This is a question that I am quite often asked, hence the reason of this blog post.

As I am also taking more and more images of hotels and villas, I have tried 2 very different techniques, which I will share with you. But first of all, why is it so difficult to take images of interiors: the reason lies in the essence of photography i.e. light ! When you look at a nice hotel room for instance, your eyes have a dynamic that a lens of a camera cannot render – they see both the room itself and the view from the window, at the same time, and both well exposed. The difficulty for a photographer will then be to render those exposures – one for the inside and one for the view – as good and realistic as possible.

The 2 techniques are:

1. The digital blending technique, which I consider to be more a “computer-based” technique rather than a pure photographic technique.

2. The flash lighting technique, which imposes to be much more careful on the ground when taking the image. (I also refer you to the great ebook of an american photographer, who explains this technique in details: Lighting Interiors by Scott Hargis)

For those 2 techniques, I recommend to use the following settings: lower ISO setting as possible (ISO 100 for instance) to get the best image quality; a small aperture (f/11 or above) to get the most elements in focus (except if you are looking for a specific effect); a long shutter speed (1/5th, 1/10th, 1/20th sec for instances) to get the most of your ambiant light (mostly if you put the lights on in the room) – just watch out not to move your camera, else your image will be blurred ! Finally, I also recommend not to shoot too wide – I think 24mm is largely enough. Shooting wide means a lot of lens distortions in the edges of your images.

Those 2 techniques both require some photoshop work afterwards, but while the first one may require hours of it, the second one is more for fine-tuning the image. Both techniques require the use of a dslr (digital single lens reflex) or at least a good compact camera that has Manual, Aperture, Shutter Speed modes. Both techniques require the use of a tripod. That’s basically all for the first technique, while the second one will also require the use of several speedlights (a minimum of 3 I personally think), some equipments to hold those lights – light stands, elastics or other stuffs to fix the speedlights in very remote places if needed … – and a triggering system to fire them. In the end, as you will see, the second technique would be the best one (to me), but it is a bit costly.

The first technique – the digital blending technique. To use this technique, you should shoot in RAW format – this enables to get the most of your exposure in the high lights and low lights. The shooting technique on the ground is pretty simple: select your point of view on your tripod, make a first assessment of the available light (ambiant light) for the inside of the room, take the first photo. From there, you will take several similar images, 1 full f-stop down or 1/2 f-stop down after each other – this means that you will take similar images more and more under-exposed, until you get the best exposure for the window and the view from this window. Generally, I use 3 images – 1 for the inside, 1 for the window, and 1 in-between. Now the tough job on photoshop can start – combining those 3 images into layers in the same image, getting nice transitions, often using selections (to select the frame  of the window for instance).

There are a few tips to make it a little bit easier. First, pay great attention to the window – it has to be plain, with no other objects between the camera and the window (difficult to mask it out afterwards); watch out the curtains, the blinds and other elements that could be very painful to mask out. Second tip, use a manual white balance, as you would not like to have 2 different color sets in your images (although it can be adjusted as you shoot RAW …).

Here is an example of room I shot more than 1 year ago using this technique (2 of the 3 exposures):

and the final result:

And here are examples where this technique would be very difficult to apply, don’t you think so ? 😉

Copyrights Scott Hargis

Copyrights Scott Hargis

The second technique – the flash lighting technique. This technique imposes the photographer to be much more careful when taking the picture. The following steps should be carried on to get nice images:

a. First, after having selected your angle of view on your tripod, you should assess your ambiant light vs. the light of the window. To do so, take a picture, in Manual mode, so that the view of the window is well exposed or highly over-exposed. This is the basis of your image.

b. Start thinking what should be your lighting with flash i.e. what are the key parts of the room to be lit – this would define how many flashes you will need. Here there is a little trick to know about – flashes produce hard light as they are small sources of light (this is why in studio we use soft boxes, umbrellas, diffusers … to create larger sources of light and thus smoother light – the larger and the closer your source of light to your subject, the smoother and creamier it will be). The trick here is that you should not direct your flash to your subject, but you should bounce it on the walls and on the ceiling. The walls and ceiling will then become larger sources of light and will create a beautiful smooth light for your subject. Here is an illustration of this:

Copyrights Scott Hargis

c. When lighting a room, always start with 1 speedlight  and always start lighting the foreground. Then you can combine a second light lighting another part of the room and so on … using this methodology, you will precisely know what are the effects and impacts of each light if you need to place them differently or adjust their power for a better rendering.

d. To adjust the power of your flashes, there is one rule to know: Shutter speed doesn’t affect your flash power, but aperture does. Shutter speed will allow more ambiant light to come to your sensor, so if your room if properly lit with your flashes, setting faster or slower shutter speed will only impact your ambiant light and the view of your window. If you lack power from your flashes, decrease the aperture to get brighter results.

e. Now that your image is well lit (both inside and window view), you can focus on small adjustments. Indeed, flashes will create shadows that can be removed by placing the flashes more adequately. Also, you can have reflections from your flashes in glasses, steel or wooden surfaces. Either you can deal with them while taking the final image, or those will constitute the minor adjustments to be done in Photoshop during the editing phase.

Here is an example of a room lit with flashes and how it was lit (Copyrights Scott Hargis):

Scott Hargis used 3 lights to lit this image, all bounced onto walls or ceiling, and placed so that the shadows created are not disturbing:

To conclude on this topic, taking images of interiors is a difficult and technical photographic subject. It requires patience, experience and a lot of skills (in both photography and editing). Finally it also requires a lot of equipment. But it is also very nice to compose the light of such images and to see the result out of it.

I hope you enjoyed reading this post and it answered some technical aspects … and most of all that it gave you the will to try it ! 🙂