Photo 101: Five Tips for Shooting Interiors

photo101_shootinginteriors

I’ve never been a huge fan of rules—especially when it comes to creative outlets like photography, writing, or decorating. Who is anybody to tell you what looks good? Who is anybody to tell you how to decorate your home? If you really love that picture of your cat wearing a Snuggie, who is anybody to tell you that it’s a bad photo? As far as I’m concerned, you gotta do you—critics be gone! Still, this doesn’t stop people from asking me on a semi-regular basis how they can take good photos. Although I am a firm believer that there is no such thing as a “good” photo (people will have an opinion one way or the other), I do have a handful of go-to tips and tricks that I turn to, especially when in doubt. These aren’t rules per se—more guidelines that you can follow when taking photos of your home—a framework within in which you can move around, experiment, and have fun. The great thing about these “rules” is that they are applicable to almost any situation and level of photography. Most cameras today (whether they are top-of-the-line or bottom-shelf) come with manual settings and options for advanced shooting. To follow along with these rules, you only need three things: a camera (make sure you have read its manual), a tripod, and a standard photo editing software (Photoshop is hands-down the ideal, Aperture and Lightroom are also good, iPhoto not so much). Whether your photos are “good” or “bad” is simply up to you, but these five tips will have you pointed in the right direction! Happy shooting! —Max

photo101_usenaturallight

The human eye is a wonderful thing, capable of adjusting to just about any light temperature—whether it’s the warm yellow of incandescent bulbs or the dull green of fluorescent ones. A camera, however, is downright stupid compared to the human eye. Whereas the eye will take in the glow of an incandescent bulb and interpret it as white light, a camera will just see it as plain ol’ ugly. This is why, when it comes to interior photography, it is best to use only natural light. This is the golden rule when it comes to interior photography (or most other photography, for that matter). If you’re going to follow only one piece of advice from this entire write-up, make sure that it’s this one.

When photographing an interior, you want to make sure that all of your other lights are off. I repeat—turn ALL of your lights OFF. You might be a little bit perplexed by this rule—after all, light is a necessary part of photography. What if the light coming through your window isn’t strong enough? This is what your tripod and your camera’s shutter speed settings are for. Pop your camera onto your tripod to avoid motion blur and slowwwww down the shutter speed to allow for a long exposure. This will allow your camera to pick up whatever light there is in the room and you won’t have to resort to artificial light or, god forbid, your flash.

Once you begin taking interior photos exclusively with natural light, you’ll see just how much more beautiful it makes the final result. Colors will appear fresh and clean, shadows will come from more natural directions (rather than, say, above), and the chances of needing to adjust your white balance in post-production are severely diminished.

Quick note: Although natural light is by far the best light to shoot with, not all natural light is created equal. It’s best to avoid times of day when sun is shining directly into your room—this will keep certain areas from being brighter or more blown out than others. As is true with shooting outdoors, photographing on a cloudy day is actually ideal—clouds act as a natural soft box, diffusing the light and creating even, subdued shadows.

photo101_shootraw

Most cameras today come with the ability to shoot RAW. Unlike JPEGs, which are a “lossy” file compression (meaning that they trash a lot of the photo information in order to save space), RAW files are essentially untouched photographic data. If one were to draw a parallel between digital photography and film photography, a RAW file would be akin to an unprocessed negative—it is essentially a record of light hitting the camera’s sensor and has not yet been turned into pixels.

Of the many reasons to shoot in RAW mode, one of the best is because it allows you to have the most control over your final image. RAW files preserve much more photographic information, allowing you to retrieve seemingly blown-out or underexposed areas, adjust white balance more accurately, and determine the final size of your photo.

Note: When it comes to editing RAW photos, my go-to software is Photoshop—its built-in RAW Editor does a wonderful job and is very feature-rich.

photo101_shootstraight

When it comes to composing interior photos, I have found that, when it doubt, it is always best to shoot straight on. Using your room’s architectural framework as a guide, point your camera so that it aligns perfectly with one of your walls. If your camera has a grid or compositional guides in the viewfinder (even iPhones have this feature built in), this is a perfect moment to use that tool. You want to make it so that the wall’s horizontal and vertical lines (along with the horizontal and vertical elements of items along that wall) are aligned, almost as if on a grid, within your viewfinder. Here are some photos that I took of my apartment [which you can read about at length, in case you’re interested, on my fiancé’s blog] to illustrate this idea:

photo101_grid

photo101_grids

Rather than creating a dynamic composition through overly-dramatic camera angles, this technique allows for a much more harmonious end result—it uses your walls as a blank canvas of sorts with dynamism created through the composition of objects (like brush strokes) within the photograph. This technique also allows you to have more options if and when you decide to crop your photo.

So—to summarize, it is usually best to have your camera pointed straight forward towards a flat surface. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but if you are unsure, it’s always better to err on the side of simplicity. As with most things in life, less is often more. Here are some very professional, highly scientific drawings to further illustrate my point:

photo101_shootstraightdrawings

photo101_makeroom

One of the biggest obstacles you might encounter when photographing an interior space is lack of space. When shooting indoors, especially within tiny apartments or smaller rooms like kitchens and bathrooms, you might find yourself backed into a wall (literally) when attempting to get the perfect shot. Oftentimes, people’s first instinct is to go out an buy a wide-angle lens to fix this issue, but this option often results in distorted, “fisheyed” images. I’ve found that the best way to get the shot you want is to not change your lens, but change your environment.

It’s important to keep in mind that you, as the photographer, are essentially The Omnipotent Master of The Universe within your photos. Meaning: feel free to move stuff. If you can’t take the perfect photograph of your couch because there’s a big ol’ credenza behind you, move that credenza! If there’s a houseplant where you need your tripod to be, move that houseplant! If you can get a better shot of the room in question from the next room over, then by all means—shoot through the door! BOOM:

photo101_makeroomdrawing

This also goes for things that might be getting in the way within your photo. If there are any unsightly cords, objects, or pieces of furniture that are killing your photographic buzz, get rid of ’em! And don’t worry about your documentarian integrity—editing out objects is one of photography’s dirty little secrets (even Civil War photographers moved cannon balls and dead bodies in their photos to create more dramatic compositions, I kid you not).

photo101_thingsmoved

photo101_knowyouraperture

If you’re shooting close-ups or vignettes within your space, it is important to know how (and when) to use your aperture. Essentially the tool that controls the size of the hole light is allowed to come through, aperture is also responsible for controlling your camera’s depth of field. If you’re shooting a close-up of a vase, for example, and you want your background to be blurred out, the focus tool is just one half of what you will need to achieve that effect. The smaller your aperture number (or the wider the aperture hole), the shallower your depth of field. The larger your aperture number (or the tighter the aperture hole), the more in focus and sharp everything will be. To get a blurred background on your vase photo, then, you will want to shoot with a wider aperture, or the smallest f-stop your camera will allow. Conversely, if you’re shooting a wider space or an entire room, you want to make sure that your f-stop is cranked all the way up so that everything is in sharp focus.

phot101_aperture

  1. I’m a newbie at this…thanks for the tips!

    1. Joel says:

      Great article. I want to do some good shots to advertise my properties this has helped.
      Thanks,

  2. Tim Collins says:

    Thanks for all the great tips, I am a beginner photographer as a hobby, I have a Fuji X-S1 bridge camera and have searched for many tips on how to get good shots. I have never used auto mode and found that setting my aperture for good distance, ISO, WB on cloudy and setting my EV up a bit to get the right balance gives me very nice interior shots. I always use a tripod as advised.

  3. Joyce Rivera says:

    I’ve been working a little with a real estate agent shooting mostly outdoor for her. I asked her about interior shots that others have done for her and she mentioned that they use a “Light filter” to make everything bright. I’ve never heard of this, does anyone know what she might be referring to?
    TIA.

  4. Alx says:

    Thank you!!!

  5. Mary-Lu says:

    Thank you, I found this really helpful

  6. Max, I’m just finding this article but wow is it incredibly helpful! I’m just breaking into editorial interior photography and this is a big help. I agree that the tilt shift lens is prohibitively expensive. I’ve shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II and use a variety of lenses to capture both wide angle and detail shots. I’m wondering what lens you use to get a wide angel without dealing with distortion? Thank you!!!

  7. Nico says:

    How do I get a blury background in a small space/room where there isn’t much depth of field?

  8. John Humble says:

    I read this with interest and as always I’m grateful to anyone taking the time and trouble to share information to help others. Without wishing to be overly critical, the windows in one of your shots are ‘blown out’, was this deliberate? I have to be honest and say it doesn’t look good to my eyes.

  9. Wendy says:

    Thank-you so much for this ! I did buy a wide angle lens but am struggling with composition using it. So by zooming in a bit I remove any distortion but still am able to get more of the room in (I shoot homes for realtors). My challenge has been the horizontal tilt that can happen with a wide angle lens. I never thought of using my grid! I’m also going to try turning off all the lights – gulp. I currently use a tripod and set my ISO to 400 or less. Usually 200. Is this a mistake? Im concerned that more is just too grainy.

  10. This is great, witty & succinct, thanks.

  11. Glyn says:

    Nice article with some good advice. Like a few others have said, I wouldn’t discount using a bit of additional fill from flash. Sometimes you can use reflectors to fill in shadows but there are occasions where you really do need to use flash. Obviously, off camera, bounced off ceiling, floor or back wall etc… Flash is a no brainer when it comes to balancing with daylight. Tilt-shift has been mentioned too, and it certainly has it’s place for keeping everything straight and level, but it’s not an absolute requirement, and certainly not for the beginner as cost is definitely an issue. The end result is what we are all after, using natural light only doesn’t always work. Take a look at a lot of kitchen shots in magazines or brochures for example, and they have all the light on, mixed with natural light, and if you look carefully, you can see where they have added in flash to even everything out. For me, I take a bunch of speedlights, and a bunch of studio strobes, as well as reflectors, light modifiers, and a bag of lenses, I talk to the client to find out what they want the end result to be and spend an hour or two shooting a kitchen, but that’s me :)

  12. Simon says:

    What lenses do you use for your interior shoots?

  13. Brad says:

    Natural light is best – but if you have 10K invested in interior lighting with everything on dimmers and scene controllers it might pay to show that off as well. Well lit interiors with manmade light can be stunning as long as a lighting designer has worked their magic and the camera is set up correctly.

  14. Yusuf says:

    Excellent tips!!! I am just getting started in photographing house interiors for real estate listings and would greatly appreciate some equipment recommendations such as brands, types of lenses, filters etc.

  15. Chariss says:

    Hi! What lens are you using? or what lens would you recommend for interior photography? Im using Canon 400d (I know! so old. lol) and i have only been using my kit lens in all shoots. Ive always loved my kit lens and believed it can be used in any shoot. But i think i should get a new wide angled lens since in getting into interior photography. As well as, to minimize editing time from the curved edges or fish-eye effect from the photo captured with my kit lens.

    Hoping to hear from you soon!
    Thank you for inspiring me more! :)

  16. Philipp says:

    definitely really useful tips!! When I started shooting interior back then I always felt under pressure as I was never using additional artificial light. Nowadays this is a very important part of my style and actually a reason why people book me.

  17. Mark Bolton says:

    I agree with much of the above, but its important to remember that different end usages have different requirements re light…. I shoot a lot with interior mags in the UK (different look to the US mags too), but if I were an estate agent (real estate in the US!) I would want more even light, probably utilising flash guns. For magazines, I shoot 99 percent without artificial light… editorially we go for ‘dark corners’ and more mood… so, if we want to go for a view outside the window (whilst keeping those lovely soft shadows inside), we would use blending of exposures (probably in lightroom with a plug in), rather than blasting out the interior with a flash… anyway, great piece, not sure why you’re giving away all the secrets! Mark

    1. Beckie says:

      I need all the secrets I can get so please don’t discourage it!! : ) I’m a very new beginner and taking in all the information I can before this weekend!

      1. Beckie says:

        Anything anyone is willing to share is so much appreciated, trying my hand at something new and praying for miracles.
        Thanks, Beckie

  18. Emma says:

    So helpful- thank you! can I ask what camera you use? I am researching so that I can take advantage of the New Year sales; hence reading this. Thanks and Happy New Year!

  19. Melissa says:

    Very helpful. My home, unfortunately, has little natural light and I find my photos too dark when lit only from the small windows. Any tips for manipulating or adding soft light indoors?

  20. Rob says:

    the photos you used are all B/W, are these tips for monochrome photography? I’m no expert, a rookie for sure, but I’ve seen dozens of so called expert interior shots and a mix of some lighting was basically essential?

  21. Annemarie says:

    Nice article, love the little stick men!

  22. Shorty says:

    The “light filter” might referring to the contrast-reducing filters that are used in cinematography. In the days before 14-stop digital cameras they used to be big on compressing the tonal scale toward the middle which can have the effect of making everything look a little brighter.

  23. jeff says:

    I like the sentiment about photographing with only natural light, but I question wether we enjoy that experience in real life – It seems most of the time even with light streaming in we tend to turn on lights when in a room. I also wonder does natural light truly show off the textures and color the Designer took pains to use?

    1. Mark says:

      It doesn’t matter what experience we enjoy in real life, its about what looks best in the photos. That’s why the author of the article took care to note that our eye is light-smart and can adjust to artificial and natural light mixtures well, but a camera does not, so as photographers we must compensate for that. This translates to other photography areas as well. Is it “realistic” that everybody in the wedding reception was dancing in almost pitch black, with ugly green color lights flashing? Yes. But the couple doesn’t want to see what was “real.” They want to see attractive photographs that match how they felt and what they saw in their minds. This isn’t an article about realistic lifestyle situations, its about taking good photos.

      Natural light does indeed show off textures and colors better. I can attest to this, having shot wedding details for years. Have you ever shot designs like these in tungsten or artificial daylight bulb lighting?

  24. Great post and very understandable which as a girl whose slowly learning how to take better photos in manual I find some posts way over my head (: Thank you!!

  25. Ben says:

    Thanks for a generous post. Simple and obvious rules, just what I needed. Made my recent interior shots so much better looking. Especially the straight-on, “simple perspective” tip and being “allowed” to rearrange for the shot made such a difference.

  26. Conan says:

    Thanks for the excellent tips. What if I’m trying to shoot a room but also want to capture what’s outside the window? I guess your advice would be to wait until dusk so I don’t over expose the outside portion but what if I cannot wait?

  27. Nicole says:

    Great post! Can’t wait to put these tips to good use!

    Nicole

  28. Erin says:

    (I just made my first comment on your blog about an hour ago) I did a google search for “best camera lense for interior design photography” and design sponge was #1 on google for that search. So here I am, back…and learning SO much from this article. This might have saved me from purchasing a wide angle lense! Ha. My wallet thanks you. I am having the hardest time photographing my tiny farmhouse renovations, but maybe I just have the settings incorrect or am picking really complicated angles instead of straight on as suggested. Thanks so much for this post! I will be checking back to read a few times, because I am still trying to understand aperture.

  29. Yucel says:

    What about HDR bracketing… You shooting same aperture or sames shutter speed… I’m going w aperture…

  30. Andrew says:

    Great tips! As a blogger, photos are important and I’m always learning new techniques to sharpen my photography skills! Thanks for sharing these interior photo shooting tips!

  31. jenna says:

    Every little bit of info helps and the idea of “hey its ok to shoot straight ahead!” is awesome and super helpful .. thank you! xoxo

  32. John YS Kim says:

    Great great great article! I’m so glad I found this. Thanks so much for your great tips. I’m new to photography. I’ve been wanting to take cool photos of interiors, e.g. hotel rooms, like you would see in hipster magazines and I didn’t know how to do it. Grids, got it. By the way, great looking blog!

  33. Shoshauna says:

    Just stumbled upon this. Very informative and a great read. Thank you.

  34. César says:

    Hi, I have been trying to photograph an old abandoned house in my local area. It still holds some furniture and the natural light that gets through the Windows is also great, but the rooms are quite small, even if I use all those tips you’ve written. I’m using an 18-70mm and I found it isn’t wide enough, but I don’t want to buy a fisheye either. Do you think I should move to a 16mm? Would that make a noticeable difference? Would a 14mm be too wide?

    Thanks

  35. Laurel Bern says:

    Great Tips here! I found this article because last week, I went to go shoot a job. Four rooms. Four exhausting hours later, came home and discovered that my memory card was busted. (yes, a call to Canon and the guy was very helpful)

    NO PHOTOS! They were taking, but not recording!

    Yes, bummer indeed!

    Reshoot is Tuesday, only this time it’s going to be cloudy. I was looking for tips for shooting on a cloudy day. I had heard that it’s preferable and you corroborated that. Although sometimes when I use my cell phone, the shots don’t turn out as well on a cloudy day.

  36. Aly says:

    I studied photography years ago in college for my commercial art degree. I’m a Realtor, husband is a remodeling contractor. We’ve spent a lot for photography so we just bought a Canon Rebel T6 that I’m working learning. My old camera is a Canon AE1. I’m finding my colors are off on the home remodels due to lack of light and trying flash. Your article is very helpful…I’ve already picked up some tips. My concern is that I’m shooting basement rooms without windows. so I have no natural light. Any suggestions? Many thanks!

  37. Dane says:

    Particularly enjoyed the tip about shooting straight. Having done portraiture for some time, most of these ideas are natural, but shooting straight is a great tip I might not have considered! Using the wall as a canvas is the perfect explanation :) Thanks!

  38. Alys Milner says:

    I’m always turning on all the lights to get a better shot. I’ve been doing it all wrong. Thanks for all the tips.

    (found you via Hometalk)

  39. Anna says:

    thank you very much – this is great.

  40. lori says:

    Thanks for the tips! You answered a lot of my questions in a nice, simple way.

  41. Dakota Chase says:

    I do prefer using natural light for interior shots yet some homeowners have created incredible interior lighting which becomes another wonderful feature about the home. If I can bring in more buyers for the REA, the more appointments I book. Light stirs people’s emotions. The reason I’m writing here to begin with is to caution photogs about using HDR. Holy Moly! 99.9% of HDR use in interior shots is horrendous. More is NOT better!!! As soon as you can see the effect, STOP. Less IS more!!! That’s all I wanted to say.
    This was a great article. Glad there are people out there willing to mentor others.

  42. Ronak says:

    Great article on how to shoot basic interiors as a basic but again this varies for more sophisticated clients. I have recently shot luxury hotels in the countryside who have wanted evening mood photography. So the steps above change drastically as you are limited with natural light from outside. The key to getting the best shots is to take interior photography around dusk ideally, that way there is a nice balance and blue sky which you can get from lowering you shutter speed but maintaining detail by increasing your F stops. That is just one point but i agree with some of the guys above that it all depends on the client brief. Evening photography is a challenge when light is limited.

  43. Louisa says:

    Love your article. I paint furniture and photograph the furniture for my FB page and website. I am in desperate need of a new camera (I have an 11 yr old Nikon D40!) I am looking at the Nikon 6d or 7d but need advice on lenses to buy. I shoot the whole piece of furniture but do a lot of photos showing close up detail. I have very limited photography knowledge – in fact I have none and am very keen to learn. A friend suggested 3 lenses – a 35mm a 50mm and a 100mm Prime. Any suggestions for me. I am visiting NYC next week and will buy everything then. Thanks

  44. Rick Du Bose says:

    I am going to Europe soon and will be using a Canon EOS Rebel T-3i. In addition to the proverbial “there I was” shots, I’d like to experiment with fish eye lenses for church and museum interiors, etc. In most if not all cases, I want to shoot with natural light. I’m presupposing that I can manually set my 18-235mm fish eye to F stop 5.6 with a 200 ISO and get some decent, first time results. In your estimation, do you have a better alternative for tack sharp shots? I am totally an amateur shutterbug and took all my recent Disney World vacation shots on auto just to keep from screwing up. They all turned out great, but now it’s time to leave the nest. I will not be using the fish eye effect for exterior shots, so your commentary on both interior and exterior photography will be most appreciated. Thank you.

    Rick

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