Photography tips for beginners

In this feature RIBA Photographs Curator, Valeria Carullo, shows how Edwin Smith’s photographs provide a wealth of useful lessons in composition and mood. No amount of photography tips can alone help you take a great image, but they can definitely be a starting point to a good one. Having said that, sometimes you have to forget all the rules and just go with your instinct!


Keep your horizon away from the centre of the composition

You will find that the line of horizon in most photographs of architecture and landscape is in the bottom half of the image - or in the top part if they include something interesting in the foreground or want to convey a sense of depth.

Palace of Westminster


Frames within the frame…

An element in the foreground to frame or ‘introduce’ your subject is a good compositional device, and it can help give a sense of the dimensions of the space. Just make sure all the planes are in focus.

Cardiff Castle


Beware of converging verticals!

Most architectural photographers use cameras with shift lenses in order to keep the verticals straight in their composition. However, there are times when converging verticals can be very effective for something perceived as imposing or cramped. If you do not use shift lenses, try to keep your camera parallel to the ground – alternatively, look at the composition in different terms and focus on the diagonal lines.

Round Tower


Where is the light coming from?

Unless you want to create a strong contrast between light and shadow, it is generally preferable to photograph when the sun is not too high. When the light source is relatively low it can also be very effective to frame your image with the light coming from the side, as it makes the subject more three-dimensional as well as picking details.

St Andrew Westhall


A human presence can often make all the difference

People are often excluded from photographs of architecture and landscape, mainly because … they move! Unless they are posed by the photographer, they create an unpredictable element in the composition. However, a human presence can be very useful to create a sense of scale or convey the feeling that a building is actually being used, rather than just ‘posing’ for the camera.

Royal Palace, Caserta


The telling detail…

A single detail can be extremely evocative of an entire space. You can choose to throw the background out of focus to give the detail more emphasis – in this case make sure that what can be seen still gives an idea of the surrounding environment.

St Mary Chapel Hill


Where does it lead?

If your composition conveys a sense of depth and leads the eye towards a focal point, make sure it is a point of interest, or it is light following shadow – the opposite rarely works…

St Mary Swinbrook and Queen's House, Greenwich

St Mary, Swinbrook Queen's House Greenwich


...And finally

play with scale and sizes!

Cathedral of San Geminiano


To read more about Edwin Smith click here. To view more of his work click here.