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Photographing Interior Architecture

Andrew Cowin talks to us about photographing interiors and shares some of his experiences.

Posted: 23/12/2010 - 08:06

Interior photography has always had something of a whiff of mystery about it. Perhaps it’s those impossibly sharp and well-lit shots you see in design and architecture publications that make one assume that indoor work must be the exclusive preserve of professionals. It’s certainly true that many such shots are taken using a cumbersome plate camera and cunningly complex lighting set-ups.

At a practical level, photographing in public buildings often involves irksome restrictions – or the generous concession that you can take all the pictures you want, but without tripod or flash when your light-meter is suggesting five seconds at f/4! We’ve all, no doubt, had our fair share of interior shots that turned out too disappointing, if not just plain awful.

Ten years ago, my interest in architecture drove me to buy a 4x5in large format camera. This was a big investment, but the results justified the initial expenditure and running costs of a little under a pound a shot! For the last two years, though, this lovely apparatus has been collecting dust in its voluminous case. Why? Because I now do the same work using a Pentax K10D and K20D. To find out why, take a look at the two shots of church interiors below. Can you see which was taken using about 12kg of equipment and which required less than 1kg? Not so easy, is it? The fact is that the shot of Dinkelsbühl Church was taken on a 6x9cm slide, while the other picture required only my K20D with 16-45mm at full stretch. Incidentally, the centrespot filter needed for the poisonously expensive wide-angle lens used in the first shot cost nearly as much as the K20D body! Of course, the K20D shot required some perspective adjustments in Photoshop to iron out the converging verticals, but otherwise the results are comparable, unless you intend to enlarge to poster size and beyond.
My point is that, equipped with a digital SLR, a tripod and a little experience, you now have all it takes to get some highly professional results. The only real difference is that the professional has the tackle to cope with virtually every set of conditions.

Arca Swiss F Line with a 72mm lens and centrespot filter. The exposure was five seconds at f/22.

Pentax K20D with a 16-45mm at 16mm. The exposure was three seconds at f/22.


Shots taken with a Pentax K10D and 16-45mm positioned on the floor pointing upwards. The exposure was 5 seconds.

So, although you might have to admit defeat in some situations, I hope the following examples will show that you can hit the jackpot surprisingly often with fairly basic equipment.

Actually, I’ll start by qualifying my statement that you need a tripod by pointing out that, even without one, there are still ways to pick up some super shots of interiors. And I don’t necessarily mean juggling with beanbags or balancing the camera on a pile of guidebooks.

Here’s one recipe for instant success:

  1. Attach a wide-angle lens.
  2. Set camera on autofocus and two second delay mode.
  3. Select manual exposure, choose a small aperture (f/16) and find the right exposure for the ceiling above you.
  4. Place camera on floor facing upwards
  5. Gently release shutter and retreat.

Using this technique in Canterbury Cathedral (below) got round ‘no-flash/no-tripod’ restrictions and produced images that have a lot of impact. I had to move the K10D around and adjust the zoom’s focal length several times to get the symmetrical composition and cropping I was looking for. The exposure was 5 seconds at ISO100.

A slight refinement to this approach was used in another church in Rome, where tilting the back of the camera (using a folded-up city map) helped to create a more dramatic composition that leads the eye upwards (above).

If you’re not forced to improvise like this, take some time to soak up the atmosphere of the building you intend to photograph. What are its best features? Do you want a shot that shows everything, or would a particular section or just a detail capture its essence better?


Pentax K10D and 16-45mm at 16mm positioned on the floor pointing upwards at a slight angle. Exposure 4 seconds at f/16. Left: A shot of Heidelberg University’s panelled Old Hall from an upper balcony.


Shooting from a raised organ-loft ensures an unusual and striking shot that would not have worked at ground level.


The low viewpoint ensures the spectacular carved choir-stalls of the Great Church in Dordrecht are included.


Flash can be used for a bit of fill-in light, as can be seen in this bedroom shot where the head on the left would have been too dark without it.

Walk around looking for the best vantage points, especially seeing if it’s possible to shoot from an elevated standpoint. This has a two-fold advantage – firstly, the view is often more dramatic than from ground level and, secondly, it may well eliminate the problem of converging verticals caused by tilting the camera upwards.

An example is the Jesuit Church in Heidelberg, where the organ-loft was high enough to let me use an unusual and striking horizontal format that would not have worked at ground level. Even better, a shot of Heidelberg University’s panelled Old Hall from an upper balcony allowed me to get in close to the painted ceiling, which then became a key element in the composition.

In complete contrast, the ‘Great Church’ in Dordrecht demanded a very low viewpoint if I wanted to included its best feature, namely the spectacular carved choir-stalls. There were two main problems getting this shot right. Firstly, the low standpoint means that perspective adjustments in
Photoshop are unavoidable. Secondly, the image could only work, like many architectural shots, if it had front-to-back sharpness. To achieve this, it’s not just a question of using a small aperture – and bear in mind here the fact that optimal sharpness is usually achieved by not quite stopping down to the tiniest aperture. In this case, I used f/16 instead of the smallest-possible f/22. More importantly, it’s where you focus. A good rule-of-thumb is to select a point about one-third of the distance between you and the farthest point using manual focus. In this case, it was the second column capital on the top right. I took several exposures because the light contrasts between the light-filled section on the left and the darker woodcarving on the right were quite intense. My aim was to tease out details of the carving, while not allowing the bright part to burn out so much. Having rescued as much of both extremes a possible, I was later able to improve the balance by reducing the contrast in Photoshop.


The flatness of the dull grey daylight resulted in excellent colour saturation and ensured the light balance was right for outside the window.

Two things should be considered regarding converging verticals, before you even take the shot. Firstly, at least get the horizontals right by having a small spirit-level attached to the camera. Secondly, leave some space left and right to allow for cropping and perspective adjustments in Photoshop. There’s nothing worse than seeing important features vanish from the sides of a picture as you pull up and straighten converging verticals.

Another consideration: when the corrections are quite drastic, the resulting image may seem squat and falsely proportioned. To get around this, I rescale the image before making the adjustments, adding 10% to 15% more height to the image to ‘stretch’ it back.

Up to now, I’ve considered large, impressive interiors whose sheer scale presents a challenge to the photographer and equipment. Turning to smaller, more intimate rooms, it has to be said that the problems are completely different but no less teasing.

One difficulty is that the cramped surroundings seriously limit the choices open to you, which often demand a very strong wide-angle lens. Here you just have to make the best of what you have. A far more tricky issue is the question of lighting. As a first guiding principle, you will find that interiors work best when the lighting is rather flat and lacking in extremes. In fact, professionals need all those lights precisely to balance out situations like when sunlight is flooding in through windows onto white sofas, while a black ebony sculpture lurks in a shadowy corner. So, it’s a good idea to choose a day when the sun is absent or not shining directly onto the subject.

As examples, I’ve chosen some images taken in a luxury hotel. To take the straight shot of the small sitting-room (top centre), I had to wait over an hour until the sun vanished as violent contrasts were impossible to cope with. The picture was finally taken when it started to go dark – nonetheless, it’s not just nicely balanced it even seems full of light, as helped by a long exposure of two seconds at f/16.

A similar principle helped me out when photographing a banquet spread (left). The weather was abysmal – grey sky and pouring rain. Exposure times were running to 10 seconds at f/22, but the flatness of light resulted in excellent colour saturation throughout and even let me pull off the trick of getting the light balance right for outside of the window.

When using available light, you can only get this effect when the weather outside is very gloomy or when photographing at twilight. In the latter case, you can apply the principles of twilight photography that I outlined in the last issue of Pentax User. In brief, you put the interior lights on and wait for the sky and surroundings outside to fade to a balanced light level. The next picture shows a sort of reversed version of that idea – taking a shot from outside at a point when the light balance was perfect for the outside doorway and the lit-up passageway inside (top right).

Obviously, one option that most SLRs now offer is a built-in flash. While this is not suitable for lighting a whole interior effectively – especially when you’re using a wide-angle lens – it might do the trick for a bit of fill-in lighting, as can be seen in the bedroom shot where the head on the left would have been too dark without it (top left). Nonetheless, unwanted reflections may be a problem that only show themselves when you see the image on the screen, so make sure you take a version without flash, too.


Waiting for the sun to vanish ensures a better balanced shot, especially when windows are in view.


Mixed lighting but balanced for the natural outdoor light.


An exposure of 30 seconds at f/11 and some filteradjustments produced an effective shot of the French military defences.


Colour from standard light bulbs reduced using manual filter to add blue and remove the overpowering red cast but keeping a warm atmosphere.

If the light source from outside is creating too much contrast or results in weirdly mixed colour casts, one solution may be to simplify matters by closing the window-shutters, so that the indoor lighting is the only light source. This may offer a certain measure of control, and the resulting simple colour cast can be dealt with using the array of white balance filters available in the camera. For example, in the conference room shot (middle right), the source was standard light bulbs. I could have used the appropriate filter in my K20D, but then the result seemed too clinical. Instead, I tinkered with the manual filter, adding enough blue to remove an overpowering red cast while maintaining a warm, inviting atmosphere. The image on the video screen picked up the blue I had added, and this provided an interesting tonal contrast to the surroundings.

On the other hand, the picture of a museum (right) was intended to be objective and straight, so that a fluorescent filter was used to get accurate, but rather boring, colours.

Similar filter techniques were applied for the shot taken about 50 yards underground in a section of the Maginot Line (above), part of a system of military defences built by the French on the German border in the 1930s. It’s a pretty creepy place, and the lighting was poor, but an exposure of
30 seconds at f/11 and some filter adjustments produced an effective shot. Which just goes to illustrate my point that good interior photogra phy need not be a preserve of the professionals, even when the going is far from easy.


Taken in a museum and intended to be objective and ‘straight’, so a fluorescent filter was used to get accurate, but rather boring, colours.

Members photos with related tags: Architecture

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