Tips for Photographing Renovated Interiors

Over the last ten years, I have made websites for many business of different sizes and services, including “one man operations” and I offer photograph retouching as one of my included digital services. While it’s possible to work all kinds of magic when it comes to improving the lighting and overall quality of any photograph with regards to editting out unwanted elements, there are limits to what any digital darkroom can do. The general rule of thumb is that the better the quality of the original photos, the easier it will be to give them that little extra sparkle that elevates them to professional-looking images, ready for print or web use.

One of the more challenging subjects to capture on film are interior spaces, particularly because most houses still use incandescent lighting, which most digital and film cameras struggle to capture accurately. Our eye is actually much better at using available lighting than a camera, so a scene that seems bright enough to our eyes is usually too dim for a camera’s light sensors, so the resulting image is underlit which can cause problems with quality, especially because the software of most cameras will attempt to “guess” at the colours of pixels when the image is too dark, which gives you that “rainbow pixie dust” look in the JPG files. As well, incandescent lighting appears more yellow than pure white, which can be corrected in post-production but it can be more difficult to match colours to the original scene.

Today’s post I am going to focus on tips for those wanting to capture altered interiors spaces, such as the projects done by renovators, contractors and other interior-décor-minded professions. The work of a contractor or decorator during a house renovation is often a job done as part of the larger whole; as one aspect is finished in a renovation or alternation, other elements may not be started or may be in various states of completion. This can make it difficult to take professional-looking photos, as the surroundings may be messy or have an obviously-unfinished look.

When asked about the best way to get professional-looking photographs, my first answer is always to recommend purchasing the services of a professional photographer. When you find a photographer who is experienced and reliable, you will get the most bang for your buck, because they already know far more tricks than you or I for getting the subject to look its best and they have all the right equipment and will get the job done in less time. That said, if a professional isn’t in the budget or can’t be found in the time needed, there are some simple tricks to help improve your DIY efforts:

  • Do not use your cellphone.  While smartphones these days have increasingly powerful cameras built into them and can take amazing photos in the right conditions (usually outside in natural light) the one area that all brands of phone still struggle in is to adequately capture indoor lighting (see my above paragraph about incandescent lighting).  Even the cheaper digital cameras tend to have better processors built-in than even the fanciest smartphone, which makes sense because a smartphone has serious space competition problems and they tend to opt for a compromise between quality and small size of physical hardware, whereas a digital camera is not under such tight space restraints.
  • Use a tripod. Even a cheap tripod is better than holding the camera in your hands, because we naturally move even when we think we are holding still – even our breathing and our heartbeat can be enough to make a picture just a little bit blurry. If you end up buying a tripod that is just a little too cheap and lightweight, you can improve its stability by tying a rope around a heavy object such as a small brick or bumpy rock and let it hang between the legs of the tripod.
  • Clean the space around your subject. Remove all tools, debris such as cardboard or spilled plaster/paint, clean up any footprints or dust smears, etc. There may be some plastic sheeting or taping put down to protect other areas, if possible remove these masks and then put them back in place when you are finished. The idea is to present at least the illusion that the project is finished and the interior space is brand new and ready to enjoy.
  • Keep people out of the shot. Unless you are doing some sort of blog about your efforts to renovate a space with before, during and after photos, photos of dirty workmen surrounded by dirty tools should be kept to a minimum. The idea is to keep the visual focus on the professional work, and having people in the shot will naturally attract the eye, which distracts from the true subject.
  • Clean the finished project itself. If the final product is made of wood, give it a wipe down with a damp cloth and, if possible, give the wood a good rubbing with oil or wait until it is painted so that it looks its best. Tile floors should be swept and mopped, glass windows should have any stickers or protective plastic sheets properly removed.
  • Let there be light. If possible, put together a collection of table and floor lamps that you can bring to the site to set up and plug in. The idea is to put some white-balanced lightbulbs in these lamps (these can be purchased from any hardware store) and have them shine outside the photo frame to help improve the lighting in the room, while helping avoid using the room’s own lights, which may be incandescent or fluorescent (which gives images a greenish tinge). Even having two or three extra lights in a room will vastly improve the photo quality.
  • Avoid in-between shots. A frequent mistake people make is taking photographs of a renovation project while it is partway done, and these photos are generally not usable because they lack context: a photo of an exposed basement wall showing fibreglass and copper pipes could be anything from a plumbing job to a drywall job. If you want to showcase the improvements you are making, set the camera in one specific spot (using a tripod, ideally) and take a before, during and after shot with the camera in exactly the same spot, that way the viewer can compare and contrast the images more easily and recognize your work.

And the last bit of advice when taking your own photographs is that it’s always a good idea to upload your photographs as soon as possible to a computer or laptop where you can see the photographs at full size, this will help eliminate blurry photos that do not show as blurry when seen on the tiny backscreen of a digital camera.

Goodluck with your efforts to capture your homemade works of art!

~Sunhawk

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