the compositional elements of foreground, middle ground and background. I often select one of these elements to be in focus while using the other two, out of focus, in order to bring attention to the sharply focused main subject. Whatever is sharp in your image is what the viewer’s eye is drawn to. I suggest that you use this technique very carefully. If you choose to focus on a crack in the wall, you are asking your viewer to look at that crack in the wall and you are not driving their eye to your subject. Again, your job as a portrait/wedding photographer is to bring the viewer’s eye to the subject. Another term that I commonly refer to is the use of the Rule of Thirds. This is a compositional reference that will help in placing your subject in a very powerful position in your image. The rule of thirds refers to breaking down your image into two horizontal lines and two vertical lines, dividing your frame into thirds. Where the four lines intersect are the 4 powerpoints. I use these powerpoints as placement for my subject in these Architectural Portraits.

I thoroughly enjoy creating dimensional imagery with many points of interest in it. I do this by selecting the appropriate placement for my subject within the landscape. Many photographers attempt to create images right where the subject is standing and attempt to make the background work compositionally. My technique is the quite the opposite.

I begin with the end in mind. Let me repeat this because I feel this must be emphasized; begin with the end in mind. 

I remove my subject from view and choose a composition based upon the beautiful background. Composing very carefully, ultimately being aware of placement, I look for the best position to highlight them. My goal is a dynamic composition where I exercise the rule of thirds and utilize strong compositional elements. I then make an exposure to study for a moment to make a final determination of where I would like to place the subject, keeping the composition balanced. Once I analyze my test image, I carefully add my subjects and make my final tuning adjustments to ensure that no elements are "growing" from their heads or coming between them that may be a distraction. If a mirror reflection image is part of the composition then I need to be cautious that there are no distractions there either.

I like to let the background determine where to place my subjects. I keep the subjects from being positioned in the middle of the background whenever possible because this renders them as tiny elements.

I use leading lines to bring the viewer’s eye to the subject as well as color contrast, repetitive shapes, and brightness to help highlight the subject in the composition. 

I’ve been photographing people as my primary subject for 42 years, however, I began as a landscape shooter and have always found peace and tranquility with these wonderful subjects. I'd like to share my shooting workflow and decision-making thoughts with you to explain why the subject is seen first without getting lost in the background using this example. I recently photographed a young lady in an outdoor environment with a waterfall and then in the middle of a fiercely flowing stream.

In the photo to the left, I started with the background first: finding, composing and exposing for the waterfall. The exposure that I chose was 1 second long to get the satiny look of the running water.  I chose a long lens to compress the waterfall and to bring it closer to where I was going to place my subject, Val, in my mind’s eye. Once I had all of my elements in place, I selected an area where I saw the falling water creating a curve that would frame my subject’s head and directed Val where to stand to accomplish this. I helped her figure out how to balance her weight for the unusually long shutter speed and to complete this piece I made sure to watch her very closely for movement during the exposure. Once I felt I had the image safely captured, I moved Val to the next location.

I approached the composition of this next image below in the same manner. I found an accessible rock in the moving stream that she could get to, get comfortable and stay very still for another 1 second exposure. I composed the image without Val out there, focused critically and set my long exposure, making use of the mirror up feature on my 1D series camera body as I fired the shutter via my cable release. Once I was satisfied with the placement, I directed her to sit on the rock. I chose a pose that would help support her head, assuring me of a sharp subject in this rather extended exposure.

I use the same workflow to prepare dynamic images for my wedding clients. I select the background or landscape image based upon the direction of light and access to the area in order to show the beauty of nature. Concurrently, the location must be one where I can successfully place my client, maintaining them as the primary subject in the image. 

Let's examine the image of the bride above. I did a walk-around of the shooting location to determine where I would like to create a dramatic image, while my client stayed comfortable in a limousine on a windy, stormy day in Los Angeles. I climbed stairs to look down from three different levels in order to make use of the geometric shapes that the architect designed into this gorgeous building. As I composed the image (still without the bride) through my Canon EOS 1D Mark IV equipped with the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens, I saw a beautiful diagonal line that would frame the only place that I could position my bride. The choice of this lens would place me pretty far away from my subject. I was working with two assistants that day and made good use of them as I needed to coordinate the dropping of the veil to add some movement to a still looking image. We then brought the bride to this area that would soon generate a magnificent photograph. I climbed back to the top as my team took their places. Once I was ready, I gave the call to drop the veil and my assistant quickly vacated the scene. With a moment of serendipity, the veil was caught in an updraft and her veil flew high rather than falling. As gravity took over and the veil began to fall, I saw it take the same curved shape as the S curved wall. There it was, the definitive moment, captured!

I recently photographed a wedding in the ski resort area of Mammoth Mountain, Ca., on a very cold, wintery weekend. My clients and I agreed to go out the following evening to photograph sunset at Mono Lake. The day was grey and flat all the way up to Mono Lake. The groom and I walked to scout potential areas that I could make use of if we were blessed with a colorful sunset sky. I wanted to be sure that the areas we might make use of would not be disturbed or affected in any way by our presence. I decided on a couple of locations and went back to get the bride and my assistant. As we reached the water line, a small hole in the clouds opened and the sky was ablaze with color. I took an image (below, top) in order to analyze my composition as the couple walked out. I placed them in an area where I could clearly see their bodies and their reflection in the lake without any distractions. The color faded after a few short minutes. My scouting paid off. Had I waited until the color appeared, I do not think that I could have created such a dynamic image. (below, bottom)


  • Use a wide variety of lenses to make each scene look different, based upon showing the background. 
  • Visit different levels of height; do not just rely on eye level compositions. 
  • Make use of long exposures whenever you can. 
  • Study the rule of thirds and place subjects in one of the four power point locations created by the intersecting lines. 
  • Be certain that what you are asking your client to do is safe.
  • Communicate well with your subjects as they have likely never done anything complicated in photographs. 
  • If you feel the decisions you’ve made are not working for the subject, attempt to demonstrate what you want, with yourself in their place. If things still are not coming together, search out a new location and start again from scratch. 
  • Do not place your subjects against the background as they will be too small in your frame, making them hard to find. If I am shooting wedding clients in front of a church and I want to see the entire church, I will not lean them on the building or against the church doors. This becomes a photograph of the church with two very small people. Instead, keep the same composition and bring your subjects 10-20 feet away from you, creating a foreground. This ensures you will create an image of the client with the church as the background. What you will now see is an image with depth, dimension and detail in the faces and bodies of your subjects.
  • Lastly, it is all about making the client look their best!

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