Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Photographing Interiors and Architecture

Let me tell you a funny story about being an architecture photographer.

Two years ago, I had to fly to an island in North America to shoot two beach houses for a book. One of these beach houses was owned by a famous couple. For privacy reasons, let's just call them The Famous Couple. Having already been on the road for two weeks, I was longing for more exercise than just running between airport terminals. So I hired a little old bike, tucked my camera and lenses in the little wicker basket, and set off to shoot the Famous Couple's house. When I arrived (I refrained from ringing the dinky little bell, as that really wouldn't have been professional), the duo greeted me in a state of shock.
"Where's your people?" they said, searching the driveway behind me. "I'm sorry," I said, perplexed. "Your people?" they repeated.
Now for a brief moment there, I have to confess that I wondered if I had fallen into some strange American movie, and they either thought I was an alien, or Martha Stewart dressed as an Australian. But Martha wouldn't have ridden a bike for five miles. She would have demanded her assistant do it, and then hopped on at the end for effect.

It was then they explained that they expected me to drive up in a truck, with 10 assistants, 2 stylists, and a handful of other people to help shift furniture. They explained that past photo shoots had involved up to a dozen people and one or two trucks full of new furniture. These "people" would shift the Famous Couple's furniture out of their beach house and bring in the preferred furniture, styling it up with assorted art work and antique pieces that had nothing whatsoever to do with the Famous Couple. Often the shoots took two days. At the end of it all, the "people" would get back in their trucks and drive back to New York. The photographer would file his extravagant expenses form with the editor, the editor would justify the $50,000 shoot with her publisher by saying it was a "significant interior", and the Famous Couple left behind would try to put their furniture, and their lives, back together.

And you lovely readers wonder why shelter magazines are going out of business???!!

Now people. We need to have a little chat. This is not the way to do things. If you want to be a good architecture or design photographer, you need to learn how to do things with a team of one.

This is how I work.

1. Always be courteous. Thank the owners/interviewees for their time, and for graciously allowing you into their home. Tell them their home looks beautiful. If they're difficult, be pleasant. You're only there for a few hours. You don't have to marry them.

2. Prepare a shot list. A shot list is a list of ideas or possible angles/scenes to help you when you're on location. Most photographers (or their assistants) will prepare one. I'll often do a collage of images and ideas and keep it in my files or scan it into my laptop. So, for example, if you're shooting a colonial-style house, look up colonial-style images on the Internet to find inspiring ideas. What says "colonial"? Verandahs, grand staircases, wicker chairs, mahogany furniture, four-poster beds, gracious spaces... What says "New York apartment"? Views of Gotham City-esque architecture from the windows. Bird's eye views down onto yellow taxis. Street signs. Street scenes. Delis. Someone sitting on the front doorstep with their big hairy dog. You may not use the shot list, but I can't tell you the number of times I've relied on these for inspiration. When you get to a location, you don't have time to think, let alone conceive ideas.

3. Ask the owners to email you a floorplan if they have one, and if you really want to be prepared, find out where the light falls from morning to twilight. Study a Google map if you have to in order to see where the light will be over the house at various times of the day. (Don't forget the Northern and Southern Hemispheres differ: I've been caught out forgetting the north-south difference several times.)

4. Consider shooting generic shots as well as the required hero and filler images. For example, if you're shooting a colonial-style place, shoot palm trees, Adirondecks chairs on the sand, yachts, piers, etc, to flesh out the spread. These generic images will "place" the house within its environment, and add a lovely narrative to the story.

5. Capture the owner's personality. If they have lots of unusual collections, shoot them. If they love books, shoot those. If they have groupings of odd objects, shoot those too. Show their shoes in the hall; their artwork; their dressing tables; their hall tables; their work desks. These will all reveal more than a dull shot of an old sofa.

6. Learn to use natural light. It really is the best.

7. If you're shooting several homes in one neighbourhood/city/country do them all at once. Corral the owners into one set week. Keep to a schedule: a morning at one place; an afternoon at another. This will also make you work efficiently. Don't worry about the light and whether it will be right when you're there. You will find something to shoot. Remember: the best photos are the unexpected ones.

8. Download all your images to your laptop at the end of the day and then back up. TWICE. (I take two small portable hard drives. Other photographers use online image libraries to file their work.)

9. Don't listen to rules. Some garden photographers believe you should only shoot gardens in the hour before sunrise and the hour after sunset. Pffff! Many flowers look beautiful in full sunlight. Moody gardens look gorgeous in mist. Cottage gardens look glorious in late-afternoon light. Shoot with your heart, not your Photographic Guide.

10. Find ways of shooting scenes in a different way. If you're shooting a house with unusual lines or in an unusual setting, shoot up to capture those lines. If you're shooting a house with lots of colour, take lots and lots of photos of the colours to create a dazzling spread.

11. Try to work out what the main colour palette of the house is and shoot around that. It will make your images more cohesive.

12. Ask the owners what THEY think their best angles are. (Their interior / exterior angles, not their own poses.) They'll love being involved. And they'll often recommend shots you may not have thought of. It won't make you look foolish. I normally say "If there are any shots or angles that you particularly love, let me know, won't you? You know your home better than anyone, after all".

Lastly, learn to work really fast! Really, really fast. None of this two-day-amble-with-two-thousand-assistants stuff. I've had days that have gone like this:

6AM Pick up hire car from Boston and drive to Maine.
9AM Shoot house in Maine.
11AM: Shoot another house in Maine.
NOON: Drive back to Boston and drop hire car off. Fly to Washington DC. Change planes for Richmond Virginia. Change planes one last time for Savannah Georgia. Arrive at midnight after passing through eight states in one day.
NEXT DAY: Get up at 5AM to start shooting all over again.

Boy, did I wish I had an assistant or three on these days!

{Images from my Coast: Lifestyle Architecture and Design in Black and White books – featuring Islamorada, Nantucket, Harbour Island and Tybee Island.}


  1. I have renewed respect for photo/journalists Janelle, it's not as easy as it looks. A true appreciation of the pyschological aspects of your assignments & the assignees is a must to achieve success. If someone wanted to come into The Hedge & do a story, I'd need to be on IV Valium for a week prior!
    Millie xx

  2. Thanks for the insights, and the great tips. Trying to glean ideas for my amateur photograph taking and these are all great. Thanks! Jennifer x

  3. Nice suggestions, Janelle. I'd add two points that I learned to focus on early:

    1) always try to keep the lens level, not even slightly pointed upward or downward, as this will prevent converging lines. Photoshop or lightroom can correct subtle angles back to vertical lines, but if they're too drastic, it can ruin an otherwise solid image.

    2) wide angle lenses are incredibly important, but always fight the urge to go as wide as possible and include too much information. This can be a very hard urge to fight, but it'll make for great images!


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