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:
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.
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
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).
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
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):
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
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.