Why Use a CPL Filter for Architecture Photography?

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When it comes to shooting architecture, even the most experienced photographers find it challenging to capture all the angles, shadows and textures that make a space really special.  One piece of equipment that can help you capture the nuance behind a creative work of architecture is a CPL filter.

Words by Hudson Brown

Photography by Justin McLean

Landscape photographers have long loved CPL filters for their ability to capture more detail and bring a dramatic tone to the sky. But they can be just as useful when shooting architecture. Presented alongside images taken with a Gobe 2 peak CPL filter, we’ve taken a look at some of the reasons to use a CPL when capturing the built environment.

Without a CPL Filter
With a CPL Filter

“CPL filters are ideal for reducing bright reflections in your images, which distract from or hide architectural details.”

What does a CPL filter do?

Standing for circular polariser/linear, a CPL filter is a glass attachment that’s predominantly used to reduce the glare coming from reflective surfaces. How does it do that exactly? It works by absorbing scattered light, which is often caused by reflections and when sunlight clashes with molecules floating in the air. So whether you’re dealing with windows or water, CPL filters are ideal for reducing bright reflections in your images, which distract from or hide important architectural details.

Without a CPL FilterWith a CPL Filter

A by-product of CPL filters absorbing scattered light is that they also give the colours in your frame a boost, leading to particularly vibrant images. If you’re shooting with a CPL, you’ll find your images are richer in contrast and reveal added detail in the scene.

“The beauty of a space may be obvious when you’re standing in it. But that doesn’t always translate in a photo.”

Why are CPLs good for architecture photography?

The beauty of a space may be obvious when you’re standing in it. But that doesn’t always translate in a photo. One difficult problem to overcome when taking photos of architecture is the glare created by windows, television screens and glossy benchtops, which all detract from the essence of the design. CPL filters are a great tool for dealing with these situations, helping you recapture the textures and accents that would be lost otherwise.

Without a CPL Filter
With a CPL filter

When you step inside a glamorous property, there’s a good chance it’ll have an equally stellar swimming pool. If you have a CPL filter, you won’t have any problems capturing this important, but particularly reflective feature.

Another occasion many photographers find a CPL filter most useful is on bright sunny days. These filters cut out scattered light, meaning your images will be free from haze. The sky will also appear darker in your images, providing a dramatic backdrop to the structure you’re shooting.

“Once you’ve attached the CPL to your lens, give the front ring a twist to adjust the strength of the polarising effect.”

Rotating a CPL filter

Tips for using a CPL filter with architecture

CPL filters open up a range of photographic possibilities. Here are a few quick tips to consider when you use one for the first time.

1. TWIST FOR BALANCE

Once you’ve attached the CPL to your lens, give the front ring a twist to adjust the strength of the polarising effect (see in the gif above). As you look through the camera, you’ll immediately notice the scene changing. Try to find the middle ground between retaining some natural highlights and hiding unwanted reflections.

2. COMPENSATE FOR LOST LIGHT

CPL filters are by nature quite dark. This means you’ll have to adjust your aperture or ISO to make up for the one to two stops of light that the filter consumes. If the lighting conditions you’re shooting in are too dark, and you can’t adjust your settings without producing a grainy image, a CPL filter may be impractical to use.

3. USE THE 90-DEGREE RULE

When situated outdoors, if you’re shooting directly into the sun or with the sun at your back, your CPL filter likely isn’t going to do much. The ideal way to use them is by positioning yourself at a 90-degree angle to your subject.

4. REFLECTIONS AREN’T ALWAYS THE ENEMY

Keep in mind that some reflections can be used creatively. When you’re shooting architecture, think about how you might be able to showcase other architectural features if you use reflections created by the windows or other glossy surfaces to create a mirror effect.

“A CPL helps you recapture the textures and accents that would be lost otherwise.”

What other gear can you use to shoot architecture?

While we’re on the subject of photographing buildings, here are a few other recommendations for architectural photography gear that might elevate your work.

1. A GEARED HEAD TRIPOD

You don’t have to own a top-notch tripod to shoot architecture, but a solid one definitely helps. For shooting interiors, many photographers work with a “geared head” model, which allows you to make precise adjustments to the pan, tilt and yaw of your camera. Because you should be shooting at small apertures and as low an ISO as possible to retain image quality, you’ll need great stabilisation to produce crisp shots.

2. BRING A WIDE-ANGLE AND A TILT SHIFT

Every location is going to be different. But to cover the greatest range of possibilities, starting out with a 24-70mm lens is going to allow you to get both wide and tight on your subject when needed. Once you’ve levelled up your skills, consider purchasing a tilt-shift lens. Providing a way to reorientate your focus and adjust the position of your subject without having to move the camera, these types of lenses also fix a distortion issue known as “converging verticals”.

3. COMPLIMENT NATURAL LIGHT

Natural light is most likely going to be the source you use the most. However, with a few particular additions, you can raise the brightness just a touch to ensure you capture the most stunning details. One basic way to do this is by bouncing a speedlight off the ceiling or a sizeable flash modifier. This will create a larger, softer style of light that still retains a distinctly natural look.

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Hudson Brown

Hudson Brown is a Melbourne-based freelance writer when he's not travelling the globe. His words have been featured in the likes of SBS Food, Treadlie Magazine and Paper Sea Quarterly, while he was previously the editorial assistant for small footprint living publication Assemble Papers. He is also a regular contributor to Concrete Playground where he covers the latest art, culture and gastronomic happenings around town.