I’ve had a couple of requests to post about shooting interiors, so here goes. On travel assignments it is often necessary to shoot interiors – whether it’s a hotel, restaurant, vineyard or some other interesting or beautiful building. Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way for getting good quality shots while not having to carry the kitchen sink.
The first step in making a beautiful interior shot is to make the interior look beautiful. This might sound obvious, but sometimes is not always easy to do. Everything should be neat and tidy, with no clutter or stray items lying around.
For bigger commercial shoots for hotels and resorts, there is usually a stylist to make everything look beautiful, but for editorial assignments I usually have to do it myself.
Hotels are usually the easiest, because they keep everything spotless anyway, but it can take a bit more time in other locations. Don’t be afraid to move furniture, take pictures off the walls, restyle bedspreads and cushions etc.
Finally, always turn all the lights on, even if shooting in broad daylight. Rooms without the lights on somehow look dead and lifeless.
What to shoot
You should plan to get a good mix of wide and detail shots. Always get a wide shot of the room in question, but then look for the interesting close ups too – cushions on the sofa, a glass of wine on the table, a vase of flowers on the sideboard - whatever catches your eye. Aim for simple, graphic compositions.
Complex pictures with lots of details generally don’t suit architecture and interiors – look for clean lines and use negative space, such as blank walls or sky, to your advantage.
How to shoot it - kit
I’m a big fan of Canon’s 24mm TSE tilt/shift lens, and use it all the time when shooting architecture – inside or out. Nikon shooters now have an equivalent too.
A shift lens allows you to move the field of view up and down while keeping the camera perfectly level. This means you can keep verticals looking vertical, even if normally you would need to point the camera up or down to get the whole view in.
Yes, you can correct for converging verticals in Photoshop using the perspective crop tool, but firstly you do lose some quality and secondly it gets very time consuming if you are having to correct a lot of shots at the end of a shoot. I find it much easier to get it right in the camera. For detail shots I often use the Canon 100mm 2.8 Macro. Not that I need the macro capabilities for this type of shot, but that it doesn’t suffer from distortion.
Most zooms, even top quality L-series lenses, have barrel distortion at the wide end and pincushion distortion at the long end. Using prime lenses (such as the 24mm TSE and 100mm Macro) avoids this problem, or at least greatly reduces it. Again, it is possible to correct it later in Photoshop, but there is a cost in terms of time and quality.
Live view, found on most recent DSLRs, is a great help for focusing. Compose your shot on the tripod, then use the zoom feature to manually focus in Live View.
That way you do not need to auto-focus and then recompose if your desired point of focus doesn’t fall underneath one of the camera’s AF points. Focusing then recomposing is a pain when working on a tripod.
How to shoot it - lighting
So you’ve made the room look great, chosen your viewpoint, picked a lens and set up your camera on the tripod. Now what?
Getting some nice ‘soft yet directional’ lighting will usually guarantee a good shot. If you’re lucky, the room will have a nice large window with indirect sunlight coming though. If so, this is usually enough.
However, if all you have is strong, direct sunlight coming through, then try hanging a white bedsheet or tablecloth over the window to act as a giant diffuser (don’t forget your gaffer tape!). If you have windows in the shot, don’t worry too much about them blowing out. Get the interior exposure correct and worry about the windows later. In fact, blown out windows can often help give a light, airy feel to interiors which is very appealing.
Often, natural light alone will not be enough and you will need to break out the flash. Either because you are shooting early or late in the day when there is very little daylight coming into the room, or because what light you do have is creating deep shadows that you need to fill.
Small hot shoe flashes are fine for this kind of work, because you are usually trying to complement daylight rather than overpower it, and most interiors are not that big. Mount them on small Manfrotto stands and either trigger them using radio triggers such as Pocket Wizards or with the ETTL or iTTL built-in to modern Canon or Nikon flashes.
I often find that less is more. Start off with a single flash bounced off a wall or ceiling and see what it looks like. The rear LCD is your friend. Than add another light if you think you need to. I rarely find the need to use more than two, and often only use one. Always either bounce the flash or shoot through some sort of diffuser – an umbrella or softbox – as hard light will generally look terrible.
If shooting in the evening, when the majority or even all of the light in the room is artificial, you will need to gel your flash to match the colour temperature of the lighting in the room. Usually this will be tungsten, but more modern buildings are often using low-energy or halogen lights, which seem to vary in colour temperature a great deal. So take a range of CTO and green gels with you. Mixed colour temperatures is something that is almost impossible to correct later in Photoshop, so be sure to get this right at the time.
Finally, shooting tethered to a laptop can be a great help. Both Lightroom and Aperture can be used to show a full screen preview of your image a few seconds after you shoot it. When trying to fine-tune lighting and compositions, it can be a great help rather than squinting at the small screen on the back of the camera.