4 Easy Low-tech Ways to Improve Your Interior Photography with a Point-and-Shoot or Cellphone Camera
Four low-tech suggestions for improving your interior photography:
Compose your shot thoughtfully
Manage the light
Brace the camera
Groom the set
So I’m not going to lie to you, shooting interior photos is trickier than shooting outside. Outside, the sun graciously offers its output to benefit us all and makes our photography easier. Our problems photographing architecture outside more often relate to too much light, or light in the wrong place, both of which can often be solved by changing our position or maybe just waiting a while.
But shooting inside is trickier. Indoors we’re often faced with not enough light, or too big a range between where we do have light (coming in the window), and where we don’t have it but want it (in that fancy new kitchen or office space). Problems of adding light, or balancing inside and outside light, are issues that professionals work to solve their entire careers and that I’ll touch on in the fourth and final post in this series.
In the meantime, let’s look at four easy ways you can improve your interior photography when working with just the light that’s available and only using a simple point-and-shoot camera, or even your cellphone camera. None of these suggestions are very technical but all are tips that should help you improve your interiors photography without much photographic knowledge or sophisticated gear.
If you haven’t already done so, please read the first two posts in this series 6 Architectural Photography Mistakes to Avoid and How to Take Better Architectural Photos with your Cellphone or a Point-and-Shoot Camera . Both of those posts contain information that’s relevant for shooting indoors as well. Pay special attention to the following tips as we’ll be referencing them again:
For our current purposes of improving your interior photos, we’re going to concentrate on four specific things, in this order:
- choosing and composing your shot
- managing the natural and artificial light
- removing camera shake with a brace or tripod
- specifics for grooming the set
Choosing & Composing your Shot
Since we’re discussing the easiest, most low-tech ways to improve your photos of interiors, certainly the first and easiest way simply has to be choosing where and how you point the camera. Move your feet! Be sure to see my earlier post on Perspective Control and Point of View, but specifically:
- Remember to hold the camera so that the lines of the room are parallel and perpendicular to the lines of the camera frame. This becomes more and more important as your view gets wider and wider angled. A tripod helps to lock the camera down and avoid small tips and tilts that can have a big impact in the final image (see also 3. Remove Camera Shake below).
- Unless you’re trying to sell acoustic ceiling tiles or new carpeting, don’t show too much ceiling or floor. Nobody needs to see how smooth and white the ceiling is.
- Finally, remember that this is a three dimensional space that you are flattening in to two dimensions in your photograph (more on this below, too). How can you add depth back in to the space so viewers get a sense of its size and volume? Can you add something to the far background, down the hallway for example? Can you photograph the room by standing in an entry or adjoining space and shooting through a doorway or arch to add to the near foreground? When trying to creatively compose the shot, think about how you can frame it from above, below, behind, or through something else.
Managing the Light, Natural and Artificial
As mentioned above, when we’re photographing inside we’re often faced with the problem of too much light where we don’t want it, and not enough light where we do. Our eyes and brain are so much more sensitive to light variations than even the most expensive cameras, that what looks good in person often looks like a black hole or a glowing ball of white hot fire in a photograph. The contrast can ruin details in the final photo, and also just look very unnatural and amateurish.
When you’re picking your spot to photograph from and starting to compose your image, tip number one for managing the existing light is to avoid pointing your camera directly at a window. Move yourself so that you’re shooting with the window to your side or almost all the way around at your back. Your viewer will still get the sense of natural light spilling in to the space without staring right at it, while your camera will have an easier time finding the right exposure if there isn’t glowing window light in the frame.
Another option is to cover a window by closing blinds or drapes, but this often looks pretty unnatural especially when it’s so obviously bright daylight outside. However, carefully aligning blinds or shutters can cut down on the harshest light while still allowing little slivers of view to peek through, and can be a good compromise option.
Once you’ve picked your spot and roughly framed your shot, tip number two is to pay attention to the artificial lights in the space. Generally you want them either all on, or all off. If the room is bright enough that you don’t need them on, and they aren’t a unique feature of the space, then leaving them all off is safest and is also more in line with the current, casual style of interior photography – especially for magazines. However if you would like to add some life to the fixtures and some light to the room, try turning them all on. In order to let their light make a difference, you’ll need to use a very long exposure (see Tip 3 below) and you’ll need to compensate for the different colors of light inside and outside with your white balance settings – see my previous post.
Both of these tips will help you manage the natural and artificial light in the room to reduce the contrast and allow your camera to make a better, more even exposure and avoid the kitchen-in-a-coal-mine look that viewers find very distracting.
You’ve picked your spot, roughly composed your shot, and set the interior lights where you want them. Now you need to finish framing your shot and allow for long exposures with a brace or tripod for the camera.
When the interior is dim, your camera’s automatic exposure settings will compensate by making a longer exposure to let more light in to the camera. Unfortunately, longer exposures mean more time for the camera to shake and jiggle if you’re holding it in your hands and nothing screams amateur photo more than unintentionally blurry!
Instead, brace or prop your camera on a table, stack of books, or other platform. Better yet, buy and use a mini or tabletop tripod like any of these that start at about $25.
To avoid shake, you’ll also need a way to trigger the camera without touching it – either an electronic or remote release if your camera accepts one, or just the self-timer feature works fine too. After all, architecture doesn’t move very fast! Many camera brands also now have available cell phone apps that will trigger the shutter, and third party apps can also do this for many models. Start by searching on your camera’s brand name, or try searching “camera trigger”, in your favorite app store.
Another reason to use a tripod is to control the framing of your shot more precisely. Once you align the floor and ceiling of the room with the horizontal edges of the camera frame, for instance, you can then lock down that axis while you pay attention to framing the vertical edges. Using a tripod means not having to steady the camera while also paying attention to the edges of your frame, all while hand-holding the camera and trying not to jiggle!
Groom the Set
Remember in my earlier post when we discussed the importance of taking just five minutes to tidy up the space? Well along those lines, once you’ve got your shot framed up and the lighting adjusted as best you can, spend a few minutes to tidy up the room before taking your photo. Composing and framing the shot first, before you groom the set, means knowing exactly what you need to move and where to put it so it’s not in your shot. Nothing’s worse than cleaning up one part of the room, only to discover you really want to shoot the other half where you just piled all the stuff!
Based on my past experience, here are some specific tips for tidying up common interior spaces for photography:
- Straighten faucet to the center of the sink
- All lights on or off, but not mixed; remember pendant, under cabinet, and range hood lights too
- Wipe down counters and appliances with cleaner (not water!) to remove smudges and handprints
- Hide cords on appliances by unplugging them and tucking under or behind.
- Watch your reflection in the many shiny surfaces.
- No awkward propping! Remember the 3 dimensions –> 2 dimensions discussion above? Your final image will lack the depth that human eyes can perceive, so be sure items in front of and behind each other do not overlap or at least overlap in a way that’s not awkward in 2 dimensions. If you’re not confident in your propping /styling decisions, don’t try to add too much. If in doubt, remove it! And please no overly large dried flower arrangements or 1990’s-era, dreamy inspirational sayings … [call-out to my long-time friend and photo assistant Brian Jones!]
- Just like a hotel, PLEASE close the toilet lid and tidy the roll of t.p.!
- Fold and straighten towels, center on towel bars, and straighten the shower curtain
- No cups, toothbrushes, shampoo, loofas, etc. on the vanity or in the shower area. Maybe a single bar of soap, but only if it’s new and fresh-looking.
- Wipe surfaces and faucets with cleaner, not water.
- Unless you have big windows in here, you’ll usually be shooting with the lights on. Don’t forget the shower light, be sure to set your color balance to match the light source, and brace the camera. Finally, leave the bright red heat lamps off, this isn’t Denny’s!
- Other residential interiors
- Fluff, straighten, and prop up pillows and throws; smooth fabrics – no wrinkles or sags!
- Again lights on or off, not mixed
- Fireplaces almost always want fires in them. They look empty, dark, and out of place without.
- Don’t over-prop, often removal is required to avoid visual overlaps. If in doubt, remove it!
- No black holes in the background – consider closing or pulling doors to hide rooms not part of the shot
- Watch out for junk and clutter outside that might be visible through the windows
- Office / professional spaces
- Often these spaces really need tidying. Remember to shoot pictures of EVERYTHING before you move ANYTHING. Use these photos to replace items precisely and save them for a few days in case there’s a claim of anything missing. Be sure not to include anything in the photo that might be private or proprietary.
- Hide trash cans, carpet protector chair pads, computer and phone cords.
- Align chairs with desks and each other. Straighten desk accessories, writing blotters, keyboards, etc. on desk tops.
- Align any window blinds so they all match – open / closed, tipped up / down; tuck away any cords or pull chains
- Again, if in doubt remove it (then be sure to put it back)!
Architectural and interior photography are specialties that are as much about patience and precision, as they are about art and creativity. The best images, and the best photographers, blend the two aspects without thinking much about it. If you’re trying to tackle these yourself, hopefully these four tips are a good place to get you started. But if it all seems a little overwhelming, remember as my colleague Alan Blakely in Salt Lake City once wrote, the easiest way to get professional results is to hire a professional!
We’ll be waiting.
See also my previous posts:
- 6 Architectural Photography Mistakes to Avoid
- How to Take Better Architectural Photos with your Cellphone or a Point-and-Shoot Camera
And subscribe to the blog in the lower right for the final update in the series coming later this spring:
- How Best to Use Your dSLR Camera for Better Architectural Photography and Interior Photos