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Architecture and the Sigma 12-24mm

  |   Article, Articles and reviews, Canon 5Ds, Composition, Lens, Rumour lens article, Sigma   |   2 Comments

Architectural photography with the Sigma 12-24mm f4

Sigma 12-24mm F4 and the built environment


Earlier this year, Keith wrote a detailed review of Sigma’s 12-24mm F4 DG HSM Art lens.

Recently, he had another chance to try the lens out, on his 50MP Canon 5Ds camera, specifically looking at using it for architectural related photography.

This article (there’s a gallery of all the images at the bottom of the article) looks at some of the challenges of using such a wide lens for the built environment.

Sigma 12-24mm at 12mm

Shooting wide with the Sigma 12-24

I’m going to illustrate use of the lens with some photos from my home city of Leicester – some photos in the city centre and also some of the recently built parts of De Montfort university, not far from my home.

Hopefully this collection is of interest to people looking to further explore wide lens use? I love wide angle lenses, but know how easy it is to get shots that don’t quite work. I’m a strong believer in showing those shots as well as my favourites – if you see a shot you really don’t like, think about why and how you could have moved or changed timing/lighting?
Practice really helps, even when you do it for a living! My thanks to Sigma UK for the loan of the 12-24mm lens. 

A photo from my original 12-24 review sums up the challenge of using very wide lenses in architecture.

vijay patel entrance

The moment you tilt the camera upwards, you get very pronounced convergence of vertical lines.

I’ve discovered over the years that in general, web designers seem to like such an effect, whilst architects loath it.

That’s just part of the business of photography, where knowing who’s paying the bills is important…

Dealing with convergence

The convergence can be made a feature of the image, such as this shot of the Clock Tower in Leicester.

clock tower

It’s very striking – I’m only a few feet in front of the tower.

A view of the scene from a bit further back, with the camera level, reveals the true proportions of the tower.

Leicester sports statue

This also suggests another way of handling the wide angle – crop the image.

Just up from the tower is this 1930 shop front (note how the lens is handling straight lines pretty well)

linens

The pavement is an interesting pattern, but far too prominent.

Fortunately, with a 50 megapixel image I can crop the image to a better view, and still have a ~30MP photograph.

linens cropped

Given I happily used my 21MP Canon 1Ds mk3 for several years, that 30MP image is actually more than enough for many of our clients.

Of course, if the foreground makes for a interesting composition, then why not make use of it?

This church entrance is shot with the camera level.

spiritualist church

Minor convergence

If you only tilt the camera upwards a small amount, the convergence (and minor lens distortions) can easily be handled with software such as DxO Viewpoint.

I’ve looked at this (and stitching multiple images) in more detail in the full 12-24 review.

A modest correction ‘fixes’ this view of the Guildhall and Cathedral (the one where King Richard III was re-interred after being found in a nearby car park [More info]).

guildhall and cathedral

An image some prefer in B&W (I’ve printed both at A2 for people).

guildhall and cathedral - B&W

Just remember that such correction can lose quite a bit of the edge of the frame, and it takes experience to visualise how much through the viewfinder.

Around the ring road

Not far from the city centre is the Highcross shopping centre and the city’s inner ring road – it’s where I shot the sequence of images showing how light changes around sunset and an area that is set for some big changes in the coming years.

The photos here were taken over several evenings and show this change in light quite clearly. Look at how the relationship between shadow, sky brightness and artificial sources of light can completely change the feel of an image.

Note: There are a lot of pictures here (selected from even more). I know which are my favourites, but have included many more so as to give a feel for how photos taken with a lens like this come out. They’ve been moderately processed, to give an idea of how I’d work with images – this isn’t a review of lens performance, but of lens usefulness. Also, you don’t buy a 12-24mm lens to just shoot at 18-24mm, so almost all shots are at the full 12mm. Look at the composition of the shots – would a slight shift of shooting location work better with some? Almost certainly, since control of foreground placement becomes a critical element, when it looms so large.

Some photos at wide angles can just be as simple as the sky and a building.

illuminated wall

Or the shiny metal cladding of the Showcase cinema…

showcase cinema

A bit further along, I can see the interesting Car Park building. I’ve also made use of the road markings as part of the image.

arrow on road

As ever with this shopping centre, it’s not possible to go more than five minutes with a camera, before someone from ‘security’ comes along.

Fortunately, in the UK, I can photograph whatever I like from the highway, but it always helps to politely pass the time of day…

A bit later, the longer exposure lets me trail the car lights.

This is difficult to get right, so take a few shots and pick what works best.

arrow on road 2

The empty space across the road is finally getting developed, so I’ll be back to see how the view changes.

The walkway to the main car park and exit from the underground parking.

parking exit

A clearer sky…

car park exit

I’ve deliberately tried to use the full frame in many of these photos. Wide angle lenses give a great deal of prominence to the foreground – you can see why it’s tempting to go for the crop…

The car park building is one I’ve often used when testing wide lenses.

car park

Waiting for the clear sky isolates the building.

Highcross car park dusk

A bit later, exposure is longer (note the car light trails).

Highcross car park and car lights

Move closer to the traffic lights and the whole subject changes.

bus lane

I can even use it to help explain what the building is for…

car park sign

The leaning of the building is to be honest not something I like to use that often (I’m with the architects on this), but 12mm won’t give me the vertical coverage I’m after, if I want the top of the building (multiple shots and stitching are one answer for static subjects).

horizontal view

The pavement mark (a property line) is very prominent and divides the image very strongly – enough that at first glance it almost looks like two separate photos next to each other.

Vertical elements like this can be very prominent in images and give a very static feel (I’ve written about vertical lines and movement a while ago, in relation to photographing a viaduct).

Further back and a hefty crop…

walkway crop

The walkway can be as prominent a feature as you want.

walkway at dusk 1

Moving in closer, but keeping the lit sign in the shot.

walkway at dusk 2

The pedestrian entrance to the car park.

entrance and walkway

Notice how the interior lighting is much brighter than the outside.

Two shots just inside the foyer at different times show this well.

stairwell dusk

As ever, choose your white balance with care.

stairwell night

The car park (like many industrial buildings I photograph for clients) is essentially a big box.

Just what it looks like is very dependent on the viewing angle.

car light trails

Just how much you want your boxy building to look like a pointy tower can vary – strong diagonals definitely give a more active feel.

120 stores 3

Two versions with a clear sky, with and without car light trails.

box junction

Personally I like the strong geometry of the road markings, but with the light trails, there’s even more movement.

box junction and light trails

With both of these images, try scrolling the page to cut off the bottom third of the image – shots such as this can be great for ‘panoramic’ crops that I’ve seen many web designers use for article headers and the like, from my photos.

Moving on, I’ve ‘just’ the walkway.

under walkway

Back to the car park as it ‘really’ is.

If I’m square on to the side, we see it for the very large box it is…

120 stores 2

A bit darker and you can see inside.

120 stores

A clear sky makes it stand out even more.

car park view 120 shops

Waiting for the right light lets you balance interior lighting with the exterior, but watch out for a strong mismatch in colour temperature.

highcross street

In this shot the strong colours are not excessive, but I’m not sure I’d want such contrast in say a residential project.

In situations like this I’ll sometimes process my RAW camera file twice with different white balance settings and manually blend the two. The strong colour can look great, but it shouldn’t distract from what the image is to be used to illustrate.

De Montfort University

The university campus is not far from my home, and recently completed buildings make for some interesting views.

The side of the Vijay Patel building tower and its large screen.

Unfortunately, the sloping ground  level slightly jars with the lines of the structure.

A slight crop might be in order…

contour cropped

There’s been quite a bit of building work, giving much more of a campus like feel to what was a collection of isolated buildings.

You can see the screen on the side of the tall building.

food village 3

This new ‘Food Village’ shows how useful the lines of the pavement can be in directing the eye.

That said, I might still be tempted to crop or use Photoshop to ‘remove’ the rather obvious utilities access in the view below.

food village 2

A low sun angle and deep shadow is not the best time for such shots.

food village dusk 2

Interior lighting is showing up, but I really do need those lights under the canopy to come on.

food village dusk

Not long afterwards, I’m starting to get a mix of light sources.

food village dusk 3

[Bonus points if you spotted the camera tripod in the reflection – this one is quite easy to remove with Photoshop, but with very wide lenses look very carefully for equipment/people/feet getting into your photo]

Shots like this need careful exposure, so as not to overexpose the brightest parts of the sky, if you want a good solid colour

food village dusk 4

Not long after, I’ve plenty of building lighting, but the interior lights are off.

Note how I’ve moved the colour balance of the scene to match the bright white that you see once the overhead LED lighting becomes the main source of illumination.

Just how far you take this is a matter of taste (and/or client requirements)…

food village

Getting the right mix of lighting at the right time is often the major constraint for projects we’re asked to photograph – clear evening skies have been at a premium this summer in the UK midlands.

Just down from the ‘Food Village’ is the gallery on the side of the Vijay Patel building.

The pavement and lighting give an interesting foreground that lets me keep the camera level, and offers a useful square crop of the top 2/3 of the image too.

gallery entrance 2

As someone who regularly uses a 17mm shift lens for such shots, going out with the 12-24mm and looking for uncropped compositions that ‘worked’ with the lens at its widest setting was an interesting exercise in itself, forcing me to think of the geometry of the whole shot.

gallery entrance

Earlier that evening I was a bit nearer the city centre.

hugh ast

Do I want the colour or the structure? – sometimes I know a picture is destined for black and white, other times…?

hugh ast bw

One of the older buildings – no doubt soon to be demolished or re-clad.

mill studio

You’ll notice not that many people in my shots – that’s not over any concern for their identities (it’s a public space) but more that I tend to get more requests for ‘people free’ spaces than active ones.

seat

It’s not always the case – there’s one client who wants busy street scenes and likes several identical shots (over a short period) with different people in them so a quiet Tuesday afternoon in a shopping centre can be composited into a crowded Saturday afternoon feel.

I do use an ND filter in daylight sometimes so as to need longer exposures and blur movement of people [review of a variable ND filter] but you can’t attach a conventional front filter to the 12-24mm.

Back to the VJP

Both inside and out, the new Vijay Patel building has some interesting angles for photographs.

Once again, look at how the light helps you explore different aspects of the building and how it relates to its location.

vjp dusk 2

Depending on what lighting you want, you may only have 5-10 minutes of optimal lighting – it helps to know how this varies over the year and that the sun sets in different places at different times of the year (this applies for dawn as well, but that’s for paying jobs!).

vjp dusk

With a building like this, you’ll get far more activity at dusk in the winter (~4pm) than June (10pm).

vjp evening 2

A busier evening (note a slight crop)

vjp evening

Just after sunset can give a very blue cast to shadows – not a problem if you expect it.

vjp evening 3

Inside the building

The Gallery at the front of the building leans out and catches the sun, especially earlier in the year when the low afternoon sun can work well with interiors (early morning too on paying jobs).

VJP Gallery

Once again, a shot you want to set exposure with care, to maintain detail in the highlights.

Inside, a player piano and a clock…

gallery low sun 1

The low distortion of the 12-24 helps ensure that even if you do apply lens corrections, you are not going to lose a lot of your frame.

gallery low sun 2

Note the piano in the distance below.

shadows in doorway

The open space leads to all floors and an open rooftop terrace.

ground floor

The interior space has a number of free flying staircases that just give a flow to almost any image.

main stairs

It’s also easier to ‘get away with’ converging verticals.

split levels

The photo above has had a bit of correction applied, and also cropped at the left side to remove a distorted image of someone sitting down. If you’re using ultra wide lenses always be aware that anyone towards the edge of the frame and near to you will look very obviously stretched.

As a photographer, your authority to move unwanted people varies…

looking up stars

Looking downwards, gives a powerful convergence.

looking down

The arrangement of the people is not usually controllable – as with the trailing car headlights earlier, you may want to take several shots…

This shot is the only one in the article shot at 24mm – don’t forget you’re using a zoom lens.

crossing paths

Any Conclusions?

The technical quality of the lens is excellent – but after the testing for my Sigma 12-24mm review, I already knew that.

Much as I enjoy visiting famous locations and photographing iconic architecture, the collection of photos here are far more more indicative of the kinds of photos I’m actually paid to take by architects, developers and construction companies, where a lot more thought has to be put into making interesting (and useful) photos of work. Of course it helps too, when you can walk to locations from home.

The challenge I was keen to set myself, was in -just- using the 12-24mm focal length range. So, no multi image stitching, camera movements (a tilt/shift lens for example) and only a few obvious uses of correction software such as DxO Viewpoint and/or heavy cropping.  If you’re doing a similar thing you might want to follow up with other focal length restrictions?

Once you are shooting very wide, slight movements of the camera have much more significant effects on your foreground composition, particularly if you are not going to shift or crop it out of the frame.

The images here have all been processed and edited in Photoshop CS6 (I’m not a fan of Lightroom for any aspect of my work). Some RAW conversions utilised DxO Optics Pro V11 since I quite like how it handles evening lighting (sometimes). Many images have had minor additional filtering for contrast/colour.

Gallery of images used in this article

Larger images…

More lens use related articles

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  • arc*

    Fantastic review of this lens. I appreciate your posting so many photos for comparison and showing off the capabilities of this lens. I’m an architect – you’ve made this lens so appealing to me! Thanks for your tilt shift page too. Both really useful!

    • Keith Cooper

      Thanks – I do enjoy doing these tests since they force me to do things differently, in a way you don’t get to try on ‘paying jobs’ ;-)