Architectural Exteriors with a Tilt Shift Lens – A Trial

I trialled a Samyang 24 mm tilt shift lens this week (perks of being a student!), on my Canon 80D cropped sensor body. Having only just gotten to grips with the concepts of cropped chip lenses and how they interplay with cropped sensor cameras, I was not feeling very confident about introducing a new element of surprise to my experiments. But tilt-shift photography has always interested me, and two of my five architecture assignments for this semester involve mechanical perspective control, so there’s no time like the present to get to grips.

Brief – Architectural Exterior

Task 1:
One A4 colour print with white border.
Entire building or structure must be shown.
Perspective control must be used.

Task 2:
One A4 colour print with white border.
Entire building or structure may be shown.
Perspective control must be used.

Task 3:
One A4 B/W or colour print with white border.
Creative interpretation of a structure or building.

The Process
I’ve been casually scouting out locations for the past few weeks, eyeing up any buildings that I thought: a) fit the brief; b) were interesting; and c) were accessible. I got out and shot a couple of the locations that were closest to me, making the most of Edinburgh’s architectural delights and Scotland’s unusually sunny weather.

Round the corner from home was my first port of call. I pass this basement flat with the striking yellow door every day and reckoned I could do something with the boldness of it.

Shutter speed 1/60 – ISO 800 (why???)

I don’t feel that I’ve done the door any justice, I spent more time fiddling with the lens than I did composing the frame. I knew what I was going for, it was frustrating though that these bloody bars were in the way. I tried to frame it so that the lines separated the door strongly from the wall in which it is set, but I would be lying if I said I was thrilled with the outcome. I reversed what I had learned about shifting a lens up, and attempted to shift the lens down… but confused myself when I turned the camera to portrait mode. I am still intent on using this door in a shot at some point.

All was not lost on the street, though. During a moment of frustration, I looked up and caught this reflection in the building’s window:

shutter speed 1/30 – ISO 100

I am unhappy with the angles of the lines. Despite lining up the shot, straightening the camera, and using the shift feature of the lens, there was only so much I could do in terms of consolidating the angle of the street (thanks, Edinburgh, for the hills all over the place) and the angle of the window. It’s a shame the lines and points of the fence seemed more of a distraction than adding anything, as I was thinking they would add an extra element of depth.

I was keen to open this image in PS to see if I could bring it to life a little. I performed optimisation in Raw, and in PS I experimented with [lecturer] Mackie’s preset actions to dodge and burn, add an unsharp mask layer, and perform high pass sharpening before saving. I ended up with the following:

I really like the contrast of the deep blue sky with the peachy brickwork. The reflected chimney stacks ‘pop’ and there is sharpness and clarity to the reflection. The windows within windows and the lines crossing lines give it a depth that pleases me. I am considering using this shot for Task 3, but I may experiment with black and white because I think it could create an interesting contrast in the reflected sky.

When I shot the image above, I had not yet begun to look in depth at any of the photographers I wrote about in this post, although looking back I am happy to see compositional similarities between this and certain works by Janie Airey. The sky is right there in the frame, yet it is ‘beyond’, unreachable.

A few minutes’ walk from home, tucked behind the Royal Commonwealth Pool, is the Salisbury Green Hotel & Restaurant. I spent some time shooting here, but for all the cars parked outside I did not get a whole-building shot I was satisfied with. I did get this shot of the turrets, which I shot without (left) and with (right) perspective control.

The difference that using a shifted lens makes is obvious. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the shifted image either, though, so I optimised in Raw and edited in PS. The result was the following:

Shutter speed 1/125 – ISO 100

If I were to submit this image for Outcome 3, it would be for Task 2. But I am not enamoured with it enough to want to use it. I do really like the sharpness and texture, though. And I’m starting to get the hang of the whole shift lens malarky!

Further on, and St Leonard’s Hall was just what I had been looking for. Old, quirky, looking like the sort of building some young literary wizards may tumble out of… and there was space for me to set up and frame the whole building in my shot!

Shutter speed 1/250 – ISO 100

After optimising in Raw (with profile correction, counter chromatic abberations, and mild desaturation), I used PS (dodge and burn) to bring up the shadows, windows, and door. I also cropped in slightly to remove the car and one of the benches, and removed unsightly features: the traffic cones; the posts on the pavement; the student; and the welcome sign.

This is the sort of image I would submit for Task 1. The building does seem to be leaning a bit all over the place, so I’ll be heading back to this location too, because parts of my image look straight and other parts look like they’re veering off to do their own thing… which would be good if it was intentional, but alas, it was not… I really like this shot though, in spite of (or because of?) the lean. Or is this just how Edinburgh’s old buildings look?? …I remain unconvinced.

I am positive about the lighting, and the weather (as I type this it’s cloudy again). I think I’d capture a totally different mood if I shot this today instead. The brightness of the stone shows the texture of the old bricks, and details on the weather vane and roof slates are visible. The door is bright and inviting, and I love the way that the jagged roof outline cuts into the clear negative space of the sky. I shot at f/8 at 1/250 shutter speed to minimise the risk of lens diffraction at smaller apertures (e.g. f/11, f/16).

Final Thoughts
So, the yellow door has been benched for now, and I have enjoyable candidates for one or two of my assignments. There is a definite connection between my three images, which is good, because of the peach brickwork and the blue sky. I’m not sure whether any of these will be amongst my final submissions; that depends very much on how I develop and learn, and how confident I can get with the tilt shift lens. I have several other sites which I will shoot over the next few weeks, and I’m confident that I can only get better. But as a first foray into perspective control, I’m pretty happy with the technique, compositions, and results, and I am learning how to be constructively critical of my own work.

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