Photography Technique

Photographing Interiors: My Revised Approach

Several months ago I shared two photographs of a kitchen to highlight the value of professional real estate photography. I now want to share a third photograph of the same kitchen.

Kitchen photographed using my new techniques for interior design photography

I am working on developing my expertise in architectural and interior design photography. In this photograph I employed my new workflow for this kind of photography. Here is the image I made previously for comparison.

Old photograph

New photograph

It’s not perfect, and there are some things I would still change, but my new photograph is very different from the previous version and is an improvement in several ways. First, I used a longer focal length to avoid some of the wide angle distortion in the old photograph. The longer focal length produces a more realistic feel for the space. Second, I adjusted my perspective to avoid converging horizontal lines. This perspective creates a simpler composition. Next, I used some light to fill in the big, black void outside the kitchen in the old photograph, which had always bothered me. That change gives the image a better flow. Finally, by controlling the light artificially in my new photograph, I created an image that I think has a lighter, cleaner feel to it, and that’s the feel you want from a kitchen. The light in the old photograph felt a little heavy to me, if that makes sense. It was too dramatic for that kind of space. The light in the new photograph is less complex but better suits the space. It also more accurately reproduces the color in the room.

Some spaces do benefit from more dramatic light. For example, check out this photograph of a penthouse room in Las Vegas.

Penthouse room with Las Vegas Strip view

The more dramatic lighting works here. (Look below for a view of the Strip from the balcony outside this room.)

As a fine art landscape photographer, I am trying to transfer a high level of artistry to my architectural and interior design work. I have added some new tools and techniques to my workflow to allow me to do that. I used to approach this type of photography exactly the way I do landscape photography from a technical perspective. Essentially, that means using available light only. That works great for landscape photography, but architectural and interior design photography requires something different.

In my interior design photography, I used to make several exposures to capture the ambient light in the scene at different levels, and then I would blend those exposures together to create an optimum final photograph. Software exists to perform this blending automatically--you may have heard of HDR software, which stands for high dynamic range. I do not use HDR software in any of my work--landscape or architectural--because it can result in unrealistic effects and usually introduces undesirable qualities to the photograph. Instead, I manually blend the photographs together so I have full control over what the final image looks like. That was the technique I used to create the older kitchen photograph.

I am now using off-camera flash to perform as much of this work in camera as possible. Not only do I avoid some of the post-processing work, I also have full control over the quality and direction of the light throughout the scene. Using only ambient light does not afford this level of control. In landscape photography I often wait for the right light to make my photograph--I control the light through patience over time. In architectural and interior design photography, not only do I not have the luxury of waiting for the right light, but it is also completely unnecessary because I can create the light I want artificially.

Fine art landscape photography and architectural photography complement each other well from my perspective, and my interest in architectural and interior design photography provides a way to expand my artistic capabilities. (It can also give me an opportunity to make a photograph of the Strip from a great perspective, as in the photograph below.) I really enjoy this kind of photography, and I’m looking forward to building my portfolio and my business in this area. Stay tuned for more updates on how I’m doing.

The Las Vegas Strip (click to enlarge)

Learning Photography: Technique Versus Artistry

Many photographers, especially new hobbyists, focus attention on learning the technical details of the art. For example, you buy a new camera. Now you need to learn how to use it. You learn how to adjust the exposure, set the ISO, choose the white balance, and so on. Then you learn other skills like how the f-stop affects depth of field, and what types of settings and/or filters to use to create silky waterfall photographs.

Big Spring in the Narrows, Zion National Park

These are all technical details. They are important, but they are relatively easy to learn. I can teach someone the fundamental techniques of digital photography in a couple hours. What is much more difficult both to teach and to learn, however, is how to make a great photograph. The technical skills are necessary, but artistry is what creates a beautiful, compelling photograph. An image might be technically perfect. It might have the correct exposure and be well-focused. It might even have a good color balance and make use of some of the fundamental rules of composition. But it might be a failure as an artistic photograph because it has no emotion or tells no story. Capturing and communicating emotion is both the hardest and most important part of photography.

Several people have asked me if I would do portrait photography of their family for them. I’ve also been asked to do event photography for a musical production. Until recently, my answer to such requests has been no because I did not have the equipment or skills needed for that kind of photography. It’s just not the kind of photography I do, but I decided to learn about portrait photography and gain experience with event photography so that I could occasionally do this kind of work when people asked. How easy was it to learn?

What I found was not unexpected. For portrait photography, learning how to use different kinds of lights and light modifiers at first seems like a difficult challenge. Those are really just the technical details of portrait photography, however. It’s not hard to learn these technical details. The hard part is working with the subject--the person or group of people--to create an image that captures who they truly are. Even in perfect and beautiful light with an ideal model, it’s more important to know how to extract the best from the person you’re photographing. It’s difficult to teach, and it’s difficult to learn. The results of my first portrait session were good, but I realized I had a lot to learn in terms of directing people, especially when working with small children.

I recently photographed a series of events featuring live performances, and at first I found the technical challenges to be difficult. Photographing moving subjects in a dark environment with a wide open aperture and a long focal length made it hard to focus. But again, that was a technical challenge, and I just needed to learn the best way to focus successfully and consistently. I quickly developed the skills I needed under these conditions, and by the end of the second show I felt very comfortable choosing autofocus points on the fly, locking my metering and focus, and doing all the other technical things needed to succeed. The more difficult part was creating photographs that showcased the production lighting and that captured the emotion of the singers and musicians. With the technical details taken care of, I was able to focus my attention on those more important artistic challenges.

I have enjoyed the portrait and event photography I’ve done so far. I studied and prepared before my first session, and I continue to enhance my knowledge. I have confidence that I can make a good portrait photograph now, and I know I can go into an event and consistently come back with great photographs that clients will love. My primary focus remains landscape photography, but it’s nice to know that the same level of artistry I have developed in landscapes can transfer to portrait and event photography when I need it.

Sunset on the Pacific Coast, California