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
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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).
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.