Photographing Historic Buildings: a beginner's guide

© Marvin Bartel

This page was originally prepared as a handout for a group of amateur photographers who volunteered to make photographs of historic houses in Napanee, Indiana. Their photographs were then put on display in the city library next to vintage prints made by photographers in the past. 

Table of Contents - click on topic of interest
composition  |  lens to use  |  lighting  |  camera filters  |  film selection  |  exposure 
 depth of field  |  zone focusing  |  camera to use


Study the historic photographs of your subjects.

A. Point of View and Composition

1. Select camera angles similar or better than the historical examples if possible. If the historic view is straight from the front, try the same view. Many buildings look best from an angle which emphasizes the front, but includes one side as well. Some adjustments may be prudent because of wires, poles, trees and other contemporary obstructions. 

2. If there are directional forces in your composition, allow some balancing space so the eye isn't led off the picture. People, animals, vehicles, and so on, are generally facing the center rather than facing the edge of the composition.

3. Framing always cuts something off at the edges. Leave enough or cut it out all together. Avoid ambiguous mergers between objects and edges. Avoid continuations between foreground and background objects. Run your eye around the edge of the veiwfinder to look for ways to organize and simplify. Avoid cluttered distracting backgrounds by trying another angle or get the camera lower.

B. Focal length

Use normal focal length unless there is a good reason to do otherwise. Perspective lines and depth are exaggerated and distortion is more likely with wide angle lenses, but use them if the situation requires it, or if the historical example is made with a wide angle lens. Telephoto lenses compress depth, making the view appear less three-dimensional. Only use them if really needed for good framing, or if the historical example was done with a telephoto lense. Some off-brand bargain zoom lenses are not sharp and/or lack contrast and should be avoided.

C. Lighting

1. Try to select lighting which is similar or better than the historic examples. Generally the front facade should be in the best light, but the light will bring out textures better if it is coming at an angle. Buildings look more three-dimensional at a time of day when one side of a building is in light and one side is in shadow. 

2. Because of their orientation some buildings will require morning light, while others will require evening light. Early morning and late evening are unique and often very beautiful. It may be the only time to get good light on a north facing building. A north facing building with a good east side would be photographed from the northeast in the evening. A north facing building with a good west side would be photographed from the northwest in the early morning. 

3. Avoid having the sun hit the front surface of your lens. If need be, hold up a card or a hat to prevent it.

4. Bright sun is good for three-dimensional effects, but can produce too much contrast to allow good detail in the shadow and/or highlight areas. To improve this situation, rate the film half as fast as its official speed and reduce the developing time by 20% (overexpose and pull process). This gives better shadow detail while holding back the highlights (with shorter processing). An added benefit is finer grain.

5. In some light, light roof tops are hard to differentiate from sky tone. If possible, try again at a different time of day or when the sky is different. Also see "filters" below.

Weather conditions make major differences. Avoid heavy overcast days as they produce flat lighting and buildings lack dimensional quality. 

II. FILTERS FOR BLACK AND WHITE FILMS A. A red or orange filter is recommended to darken the tone of blue sky. Clouds are much more noticeable and skies are less apt to print white. If your meter is not through the lens and filter, be sure to subtract the filter factor. 

B. If the sky blends in with parts of the building, a polarizing filter may also be helpful. It can also control reflections from windows and the surface of water.


III. FILM (use Plus-X or T-max 100 or similar b/w film) A. Generally, use the slowest film possible. Faster films produce grainy prints. 100 ASA or 125 ASA film rated (used) at 50 is recommended. Pull process it (20% less than the recommended time for the film).

B. Processing the film in a fine grain developer such as Microdol X from Kodak or another brand specifically designed for fine grain is also helpful if using a 125 film such as Plus-X. If using T-max 100, a fine grain developer is not needed.

IV. EXPOSURE AND DEPTH OF FIELD A. Use a tripod, cable release, and long enough exposures to utilize your lens' smallest aperture. Example: 100 ASA film rated at 50 with a 50mm lense set at f22 with a red filter in evening sunlight may require a shutter speed of 1/8th or 1/4th of a second. Meter the scenes carefully and take three or more exposures of each setup. Bracket the exposures by keeping the smallest aperture while varying the shutter speed. Wind motion is a problem. If possible, select a calm day.

B. For good depth of field, use f22 and hyperfocal focusing. Most lenses have small secondary f-stop numbers. Set the infinity mark on the f number you are using and the same f number on the opposite side will indicate the distance of the closest sharp focus. As you can see on the chart below, everything from 6 feet to infinity can be sharp with a normal lens if the hyperfocal setting is used. 

Approximate hyperfocal distance settings for 35mm cameras for those whose lens does not show a depth of field scale. 

50 mm lens (Pentax) others are similar (this is a normal lens on a 35mm camera)

at f-22 focus on 12' and all is sharp from 6' to infinity.

at f-16 focus on 15.5' & all is sharp from 8' to infinity.

at f-11 focus on 20 and all is sharp from 13' to infinity.

larger apertures not useful for hyperfocal focusing.

35 mm lens (Minox lens) (or a zoom set at 35 mm) wide angle

at f-16 focus on 10' and all is sharp from 4.5' to infinity.

at f-11 focus on 14' and all is sharp from 7' to infinity.

at f-8 focus on 20' and all is sharp from 10' to infinity.

28 mm lens (Pentax)(or a zoom set at 28 mm) wider angle

at f-22 focus on 4' and all is sharp from 2' to infinity.

at f-16 focus on 5' and all is sharp from 34" to infinity.

at f-11 focus on 8' and all is sharp from 42" to infinity.

at f-8 focus on 10' and all is sharp from 5' to infinity.

135 mm lens, telephoto lens

at f-22 focus on 60' and all is sharp from 40' to infinity.

at f-16 focus on 100' and all is sharp from 50' to infinity.


Since these photos will be printed as 4 x 6 prints a 35mm camera should be adequate if you use a good lens, fine grain film (slow speed), and maximum depth of field. Of course the historic photos were probably made with much larger negatives.

© Marvin Bartel. All rights reserved. Permission is required for copy or reproduce in any form. E-mail:
Goshen College students may print a copy for their own use. 

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updated February, 2002