Photographing finished interior design projects for the designers’ portfolios is one of my specialties (click here to see my portfolio). The image in this post is from a recent shoot, and creating it brought up some issues that make great tips for interior design photography.
Room styling: The homeowners love to entertain, and they have a very large dining room. There were 10 chairs around the table and four more in the corners of the room. My client and I removed the chairs in the corners and one of the four chairs along each long side of the table. Then we angled the two chairs in the foreground for a less formal, more interesting composition. Next, we lowered the shade halfway on the window in the background. This cuts the large expanse of bright area into visually manageable sections, and the strong diagonal line helps lead the eye into the photo. We also removed some sticks from the left-hand vase because they looked very messy in their interaction with the right-hand chandelier. Finally, we accessorized the originally empty table. We started with the two urns on the sideboard, but they were far too small. We hunted in the basement and found two huge glass vessels and paired them with the lemon-filled jar we found in the kitchen.
Post-processing: For my interior design work, I normally make a large bracket of exposures from dark to light and combine them for the best detail in the highlights and shadows. That didn’t help here, and I found I got better results from just the middle exposure. This may be because of the even lighting from windows on both ends of the room. The photo above is the finished product; below is the image as it came unprocessed from the camera. In Lightroom, I recovered detail in the highlights and shadows, and I increased the clarity and vibrance. I applied a lens profile correction and cropped slightly, because I found the partial handle on the right-hand china closet to be distracting. Next, I took the image into Photoshop and duplicated it. On one layer I white balanced for the room in general, which warmed it up but resulted in a greenish cast on the ceiling from the foliage outdoors. I white balanced the other layer to make the ceiling more neutral, then I masked just the ceiling into the larger photo. Next I cloned out a vent cover that was reflected in the mirror. Finally, I learned a big lesson that I’ll take with me on future shoots. The sideboard had no lamps on it, so it didn’t occur to me to look underneath for wires. While I was closely inspecting my work, I noticed a jumble of wires there that would have been easy to tape out of the way underneath the furniture. But now I had to clone it out. It wasn’t all that easy since the wires crossed between the floor and the base molding, and retouching it was far more time consuming than fixing it first on the set.
I photographed two other rooms in the home that day, and between this project and my experience on others, I can offer these further tips.
- If at all possible, arrange the shoot while the owners are away. Even if they promise to stay out of your way, they wont. They may commit to staying upstairs while you’re working downstairs, but then need to get something from the basement. Then they catch you working, think it’s glamorous, and want to watch. Also, you’ll be moving a lot of furniture and accessories around to style the shot, and they’ll either be horrified or want to make suggestions.
- Have the homeowners sign a property release. This way there will be no question as to whether you can place the photos on your website, blog, in advertising, or sell them as stock images.
- Use the sturdiest tripod you can. A solid tripod will eliminate camera shake during long exposures and ensure that your images line up pixel-for-pixel when combining multiple exposures.
- Further to the stability topic, set your camera to mirror lockup mode and shoot with some sort of remote shutter release. A stable camera is critical for interior photography.
- Shoot tethered to a laptop computer. It’s essential to be able to check focus and details on a large screen. Viewing the camera’s LCD screen just won’t cut it. And get an AC power adapter for your camera, because shooting tethered will drain your battery very quickly.
- Rent (if you don’t own) a 24 mm tilt-shift lens. 24 mm is wide enough for most rooms. If you need to point your camera at an angle that will cause vertical lines to tilt, you can correct for it with the tilt function. And the shift function is great for putting your camera off center from a mirror to avoid the camera’s reflection, but then re-centering the mirror. This lens doesn’t autofocus, but when photographing a stationery room, that’s not a critical issue.
- Have on hand a polarizing filter to remove reflections from non-metal objects such as windows, art framed behind glass, flat-screen TVs, etc.
- Mirrors can be tricky. Be sure they’re not reflecting anything unwanted, especially you and your camera. If you retouch anything in the room, make sure to retouch its reflection, too. And check that the mirror is flat. I’ve photographed a room where the mirror was slightly bowed, resulting in an odd perspective in the reflection.
- Check under all furniture for wires. Try to tape wires to the backs of table legs to get them out of view. Have plenty of gaffer’s tape in your kit for this purpose. The tape is easy to tear, is very strong, and removes easily, leaving no residue. If wires can’t be successfully tucked or taped out of the way, move them instead to cross a large area of little detail so they can be easily cloned out during post-processing.
- Be sure adjoining rooms or rooms you can see in mirrors are well lit. Otherwise they appear as dark holes in the otherwise well-lit room that is the subject of the photo.
- Use radio triggers to fire your strobes. Optical triggers won’t work if you’re hiding strobes behind furniture or on the far side of walls, or in any position where there is not a clear line of sight between the camera and the strobe.
- Have your interior design client bring plenty of fresh flowers. They brighten up any room, and they’re a perfect accessory to add height and interest to a coffee table or kitchen window. I find that orchids are popular with the designers for whom I work. In the photo above, a huge fresh flower arrangement would have worked on the dining room table even better than the glassware.
- Big spaces need big accessories. Remember, we started off accessorizing the dining table with the two urns on the sideboard, but they were so small that they were swallowed up by the table and disappeared.
- Odd numbers are better than even. Most designers will agree with this. Another reason we decided not to dress up the table with the urns on the sideboard is that there were only two of them. The irony is that they are sold in a set of three, but the homeowner wanted only two.
- Make sure all mirrors, windows, and glassware are spotless. Otherwise it will show in the photos. Also, dust on any other shiny surface will show, such as high-gloss hardwood floors, metal, flat screen TVs, etc.
- Pillows: To cleave or not to cleave? Some of my clients like pillow cleavage, and they karate-chop all the pillows on the sofas and chairs before I shoot. Others find pillow cleavage contrived. Either way, pay particular attention to pillows and throws on chairs and sofas, as they can make or break a photo. Be sure all zippers and labels are tucked out of sight.
- If you’re shooting during the day and using window light to illuminate the room, turn off the lights. Any supplemental light you add with your strobes will match the color temperature of the outside light. The room lights are generally tungsten, and with their difference in color temperature from daylight, they will glow orange. The only reason to put the room lights on is if you’re shooting away from the direction of the windows, in which case you can close the curtains and add CTO (color temperature orange) gels to your strobes so they match the color temperature of the lighting fixtures.
- It’s best to wait until the work on the entire home is finished before shooting. Many designers are eager to get the photos in their portfolios as soon as possible, and sometimes they jump the gun. For example, something just wasn’t working in my photo of an entry hall and I pointed out that it needed a rug. In fact, the designer had planned to get one, but she hadn’t done it yet. Or the one killer angle for the living room photo wasn’t an option because we could see through to the family room which was still under construction.
- When it comes to waiting for work on the entire home to be done, this applies to the outside as well, because you will see the outside through the windows. I was shooting a living room while work was being done on the exterior roof. Everything was styled and set up for the final shot when the workers draped a blue tarp from the gutter to the ground to catch debris, right in front of the living room windows. Not only was the blue tarp clearly visible, but it cast a blue light over the entire room, making it look like an aquarium. Generally when there’s an undesirable view, I can expose to blow out the windows, but in this case, the blue light and the tarp itself were clearly visible.
Interior photography is a challenge to do well, and very satisfying when working with a talented interior designer. If you have any tips to add, I welcome your comments.
Photo above: Dining room designed by Tom Sfisco of The Design Studio of Sommerville.