Why you should photograph “ugly” buildings | Architecture photography tips

Why you should photograph “ugly” buildings | Architecture photography tips

I enjoyed viewing the entries to Wex and Take More Photos’ recent #LeastInstagrammable Locations competition. There were some really creative images as people got to grips with the brief of taking their cameras off the beaten track.

But one thing did catch my attention. The “least Instagrammable” locations were picked by public vote, and while there were plenty that made sense – the M1 motorway, Stanlow Oil Refinery – the number one location that photographers had plumped for as least Instagrammable was London’s Trellick Tower, a brutalist high-rise apartment block.

I found this, to say the least, surprising. Aside from the fact that Trellick Tower makes a regular appearance on my own Instagram feed as somewhere photographers are fond of visiting and capturing, it’s a personal favourite of mine. I love its every ugly corner, its dominance in the neighbourhood where it sits, and the rich history of architecture it represents.

I know its brutal style isn’t to everyone’s taste, but the poll result made me think that photographers perhaps had not given Trellick Tower a fair shake. And so, here are some tips on how and why you might want to photograph Trellick Tower and “ugly” buildings like it. If nothing else, I hope I can at least knock it far enough off that #Leastagrammable league table that it’s no longer beating the M1 motorway.

Photographing Trellick Tower

Trellick Tower, Sony A6000, 30mm f/1.4

A quick bit of history, to get us all on the same page. Trellick Tower, a Grade II listed building, was completed in 1972. It was designed in the brutalist style by Hungarian-born Ernő Goldfinger, who was one of the architects the British government turned to when it hit upon high rises as the solution to its burgeoning housing supply problem. Goldfinger’s brutalist style had its share of contemporary detractors, and he was known as a hard man to get on with – author Ian Fleming disliked him so much that he borrowed Goldfinger’s surname for a supervillain foil to his literary secret agent, James Bond. But despite this, time has been kind to Goldfinger’s work, and many of his buildings are lauded in architectural circles.

Constructed from robust concrete, Trellick Tower has weathered well both inside and out. Its iconic service tower linked by sky bridges creates a distinctive silhouette that makes effective use of negative space. The gaps and interlocking structures create ample opportunities for the crafty photographer, as light and shadow bounce off one another at all different angles depending on the time of day.

Trellick Tower, Sony A6000, 30mm f/1.4

It’s a West London block, a short walk away from Westbourne Park tube station on the Circle and Hammersmith & City lines. It’s approachable from all angles, meaning you can take your time circling the structure to figure out compositions. The sheer height of the tower means it simply drinks in the light when it comes to golden hour, with no comparable structures around to block it.

There’s a lot more I could say about why Trellick Tower is excellent for photography – but a lot of these points apply to other brutalist and modernist structures – our so-called “ugly” buildings – more generally. So, let’s zoom out a little and look at the opportunities we can explore when shooting these blocky monoliths.

Why brutalist and modernist buildings are so great to photograph

Trellick Tower, Sony A6000, 30mm f/1.4

First off, let’s get this out of the way – when we talk about modernist architecture, we’re talking about a particular type of 20th century construction. Embracing minimalism and functionality, these structures weren’t made to be pretty – they were made to do the job of housing people, and do it well. Architects enthusiastically adopted a suite of new materials available to them, like concrete and steel, giving the buildings a very particular character.

If you like symmetry, shape and a strong graphic element, modernist and brutalist buildings are an ideal subject. Many of the designs make use of repetitive elements and regular spacing, so it’s easy to find good leading lines and draw your viewer’s eye along an image. The age of the high-rise means that a lot of modernist and brutalist architecture, like Trellick Tower, stands tall over its landscape and catches the light.

Carradale House, Canon EOS 500, 50mm f/1.4, Kodak Tri-X 400

But you don’t necessarily need the light. Modernist and brutalist buildings tend to do well in all weather conditions, as the heavy use of greys and concrete means a lot of them look fantastic in monochrome. If you’re someone who likes to opt for black and white when the weather isn’t cooperating, as I do, then you’ll have a field day with the textures and shapes of these buildings.

There’s another reason that these buildings are so worthy of photographing – inarguably sentimental, but one that’s important to me. These structures, built by and large in the middle of the twentieth century, represent a burst of community spirit in Britain, one possibly never recaptured since in quite the same way. Still shattered by war, the nation entrusted its architects – many of them immigrants – with the task of creating spaces where people could live. Not just inhabit, but live: rest, play, work, break bread and raise children. These structures, never conceived as investment opportunities, are still fulfilling this function today.

Berthold Lubetkin, one of the designers behind Hackney’s Dorset Estate, was known to have said, “Nothing is too good for ordinary people.” Ordinary people still live on his estates today. That, to me, is a legacy worth photographing.

5 quick tips for photographing “ugly” buildings

Dorset Estate, Fujica ST605N, 28mm f/2.8, Kosmo Foto Mono 100


1. Experiment with abstraction

Don’t feel you have to capture a building in a naturalistic, true-to-life way. I love getting in close to create abstract compositions, working with unusual angles and deliberately obfuscating the subject.

Finsbury Park area, Canon EOS 500, 35-80mm f/4.0-5.6, Ilford XP2 Super 400


2. Approach from all angles

The building isn’t going anywhere, so take advantage of the time you have. Encircle it as best you can, experiment with different angles. Don’t encroach on anybody’s property, but there’s probably plenty of public right of way surrounding the structure – so use it!


3. Vary the time you approach

Buildings take on different characters at different times of day – and night! These days we’ve got both sophisticated high-ISO sensors and highly sensitive films at our disposal, so set your watch for an after-dark shoot and use them.

Pimlico/Victoria area, Canon EOS 500, 50mm f/1.4, Cinestill 800T


4. Look for camera rests

Wandering a city isn’t always conducive to carrying or using a tripod. If you’re working handheld, look out for natural camera supports you can use to slow down your shutter speeds a little. Walls and benches are your friends.


5. Pare down the composition

These buildings are full of character, so let that character fill your frame. Don’t seek to capture everything about a building at once, but look for the key elements you want to capture. This doesn’t just have to be an in-camera job either – my crop tool gets a considerable workout once I’m done shooting! This also means you can have fun with square crops, which I always enjoy.

Brighton, Fujica ST605N, 28mm f/2.8, Kodak Portra 400


Lenses for architecture photography – what to use?

Conventional wisdom states that wide-angle lenses are the ones to use for architecture – that the width of the frame helps you fit the whole structure in, and that the exaggerated perspective is a good way to convey a building’s scale.

I’m not about to disagree with any of this. Wide-angles are great for architecture. However, I would say that going too wide to something like a 10mm can be a little limiting compositionally, forcing you to get so close to your subject buildings that you basically end up capturing the same image every time. Personally, I like a 23mm or a 35mm lens to give myself a reasonably wide angle of view without enforcing too exaggerated a perspective.

However, the truth is that any lens can be fantastic for architectural photography, and especially for our chosen subject of “ugly” buildings and their emphasis on lines, angles and geometry. Let’s take a look at what other lenses can do for us.

Standard lenses: By this, we mean lenses around the 40-70mm range, and for most people that’s going to mean a nice, cheap 50mm lens (which will equate to 75mm on an APS-C camera).

Standard lenses provide a naturalistic perspective, offering a field of view that’s not dissimilar to what the human eye sees. This means they’re particularly good for capturing scenes – rather than focusing on the shape of the building itself, take a little step back and view it in context. How does it fit in with the street and the other structures that surround it? How do people interact with it?

Barbican, Pentax ME Super, 50mm f/2, AgfaPhoto APX 400

What opportunities can you see if you think about the building contextually? Standard lenses are the best way to shoot a building with this head on, and I’d definitely recommend trying one out for your next architecture shoot.

Telephoto lenses: A telephoto lens – anything above 85mm or so – is the best way to start drilling down into details. What are the specific aspects of interest when it comes to your chosen building? Use the additional reach of a telephoto to look up, and pick out aspects of the upper half of the structure that might get lost in a wide-angle shot.

Another tremendous use of telephoto lenses can be to isolate a particular part of a busy skyline. Somewhere I enjoy exploring when I want a break from brutalism and modernism is London’s Canary Wharf – an objectively unappealing thicket of concrete and capital that’s great for dystopian, urban-sprawl images. However, I found on successive trips that I was coming back with quite stale, generic skyline images that lacked point or purpose. It wasn’t until I returned with an inexpensive 135mm Soligor lens that things suddenly clicked. Now, if I liked the look of a structure, I was able to pull it out of the familiar-looking skyline and into a portrait of its own.

Canary Wharf, Fujica ST605n, 135mm f/2.8, Kodak Gold 200


Photographing “ugly” buildings: Others to visit

If this blog has got you considering Trellick Tower in a slightly different light, then you may be keen to think about similar photographic locations. I’ve compiled five suggestions of buildings to try – they’re based in London, as that’s where I am, but there are resources for finding similar structures all over the world.

#SOSBRUTALISM is a great starting point for finding more concrete monsters. I own a dog-eared copy of Henrietta Billings’ Brutalist London Map, which is the perfect tool for designing your own walking tours.

I’d also thoroughly recommend the “Perambulations” maps by Stefi Orazi, someone who knows far, far more about architecture than I do. These maps trace simple walking and cycling routes connecting examples of modernist architecture, with a little history of each one. So far they’re mostly concentrated on London, but are expanding to other cities in the future – there’s already one for Brussels. The Instagram account, @modernistestates, is also well worth a follow.

For now, here are a few of my favourites:


1. Balfron Tower and Carradale House

Also a creation of Ernő Goldfinger, Balfron Tower is a precursor to Trellick Tower, and shares many of its hallmarks, though it’s significantly smaller than Trellick Tower and is located a considerable distance away, in Poplar, East London. Goldfinger liked the building so much he lived there for a while, and with his wife would host champagne parties with the residents where they could discuss what they liked and didn’t like about the structure.

Adjacent to Balfron Tower is Carradale House, another Goldfinger creation with a more modernist feel, though clearly sharing a lot of visual DNA like the distinctive sky bridges.

Balfron Tower, Canon EOS 500, 50mm f/1.4, Kodak Tri-X 400


2. Isokon

Coming across Isokon feels like uncovering a treasure in north London’s leafy Belsize Park. An experiment in minimalist living, the flats opened in 1934 and have hosted a number of famous denizens since. The off-white exterior takes on the character of the light really well, so it’s a good one for golden hour.

Isokon, Fujica ST605n, 28mm f/2.8, Kodak Ultramax 400


3. Shearsmith House

London has no shortage of residential high-rises built in this style, but Shearsmith House is one of the most archetypal. Comprising 187 flats across 28 storeys, it rises to 83m and towers over its home in Whitechapel. Bring the wide-angle for this one – it deserves it.

Shearsmith House, Minolta Dynax 500si, 35-80mm f/4-5.6, Kodak Gold 200


4. Whittington Estate

Many of London’s terraced streets can look decidedly similar, so the angular, zig-zagging construction of the Whittington Estate sticks out immediately. A short walk from Archway tube station, the estate is wonderfully quiet at most times of day, meaning you can amble through at your leisure to appreciate how thoughtfully the space has been designed to keep its residents safe from traffic.

Whittington Estate, Fujica ST605n, 28mm f/2.8, Kodak Ultramax 400


5. Golden Lane Estate

On the northern edge of the City of London lies the Golden Lane Estate, immediately distinctive thanks to its primary reds and yellows. Though it was built shortly after the Second World War, nothing at all about the design has dated – it still looks wonderfully contemporary. This is a subject that’s worth waiting for the good light, so you can capture its colours in all their glory.

Golden Lane Estate, Canon EOS 500, 50mm f/1.4, Kodak Ektar 100


I hope this blog has helped you appreciate some of the beauty of unconventional architecture a little more. While these structures may not be as conventionally pretty as palaces and mansions, many of them are outstanding examples of form following function and design built to last, and I see nothing wrong with celebrating any of that.

From the construction hoarding surrounding Balfron Tower.

Jon Stapley

Jon Stapley is a writer, journalist and photographer based in London.