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:

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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).

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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.

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Amy

As a past commercial interior designer for an international interior design firm, I’ve been involved in too many interior photo shoots to count. But the one thing I will say is that for every shot you see published in a magazine, at least an hour (and probably more) of set up, staging has occurred. Furniture has been moved, items have been added or removed, lighting has been added (sometimes even under furniture) or removed, and filters have used on the camera. Shooting digital has been a life saver for many professional interior architecture photographers. It’s not easy, but the rewards are great! All advice given in this article was useful and on point!

Allyson

Great advice Maxwell. Your tips on using natural light, shooting raw and manually controlling the aperture are so very true. I was intimidated for so long to take my camera out of automatic mode, but once I made the switch to manual, I found that, like you suggest, a little tweaking of things like aperture and ISO make such a huge difference. I will make sure to use only natural light moving forward and really give some added thought to the composition of each shot. Thanks so much for the advice and tips.

Alex Cheung

Thanks for the guidelines! I’ve been picking up a variety of books on photography from the library, but I can hardly stand looking at the photographs they deem “perfect” or “beautiful.” I agree that beauty is indeed subjective, and I’m glad to have found your post’s alternative perspective to more traditional and technically-driven approaches.

Jillyv

I loved this article. Great info. for posting better photos in ads for rentals. Lots of landlords could use some help!

Jessica S.

EXACTLY what I needed, as I get my own blog off the ground. Thanks for putting this together, for people like me.

You guys rock!

Greg B

Using natural light is a poor tip. The tip should be “use even light.” You want the light outside the windows and inside to be at the same level. Otherwise you’ll get blasted out by the sunlight coming in and have contrast issues. There are also great LED light panels that allow you to adjust the color temp while setting up your shots. If anything I would add as much light as possible to eliminate shadows; but it doesn’t have to be natural light. Oh yeah, and a tilt-shift lens is essential.

Maxwell Tielman

Hey, Greg!

I mentioned the importance of even light within my write-up. Perhaps you didn’t catch it:

“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.”

However, I must disagree with the assertion that completely indoor/outdoor balanced light or a tilt-shift lens are essential to taking a good photo. Natural light pouring into an unlit room can create beautiful photographs and, as a rule, I use natural light exclusively. Shadows can make for great drama, also, so they should not be banished entirely. Tilt shift lenses, it should also be noted, are prohibitively expensive to the average consumer and hardly necessary if taking standard interior shots.

Leslie

Thanks for the tips, Max! I always admire your interior shots, and lord knows I need any general photography advice I can get — this was very helpful (and simple).

Katie

I love that I was reading this as I was listening to Max talk about his Little Old Man lifestyle manifesto on After the Jump. Very colorful picture being painted in my head at the moment…I digress–great post! As a designer who frequently needs to shoot product on the fly, this concise guideline is super helpful.

Ashley Johnson

I would love to see more photography tips on D*S. This is a great addition to your content. Thanks Max!

Peaches

Great tips! Super helpful. Photographing a whole room is such a daunting task. Not only the camera side, but the staging too. How to edit and arrange for a decent photo composition is hard. I’ll take all the help I can get!

Juliane

what type of camera do you use for the photos taken on this site?

Maxwell Tielman

Hi, Juliane! Many of the photos we run on the site are taken by various photographers using all different cameras. However, when we shoot something in-house, we primarily use a Nikon D90.

Amanda Risius

So helpful as I will be shooting my apartment this week! I had never heard of shutting off the lights before! Can’t wait to see the difference :)

hammerandheels.blogspot.com

Nadine

Thanks for the tips! I can now put my photography student daughter to work in my house :)

Rosemary Nick

What great tips! I learned more from this one article than I have in the last 6 months and – BOOM! – it was fun!

George Eastman

Good stuff here! I am 45 years a professional commercial photographer and can say that these are well thought out guidelines for beginning shooters. Kudos!

One piece of software was neglected in the article that is a bit less user friendly than the “Big Guns” the author mentions but none the less powerful and the best part is that it is FREE! Not an endorsement just a suggestion to check-out a program named “Gimp” for editing digital images.

As to Juliane’s question about what type of camera was used — It is less a matter of one’s tools than it is one’s eye. You can make great photographs with any camera as long as you understand how to “see” and compose artistically pleasing images.

George Draper

I take exception to your “rule” of only using natural natural light. One of the biggest issues with shooting interiors is showing views to the outside. And outside lighting is usually much brighter than interior lighting. To balance the lighting it is essential to raise the interior light level to match the light outside…by using small off camera flash units bounced off a white ceiling, HDR photography or some combination of both.

Rebecca

Thanks Max! I know it sounds obvious to just move things to please the eye but I pathetically hadn’t thought of that before. Thanks for the advice!

Grace Bonney

George-

Please see Max’s comment below, he addressed this issue.

Also, we use GIMP here at the D*S office and love it. :)

Grace

Maxwell Tielman

Hey, George Draper! I get what you’re saying, but I *still* tend to use natural light when shooting directly at a window. I get around the light balance issue by taking multiple exposures of the same frame and then layering them in Photoshop. I usually find that using artificial lighting (whether it be a flash or strobes or just regular old lamps) produces a relatively unnatural look.

Kelly Horkoff

Great tips Maxwell!

I’m a professional interior photographer based in Toronto and have a few more to add:
– using an inexpensive hot-shoe bubble level that attaches to your camera hot-shoe is a great aid in leveling the camera to keep everything straight
– lowering the camera height similar to a height similar if you were sitting in a chair, gives a more pleasing natural perspective
– KISS, keep it simple rule is golden “less is more”
– you can also control or manipulate the natural light by adjusting blinds, curtains or opening/closing doors. Large white or silver cards are helpful in reducing contrast and large black cards can be used to increase contrast

http://www.kwestimages.com

Caroline

What a great surprise to see photography tips- thanks! To avoid the pitfalls of a wide angle lens, what would be ideal instead? I bought my first camera a couple of months ago, body only, with a 50mm prime- I’m ready for my next lens! Thanks again.

George Eastman

To the discussion of the exterior illumination being balanced with interior illumination, there are gelatin filters from companies such as Lee and Rosco just to name two that provide both ND Filtering (Neutral Density filtering – Think sunglasses for your windows) and CC Filters (Color Correction filters) to balance interior lighting color temperatures with exterior lighting color temperatures. These filters are clear and usually overlaid on the windows or placed in frames out of sight to the scene.

Being “neutral,” ND Filters pass the color of light within the full spectral range of its source and are color agnostic. Its task is to darken the light level it does not correct color, which is why a photographer might also need a CC Filter. These filters are often used in photography and film making. This all gets rather complicated and may be somewhat beyond the scope of this particular forum so I’ll stop here before everyone’s eyes glaze over (haha).

lis

Very helpful post – I got a DSLR camera a year ago and am still learning the bells and whistles. Can’t wait to play with the aperture after reading this excellent article!

Teresa

And now I know why all of my interior photographs look like crap and why all my landscapes look so much better. I just thought I was terrible at indoor photography. Talk about a duh moment. I literally just came from the photography store hoping to find a lens to help me as I will be taking interior photos on Monday and I didn’t have a clue. Can’t wait to try out your tips!!!

CM

thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you!

These tips will be put to use.

xx / http://www.hometohem.com

Jessica

This is an excellent set of tips! Took me a long time (esp with film – oy, am I dating myself here?) to get these down pat! One thing to add, having an ‘eye’ for staging a room takes practice. Don’t get discouraged, just keep shooting!

Colleen Pastoor

Excellent tips! Spending the time to stage and photographing straight on are the two things that have made a real difference in my photography of interiors and real estate. Thanks for keeping it simple!

susan

This could not have come at a better time. Thank you D*S! I was juuust about to try shooting a couple of interiors for my new site/line, this willhelp me give them the the push I need, and the polish I’m hoping for (and was, til now, mystified about how to achieve). : )

Rachel

We use to get the most beautiful natural light in our home until 2 years ago when a giant ugly building was built right up to our property line. With much coercing they painted the exterior white so we would get a reflection, but our beautiful large white loft is always dim now. Our walls are also floor to ceiling glass (15 ft high)and we still barely get any nice light. What do you do when you run into a problem like that? Its really sad…

Meg Kemner

Great tips and – for the most part – I couldn’t agree more… with a BUT. I’ve been doing photo production for a solid 9 years now, and used to swear by Photoshop exclusively, same reasons you mentioned. A year or two ago, I finally incorporated Lightroom, and it COMPLETELY changed my workflow. If you haven’t given it a solid shot, I really can’t recommend it enough – take some time and get familiar. It makes everything go sooooo much faster – culling and color and all. I do the vast majority of my Raw processing and color corrections using LR now, and while I highly recommend it for professionals to expedite workflow, it’s also a little more user-friendly for novice photographers. PS is still where it’s at for retouching, but there’s no loss from the data or edits you make when you’re outputting from LR. I’ve turned into a total geek about it (obviously) but it really has helped that much.
Just my 2 cents!

donna mallard

Such a great post! Lots of good advice presented in a very clear manner. Thanks!

Daphne

Thanks for this. It never dawned on me to shoot straight. All along I’ve been complicating my life by shooting corners. Haha.

Marilynn Taylor

Timing of this article could not have been better. Just bought a 5D Canon and have no idea how to use it! So excited to try these tips in manual mode. Great interior shots, here we come! Thanks!

Hollie @ I'm Busy Procrastinating

I have read many a photography tip. These are quite useful. I shoot mostly interiors for my blog and have been attached to my wide angle lens. It doesn’t seem to create a fisheye, but I do notice that most interiors shots I’m drawn to are closer in. I am a details person in real life, so it’s funny that I tend not to focus on those in my photography. Perhaps it’s because my styling isn’t my best talent.

My favorite tip is about moving things to either give yourself more room for a shot, or to remove distracting things from a shot. I’m a very literal person so I tend to take “actual life” photos rather than “styled for photography” photos, but the latter are much more pleasing to look at!

Lena

Thank you for this fantastic guide. I have a Camera Canon 500D and have never really used it. I have always wanted to and it is just a month ago that I decided now was the time to get started and learn how to take pictures. I have always envied those who could take those incredible images that you see on blogs. Guides like this really helps get my dream started! Thanks!

Liam

Excellent publish, very informative!!! You have accentuated the best points. A must read article for every one who is into this niche.

Megan

I’m trying to learn more about interior photography for my blog and portfolio. Thanks for these tips!

Elvira

Max, thank you … especially for recommending natural light only! It makes such a great difference but I would’t have tried on my own :) … —http://elvirastein.com/photo/zuhause-bei-mistress.html

Victor

Thank you for a great article!
I would add a that possible to use HDR technique together with natural light.

David Eichler

“Who is anybody to tell you what looks good?” I guess it depends upon what the photos are for. If they are solely for the purpose of self expression, then, yes, maybe just follow your own preferences as to the look of the photos. However, if your purpose is to use the photos to market your products or services, then I think it is essential to consider how potential clients will respond to your marketing images. If you haven’t been able to test this for yourself, then it seems to me that the kind of photography you can find published in high-quality architecture and interior design books and magazines (both the editorial illustrations and the advertisements) is a good place to start to determine the kind of looks that sell.

Tim Collins

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.

Joyce Rivera

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.

Raquel Bianca

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!!!

Nico

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

John Humble

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.

Wendy

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.

Glyn

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 :)

Brad

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.

Yusuf

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.

Chariss

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! :)

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