Interiors photography is the twin of architectural photography – the latter, of course, concentrating on photography of building exteriors, the former on the internal design. Both, in fact, represent different facets of architecture and are quite inseparable from one another. They can often be seen as opposite sides of the same coin.
That said, interiors photography does use rather different techniques to those employed in external architectural photography. Interiors photography is one of the most challenging photographic genres, due to the extremes in internal light levels, ranging from deep shadows in hidden corners to blinding light in front of windows. The skilled interiors photographer’s challenge is to correctly expose all parts of an internal space, both dark and bright, in the final images.
In this blog, we explore and explain many of the techniques needed for successful interiors photography. We look at the multiple challenges faced when photographing the internal environment and then illustrate ways to overcome them.
Table of contents
1. Photography of wide views of interiors and its challenges
2. Focusing distance, depth of field and the amount of light
3. Natural versus artificial light
4. Converging parallels
6. Photography of details
Building interiors can, of course, range from the vastest of awe-inspiring public spaces, built to impress at one extreme, all the way down to the smallest domestic bathrooms at the other end of the scale. All may deserve to be photographed for various reasons, but each comes with its share of challenges.
In exteriors photography, the subject of interest is normally quite some distance away – at what is known as ‘optical infinity’ – and bathed in a reasonable amount of light. However, things are generally not quite so benign when it comes to interiors. Here, the 'view' is normally only a few metres away, and it’s usually necessary to use a wide-angle lens to capture as much of the internal space as possible. More often than not, it’s also important to have all of it in focus.
To ensure everything is in focus, a large depth of field is needed – something which is helped by using a wide-angle lens but confirmed by setting a narrow lens aperture (i.e. a high f-number), despite light levels being low.
You also need to allow more light into the camera than a narrow lens aperture will allow. You could put the ISO up, increasing the sensor's sensitivity, but this will massively reduce the quality of your final images. By far the best and most usual solution is to use a tripod. This way, the ISO can remain low to maintain image quality, and the narrow lens aperture can be compensated for through long exposures. In theory, at least, the exposures can be as long as you like – as long as they’re balanced with the lens aperture to give correct exposure of the sensor. Exposures for interiors photography are regularly several seconds long but can be up to 30 seconds and more.
With interior light levels naturally rather low, there’s often the temptation to turn on all the lights, which may or may not be a great idea. To some extent, the use of a room's artificial lighting is a subjective matter of taste, but it can be effective in creating mood as well as simply providing more light.
However, artificial lighting can create bright, burned-out highlights, deep shadows in areas where the lighting doesn't quite reach, and lighting flare in the lens. There’s also the problem of mixed lighting sources – not just artificial lights versus daylight coming through windows, but of the different types of artificial light, each which generate light of a different colour temperature. The camera's white balance mechanism can easily cope with and balance against one type of lighting, but it struggles with several.
Of course, there are times when you’ll have no choice but to use whatever artificial light is available – usually if shooting at night, in a room with no windows, or in a public space where you don't have control of the light switches! In these situations, you just have to pay very close attention to the problems mentioned above.
In the past, it was perhaps common for interiors photographers to use their own studio lights (for reasons we’ll come onto), but today, this is much less common bar perhaps the occasional use of a small light to fill an area of inconvenient shadow.
As with architectural photography, a technically correct style of photography entails keeping the camera back vertical and parallel to the walls to ensure there are no converging parallels.
However, when photographing in a vast interior, such as a cathedral or a large theatre or museum, the photographer is likely to face the same challenge as they would outdoors: having to tilt the camera back to get the full height into the frame.
In this instance, though, it's made worse by the fact that, indoors, there will almost certainly be very limited space in which to back away to make the view easier to shoot. The result is an image with converging parallels, with the convergence becoming more extreme as the space to back away becomes more limited.
Of course, indoor spaces are usually relatively small, and interiors photography will consist of shooting a sequence of rooms, mostly with a wide-angle lens, to show as much of the room as possible. In this scenario, keeping the camera back vertical to prevent the problem of converging parallels will normally result in images containing too much less-than-exciting ceiling and not enough of the more interesting floor space and its furniture.
For this reason, it’s usually necessary to point the camera downwards a little to reduce the amount of ceiling and show off the more interesting parts of the room.
You now have the problem of converging parallels, but the reverse of the normal exterior situation – i.e. the walls are now leaning outwards, sometimes quite alarmingly so. As with exteriors, many people have become rather used to seeing interiors shot in this way and barely notice the leaning walls anymore. Yet – to my mind, at least – it does look quite perturbing – more so than the converging parallels of exterior photography, and most of the time, it should be corrected.
Indeed, good quality interiors photography, more often than not, does rely on avoiding converging parallels. But how can this be done without showing off loads of ceiling and not enough floor space?
The key to success is a combination of two techniques. The first is to use a shift lens, which is a type of lens that slides up and down on a rack, enabling the camera to look up or down without the camera having to be tilted, allowing the camera back to stay vertical and parallel to the walls.
The second technique is to use a perspective correction tool in post-photography image processing software, such as Adobe Photoshop. The importance of such tools simply cannot be underestimated in terms of the positive impact they’ve had on improving the quality of interiors photography, especially in recent years.
Windows present a huge challenge to interiors photography. Inevitably, during the day, external light is much more intense than inside. While the human eye can comfortably see everything both outside and inside simultaneously, neither film nor the digital sensor can accommodate such a huge contrast range.
When photographing an interior containing a window, the photographer will find that if they expose correctly for the room, the view through the window will be burned out. If they expose for the outside scene, then the interior will be impossibly dark. Many photographer’s default course of action is the former, simply letting the outside view burn out, especially if that view isn't particularly attractive.
However, it’s increasingly expected that this contrast range is resolved, allowing the creation of images that simultaneously show both the internal scene and the exterior view. There are several possible ways to do this.
One method is to use studio flashlights to increase the internal ambient light to something closer to the outside. Unfortunately, this does require quite powerful lighting, is very time-consuming, and if not done to perfection, will generate bright highlights and unnatural shadows in all the wrong places. Camera-mounted flashguns are rarely, if ever, adequate for this task.
A second method is to shoot only at either dawn or dusk. There is a short window of about 15 minutes or so when the internal light balances the outside at both these times. This method works well provided you have access to the interior at those times, can spot when those 15 minutes are and are able to complete the shoot in such a short space of time.
Today, the most common solution is to use post-photography processing software, usually either Adobe Photoshop or Capture One Pro. The first step is to take a series of shots of the view(s) containing the window at different exposures. Each image must have identical composition, so a tripod is an absolute must.
If shooting on a dull, cloudy day, it may be possible to get away with processing just one of these images, as the latest versions of these programmes – particularly the latter – are incredibly good at diving into, and pulling up details from, both deep shadows and bright highlights. On a brighter day, the contrast range is likely to be too great, and it will be necessary to resort to HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography. This consists of blending the differently exposed images to create a single image, correctly exposed across its range, usually managed in Photoshop or a dedicated programme such as Photomatix.
Doing this can produce very good results, but they can also be quite variable, with some shots appearing a little unnatural.
Photography of interiors details will often require a telephoto lens, even though the shooting distance is likely to be relatively short. Subject matter will often be a mixture of design details created by the architect and decorative features produced by the people occupying that space. Examples of the former can include such things as the way a sequence of rooms 'interact' with one another through a series of doors or a corridor, staircase design (or a segment thereof), the shape and design of a fireplace, or the interplay of light coming through a window on any of these.
When photographing decorative artefacts, it’s important to remember (especially for the professional photographer) that some of these might be copyrighted materials. So it’s essential not to simply photograph that painting above the fireplace, for example, but rather to include it in a shot that describes its role within the room's design – in this case, above the fireplace.
Other potentially worrying details include furniture (or parts), the arrangement of cushions and pillows on a bed, bedside lights, or the alignment of chairs and their colours in a café. The potential list is endless, of course, and it is up to the photographer to practise how to spot little photogenic cameo details within the wider scene.
As with wide views of whole rooms, lighting and depth of field are challenges for photography of details, but converging parallels are likely to be much less so, especially if shot using a telephoto lens, and provided it is possible to set the camera up (on a tripod) at the same height as the detail.
Pulling it all together
As we now know, interiors photography comes loaded with its own particular set of challenges. To overcome them requires a firm grasp of technique, the right kind of equipment, and an understanding of the need for and methods of using post-photography image processing software.
Perhaps more than any other genre of photography, interiors photography is heavily dependent on the integration of camera and computer into the workflow.
This blog was written by Nigel Hicks, a hugely experienced Devon-based professional photographer. Nigel works with the USA's prestigious National Geographic Image Collection, among many other bodies, and is a Fellow of the British Institute of Professional Photography.
To find out more about Nigel's work, take a tour of the website at www.nigelhicks.com.
If you're a photographer, you need to protect your camera and accessories against theft, loss, and damage with our specialist camera insurance.
Our bespoke cover can be tailored to fit your exact requirements, so you only pay for what you need.