The Pros and Cons of People in Architectural Photography

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Architectural photography relies on capturing a structure in its best light and putting it into the context of the environment where it lives. Adding people to an image can contribute to the narrative, but it can also distract.

Over the course of my career, I have spent many hours considering the best angles, timing and light to highlight amazing buildings around the world. Sometimes the brief is clear, other times it is a collaboration between the architect or design team and myself. Often, the question arises: do we include people or leave them out?

It’s not as simple as one might imagine! This is when I present the following points to the client:

The Pros of Adding People to Architectural Images

When you include people in an image of great architecture, it can enhance the visual appeal and also provide more potential for storytelling.

Exterior Architecture Photography, including people, of the Russia Pavilion at Expo 2020 by Gerry O’Leary
  1. People provide scale and context
    To help viewers understand the size and proportions of a building, it can be useful to have people in the frame. When viewers see the image with people in it, they get an idea of the scale, and it makes the structure more relatable.
  2. It fosters human connection
    When we see an image of architecture with people, we understand the function of the space. It becomes more inviting.
  3. Represents lifestyle
    Including people in an image shows the space in use. It conveys how practical the built environment is and displays its adaptability.
  4. Presents a dynamic atmosphere
    People add life and energy to static images – this is often why we use them. This creates a vibrant and engaging atmosphere.
  5. Increases the impact
    Humans relate to other humans. When we add a human presence to an image, it provokes emotion. It is this emotion that will make the image memorable, so it stays in their minds.

The Cons of People in Architectural Images

While including people in images of architecture has certain advantages, it’s worth considering the disadvantages for balance.

Architecture Photography in Dubai : Portal Gate at Expo2020 Dubai: Asif Khan Architect
Exterior Architecture Photography, including people, of the Portal Gate at Expo 2020 by Gerry O’Leary
  1. Privacy
    Not everyone wants to be photographed. When you include people in architectural photography, it can violate their privacy and lead to legal or ethical issues. This is one reason why I use models in certain images.
  2. Distraction
    It’s important not to detract from the structure that is the subject of the image. People can divert attention away from the building, if it is not handled by and experienced photographer.
  3. Delays
    Trying to find the right models, fittings for the correct attire and placement all takes time. This can delay a shoot by days, if not weeks. Using people who are not models can also cause delays while shooting as they aren’t familiar with posing and need extra direction to get the shot right.
  4. Increases cost
    Hiring models (and potentially stylists) isn’t cheap. Paying people for their time adds to the overall cost and the client’s budget may not stretch to it.
  5. Prevent perpetuity
    Adding people to an image is almost like a timestamp – it can date the photo. This potentially makes it less timeless and may mean that the beautiful images you commissioned aren’t as useful later on.
  6. Add composition challenges
    Integrating people effectively into an architectural photo requires careful composition and excellent timing. This adds another layer of technicality to a shoot and can impact it in a number of ways, causing delays.

Should I include people in my photographs of architecture?

Exterior Architecture Photography, including people, of the Russia Pavilion at Expo 2020 by Gerry O’Leary
Exterior Architecture Photography, including people, of Pakistan Pavilion at Expo 2020 by Gerry O’Leary

It’s worth discussing whether you should include people in your building images in advance of the day of a shoot, particularly because it can change the focus and cause delays. It can be wonderful for scale (as you can see from my photo of the Pakistan pavilion at Expo 2020 above) but it needs to be handled by a professional photographer with substantial expertise at photographing both buildings and people.

Get in touch if you have a project that needs to be photographed with people and follow me on Instagram to see my latest projects. Feel free to share this article on your social media too.