How to master indoor photography

August 3, 2012

In our indoor photography tips and advice, Nigel Atherton shows how to achieve evenly exposed interiors using multiple exposures, while Phil Hall explains how to blend them using layer masks.

tips on shooting photographs indoors - bar interior

Indoor photography: What you’ll need:

  • A camera with manual control over the exposure and focusing
  • Wideangle lens
  • Tripod
  • Remote shutter release (optional)
  • Flashgun (optional)

Indoor photography: Taking the images

Room interiors can be a challenging subject to photograph, due to the huge contrast range between the window-lit areas and the shadowy recesses. The only solution is multiple exposures. Here’s how…

interior focus on foreground objects - beer pumpsRooms present many problems for the photographer. The first is getting it all in shot.

The obvious solution is to use a wideangle lens, but this itself poses potential hazards.

Firstly they can cause distortion –  if the camera is not kept perfectly level the sides can appear to lean inwards (known as keystoning). With very wide lenses straight horizontal and vertical lines, especially near the edges of the frame, can appear to bow outwards (barrel distortion).

Wideangles can also distort the perspective, making rooms seem unrecognisably bigger than they are in real life, and objects and furniture in the foreground seem disproportionately large compared with background objects. The solution is to avoid extreme wideangles, to keep the camera level, and to choose your viewpoint carefully, paying particular attention to the placement of foreground objects.

A tripod should be considered essential for quality interiors because it solves the problem of keeping your camera level and several others too. The first of these is the need to use a small aperture to ensure everything will be sharp from foreground to background, which may result in a shutter speed too slow to handhold safely.

Choose a fairly small aperture such as f/11 (don’t stop right down to the smallest apertures as image quality is unlikely to be as good) and focus on a point one-third the way into your scene. Check your depth of field or fire a test shot and magnify it on the LCD screen to check all-over sharpness.

tips on shooting photographs indoors - red and white flowersThe other big problem which the tripod helps to solve is that of lighting. If shooting during daytime, any areas lit by windows, not to mention the windows themselves, will be several stops brighter than shadowy areas in corners, under tables and so forth, and this contrast range is likely to be beyond the ability of the sensor to record.

The best way to overcome this problem is to shoot a sequence of images at different exposures, taking care to ensure that the camera does not move between each one – a remote shutter release will be helpful here.

Take one that provides a correct exposure for the window area, one that exposes for the deepest shadows, and several in between, in either one or two stop increments. It’s okay for the window area to be a little overexposed – it would be unnatural if buildings outside were the same brightness as the interior.

If you want to, you can use a flashgun to help fill in dark shadow areas, but not fired directly from the camera position as this will cause unsightly shadows. Try bouncing it off the ceiling, or a wall. Some professional interiors photographers use several remote flashguns or heads strategically placed around the room and triggered by slave cells.

Indoor photography: Exposure

tips on shooting photographs indoors - average exposure in bar

The metered average exposure. Note the blown highlights around the window.

tips on shooting photographs indoors - underexposed shot in bar

The ‘underexposed’ shot records more detail in the window.

tips on shooting photographs indoors - overexposed shot in bar

The ‘overexposed’ shot captures more detail in the dark areas behind the bar.

The images can then be combined in Photoshop (see next page). All shots taken with a Nikon D700 and Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8

Indoor photography: Layer Mask

Once you’ve got your shots, you now have the task of merging them together to produce a final, perfectly exposed image, with detail in both the highlights and shadow areas.

While it’s possible to use the Eraser tool in Photoshop to blend the images together – erasing sections of one layer to reveal the layer below – it’s not a very flexible way to work.

Layer masks allow you to have much more control over the image. Because you’re not erasing part of the layer, just masking it, it’s nondestructive since that information is still retained. This means that any mistakes can be easily rectified; even once you’ve closed the file and re-opened it (you’ll need to save it as a TIFF or PSD file to maintain the layers in the image though).

Layer masks aren’t just suited to indoor photography either. It’s a very handy technique when shooting a range of subjects where extreme lighting is present – landscapes for instance, or still-life. This is because it allows you to maintain detail in both the shadows and the highlights of the image that produces a more natural look than HDR.

Indoor photography: How to apply Layer Masks

tips on shooting photographs indoors - applying layer masks example 1

Copy and paste 

With both shots open in Photoshop, select the lighter image and hit Ctrl+A to select the image and then Ctrl+C to copy it. With that done, hit Ctrl+W to close the image before pressing Ctrl+V to paste the image. Bring up your Layers palette (F7 on your keyboard) and you should have two layers – a Background layer and Layer 1.

tips on shooting photographs indoors - applying layer masks example 2

Add layer mask

Making sure you have Layer 1 selected, at the bottom of the Layers palette, click on the Add layer mask icon. You should now have a white rectangular icon next to your layer thumbnail. Select the Brush tool from the Toolbox, and make sure Black is selected as your foreground colour. To start with, select a size of 500px with a soft edge and set the Opacity to 30%.

tips on shooting photographs indoors - applying layer masks example 3

Reveal darker area below

Reducing the Opacity will allow more control and allow an easier blend between the two layers. Now brush over the areas you want to darken – in this case, the left of the frame with the bright windows. You may find you have to brush over areas more than once to darken them enough. If you go wrong, swap your brush colour to White and brush over the area to correct.

Authors: Nigel Atherton and Phil Hall

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