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In this article you'll learn some of the tips and secrets to lighting and staging a room for great interior photos. These include how to approach lighting, flash, styling, where to position yourself, and how to stay creative.
This article does not deal with camera settings, but rather with the general principles to getting the perfect shot and making sure the scene looks good. Some general camera tips, however, include shooting above f/6.3 to allow good depth of field and shooting at a low ISO to avoid noise. Other than that, it all depends on the situation you're in.
For the purposes of this article, interior photography refers to architectural photography of interiors, not to be confused with general photography indoors. Interior photography is a great photography niche to have skills in, as many companies, real estate agents and publications are always in need of good interior shots.
1. Lighting Is Key to Making the Shot
With indoor shots more than anywhere else, lighting is key.
To start, first turn on every light in the room. This helps add depth and color variance to the scene. Make sure there are no reflections from lights on pictures, mirrors and windows and then look to see if you need additional external lights.
When I'm shooting an interior, I like to do it with natural light when possible, but sometimes you have to add some extra lighting. In that situation, you can use either small flash units or large strobes. I use a combination of both. We'll detail this more later.
You want the light to flow naturally in your picture and help lead the eye. In pictures, large white spaces draw the eye in, so avoid blown out areas as much as possible, such as windows. With that said, it is now more acceptable to leave windows and doors blown out than in the past. Many major publications do it, but use your eye and you can usually tell if it's too much and looks distracting.
You want your lighting to be transparent, and you want people to know it's there, but you don't want them to be able to figure out how you did it. Your goal is natural-looking, realistic lighting across the whole frame.
2. Flash Is Your Friend
As mentioned in step one, lighting makes the shot. With this in mind, flash is a must in many situations where lighting is dim or you need to balance daylight and indoor lights to make a natural scene.
Small portable flashes, such as a Nikon SB 900 or Canon Speedlite 580EX II, are great for quickly setting and spreading light in a dark or underlit room. I also use larger strobe units, such as Alien Bees or Westcott Spiderlites. Larger units allow for greater distribution of light, but can be bulky and a hassle to setup. Know your setting beforehand to choose the best solution for each situation.
For best results, I typically aim the flashes or strobes at a flat surface, such as a wall or ceiling off camera. This acts as a large softbox and projects the light through the room. Be careful to not bounce the light off "bold" colored walls, such as deep blues, reds and purples. This could cause some of the tint to reflect causing a red light in the picture, almost like the flash was gelled.
The key to good lighting is trial and error, as every room is different and every light source is different. Start by setting up your shot on a tripod with no lights, then add one light at a time and check your results.
3. Flash Is Your Enemy
Yes, you read correctly. While flashes can be very helpful, they can also be your worst nightmare.
An off-camera flash can be a powerful thing that must be used wisely. As I wrote earlier, I like to try using natural light sources first and then see what needs to be lit with a flash.
Natural light can sometimes get the job done, like in the above picture, but you may need to bracket your exposure and edit in Adobe Photoshop to ensure the picture looks perfect. When you shoot with no flashes, you are at the mercy of the weather and natural lighting.
One way to help shoot with just natural light is to shoot with longer exposure times, such as a few seconds. This allows the camera to soak up the light, but be careful, this can easily blow out windows and doors.
Sometimes the best light can be the one around you, so always look first and see what your canvas presents before setting everything up…it might save you a long setup.
4. Styling Is an Important Part of the Shoot
Whether you're shooting interior photos for a magazine or for a real estate agent, styling of the room is an important step in the process. Just like models need time to apply makeup for studio shoots, you need to allow time to clean the room to prep for the shoot.
De-cluttering is important to help remove distractions for the eye. In particular, watch for piles of stuff, coffee tables full of magazines, too many "kitsch" items sitting on a bookcase, etc. These things clutter a picture and can be distracting in the final shot.
Treat every shoot like a shoot for a magazine and stage the room. On that note:
5. Everything Is Staged Anyway
Usually when you're shooting interiors, it's for a very distinct reason, and usually that includes showing off the room and making it look attractive. Since the owner has a reason for you to be there, the room has usually been staged or refined for the picture before you arrive.
Thus, you're not taking a picture of what the room really looks like in most cases, but instead a picture of what the owner wants to portray.
With this in mind, don't be afraid to move furniture, decorative items, etc. I've had to move couches and rearrange living rooms before to take better advantage of lighting and placement.
Many things can be fixed or corrected in Adobe Photoshop, but it's a good idea to try and correct as much in person to save you time and hassle.
6. Shoot Into the Corner
This is one of the most important tips to interior photography and it's very simple: shoot into the corner of a room to make the space appear larger.
Just like how mirrors work, shooting into a corner makes a room appear larger and more livable. Take this tip a step further by shooting from a low position and a with a wide lens, but not too wide to avoid distortion.
When you shoot straight at a wall, it can make the room seem flat, and sometimes walls can end up bending oddly on camera. Look through any major interior magazine and you'll see the corner of the room is the best place to shoot towards.
7. Let the Interior Tell the Story
Look for unique ways to capture a location's personality and showcase its true character.
If the building is an old brick house, look for unique brick details you can highlight. If it's an ultra-sleek modern building, look for unique light patterns or quirky architectural details.
Every interior and building has a story, so a good way to succeed is to find it and capture it for your client. Along these lines, if you use too much fake light, it will show, as it's not the same interior they are used to seeing.
8. Get Creative
This is one of those tips I always recommend to people. Get creative with your shots and don't be afraid to try something new.
Try new things with lighting (maybe use a gelled flash) or shoot with a zoom lens. Each photo is yours to experiment with, and usually you'll end up with something that actually looks good that maybe you weren't expecting. Even if you don't, it might give you an idea for something else to try.
Angles can work great for some close up shots, but watch out: inside it can make walls look like they're crashing down.
Have Fun and Good Luck
Interior photography can take you to interesting places and get your work noticed by lots of people. Each shoot presents new lighting challenges and new spaces to work with which makes interior photography a great skill to know.
These tips represent a starting point for some fundamentals that will help guide you in your setup and picture taking.
On top of all the tips I've mentioned, have fun and good luck with shooting interiors!