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Lenses and angles for shooting buildings


The appearance of a building or buildings in aerial photographs can be significantly different dependent on your choice of lens (or your zoom lens setting) and your shooting angle, particularly for high-rise buildings.

TELEPHOTO LENSES

A telephoto lens not only magnifies the subject, but it also tends to compress perspective and provides a sufficiently narrow angle of view to isolate a single building, provided you have sufficient altitude or you remain at a given altitude but shoot relatively far away from the building. The perspective compression characteristic of a telephoto lens makes distant background objects appear closer to your subject and in a more similar scale, but from a higher altitude when shooting down on a building from a fairly steep angle, a telephoto can compress the building’s facade so that it becomes a strong element of the photograph.

A modest telephoto lens (80 mm) was ideal for this low-altitude aerial of a hospital and its grounds.
A modest telephoto lens (80 mm) was ideal for this low-altitude aerial of a hospital and its grounds.

Since atmospheric haze increases with distance from the subject, the image when using a telephoto lens may contain too much haze to sharply define the building. Fortunately, you can generally judge from the image in the viewfinder whether the amount of haze will be excessive, and there are steps you can take to minimize the effects of haze. See Shooting in hazy conditions.

Shutter speeds must be fast when using a telephoto lens since they show camera shake more than smaller lenses do, and a degree of camera shake is unavoidable on most aircraft.

NORMAL LENS

Your camera’s normal lens, which is neither wide-angle nor telephoto, can also be used to isolate a building from its surroundings when shooting from a steep angle, but the building’s roof may appear more prominent than its facade since a normal lens does not have the foreshortening effect of a telephoto.

The advantage of a normal lens in aerial photography of buildings is generally its speed. A normal lens is frequently faster than most telephoto lenses, permitting you to use a faster shutter speed or a slower film or a lower sensitivity setting in your digital camera, potentially resulting in a sharper-looking image.

Compared with a telephoto, you must fly closer to the building when using a normal lens to fill the frame – something that may not always be possible in a built-up area – giving you less time to shoot per aerial pass, but also reducing the amount of atmospheric haze between you and the subject. If it is important to show a broader area – i.e. the building and its surroundings – a normal lens is probably a good choice.

Slow film speed and an overcast sky call for a fast lens in order to use a fast shutter speed. This is where the normal lens shines, since it's usually your fastest lens.
Slow film speed and an overcast sky call for a fast lens in order to use a fast shutter speed. This is where the normal lens shines, since it's usually your fastest lens.

WIDE-ANGLE LENSES

The greatest distortion of a building occurs when using a wide-angle lens from a steep angle. It is unlikely that the building can be isolated from its surroundings by using most wide-angle lenses since you would have to get very close indeed to fill the frame, and the distortion would be excessive unless you are looking for a special effect. One such special effect could be to make the building appear larger or more prominent than others around it by placing it in the immediate foreground. It will be distorted, but it will also be the dominant object in the image.

A wide-angle lens probably serves a more useful purpose in aerial building photography when used to show the building in its setting. If the building is the prominent one in a panoramic skyline, a wide-angle shot at a low altitude can reveal its dominant relationship by showing the other buildings as well. On the other hand, the building may be an isolated fishing lodge in a dramatic setting, and a wide-angle lens can be used to show both the building and its surrounding natural beauty.