Interior Photography: How to Get Good Results With an Everyday Digital Camera and No Lights

interior-photographyGood pictures of interiors are a must if you want to make a good impression, but it is notoriously difficult to get good results with a consumer camera. In my work photographing villas for holiday rentals I have worked out some short cuts to getting good results with minimal and cheap equipment and at great speed. Here’s how.

The problems you will encounter are practical and to do with light. Consumer cameras are designed for use outdoors in daylight. Interiors are very dark in comparison. Most cameras respond by popping up the flash, but the results of that are dingy: things that are close to the camera are too bright, and things that are further away are too dark. A similar problem is contrast range (that is the difference between very bright and very dark): your camera does not do as well as your eyes, resulting in windows that are ‘burnt out’, too bright and lacking detail. Consumer cameras set to automatic exposure will try to find a middle ground between the dark and the bright which results in pictures which are too dark in darker parts and too light in lighter parts.

The use of light is fundamental to architecture and building design in general. You need to use the light that is already in the room if you want to show it off to the best advantage. Professional photographers use artificial lighting, but the skill is balancing that with making the most of the available light. Flash units are used to fill dark corners and lift the general light level to an acceptable level, so that the windows no longer burn out and the camera can cope with the contrast in the image, but the natural light in the room is what sells the picture.

interior-photography4I don’t have time for all that. I usually have an hour to photograph a house, and so have had to develop a technique that solves many of the problems of interiors. I don’t claim that the results are as good as those of a professional with professional equipment, but they are just about acceptable which is better than most of the pictures our competitors publish. But there is no time to set lights. The solution is to take a series of pictures that are each well exposed for a part of the overall image, and then stick them all together electronically.

The way to take good pictures without lights is to take several shots with identical framing and different exposure times. To do that you use a tripod. It does not have to be expensive: tripods that you can buy for about £30 ($60) will be just fine, but the table top type will not do. Be sure that its highest position is at about your eye height or above. It doesn’t matter if it moves a tiny bit because you will be using a wide lens, so the usual advantages of an expensive tripod are lost.

Pick a shot and fix the camera in that position with the tripod. You need a range of shots from very light to very dark with no camera movement whatsoever between shots. The way to find the starting exposure is to experiment. Fix the aperture on f8 or smaller (which helps to guarantee that everything from near to far will be in focus if you are using a wide lens) and start at an exposure of about one second. Take a picture and look at the back of the camera. The approach is deliberately slapdash: forget the burnt out windows and concentrate on the furniture. If it looks too bright then you are in the right parish. If not, make it two seconds. Now shorten the exposure: half a second, quarter, eighth, and so on until the shots you are taking are obviously much too dark. But never ever move the camera even a little bit: you’ll see why later. If you jog the camera, start again.

interior-photography2Finally take a shot in which the windows look about right – that is to say in which you can see the leaves and the rest of the room is probably black or something like it. Take as many shots as you like: digital storage is cheap! When you have finished you have a number of shots (in my case, usually about 10) ranging from the very light to the very dark but with identical framing.

When you get back to base, all you have to do is stick it all together. Use whatever image processing software you have: you will not need advanced features. In my case it is Paint Shop Pro. I think it fell off the front of a magazine once. Alternatively you can use Gimp which is free and works on Windows and Linux, but takes a bit of getting used to. What follows can be fiddly and time consuming at first, but practise a little and you will find it easier and easier. It should take no more than 10 minutes when you have done it a few times.

Choose two pictures. Take a shot that gives a decent exposure of the furnishings, then take a picture that gives a decent exposure of the outside (the windows). The goal is to cut out the windows in the ‘interior’ shot such that the windows of the ‘window’ shot fit nicely into them. The way you do that varies with the shot, but the simplest way is to put the window layer behind the interior layer and use the eraser tool or similar to rub out the windows: as you do that the properly exposed windows show through like magic. Job almost done. Often that is all I do. Use the eraser at less than 100% opacity to blur the edges.

interior-photography3Sometimes some extra cleaning up is necessary: table lamps for example are also often too bright, but the principle is the same: find a less bright lamp in one of the other shots, and erase it into place. At this stage you are using the eraser set to less than 100% opacity to blur the edges a bit. Professional Photoshop artists don’t like this, and prefer to use masks and alpha channels and so forth. Let them. The goal here is to keep it simple!

This technique is very simple in terms of equipment and processing, but does need some practice. Start practicing now and your next set of pictures will look great. Only you will know that you used a cheap camera, some cheap (probably free) software and no lights.

Seb Palmer works at Palmer and Parker Villa Holidays.

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