Capturing Architecture with an iPhone

I sometimes forget the marvel of having a great quality camera always with me — even better, a camera that features my favorite focal length nonetheless. I’ve always been a fan of 28mm and even if modern iPhones moved closer to a 31mm equivalent I still find them a joy to use.

I work as an Architectural and luxury Real Estate photographer in Costa Smeralda, which is a part of Sardinia island, in Italy. Wonderful places that mix wild ancient lands with a wide range of architectural styles. In my work I mostly shoot with Nikon full frames, strobes and all the usual suspects, but I also love to keep my iPhone ready for capturing details that I would not bring home otherwise — I also use the Ricoh GR II for this, but that’s another story.

You may be thinking: iPhone for commercial work? And my answer to that question would be: yes, why not? Take the following photo for instance:

It is a little detail of the patio in the most expensive villa of the area. Modern and rational architecture that integrates into the natural surrounding in an unexpected way. I was there shooting for a year and half, working on a book that covers the whole property. A wonderful experience. One day I was there, showing the owner the progress on the work — the meeting finished and as I was walking across the patio I noticed the sunset creating this strong chromatic composition. The house became stripes of burning warm colors fighting with the cold blues from the pool. The windows and the pool steps became elements of a geometric balance. I took the iPhone and shot it. Once home I worked on it with VSCO and sent it to the client — he loved it, and the photo went into the book.

I was there at the villa during numerous sunsets, in every season, with all kinds of weather, but I never was there in that exact place with that exact light. It was a unique situation and I could capture it because the phone was with me. The quality of the photography we can get out of the iPhone + apps combination is mind blowing, especially if your first camera phone shot 160×140 pixels photos, like my old NEC! Beside that, I shot it as a Live Photo, so I also have an animated version of it, with gentle ripples expanding in the pool and the leaves projecting life in their shadows.

What follows are some details of another villa I am shooting. Completely different architecture. I use the iPhone for capturing unexpected views and details that would be difficult to capture in such an honest way using a dslr. Sometimes I go back to a scene and I try to capture it again using the Nikon, so the iPhone shot works as a visual diary. All the following photos will also end up in the villa book:

The shots are all taken with an iPhone (6s and 8) and edited on the phone with VSCO. Some photographers will condemn the low resolution, the noise, the sharpness and so on. Of course this is all nonsense. As a commercial architectural photographer I have to capture the essence of the Architecture — better if in a way the architect approves! — and at the same time I have to make sure the client is happy with the result.

Clients don’t care about the details that obsess some photographers, they care about the content of the photo. I realized this long time ago. I could put on the table shots made with a 6×6 Rolleiflex, with my Nikon D850, with a film Contax mounting Zeiss glass, with the iPhone or a Lumia, etc etc, but what matters is the quality of the photo and its value for the project, not the sharpness, the iso performance and all the other parameters that make the fortune of photography review websites.

That’s not to say there is no difference among cameras. There are many differences. Some are quite important too. The point is: what are they important for? Do they really shape, control and ruin or promote the success of a photo? My answer is no, unless you need to shoot something that requires a very specialized tools combination. Which is quite rare. You are what makes the difference, not the camera. So pick up whatever camera and lens makes you feel joy when shooting! How you feel with your camera is much more important than tech stuff.

Apps and workflow.

Talking about apps, there are obviously a ton that I could recommend, but I noticed most of the times I end up with this workflow:

  1. capture the photo using the standard iPhone camera or Procamera
  2. edit its perspective in Lightroom or SKWRT if necessary
  3. do some more editing in RNI, VSCO or Enlight if necessary

If necessary is a key concept here. Editing can improve the photo or break it. Most of the times a bit of editing is a good idea. Going too far will take an honest photo and turn it into an over-processed mess.

The standard iPhone camera is doing a good job, it is fast and I have nothing against it, but if I have the time to change a bit of parameters I prefer to shoot with Procamera. A post about this is coming, so stay tuned.

SKWRT (http://skrwt.com) is an app that will correct perspective and distortion in your photos. It has lots of controls and it is a must have when shooting architecture with a phone, since you are dealing with a moderate wide-angle in the end. I recommend using SKWRT as a first step, because it will obviously reduce the image quality (not terribly, but still..) and you want to do it before any other editing.

RNI FILMS (http://reallyniceimages.com) is probably my favorite preset app. Surely the one I use the. most apart from Lightroom CC. I just find its presets to be the most useful and well-made ones. Apart from the presets you can find the usual suspects: brightness, contrast, strength of the preset, clarity, grain, shadows and highlights correction, tint and temperature correction, saturation, sharpening, vignetting, fading and even some feature for adding dust and scratches.

VSCO (http://vsco.co) is the most popular editing app out there: it has a whole set of editing features and some of the nicest filters. They also offer a subscription that gives you more stuff, called VSCO X, and they are attempting at creating some Instagram competitor which will fail, because people are vain and VSCO Grid is not massaging the ego enough.

Enlight (iTunes page) is a very good all inclusive app. It will do most of what VSCO does, though Enlight filters are not as good as VSCO ones. One feature Enlight has while VSCO does not is the local adjustment tool, similar to what Lightroom offers. You can add an ellipse or gradient and use it to apply some adjustments to your image, influencing pixels depending on their values/colors and the falloff of the tool. Sometimes a local adjustment can take an average photo and make it shine.

Lightroom CC well, it is Adobe, it is Lightroom.. it has pretty much everything you may need, and the new CC release also added very beautiful presets. It’s entirely possible to use only Lightroom CC for doing everything, from shooting DNG to editing with the same toolset you are used to on your iMac or PC. The basic app is free but you will not have access to precious stuff like the radial filters, which are essential for the Lightroom experience. If you already pay fo Adobe CC subscription (like I do) then you have this included. Otherwise you will have to pay a subscription fee.

The elephant in the room is the absence of Snapseed from my recommended list. I used Snapseed for years and I enjoyed it, but it became a very confusing app, without any usability vision, with questionable output quality, stuffed with legacy elements. You can do great things with Snapseed and it has some unique tools. But I just can’t appreciate using it. It stays there, in a corner of my iPhone, waiting for the moment when it will become necessary. If it will ever happen.

As a last note: I also talked about the Ricoh GR II: I love that little wonderful camera and the nice fact is that it’s an actual 28mm equivalent and it can send the photos to my iPhone via WiFi, so I can shoot (DNG or JPEG) with it, edit in some app and share it with clients or social networks in a couple of minutes, no matter where I am. How cool is that?

That’s all for this little article. The next posts will probably be about general photography with the iPhone, the amazing Ricoh GR II and about the fact that Instagram is terrible. Yes it is. See you!

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