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Aerial photography of buildings

Take your flight when the light is right


Choosing the best view at a time when the sun is illuminating the front of a building is essential..
Choosing the best view at a time when the sun is illuminating the front of a building is essential..

A BUILDING'S BEST SIDE MUST BE WELL-LIT

If your objective is to photograph an individual building, odds are you will want to shoot its facade, although in some instances the sides or rear of a building may present its most attractive view, particularly if there are extensive gardens, balconies, statuary or some other feature not found at the front. Ideally, your aerial will show the building’s most distinctive features in a memorable way so that people seeing your image will immediately identify the structure. The most important variable to consider is the time of day, because you want full sunlight on the side of the building that you will be photographing.


MULTIPLE BUILDINGS

With multiple buildings in one scene, time of day may be less important since a grouping of buildings may look just fine when photographed from a variety of angles. Usually, though, there will be one angle that presents a number of buildings at their best. For example, all the building fronts may be oriented in a particular direction, or there may be an angle that shows all buildings without any one being blocked by another. Sometimes, the relationship among different buildings can only be truly shown with an aerial photograph, and it may be important for you to shoot from a relatively steep angle so that pathways and connecting sidewalks can be clearly seen. In all such cases, the time of day once again becomes an important factor because the sun should be shining so as to fully illuminate the best view.

Shooting angle must not be too steep.
Shooting angle must not be too steep.

Bright sunlight causes dark shadows, so pick a time of day when the sun's direction suits your camera angle so the important side of the building is well-illuminated.
Bright sunlight causes dark shadows, so pick a time of day when the sun's direction suits your camera angle so the important side of the building is well-illuminated.

DO SOME GROUND WORK FIRST

Before you hire an aircraft, you would be wise to first determine the best time of day, then reserve your aircraft so you will be aloft and in position at the right moment. You can do this by visiting the building when you think the sun will be fully-illuminating the side you wish to shoot, thereby confirming or amending your prediction. You can easily predict what should be the best shooting time by knowing the building’s orientation. If its facade faces east, a morning shot would seem logical. Sometimes, however, the preliminary ground inspection can provide surprises you hadn’t considered. A dark shadow, for instance, from another edifice may fall on the target building at a time you expected it to be best-illuminated, or reflected light from an all-glass building behind it (or from the target building itself) may provide too much glare.


Reflected light, however, can also be turned to your advantage on occasion. A large glass structure next to your may provide just the right illumination when sunlight is reflected off it into areas that would otherwise be dark.

FULL FRONTAL LIGHT IS NOT ALWAYS BEST

Consider, too, that full frontal lighting on the building may render it too flat. If it has inherent “texture” from a number of different angles or architectural protuberances, you might want to pick a time when the lighting is off to one side, to more effectively bring out the building’s relief.

The facade of this building is in such dark shadow from morning sun that no features can be seen. This picture should have been taken later in the afternoon when the sun is at a better angle.
The facade of this building is in such dark shadow from morning sun that no features can be seen. This picture should have been taken later in the afternoon when the sun is at a better angle.

This building, photographed in the same morning light, is properly-oriented to receive full illumination on its facade.
This building, photographed in the same morning light, is properly-oriented to receive full illumination on its facade.

Where the building you are after is crowded into a downtown area that has plenty of high-rise structures around it, your best time of day may be when the sun is almost or fully directly overhead. This can be particularly true if your building is smaller than its neighbors, and is only fully out of their shadows at noon or even another time of day. In extreme cases, time of year is the governing factor, since some buildings never see full sunlight during certain seasons.


BROAD DAYLIGHT IS NOT ALWAYS THE ANSWER

Sometimes, a building will look most distinctive when the sun is about to set or even a short time afterwards. It may be because the building’s own lighting and illuminated signage cause it to dominate a darker skyline, or perhaps because the setting sun reflects magnificently off of it, or even because the lighting at dusk conceals an unsightly rooftop. Aerial photographs do not always need to be taken during full daylight, and some buildings will benefit from being photographed when the sun is near or below the horizon. It may even be beneficial to have building management turn on all of a building’s lights for an early evening picture. And if you happen to be lucky enough to be up there when the sky turns into a magnificent sunset as a backdrop for your building image, all the better. Just be sure your film (or your digital camera's sensitivity setting) is fast enough to provide an adequate shutter speed and that your pilot is qualified to land the aircraft after dark.

LENSES AND SHOOTING ANGLE

The lens you use to photograph a building from the air can have a significant effect on the appearance of the structure and its surroundings. (See Lenses and angles for shooting buildings.)

With so many tall trees on three sides, this home would only be bathed in sunlight around high noon. Your flight would have to be carefully timed to get a good picture.
With so many tall trees on three sides, this home would only be bathed in sunlight around high noon. Your flight would have to be carefully timed to get a good picture.
Related topics...

Lenses and angles for shooting buildings