As most amateur and professional photographers take a percentage of their pictures indoors, you’d think we’d all be experts at shooting interiors. But if there is one encompassing fact about photography that I have learnt over the years it’s this - the more I know about photography, the more I realise how clever the human eye is!
The skill of interior photography is most often perfected by those who trade as interior and architectural photographers. Most budding amateur photographers never give much thought to making a room the subject of a photograph, even though it could teach them valuable lessons about photography. As I said above, it’s amazing how difficult it is to just get the camera to capture an image that represents what’s seen by the human eye.
Choosing a room
Be careful to select the most interesting portion of the room to photograph, since it's virtually impossible to include an entire room in a single shot. Also be aware of any interesting features in that room that may be of use to the picture. These may be elements that add interest in terms of colour or structure, even a contrast in tone.
Obviously you should be shooting on a wide angle lens, but not a fish-eye. Anything from 12mm or greater on smaller sensor sized DSLR and 14mm on full frame sensors is fine but the wider the lens the greater the barrel distortion. If you're shooting on a compact just use the widest angle possible. A tripod is often essential and if you really want to do it right you will also need some light/flashes and coloured gels.
Overall Views and Detail Shots
In your initial photographs, try and avoid having a bright window in the frame, as this can cause problems with exposure and white-balance. When taking wide shots to show large parts of the room, it’s useful to turn on as many lights as possible. If you have a flash that has an adjustable directional head, then try bouncing the flash off the ceiling which will create a diffused and more even light.
Once you have done some general shots of the room why not move in and get some detail views that show interesting architectural or furnishing features in isolation.
Angles and Height
As you look through the viewfinder and tilt the camera up and down from the ceiling to the floor, watch what happens to the vertical elements of the picture. You will notice when looking into the lower corner of a room the perspective in the verticals becomes convergent. This means they get wider as they get further away. The opposite can be seen if you look up to the ceiling through the viewfinder. Both these convergent or divergent verticals should be avoided. To ensure that the verticals stay vertical, try and keep the camera completely horizontal. If your eye is 150cm off the floor and your camera is at the height of your eye then you should be pointing your camera at a point on the wall at the same height of 150cm.
Don’t be afraid to shoot portraits as well as landscapes - just because most rooms are landscape in proportion, doesn’t mean the photographer can only shoot that way. Often portrait photographs are more interesting.
Resist the temptation to stand on a chair in the corner of a room unless you want the image to look like footage from a security camera. Most interior photographers shoot around head height or just above ground level which can give a different feel to an image.
If the room is looking very busy you could always tidy up. Often if the room actually looks like someone lives there, then it's definitely too cluttered – meaning the image may turn out messy and unstructured.
I would suggest you purchase a grey card as this will enable you to get your camera's custom white-balance set correctly for that room. You basically photograph the grey card and then set your camera to 'custom' white-balance specifying that image as a 'test card'. If you don't have a grey card you should experiment with using a white sheet of paper as a grey card. It can be extremely effective.
Often tungsten and low energy bulbs give a very orange light so unless you turn your flash off you get a horrible mix of white bits that are close to the flash, and darker areas that are orange. To avoid this, it’s best to turn the flash off completely to begin with. This doesn’t get rid of the white-balance issue all together, as not only do different interior light exhibit different white-balance characteristics, but once natural light from a window is introduced then you can have three different light sources with three different white-balance values. If you manage to eliminate at least one of those then you at least have a fighting chance.
This is why it is initially easier to shoot the room with no electric light, just using natural light if it has a suitably-sized window. Alternatively to negate the issue of daylight and conflicting white-balance coming through the window, you may want to shoot at dusk or night time.
I find the best way to light a space is to try and replicate how the human eye sees it. This often means using coloured gels on three or four remotely-triggered flashes that give even illumination to match the white-balance of the interior lighting scheme.
If you’re shooting on a compact camera with flash, then I recommend you switch the flash off and use a tripod with the camera’s self timer. If you have a DSLR and off-camera flash, then you can try bouncing flash off the ceiling and even using a radio trigger to trigger the flash remotely. Bearing in mind that most interior lighting is a horrible orange in white-balance terms you may find that if you gel you flash with a ½ CTO (colour temperature orange) gel then your flash matches the white-balance of the lighting. This means that the overall white-balance is the same, so the camera can easily correct for it and ultimately you get a better picture in which the whites are white.
Often the window in your images will be overexposed and blow out. This is because there is more light coming through the window than the lights in the room can provide. If you have a decent flash or set of lights, you can try to balance the window light to give a more realistic feel. Failing that, you could wait for a duller day, or for the sun to dip down over the horizon.
As with food and fashion photography, styles are changing all the time - the current trend being towards natural looking interiors. Keep up to date with styles by looking at interior design magazines and architecture journals. Even the Sunday newspapers and magazines can give you a fair idea of what is currently fashionable.
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