A Site for Photographers by Photographers

Home > Learn About Photography > Architecture (Interior)

Featured Equipment Deals

Intro to Manual Photography (Video Tutorial) Read More

Intro to Manual Photography (Video Tutorial)

Want to break out of automatic modes on your camera but overwhelmed with choices in manual mode? This brief video tutorial breaks down shutter speed, aperture, and ISO sensitivity to help give you...

How to Photograph Architecture (Interior)

by Philip Greenspun, June 1999 (updated January 2007)

This is an example-based tutorial on photographing building interiors.

People and Interiors

The most commercially profitable images of interiors are those devoid of people. Shelter magazines like to enable their readers to project themselves into a pictured dream house. That projection isn't possible if the rooms are already filled up with strangers. Nonetheless, many of the pictures of interiors that are the most successful as photographs are those that show people relating to what the architects have built. Here, for example are a few snapshots from the photo.net Japan guide:

Kyoto train station Department Store. Shinjuku, Tokyo

Restaurant at the Tsukiji Market.  Tokyo Restaurant.  Near the Tsukiji Market.  Tokyo

The photo below, of the Great Hall at Ellis Island, wouldn't work nearly as well without the two teenagers waiting where so many immigrants waited for so many hours and days (from the photo.net New York exhibit):

People don't always improve an image but they always change it. Below, for example, is the Great Kiva in Aztec Ruins National Monument in Aztec, New Mexico (from the photo.net New Mexico exhibit). The photo at left, without people, conveys more accurately the feeling of being in the kiva. Probably this is because the people aren't using the architecture in the way that the architects intended; they are merely posing for an unseen photographer. The human presence doesn't ruin the image, however. It might be a better choice for a travel guidebook than the empty kiva.

Great Kiva.  Aztec Ruins National Monument. Kids.  Great Kiva.  Aztec Ruins National Monument

Similarly, as part of a page describing Hearst Castle, these two people-filled images give a better record of the experience of touring the castle than do the detail images underneath:

Hearst Castle.  San Simeon, California. Hearst Castle.  San Simeon, California.

Bird statue.  Hearst Castle.  San Simeon, California. Hearst Castle.  San Simeon, California.

San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art opened as a beautiful building with hardly any art. Pictures of the stark atrium without people might give a viewer the impression that the museum hadn't opened yet when the photos were taken. With the people, though, the idea of a building filled with human beings fruitlessly searching for art is conveyed (from the photo.net San Francisco guide).

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Careful with the Light

Most camera equipment is designed for handheld use outdoors. As soon as you take them indoors you discover that, on average, it is much darker indoors than outdoors. You won't be able to create a sharp image handholding your camera indoors. Suppose that you stop the lens aperture down to f/11 to ensure adequate depth of field (objects at differing distances from the lens all in reasonably sharp focus). You'll now need to leave the shutter open for a 1/2 second to get enough light to the film to make an image. You won't be able to hold your camera steady for 1/2 second. You have two obvious options: (1) carry a tripod, and (2) illuminate the scene with an electronic flash.

A flash is a lot easier to carry than a tripod. Many cameras have built-in flashes. So why not use the flash for an interior architecture photo? Because you won't capture the architecture.

Rooms and houses are designed around light. Architects who've read A Pattern Language will tell you that you need light from two sides of a room in order to be comfortable in that room. If there is a window on only one wall, the light inside the room will be too contrasty. Architects are very careful with windows and artificial lights.

What about simply sticking the camera on a tripod and using the self-timer or cable release to make a long steady exposure? It can work, as in this photo below, of medieval Skansen village in Stockholm (from the photo.net Sweden guide):

Skansen in Stockholm

We don't mind the contrast and the fact that we can't see detail in a lot of the furniture or the door. The photo gives us an idea of what it is like to use a desk hundreds of years ago in Sweden. A commercial client, however, anxious to sell desks, would demand that a flash or hot light be used to reduce the contrast and render detail in the shadows.

Where a room has a well-designed artificial lighting system, a commercial architectural photographer will often use the existing lights and fixtures to balance the natural light. How is this possible when the sunlight from the windows is so much more powerful than typical incandescent bulbs? The photographer travels with a huge bag of bulbs and will go through a room replacing every bulb with a higher output photoflood. In addition to higher output, tungsten photo bulbs have a consistent color temperature. If a closer match to the color temperature of the window light is desired, the light bulbs through the house may be replaced with electronic flashes. You can buy modestly powerful slave flashes that screw into a light bulb socket from Smith Victor and Morris.

Hollywood goes farther. If it isn't sunny outside and they want warm light from the windows, they park a bank of powerful HMI lights outside the window pointing into the room.

If you're lazy, you can just set the tripod on the floor and accept whatever color temperature comes your way:

If your assignment does not call for the warm glow of incandescent light, get hold of a Minolta color temperature meter and/or Kodak Professional Photoguide and find the right color correction filter. This becomes much more critical when the room is lit with fluorescent light. Very few people or objects look good with the sickly green cast of daylight-balanced film exposed under fluorescent light. For a film camera, the solution is a Tiffen FL-D filter screwed over the lens. One of the luxuries of photography with digital cameras is that you can simply press the "fluorescent white balance" switch and get very close to the right color balance instantly. Even with a digital camera's ability to set white balance arbitrarily, you still need to think carefully when combining different light sources.

Readers' Comments

Add a comment

Andrew Prokos , August 24, 2007; 12:23 P.M.

This article does a nice job of covering the most important aspects of interior photography with film and digital. A very sharp wide angle lens is a must, and I think that prime lenses still have the advantage here. There are times when the mixed lighting makes it difficult to get proper color balance with film, and that's where digital truly excels. Films like Fuji Reala also do a fairly good job of balancing out color casts from fluorescent lighting. In certain mixed lighting it is preferable to gel the lights rather than apply a color compensation filter to the lens. With my own architectural and interior photography I always make sure to do a walk through of the location whenever possible to check the lighting beforehand.

Roy W , March 15, 2008; 03:19 P.M.

Fortunately, I have the excellent 10-22 on my 350D.


2 D , April 15, 2008; 01:04 P.M.

"open the shutter in low light and flash the flash remotely from a distance to give a burst of light in the far background" Hi Raoul, Yes this will work, please remember that your flash is using AA batteries & will not compare to the lighting output from a regular AC strobe unit. You are on the right track because one of the down sides to adjusting tonal levels afterwards in photoshop is that the exiting light in a shadow area wouldn't be illuminating the surface materials to create the nice textures that professional lighting produces. Quality lighting at the time of exposure is still key to great interior images. Jeff --

Ian W. , May 26, 2008; 07:53 P.M.

The points about lighting interiors could be given more emphasis. It's true that some interiors are better photographed using existing ambient light but it's a rare interior that couldn't benefit from the proper placement of additional flash lighting (even if only to reduce the contrast between light levels inside and outside - which, with many modern buildings plays a big part in the overall design

Paul Bartholomew , December 15, 2008; 09:14 A.M.

Good information especially on the technical side. One thing I highly suggest to those looking to make architectural & interior photography a career is to look at lots of other photographers work. Look for unique styles that you find appealing and try to achieve a look that makes you stand out from the competition.

Cameras are mentioned such as the Canon system with tilt shift lenses. Many new systems are being developed and it's nice to see architectural lenses are being considered. Nikon has a 24mm PC-E lens for perspective control and Leica has a new system coming out soon that has a persective control lens. Of course these lenses aren't cheap.

Greg Peterson , June 17, 2009; 10:57 P.M.

This wasn't written all that long ago, and still it's quite dated.
For example I was supprised to read, "Sadly, prime wide angle lenses don't exist for small sensor digital SLRs, such as the cheapest Canon bodies and all of the Nikon DSLRs."  This after I just finished a job on which I used a 14mm Nikkor on my Nikon D3x!

And there is no mention of HDR or the stiching of panoramas.

But still useful information for those new to the craft.


Image Attachment: Lobby 14mm cropped.jpg

Tim Green , December 15, 2010; 05:07 A.M.

This isn't a comment, rather it's a question.

I'm an amateur photographer and I'm trying to shoot a beautiful interior, of a house, but the subject of the photos are actually the lighting fixtures themselves.

The rooms are the stage made beautiful by said lights.

My goal is to show the room using accurate native ( or apparently native ) light while not overexposing the light sources themselves which are also in the shot.

So far I've gotten either good room shots, with overexposed lights, or good lights with underexposed rooms.

I want to show the rooms in the evening / night looking warm and comfortable, with lights "setting the mood".

The house has both incandescent and fluorescent lights, and I'm shooting every room in the house.

Any advice about how to do this would be MUCH appreciated.

Thanks in Advance,


Ronak Patel , April 27, 2016; 10:19 A.M.

I agree, lighting is crucial! No light no photography. Some of these shot's are not the greatest example but work well if using lower level cameras. But a great article nevertheless! http://altitudelifestyle.com

Add a comment

Notify me of comments