It’s hard to escape the huge number of incredible images of interiors floating around on the web, whether they’re on Instagram, Pinterest, Google Images, or any other photo service. While many seem completely out of reach, in terms of the sheer opulence of the lifestyles they represent, the quality of the images themselves can also feel unattainable to mere-mortal photographers. The simple fact is that many of the techniques and practices of great interior photographers are well within our grasp. In this article, I will look at how almost anyone can apply some simple methods to help elevate their interior photography to a higher level.
Try switching off the lights
You may have a specific desire to feature interior lighting in your photos. For example, if you run a restaurant, which has architectural lighting that is an integral part of the room’s design and ambience, then you would be foolish not to show this in your marketing photos. Just be careful to always balance the colour temperature of different lighting with gels or during post production. On the other hand, if your lighting is more functional, it may well give you more problems than benefits. For example, recessed down-lights can create very uneven lighting, while a combination of ceiling and wall lighting can cast multiple shadows. Meanwhile, a mixture of tungsten, fluorescent and LED lighting can mean a veritable rainbow of different colour casts within a space. While our eyesight is smart enough to compensate for these inconsistencies to the point that we hardly notice, a camera records what is there, warts and all. If you need to use artificial lighting to compensate for an otherwise dark space, it’s may well be better to introduce this yourself in a controlled way, using soft boxes or scrims to create soft, even, wraparound lighting, with consistent colour. Where possible, if enough natural light enters the space through windows, this is probably the best starting point, to which daylight balanced lighting can be added.
Always shoot in raw
I never understood why so many photographers insist with a completely JPEG workflow. OK, it’s generally quicker than shooting in raw, because there is only one stage of editing/post-processing involved and files are much smaller; but by throwing away so much image information with heavily compressed JPEG files, you’re also throwing away much of the latitude you have for controlling exposure and colour balance. Processing raw files with software such as Adobe Lightroom gives you so much more scope for lifting shadows, bringing back highlights, and applying filters, either globally or locally than working with JPEGs straight into Photoshop. I would recommend every photographer, regardless of their field to develop a raw workflow.
Using layers in post production can have a number of benefits. For a start it’s one of the ways that you can balance out zones of differing colour temperature caused by interior lighting: by carefully erasing and blending colour corrected layers, a uniform colour temperature can be created across the whole image. Layers are also a good way of unifying exposure between areas of very different brightness: used bracketed exposure and then carefully erase and blend brighter and darker areas to create a more uniform result. This is a more natural way of achieving an unnoticed, rather than obvious, HDR image than using in camera HDR or a Photoshop plugin. In both cases, remember to use feathered brushes that are an appropriate size and don’t rush. A graphics tablet may be a useful addition to your editing hardware for this sort of work. This is a long process and sometimes difficult to get right, but with practice, working in this way results in a far more controlled image than trying to automate the process.
Another technique that can be used very effectively to manage exposure across an image is to use dodge and burn tools. These will allow quite a surgical approach to balancing exposure, but make no mistake, they cannot bring back information that isn’t there, so if you’re not careful overexposed or burned out areas can take on a nasty grey hue if over-burned, while all sorts of grainy artefacts can appear from deep shadows if they are over-dodged. Use this technique in conjunction with layers for a higher quality result.
Design is everything
When shooting an interior, it’s very tempting to grab the widest lens you have and get as far into the corner of the room as possible, taking in the broadest vista possible. However, this is rarely a good decision from an image design point of view and will probably end up showing an unnatural and difficult to interpret scene, with much of the really interesting stuff you want to show getting lost and much of the really dull stuff, like plain white ceilings and plain carpeted floors, taking up a lot of your frame. This is also a sure fire way to get all sorts of lens distortions creeping in. Much better to view the room from different points, considering basic design elements like shape, line, movement, rhythm, symmetry and depth, then use these to create an engaging image. Later, in post-production, use the same techniques described above, along with techniques like selective saturation and sharpening, to emphasise particular shapes or colours within your design. If there is a particular element that you want to showcase within a shot, try creating light paths or using vignettes to draw the viewer in. All of these things take a little practice, but used with care, each adds subtly to the overall visual impact of your image and will soon become second nature.
The delight is in the detail
Don’t just be tempted to shoot big. In addition to showcasing the larger elements of a space, explore the smaller features, nooks and crannies and oddities that are lost in wider shots. They often help to tell the story of an environment and to provide a little intrigue for the viewer. Treat your assignment like a you are a young child exploring a place for the first time, bringing a little magic to the shoot.
Very basic stuff
If you’re working on an interior photo, or any image for that matter, make sure that everything that needs to be sharp, is sharp! Don’t, for example, simply open up your lens or ramp up the camera sensitivity to compensate for low light; use a tripod and a longer exposure in order to manage the least problematic parameter of your exposure. Take the trouble to shoot a grey card so that you have a reference point for colour balance later; I’m always surprised at how many photographers would rather spend ten minutes fighting with colour in post than 1/250th of a second shooting a grey card.
Make sure you de-clutter the space you’re shooting in to get rid of any elements that are a distraction within your shot. Again, taking the time to remove a vase, chair, table, or piece of wall art that isn’t doing your composition any favours is massively quicker than having to clone them out afterwards. Chances are that you will be shooting out of hours, so there is no reason to avoid a little tidy up before a shoot. By the same token, you may want to introduce elements into a frame that won’t naturally be there, adding a little interest or balancing up something on the other side of your frame.
Broaden your vision
While tilting and pivoting on camera screens and live view mode can enable us to see what is going on quite effectively, even if our camera is in an awkward position or pointing at an unusual angle, I still find it useful to connect a larger screen via HDMI or USB. Depending upon the circumstances of the shoot, this might be a 7″ field monitor or my laptop. I just find that this really helps me to get into the composition of the image far more than a tiny camera screen. If you are working with someone else who you may need to discuss the compositions with as you shoot, having a larger image to view is also very advantageous. Most field monitors also have focus peaking built into them, so you can check critical focus as you work.
Work with a shopping list
Before you start shooting, take a little time to explore the space you’re photographing before you begin and note down items of interest, things to avoid, potential lighting issues and so on. You wouldn’t visit the supermarket without a clue of what you wanted to buy and the same applies here. Even if you’re working in a familiar environment, take a little time to explore it during down time, so that you can see it clear of distractions.
Creating great interior photographs, like many other areas of photography, is just as much about applying a little straight-forward know how, as it is about art. OK, it takes practice, but if you run through a simple checklist every time you turn on your camera, the items on that checklist soon embed themselves. Over time, you assimilate the ideas discussed above into your working practices on an almost subconscious level, so it may appear like you have some mystical innate talent, but in reality you’re simply applying the tricks of the trade.
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