I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I seem to have become an interior photographer. Life, as they say, is full of surprises. I actually took a degree in documentary photography and I had no ambitions in working commercially. Then one thing led to another and here I am, shooting interiors for architects, hotels and design companies here in Italy and beyond.
What I’m trying to say is that I’m not your classic architectural photographer. My background and motivation has always been more conceptual than technical. As a professional, I try to balance these two aspects in my work.
So I’m going to try and set down in this article my approach to interior photography. It’s a complicated subject that requires a variety of skills so I’ll split it into two parts. In this first part we’ll look at equipment, some technical basics and composition. In Part 2 we’ll cover lighting and post-production.
You could probably start interior photography with nothing more than a camera, a lens and a tripod. How successful you’ll be will depend on what you’re photographing and how demanding your client is. If you’re lucky, your first location will be spacious, tidy and well lit and the client will be happy with the results. “That wasn’t so hard” you’ll be thinking to yourself.
Unfortunately, life is never so easy. The next space will probably be small, untidy and with hardly any light. You’ll scratch your head and pace around the room wondering what’s gone wrong. I know the feeling. Interior photography is almost entirely about solving problems: light, colour, reflections, space and time will all seem to conspire against you.
Having the right equipment is going to help you manage some of these problems. It won’t help much, but it will help. There is no magic wand to wave around because each interior space requires its own particular solution. It’s never easy. You should also bear in mind that successful images are not only the result of technique or technology: they depend as much on the taste and creativity of the photographer, so try to develop your own visual culture as much as possible.
As far as equipment is concerned my advice is to start with the basics and build up your kit slowly as you understand what it is you really need. The equipment I take out on a job depends on a number of factors.. for example; am I working alone or with an assistant? Is it a public space with people moving around? Will there be models in the scene? Who is the client and what are their requirements? Here’s my basic kit. I won’t include lighting yet as we will deal with that in Part 2:
Nikon D800 with remote release. This is my workhorse. It produces beautiful files with great dynamic range and in all these years it has never let me down. As a professional that kind of reliability is priceless.
Nikkor 16-35mm f4 – For some spaces 16mm is useful but this is really as wide as I would go. Any wider just starts to look unnatural for my taste and objects close to the lens will become elongated or fall away. Use with caution and keep it straight at all times!
Nikkor 24mm PC – perspective control (PC) lenses are not cheap but they are something of a must-have for interior and architectural photographers. They basically allow you to look up or down without tilting the camera, thereby avoiding converging verticals (plus some other handy tricks). For interiors everything needs to be straight. It’s true that you can correct things in post-production but if you do that you’re never sure exactly how much of the frame you’re going to lose. With a PC lens, what you see is exactly what you get. It’s much more precise and there are no wasted pixels.
Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 – zooms are also useful for interiors as they allow you to work and compose more quickly. As far as focal length goes, I hardly ever need anything longer than a 70mm so with the three lenses I’ve listed here I can do pretty much everything.
77mm polariser – again, this is a must-have. The polariser can remove those annoying reflections from glass or any shiny surface like cabinets and wooden floors.
Working with a tripod is another must for interior photography. For a start, you’ll be making long exposures at small apertures to keep everything in focus. You’ll probably also be making multiple exposures to blend later in post-production so having a sturdy tripod becomes essential. But, perhaps even more importantly, using a tripod ensures that you slow down and take a more considered approach to each image. Interiors should never be rushed. The Manfrotto 055 carbon tripod is both light and sturdy. It’s also extremely flexible with a centre column that can be flipped horizontally, allowing me to squeeze the camera into tight spaces. For interiors the Manfrotto Junior geared head allows me to make micro adjustments for precise framing. I love it. I’ll also use a short column in the tripod for those shots that need to be really low to the ground.
Composition is really important in interiors. It’s not just about describing the space but also letting you enter that space and touch the surfaces. There are generally three types of photograph that I’m looking to make; the hero shot, the detail and what I call the ‘navigator’. Let’s take each one in turn.
The first thing I do when I enter a room is find the best angle, or angles for the ‘hero’ shot: this is the main, single photo that will present the room on a website or in a brochure. It is always my starting point and it’s the shot I’ll devote most time to in terms of getting the composition, lighting and styling right. Sometimes I get to visit the location and meet the client before taking on the job. In that case I like to make some quick snaps so that I can already start thinking about the lighting and styling I’ll need for each space. Here’s an example; the shot on the left was made while scouting the location. The shot on the right was the final image made during the shoot some weeks later.
A hero shot is usually wide-angle and will include as much of the room as possible without going to extreme (focal) lengths. I’m looking for the angle that shows the most important elements in terms of architecture or furniture, and that offers the best lighting. For small rooms there’s probably only one hero shot worth taking. For larger spaces there might be two or even three.
As with most subjects in photography, things take on an added depth when shooting towards the light, so I’d usually be looking to have a window in front of me. I’d very rarely have the main window behind me as the light would be too flat. Again, I’m not going into lighting right now. You’ll need to check out Part 2 for that. For now just bear in mind that when searching for the hero shot, I usually have a window in front of me.
Once I’ve found the right angle, I’ll move objects and furniture to balance the composition. I’m trying to create a certain effect when someone looks at the image; first of all, I want them to be able to ‘walk’ into the room with their eyes, so I leave space for them to so, avoiding any barriers that prevent them from getting in there. Having entered, I want their eyes to stay in the picture for as long as possible, so I’ll position things in the corners or at the side which will force the viewer back into the centre of the image. Look at the shot below, for example, and notice how the objects lead the viewer back into the space.
Whist moving things around, keep an eye on contact points between different objects. It’s important that each element, whenever possible, has it’s own space and that things don’t appear to ‘touch’ or overlap in an uncomfortable way. Depending on the client and the type of space you’re photographing you might need to remove some pieces of furniture or ornaments to make things tidier and suggest more space. You might also need to introduce some objects or style the room in some way with maybe books and magazines, flowers or some fresh fruit.
Once I’ve got the hero shot out of the way then I’ll shoot some details that reveal something of the style, the history or the atmosphere of the place. I’m looking for any interesting surfaces, objects or design elements. This is the part that I enjoy the most because I draw on my documentary background. I work quite spontaneously for these shots and it’s a great chance to play with the natural light or with architectural features like doorways, staircases and windows.
It’s nice to help viewers create a kind of mental map of the location you’re photographing. To do this I try to include a series of pictures that lead the viewer through the space. And in each picture I’ll position an element that appears again in a following image, like a point of reference. Take a look at the example below and keep your eye on that wooden chair with the red seat on the far right. I’ve deliberately placed (and sometimes moved) it to act as a reference. Other elements like tables and doors are also helpful in mapping out a space.
Ok, that’s as far as I’m going to go for Part 1. So remember, when shooting interiors:
- Take your time (if possible!) and look closely at the position of all the elements in the frame.
- Leave space for the viewer to ‘enter’ the image.
- Keep your lines straight and don’t be afraid to move things around to balance the composition.
- Use a reference to make one image lead to the next.
It’s easy to miss something and tethering to a laptop on location will make it easier to spot problems on a larger screen. For more complex shoots or advertising campaigns I tether wireless from my Nikon to a MacBook Pro using CamRanger which works really well.
PART 2 . . . All the images shown here have been made with a mixture of natural light, HDR blending and flash. Lighting and post-production are a big part of interior photography and I’ll be covering this in the next article, so keep an eye out for Part 2 coming soon.