Untouched landscapes are beautiful, but they often lack magic or drama when captured in a photo. Including buildings in your landscape photos is a great way to add a strong focal point and a wonderful storytelling element. In this tutorial you’ll learn how to use different kinds of buildings to enhance your iPhone landscape photos, allowing you to create really special and evocative images.
1. Use Buildings As A Focal Point
Including a main subject or focal point in your photos is important for several reasons. First of all, it creates a point of interest within the scene that catches the viewer’s attention.
It also provides a place for the viewer’s eye to rest, making the photo feel complete.
Look at the photo above, and now imagine it without the lighthouse. It would be a pretty boring photo without this strong focal point.
Buildings make great focal points in landscape photos. Not only do they catch the viewer’s eye, but they also add meaning to the image, and this helps you to tell a more interesting story about the landscape.
When you spot an interesting building, take your time to explore the scene and find the best viewpoint to capture it within the landscape.
Make use of leading lines such as paths and roads to draw the viewer’s eye from the foreground towards the buildings.
Using the rule of thirds to position the building off-center within the composition often creates the most naturally balanced composition.
2. Use Buildings For Scale
When you take a photo of a vast landscape, a huge mountain or a high cliff, you’ll often find that the confines of the photograph make it hard to convey just how large the landscape really was.
This can be frustrating because you want to capture in your photo what you’re seeing with your own eyes.
Including a building within the landscape is the perfect way to create a strong sense of scale in your photo.
We all have a good idea of how big a house or other building is, and seeing it dwarfed by its surroundings gives the viewer a much better sense of the size and scale of the other elements in the landscape.
When I’m out in the landscape with my iPhone, I’m constantly on the lookout for buildings at the bottom of cliffs and mountains, on a beach with views of the sea, on an island, or in the middle of a forest.
White buildings work well as they stand out perfectly against the darker surroundings, but colorful buildings such as the traditional red houses that you find in Norway can blend in beautifully with the landscape.
Ideally you need to shoot from far enough away that you can capture the building at a distance against its backdrop.
3. Create An Emotional Connection
There’s just something about buildings that makes the viewer feel a stronger emotional connection to the landscape.
By including a building such as a house in your landscape scene, the viewer can really get a sense of what it must be like to live there.
In this photo, you can imagine what it might be like to live by the water’s edge overlooking this beautiful view.
Creating a sense of isolation by capturing a lone house in a landscape will add a wonderful sense of drama to a photo.
However, groups of buildings can also work well as they tend to add a sense of community to your image.
If you can get up to a high vantage point, capturing a view of the rooftops of a small town or village is a great way to convey an overall sense of the location.
However you choose to capture buildings in a landscape, always think about how you can pull the viewer into the photo to make them connect with the scenery.
The stronger the emotion connection they feel, the more impact your photo will have.
4. Create Atmosphere Using Lights & Chimney Smoke
To extend the theme of capturing photos that create an emotional feeling in the viewer, I often find that I’m drawn to photographing buildings at dusk when the lights first go on.
On a cold day, I also love to look out for buildings in the landscape that have smoke coming out of the chimney.
There’s something about warm window light or chimney smoke that creates a wonderfully cosy feel – almost a fairytale atmosphere.
I took this photo of a bothy on a cold wintery day. Someone had conveniently lit the fire and this adds a very human element to the photo, creating a warm welcoming atmosphere in what’s a pretty dilapidated building.
In the photos above and below, it was the fact that these buildings had their lights on that made me stop and take a photo.
I probably would have passed them by if they’d been dark inside. The fact that they were taken on a cold snowy day adds to the cosy feel of the indoor lighting.
In both cases I used the Selective tool in the Snapseed editing app to increase the color saturation of the lights which really made them stand out.
Another trick is to use the LensLight app to create a fake light effect. For example, if there was a lamp post in your scene but it wasn’t switched on, you could easily add a warm light effect to the lamp in post-processing.
5. Look For Unusual & Quirky Buildings
As well as houses, you should also keep an eye out for other buildings in the landscape – either because they’re intrinsically interesting or because they add something to the story of the landscape.
You might find huts on stilts, telephone boxes, bridges and follies. Each one will bring something special to your photograph.
In this picture I included a hut on the causeway to the Holy Isle in Northumbria.
It was built there for people who got stranded by the incoming tide so they could wait until the tide went back out again or until they were rescued!
This is a typical British telephone box, but it’s in a very rural and isolated place. The tall trees behind it make it look like it could be a toy.
In this instance, having nothing else in the photo to add scale (no people, cars or animals for example) works in its favor. The illusion of its tiny size is part of its charm.
6. Photograph Abandoned Buildings & Castles
I keep stressing the importance of making a story out of your photograph, and another good way of achieving this is to connect the viewer to the history of the landscape.
Photographing abandoned buildings and castles is the perfect way to do this.
It makes the viewer wonder why the building was abandoned, why the castle was built where it was, how many battles were fought over it, etc. It hints at the lives led within.
The castle above is called Gylen Castle, and although it’s now almost in ruins, it still looks imposing on that cliff top overlooking the sea.
The photo below shows the ruined engine house of a tin mine in Cornwall.
I took this at sunset and I was struck by the tiny moon in the sky, so I moved around with my iPhone until the moon was directly above the left corner of the building.
You could also look out for old dilapidated sheds and barns. They often have wonderful textures with rough wood, peeling paint and rusty metal.
7. Capture Buildings In Water Reflections
One way to add an extra interesting dimension to your iPhone photos is to use reflections to create a pleasing symmetry.
Buildings make great subjects for reflections with their interesting shapes and detail.
So whenever you’re out in the landscape, seek out canals, lochs, ponds, the sea, wet roads and puddles to create a stunning building reflection shot.
You might need to move about to get the whole of the reflection into the frame. Shooting from a low angle often works well.
If there are slight ripples on the water’s surface, the reflection will appear slightly distorted, creating a beautiful painterly-like effect.
If the water’s surface is completely still, the reflection will appear amazingly smooth and glass-like.
Canals are great places to capture building reflections as they’re often less affected by strong ripples than larger bodies of water. Also canals tend to have interesting houses and buildings alongside them.
I took this photo of a house next to the Crinan Canal on the west coast of Scotland. The water was mirror calm which was perfect for reflecting the house and trees.
There was also a “For Sale” sign next to it which added to the sense of opportunity. People often dream of living in a place like this!
8. Create Minimal iPhone Landscape Photos
Apart from shooting buildings as part of a general scenery, another really effective method is to isolate a building from its surroundings to create a minimal landscape photo.
I particularly like doing this to create a different sort of feeling of isolation. It could be a lone house on a barren hill surrounded by sky, or a lighthouse in the corner of the frame. These shots can be great for rural landscape photography, adding a strong focal point to an otherwise barren scene.
I took this photo on the island of Tiree which is very flat and windy. The houses are mostly detached and this provides a great opportunity for this kind of minimal photography.
Notice that I used the rule of thirds to place the grass and the house in the bottom third. This gives a real emphasis to the sky.
When shooting minimal landscape shots, it’s important to think about where to place the building in the frame for maximum impact.
The following photo of a lighthouse has no context, other than it’s near a tree. However by leaving the left side almost completely white, it gives a sense of its place whilst leaving the actual position very much to the imagination of the viewer.
I also like the strong architectural lines of the lighthouse against the soft natural lines of the winter branches.
9. Fill the Frame
A completely different approach is to experiment with getting up close to a building and filling the entire frame with it.
This completely detaches the building from its surroundings and all the impact is created by using composition, detail and color.
When I went to an island near where I live called Luing, I couldn’t help but be entranced by the beautiful tiny white cottages.
They were right by the sea but it was the interesting balance of elements that really drew me to them as a photographic subject.
In the photo above I put the green door in the center of the frame as it was balanced by the plants in pots on either side, and the pink hydrangea gave it an extra cottage-like feel.
In the photo below, I placed the door slightly off-center because I wanted to include the bird box on the right, but the photo still feels balanced because there are four objects on the right and only three on the left.
10. Use People In Your Building Photographs
Photographing buildings doesn’t mean you have to ignore people! Often the addition of a person can bring extra interest with some movement and color.
People also help to add a sense of scale, giving the viewer a better idea of the size of the building that you’re photographing.
When composing your photo, think carefully about the position of the person in relation to the building.
A great technique is to use a person to balance the composition, for example, by placing them on the opposite side of the frame to the building.
Positioning a person in a window can also work well, or in the case of the following photo, five people in the arched windows of McCaig’s Tower in Oban.
The sun was going down behind them which creates a beautiful silhouette effect. They all set up a different pose which adds to the interest of this image.
In the photo below, I was down on the beach taking pictures of an old church. I looked up and saw this man in a red coat walking along in front of it.
He was perfectly positioned against the white walls, and my Dad was just coming out of the door of the church.
Set against the backdrop of the pine trees, I liked the composition of this photo, and I cropped it afterwards to make sure it was symmetrical.
It was lucky I was directly in front of the church when I spotted the shot as it would have been difficult to edit this afterwards if I’d been further along.
This is one of the real benefits of using an iPhone – you can be so quick when you spot a photo opportunity. If I’d taken any longer, the man in the red coat would have gone and the opportunity would probably not come again!
11. Correct Perspective Distortion
One final thing to consider is that when you’ve taken your photo of a building, you might find that it looks slightly distorted with the top of the building appearing narrower than the bottom.
This is due to the fact that when you photograph anything which is higher than you, you generally have to tilt your phone to take the photo. This causes the vertical lines on the building to converge towards the top of the structure.
You may like this effect, but I generally try to correct it by using a vertical perspective correction tool in post-processing.
Many editing apps have a tool for correcting perspective, including SKRWT, Snapseed, VSCO and Instagram.
You simply drag the perspective correction slider until the vertical lines of the building appear parallel, rather than converging towards the top.
There’s something really magical about buildings in a landscape. The more remote they are, the higher the mountain behind, or the more dramatic the cliff they’re perched on, the better.
Even if the building you find isn’t as isolated as you might like, you can often photograph it to exclude any distractions and create a feeling of solitude.
Remember that you’re trying to create a connection between the viewer and the building in the landscape. The more interesting stories you can tell and the more emotion you can evoke in the viewer, the more impact your photo will have.
Think about how you might get people to marvel at the ingenuity of the builders or the inventiveness of the owners.
Try creating an impression of cosiness by capturing warm window light or smoke from a chimney. Or capture the bleakness of the setting using a minimalist composition.
Always try to capture the story behind these buildings. They might be built to save lives (lighthouses) or take us safely from one place to another (bridges). They could have been homes for generations, or huts for basic shelter.
Don’t forget that you can enhance the mood of your photos through editing. You could try black and white (I like the Noir filter in the iPhone’s iOS editing tools).
You could increase the brightness and contrast for a white snowy scene like the one above.
Or decrease the brightness and darken the shadows for a dramatic and moody atmosphere.
Think about the light too. Shooting buildings during the golden hours of sunrise or sunset can bring an extra magical dimension.
A good photo will transport the viewer into the scene. They should want to visit the place or be able to instantly create a story around it, perhaps even to imagine living there… even if that’s just a dream.
Rosa Perry says
Thanks so much for the great tips Lucy!
The topic is ‘buildings in landscape photos’ and in the tutorial its shown mostly vintage buildings like huts, castles etc. My doubt is, what about a modern architectures, bridges/dams etc. The question just popped out my mind and i hope everything comes under.
Kate Wesson says
Hi Hashim. Yes of course, any kind of building would work. It all just depends on what kind of buildings are in the landscape you’re photographing. You can make use of old and modern architecture using these techniques 🙂
Michael Fontaine says
Emil, as always i enjoyed this article although i must say i cringed when i read your assessment that landscape captures often need buildings as a focal point. with proper composition techniques, a bit of creative ‘seeing’ as one’s basic operating paradigm, ‘don’t need no buildings.’ lol. many of the examples looked TO ME as though they were staged there…actually detracting from God’s palette and Grand design. i have won juried contests with nature as her own editor…do not use photoshop nor any editing software or programs. i look forward to your offferings and pick up good reminders.
Mike Lodge says
Just to clarify then, any building that is in a country landscape or urban landscape, and by using a couple of examples shown, an urban capture could be a shot of a skyscraper in close proximity without seeing any elements around the building.
Kate Wesson says
Yes that’s right Mike. Any image that features a building in any form (it could be the interior or exterior).
Eugene Skorlygin says
Thank you for tips.