Property Photography: Real Beauty is on the Inside – Part 2

Many of the concepts I touched on in the previous case study (residential property interiors) apply to photographing commercial property. However, there can be some extra demands, and more diverse environments whose inner beauty, sometimes more elusive, still needs to be captured. This study actually encompasses 3 different cases, each with different challenges and requirements.

hotel reception area

 

Sometimes photographing a commercial property provides more scope for creative expression than residential properties. For example, I allowed the shot of a Hungarian hotel reception area above to remain much more dark and dramatic than I normally would when photographing a property for an estate agent. A brief burst of flash from an off-camera flashgun lit the foreground flowers without impacting the overall lighting.

The shot below – another room in the same hotel – might be too clinic or minimalist for residential imagery, but in the context of a spa hotel communicates cleanliness, simplicity and a sense of style.

colour coordinated spa reception area

 

Some locations I am asked to photograph are not quite so grand as the hotel above, but the tone of the imagery is still required to one of aspiration.

 

boiler in outhouse

 

A series of images I created for a local supplier and installer of biomass boilers took in a range of challenging locations from garden sheds, through dusty workshops, to barns and out-houses where the boiler took up almost all the space in the room.

 

boilers in outhouses

 

Where space is plentiful I could use props to help tell the story – such as the wheelbarrow of discarded pieces of wood that would be chipped to fuel the boiler – but sometimes the lack of space required shooting through a doorway just to get an angle on the main subject. In the latter example (image on right above) I placed a flashgun on a small tripod inside the room to provide ‘accent’ light on the front of the boiler housing. By firing the built-in flash on my camera at very low power I was able to trigger the flashgun without actually lighting the subject from the on-camera flash.

As with residential properties, a bit of flash is sometimes required to supplement the ambient window light.

 

showroom display

 

Although the high building opposite blocked some of the sunlight in the image above, I didn’t want the displays to be entirely back-lit, so a touch of flash bounced off the ceiling threw extra light into areas that might otherwise be too shadowy.

 

Small spaces can be tricky to capture in their entirety with a single shot – even with a wide angle lens. The image below captured a room in one Essex University’s iconic towers of residence. The bedrooms on one floor had received a period make-over as part of their 50th Anniversary celebrations.

 

small room Panorama

 

Shooting through the doorway of this bijou dorm, it became evident that lens distortions from my favourite wide angle would be impossible to correct satisfactorily. Therefore I switched to a longer focal length lens (fewer distortions), put my camera on a tripod and shot two images – each taking in half the room, with a good amount of overlap. I later stitched these images into a panorama; there were still a few converging verticals (a very common distortion where walls appear to lean inwards), but they were much easier to deal with, and I was able to show three side of the room in a single image.

I also took a few ‘detail’ shots of the retro life-styling the students had undertaken in the rooms.

 

period university room

 

Other spaces, such as meeting or conference rooms, require a different compositional approach to the student dorms; key elements still need to appear in frame in order to ‘tell the story’ (i.e. show the facilities available in the room), but the overall feel will probably be much more formal.

 

meeting room

 

Sometimes, at the end of a long and demanding shoot, I get to enjoy some perks (no pun intended) of this fascinating and fabulous job, such as drinking the freshly created set dressing…

 

cup of coffee in cafe

 

Some more examples of my location photography can be found here or to discuss your own unique requirements, just drop me a line.

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Fundamentals of Photography: Optimum Exposure (Part 1)

Many of the people I tutor come to me because they know their camera boasts many great features to help them unleash their creativity, but they are stuck on the auto settings where the camera does almost everything. So this month (continuing over the next two) we’re getting back to fundamentals, looking at the things your camera gets up to when you use auto or preset exposure settings, encouraging you to grab some control back, and busting a bit of jargon along the way…

 

three exposures of the same subject
These photographs were taken within seconds of each other in the same location, but with different exposure settings. Which is the optimum exposure?

Correct exposure often means your principal subject and (maybe) its background are photographed such that detail is visible in both shadows and highlights.

This is not always possible. If you photograph a black statue against a white wall you will struggle to get much detail in both statue and wall.

Correct exposure may also not be what you want to achieve. Maybe you want to over-expose the wall to surround the statue with pure white.

Camera auto or preset exposure modes may produce either an over-exposed wall or an under-exposed statue – the camera will decide which you get.

So rather than correct exposure, I prefer the term optimum exposure, meaning the exposure that serves your creative intent rather than some objective standard.

 

tonal range

 

Ignoring colour for the moment, every scene you will ever photograph will feature a range of tones that will vary with the strength, direction and quality of the light. In camera (and Photoshop) speak, that tonal range is represented by 0 to 255 where 0 is pure black and 255 pure white, with greys in between. Photographs of many scenes will feature the entire range of tones – whether or not the actual scene did. This is because your camera is not as sophisticated as your eyes, and can only deal with a limited tonal range in a given scene.

If the tonal range present in a scene exceeds the range your camera can record you get clipping; detail in either (or both) highlights / shadows is lost. Commonly this is seen when shooting outdoors on a sunny day; if the sun is in or near the frame of your composition blue sky is bleached white – or the foreground may become a silhouette (common with sunset shots).

 

poorly exposed landscape

 

A lack of detail in shadow areas (blocking) is conventionally more acceptable than a lack of detail in bright areas (blown out highlights). But you might actually want a high key look where some elements are blown out – or lots of deep dramatic shadow. Once you understand the ‘rules’ you can break them and create your optimum exposure. But before we get on to the rule breaking let’s bust some of the most common jargon you will encounter.

 

Stops and Exposure Value (EV)

These are terms for the basic units of exposure – often used interchangeably, although stops is more common.

Exposure can be increased or decreased by adjusting the camera’s ISO, aperture and shutter speed. A change of plus or minus 1 stop is a doubling or halving of the amount of light entering the camera.

Although camera manuals frequently employ this terminology, camera displays frequently do not, relying instead on numbers or graphic representations that relate to the three terms covered below.

 

ISO

ISO is the sensitivity of the media (film / digital sensor) recording the image. Low ISO settings require more light to render an image, and vice versa. Low ISO also produces ‘fine grain’ images, whilst high ISO produces courser grain (or noise) and reduced contrast.

Digital SLRs offer a range of ISO values, often between 100 – 3200 or 6400; the range can be bigger or smaller depending on make and model.

The scale is linear so ISO 200 is half as sensitive as ISO 400 and twice as sensitive as ISO 100. In other words a camera would need twice as much light to enter through the shutter to record the same exposure at ISO 100 as it would produce at ISO 200.

Aperture and f-stop (f-numbers)

f-stops express the range of lens apertures available. The aperture is the size of the lens pupil at the moment a shot is taken and (along with shutter speed) controls the amount of light hitting the sensor. Aperture size also influences depth of fieldthe area within a photo that is sharp – the subject of a future post.

Intuitively, a larger aperture lets in more light but the terminology can be confusing.

An aperture of f5.6 is larger than f16.

The scale is also confusing as it is not linear. f5.6 is twice as big as f8, while f11 is half as big as f8.

To add to the confusion, your camera may allow you to alter aperture by 1/2 or 1/3 stops. So, between f8 and f11 you may also see f9 and f10.

The good news is that you do not have to remember all this. Remembering a few of the most commonly used apertures (f5.6, f8, f11, f16) and the direction of travel (f5.6 wide – f16 narrow) is sufficient. It can help to think of the f-stop as a fraction (f/8, f/11, f/16 etc) where f is a constant.

 

Shutter Speed

More good news – shutter speeds are MUCH more intuitive than apertures. A slow shutter allows in more light than a fast one; and the scale is (more or less) linear, so a shutter speed of 1/30 second lets in twice as much light as 1/60 second.

However, your naughty camera may try to confuse you; many displays do not show the whole fraction, they just show the denominator, so 1/30 is shown as 30 and 1/60 as 60. Shutter speeds of 1 second or more may be marked by the symbol ” after the number (e.g. 10″ = 10 second shutter speed).

A fast shutter can freeze objects in motion, whereas a slower shutter may blur them.

The range of speeds available commonly stretches from thousandths of a second to 30 seconds. Some cameras also have a bulb setting that allows you to open the shutter indefinitely. Apparently a German photographer has achieved shutter speeds of several years… the mind boggles!

 

In the next tutorials post we’ll look at how ISO, aperture and shutter speed interact to create an exposure, and critically, how you can wrestle control of them away from your camera.

To chat about photography or Photoshop tuition, call me on 07757 259390 or send me a message via email.

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Property Photography: Real Beauty is on the Inside – Part 1

I was originally planning to cover several cases in this study – including residential and commercial properties – but found there was more to say than I realised. So this first of two posts focuses on photographing residential property interiors for letting agents, estate agents and people renting out holiday accommodation.

lounge with wine and fire

Preparation begins long before any photographer turns up of course. If preparing holiday accommodation you might employ an interior designer. If preparing a flat for letting, you may refit kitchens and bathrooms or splash out on funky new furniture. But even if you are just preparing to sell one property as you move to another, a bit of ‘sprucing up’ will not go amiss:

  1. Keep it clean. Even ‘wide angle’ shots of rooms show up dust and grime.
  2. Keep it tidy. Clutter makes rooms look smaller, and is distracting and unattractive.
  3. Hide effects that are very personal (e.g. family photos) during the shoot.
  4. Consider a lick of paint if you haven’t redecorated for over five years.

twin attic bedroom

Most of the time it is desirable to make rooms feel bright and spacious (without distorting the reality of course). People assume wide angle lenses are used to make small rooms look spacious. This is true in the sense that wide angles capture more of a room than telephotos would.

bedroom with towels and lights

Another misconception is that photographers turn on room lights to brighten rooms that are too dark. Room lights do not generally light a room sufficiently for cameras to achieve an even exposure across the entire space. The same is true of window light – even large windows rarely light a room evenly. House lights are also not as powerful as window light (even on a cloudy day), so do not serve to create that bright airy look.

Besides, estate agents know that indiscriminate use of room lights may imply that a house is dark without them.

So, room lights are better off unless they are an attractive feature that deserves focus, or they help draw attention to another feature in the room. Our eyes are drawn to bright areas of images. With interiors, the brightest area is often a window; turning on a bedside lamp on the other side of the room won’t balance the light levels, but it can help lead the eye to that side of the image.

The simplest rooms to light are small windowless rooms that can be illuminated using just the ceiling light(s). A long exposure may be required to compensate for the relatively low power of household lighting, but with a tripod that is not a problem.

Most other rooms – that boast one or more windows on the world – are more complex – especially when the window is part of the scene being shot, as outside is invariably much brighter than inside. This often results in images where the room looks bright but the window area is ‘blown out’ (pure white), or where the window area is well exposed but much of the room (especially corners and ceiling) looks dark and dingy.

This is where flash can help. It brightens up areas the windows are not lighting adequately. At the correct settings you can achieve a perfect balance between the indoor and outdoor light levels (although I prefer to keep outdoor light a little brighter – it looks more natural).

window lit room

The flash built into most cameras is not suited to this purpose. Its light is harsh and unflattering, and can produce strong unnatural-looking shadows that distract the eye and ruin the image.

At the other end of the scale, if I were spending several hours getting shots of a single room for a high end property magazine, I might employ a number of portable studio flash units, each lighting a different part of the room or a different feature in the room.

That solution isn’t going to work for estate agents photographing a two-up two-down for their website. It might look fabulous, but few agents have hours to spend photographing a single room.

The compromise is ‘bouncing’ light from a flashgun off the walls and ceiling to supplement the ambient window light. Areas the window light doesn’t illuminate are brightened but because the flash is bounced you avoid the new (and harsh) shadows of direct flash.

It might be argued that this risks making a room look brighter than it really is, but in truth it is simply compensating for the fact that the camera is much more sensitive to varying light levels than are our eyes.

bathroom

Lenses – especially wide angles – are prone to geometric distortions, such as converging verticals where rooms can end up looking like a set from the 60’s Batman series – acute angles with sloping ceilings and walls. Some of these effects can be corrected with Photoshop, although it is not always possible to correct every distortion as correcting one can emphasise another. Sometimes you just have to make a call on which distortion is most innocuous.

The degree of lens distortion is effected by the shooting position; corners may provide the most expansive view of a room, but they also result in more distortion. Sometimes a central view is better – especially if there is something like a bed or dining table to provide a ‘centre piece’. I also keep the ‘horizon line’ level and avoid angling the camera towards floor or ceiling.

A final point on angles: shooting from a standing position may seem natural, but it will likely include more ceiling than floor in the shot. I prefer to shoot from around waist height; unless there is a particularly diverting feature high up, ceilings tend to be less interesting than what is beneath them.

dining room and lounge

Usually there are one or two rooms in a property that I want to make a bit more of a fuss over – the living area, kitchen or maybe a master bedroom. That fuss may take the form of a bit of life-styling such arranging books / magazines / flowers etc on a table or worktop. It may simply be taking some extra close-up shots of something like a roaring fire or quirky features like a built-in coffee maker. If a large screen television dominates a room I usually turn it on – preferable to a vast expanse of blank screen. Recently I even pulled out my macro lens to capture the details of a keyless front door, ingress through which was granted by finger-print identification.

keys - detail of property character

Where there are no ‘stand out’ features, a bit of light life-styling in the lounge or kitchen can help give an idea of a property’s character. And that, at the end of the day, is what most property photography is about. You are not simply showing the structure and space, you are inviting people to imagine what it would be like to stay or live in that property.

The next case study will focus on photographing commercial properties and few more unusual interiors.

Some more examples of my interior photography can be found here. However, due to the nature of the work I do not put many examples of residential interiors on my website; they may, however, be viewed on request.

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