Photographing Models in Different Environments II – Architecture and Interiors

Busy streets, modern architecture and stylish cafés, but romantic nooks breathing with history. Or do you fancy taking pictures in an attractive interior or in the privacy of your own place? In an urban area, none of this is a problem. Read the second article of series. This time we focus on photographing portraits in the city. Whenever you will want to photograph anything mentioned, you shall value our tips.

The first part of this series was about photographing models out in the country. For this part, we’re moving on to the city.

Ignore Your Surroundings. But Watch Them Too.

During your shoot, the scene will change, and people will come and go. This brings with it two problems, which unfortunately have opposite solutions.

The first problem is that your surroundings will distract you, and above all, your model. If she’s not very experienced, the unexpected attention can end up bothering her, with her thoughts constantly running off to how she looks for passersby. Ideally, she’d be ignoring her surroundings, but that’s easier said than done. At least at first. With time she’ll get caught up in the shoot and start to succeed.

And here’s where the second problem arises: If you yourself get too caught up in the shoot, you can end up leaving your possessions (your lens bag, your light stands, your clothing bag, etc.) a few feet off to the side, and that can be enough for someone sticky-fingered to grab these valuables and dash. So you need to ignore your surroundings to some extent, but at the same time to watch them out of the corner of your eye… or have a friend or assistant watch them.

Architecture Old and New

Old buildings have their charm, but don’t limit yourself to just them. Modern buildings can be inspiring as well.

Photographing Models in Different Environments II - modern architecture
A fairly modern building with steel and glass. I used an ultra-wide lens to underscore the building’s size. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 II, 1/200 s, f/5.0, ISO 100, focal length 16 mm

Regular geometric shapes also let you play around with angles and perspective in some quite complex ways.

Photographing Models in Different Environments II - modern architecture 2
The unusual camera rotation has revealed new angles in the building. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 II, 1/200 s, f/2.8, ISO 100, focal length 18 mm

All the same, photographers do tend to make more use of older buildings. It’s likely because these buildings look romantic, and they’re often more sumptuous, and also perhaps because so many little photogenic nooks have popped up around them over the years. Old and important cathedrals and castles will also each have a whole grounds around them with smaller structures and gardens that can be worked into your photos.

Photographing Models in Different Environments II - passageway
A passageway at Špilberk Castle.Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 II, 1/50 s, f/2.8, ISO 800, focal length 32 mm

In any decently large city you can easily switch among different styles of buildings during a single shoot, and in some places, you’ll even run into parks and small secluded spots with trees. The next two pictures are a good illustration of this; they were taken during the same shoot as the earlier picture with the blue building. (But the tree photo is only here for illustration; it really belongs more in the previous part, where I discussed taking pictures in the park.)

Photographing Models in Different Environments II - old architecture
Some fairly old architecture—which is something that’s easy to find in any big and old city.Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 85/1.2 II, 1/400 s, f/1.2, ISO 100, focal length 85 mm
Photographing Models in Different Environments II - park
And there will be parks around as well…Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 85/1.2 II, 1/800 s, f/1.2, ISO 100, focal length 85 mm

What to Look for in the City

When you’re taking pictures in the city, the usual rules of composition apply, and that means, for example, taking advantage of repeating elements. Colonnades are the most typical example.

Photographing Models in Different Environments II - colonnade
For this night shot, I positioned the ballet dancer within the colonnade and used a flash placed around the corner for the lighting. (An assistant was standing by the flash, so I didn’t have to worry about it getting stolen.)Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 70-2002.8 IS II, 1/160 s, f/2.8, ISO 200,  focal length190 mm

Stairways, where the model can be elegantly positioned, are also very useful.

Photographing Models in Different Environments II - stairway
It’s hard to sit elegantly on the ground, but you can do it on a stairway. Canon 5D Mark III, Sigma 50/1.4, 1/160 s, f/1.4, ISO 50, focal length 50 mm

But that doesn’t mean that the model has to just sit there on the stairs. A long stairway running out into the distance is a nice graphical element for a shot’s background as well.

Photographing Models in Different Environments II - stairway in background
A stairway as a graphical element in a picture’s background. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 II, 1/160 s, f/8, ISO 100, focal length 28 mm

For us photographers, even unassuming structures like bus stops can be interesting, and if there’s nothing impressive around, even an ordinary wall will do.

Photographing Models in Different Environments II - wall
Even an ordinary wall has its uses. Canon 5D Mark III, Sigma 50/1.4, 1/200 s, f/5.6, ISO 100, focal length 50 mm

Night Photography

Out in the country, your shoot tends to stop when the sun sets. In the city, that’s not the case. Even the most ordinary pictures look special under the streetlights. The time around Christmas when there are lots of lights in the streets is especially good for this. But you can head out with a model into the night streets at any time of the year.

You’ll have less light available at night, and so you’ll need to either use an external flash or watch the lighting around you. That second approach can also work out to be a good photography exercise. For example, even with very good equipment, I was almost unable to take the picture below. In the end, the solution was to move closer to the houses and make use of the illuminated shop window to the left of the camera.

Photographing Models in Different Environments II - streets at night
A model in the nighttime streets. Canon 5D Mark IV, Sigma 35/1.4 Art, 1/125 s, f/1.4, ISO 2500, focal length 35 mm

The Interiors of City Businesses

The city offers many other places to take pictures besides just its streets. With a bit of tact and with permission from the staff, you can take pictures inside of a cafe or a similar establishment. Typical props for your model include her favorite drink—and this is also a great way to keep her hands busy!

Photographing Models in Different Environments II - cafe 1
A coffee mug can keep your model’s hands occupied nicely.Canon 5D Mark IV, Sigma 35/1.4 Art, 1/800 s, f/1.4, ISO 100, focal length 35 mm

You’ll find lots of photo opportunities at a cafe, including taking pictures through its front window… if its table positions make this possible. However, other guests will often get in the way of a picture, so it pays to do your shoot before or after peak business hours.

When you’re shooting from below, you can place other elements in the foreground. This makes the picture more interesting. As for props, besides the mentioned coffee, you can make use of a straw, other tables, chairs, or (with enough chutzpah) other guests.

Photographing Models in Different Environments II - cafe 2
A completely different take, with the next table over being used as a foreground for the photo. Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 70-200/2.8, 1/200 s, f/2.8, ISO 100, focal length 75 mm

Your Own Interior, or a Rented One

Taking pictures in your own spaces has some enormous advantages. You’re alone with the model, nobody is distracting the two of you from the shoot, and your photos can make full use of the surroundings—even in ways that would normally draw stares.

Photographing Models in Different Environments II - privete interior
In a private environment, you’re free to take some quite non-standard pictures.Canon 5D Mark III, Sigma 50/1.4 Art, 1/160 s, f/2.5, ISO 200, focal length 50 mm

Your model will also have an easy time changing clothes. Spaces of your own are more pleasant to work within this respect compared to when you’re taking pictures in the streets, where this trivial little operation isn’t trivial at all and you have to plan it out.

However, if you don’t have your own spaces available, then you just don’t. But you might be able to rent out a hotel room or a studio. And studios are often furnished to look like elegant rooms. I count this as something separate from an ordinary studio room with an endless paper background. I’ll be discussing those studio rooms in the next part of this series. In some studios you have access to both, either for a single price or for an added fee—it’s good to read over the conditions in advance.

Outside of the price, using a furnished studio is a lot like taking pictures at home. You’ve got complete freedom for wildly creative photos.

Photographing Models in Different Environments II- silhouette with window
Different use of the same window as in the previous photo.Canon 5D Mark IV, Sigma 50/1.4 Art, 1/1600 s, f/1.8, ISO 100, focal length 50 mm

Next Time: Studio Work

We’ve looked at model photography in the great outdoors and in the city; next time we’ll be looking at a quite special subgenre: shooting at a studio with an endless background. So look forward to it, and don’t forget to practice!

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AuthorVit Kovalcik

I’ve been a freelancer since early 2012; photography is my living. I acquired my photography experience, both inside and outside the studio, during the previous years—when I was working all day and taking pictures every evening and weekend. I don’t have just one clearly defined topic; I like photographing people, but also cityscapes and landscapes.

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