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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