Behind the Lens: Shooting Skylines and Architecture

National Harbor at Dusk

I was hired to shoot some interior and exterior photos of a really ugly up and coming property just up the road from National Harbor. Suffice to say I was none too excited, but at least it was a chance to make a buck. The shot list also called for “pictures of the surrounding area” which I interpreted loosely as the National Harbor waterfront. You see, I had recently discovered a small stretch of land with a great, unique view of the harbor, and this was my opportunity not only to shoot it but to get paid for it. In other words I turned a crappy assignment into one I was actually looking forward to.

Lesson #1 Always look for opportunities to expand your portfolio and shoot what you want.

The first obstacle was getting into position. The problem with “great, unique views” is that there isn’t an easy way to get there. In this case I had to hop a fence, which by the way is not such a great idea when you’re by yourself with a big camera and tripod, and then walk through a patch of brush until I got to the beach-like clearing where I would setup camp as seen in the map below.

Lesson #2 Get off the beaten path unless you want the same photos everyone else has already taken.

The setup for this shot was quite simple: just my camera on a tripod. No additional flashes or lights to deal with. I did attach a PocketWizard in case I felt inspired to try something creative, but that didn’t happen here. Since my camera was on a tripod I used a low ISO and slow shutter speed. Altering the shutter speed gives me control for how “flowy” the water would appear.


Given that it was a cloud-less day I decided to fill two-thirds of the frame with the water. It provides more interest than the monochromatic sky. Besides, if I really needed more negative space in the sky I could easily extend it in Photoshop. Unfortunately my tripod wouldn’t go low enough to get the angle I wanted, so I scrapped that idea and steadied my camera on a piece of driftwood.

Lesson #3 Don’t let your gear limit your vision. …Oh! and get a better tripod.

Once I found the right angle all that was left to do was wait. The best time to shoot exterior architecture like this is around sunset. You want enough light and color in the sky, but you also want it dark enough that the city lights will be illuminated but not overexposed. There is a small window of opportunity when the light levels are just right. It is largely determined by the time the sun sets, but it is also affected by the weather and direction you’re facing. The best thing to do is to get there early and snap photos every few minutes. It will become pretty obvious when you’re in the sweet spot.

This shot was taken at 7:57 PM facing south; sunset was at 8:28. One of the most helpful things for planning a shot like this is a sunset app.

Lesson #4 Do yourself a favor and get an app on your phone that tells you what time the sun will rise and set every day. I prefer Sundroid myself.

Once it got too dark I packed up my stuff and headed home. Editing was pretty straightforward here. I did some spot correction, warmed up the White Balance, and added a little contrast before calling it good.

Lesson #5 If you get the shot right in-camera there’s not much editing left to do.

National Harbor at Dusk

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