Architectural Perspective Lenses
By Carter B. Horsley

Taking a snap of the farmhouse in Christina's World is not too difficult with most of the normal lenses that come with most cameras, but just try to get a shot of, say, the Time-Life Building on Sixth Avenue and see what happens.

Odds are you might be bright enough to cross the street to try to improve your perspective and might even borrow a friend's wide-angle lens since it is 48-stories tall and wedged into between similar huge boxes.

If you are lucky, your friend's wide-angle might even be a superwide, perhaps a 21-, a 20-, or a 17-mm lens, the smaller the number of millimeters on a 35-mm camera lens the wider its field of view.

You are likely to be rather disappointed, however,  with your results despite your efforts, unless you friend happened to have a "perspective control" lens designed for shooting architecture.  Such a lens has the ability to shift the plane of the lens in relation to the film plane to enable the photographer to try to compensate for converging lines.  If  you look up at a very tall building from its base, it will seem to get narrower at the top and quite distorted.  Distortion is not widely considered to be a virture in architectural photography, although artistic types have always dabbled with it.

Several leading 35mm camera manufacturers, such as Nikon, Canon, Pentax and Olympus have long had "perspective control" lenses, but they have tended to be quite expensive and often unsatisfactory, especially in urban settings because of the proximity of other buildings and the difficulties of getting an excellent vantage point from which to shoot a tall building with little distortion.

In recent years, two of the manufacturers have come out with 24mm "perspective control" lens, Olympus and Canon, whereas the other manufacturers offer only 35- and 28-mm "perspective control" lenses that have a much narrower, though still wide, field of view.

The former is a most impressive piece of glass, putting many  hemispherical fish-eye lens to shame.  Its lens mounting permitted it to be shifted several degrees in the horizontal and vertical directions.

The latter was much more sedate in size, but still very formidable looking, not terribly unlike a Rube Goldberg stovepipe hat, with bulges and projections. The Canon not only could shift its mount, but also tilt it several degrees, a feature common to expensive large-format cameras, those behemoths with bellows and drapes and tripods and large film-holders.

Both the Olympus and Canon have recent street-prices of about $1,100-$1,500 and for that money you do not get automatic focus because of the complexity of the lenses, and the lenses, which both have relatively slow maximum apertures of F/3.5, by themselves will certainly not automatically guarantee that you will get great architectural photographs.    The lenses help, of course, but you still need good  lighting, great vantage points and artistic skill in composition.

In many cases in New York, even 24mm is not wide enough and a 17-mm shot may be better to get everything in the shot but it will have serious distortion depending on the vantage point.
The shift feature of the Canon lens permits a variety of other interesting special effects such as eliminating  reflections, excluding unwanted objects from in front of the main subject, focusing the entire subject plane which is not parallel to the film plane, focusing on just a specific part of an object, creating panoramic joined pictures, correcting image distortion caused by shooting from an inclined position.

Canon also makes tilt/shift 45 and 90-mm lens that are not meant for architecture.  Both the Canon and the Olympus 24-mm lenses are beautifully made, but slight knudges can sometimes move the lenses.

Alternatively, one can forget the convenience and speed of the 35mm format and move up to a large field camera that has adjustable horizontal and vertical movements for its bellows, but that is much more cumbersome and much more expensive. These cameras permit much wider/longer swings and shifts, but they are impractical for all but the professional architecture photographer shooting on a big budget.

Another alternative is to shoot with a very-wide angle 35mm lens such as a 17m and then crop the image. This can produce reasonably satisfactory results sometimes if it is aimed properly, but the cropping, of course, reduces the resolution of the final image because it is a smaller portion of the already small negative.

Even with the best lenses, one should remember to bracket exposures as it is very difficult to find the right exposure for the building, its shadows and highlights and reflections as well as the sky. Also, one wants to shoot usually in early morning on bright, clear days to accentuate shadows that add depth to the image.



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