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How Do You Learn Composition For Interior Photography?

Published: 20/01/2015

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CompositionForInteriorsA while ago Sandy raise an excellent question:

Are there any books out there that would be beneficial to learning composition techniques for RE photography? I think I could use a little help with the basics.

My initial answer was no, I know of no books that talk specifically about interior photographic composition, and recommended that she follow the discussions on the PFRE Flickr group and the PFRE monthly still contests. Also, read Scott Hargis's analysis of the entries in the 2014 photographer of the year.

Update 1/20: Scott reminded me of his 12-minute composition video from about 3 years ago. It is the best summary that you'll find for interiors composition. Scott points out in the video, it's just scratching the surface of this big subject.

But the more I thought about it, this wasn't the complete answer. All the visual dynamics that go on in real estate photos, are at work in all two-dimensional images. Some of that same things that my Art History professor talked about when talking about composition is also at work in real estate photos. Sure there are a bunch of special considerations that arise out of the technology I use to shoot real estate that the Renaissance masters didn't have to deal with, but the basic visual dynamics works the same.

Unfortunately, I know of no books that specifically address the subject of modern interior photography, particularly for the purpose that Sandy is looking for, but here are some books that deal with the general subject of photographing architecture and composition in general:

  1. Photographing Architecture And Interiors, by Julius Shulman.
  2. Photographing Architecture: Lighting, Composition, Postproduction and Marketing Techniques, by John Siskin
  3. The Photographer's Eye: A Graphic Guide, by Michael Freeman.
  4. The Art Of The Photograph: Essential Habits for Stronger Compositions, by Art Wolf & Rob Sheppard.

There's no concise list of composition rules that leads to powerful and effective composition, but the resources above along with looking at a lot of images will get you going in the right direction. Anyone have any other resources to learn composition?

Larry Lohrman

19 comments on “How Do You Learn Composition For Interior Photography?”

  1. I've been an artist as far back as I can remember. For 51 years I've a professional photographer, in portrait, wedding, commercial and photojournalism. Plus my brain thinks in pictures. In other words, it's all natural.

  2. ls interior photography so different? Doesn't it also fall into the category of pictorial arts like other genres of photography? Okay there maybe some differences to pure arts, because of its purpose. It may have a strong tendency towards documentation or even journalism. In the end there are the normal composition rules that also apply for any other esthetic photography.

    Since there are a lot of lines due to the nature of our architecture - the leading lines theme has to get special attention. And the rule of thirds. And the fore-, middle and background question. Btw: In the German photographers' scene every photog that shoots multiple objects in one frame (like landscape, cityscape, interior, exterior) sooner or later is confronted with a rhymed mantra that says translated "Foreground heals the image" (Vordergrund macht Bild gesund - dunno if there is an equivalent in English).

    On the lines' and composition's question it could be helpful to follow Scott Hargis talking about angles in a room and parallel walls or on moving furniture. On the rule of thirds I recently wrote an article over on my blog (unfortunately in German only but with Google's help it could be available for others as well): (keep in mind that this info is for agents not for photogs 😉 )

    It is hard to find books other than those already named, but there are is lot of info at the interweb.

  3. @Scott - thanks for reminding me of that video.. I'd totally forgotten about it.

  4. Interesting to look through the book by Siskin via Kindle preview. The images, at least on the preview pages, are not especially strong. Did not read the text, and given that this is a composition question, it may indeed hit that nail right on the head.

    Larry, maybe its time for another PFRE book!

  5. I studied Architectural design in HS, but fell in love with photography in the Navy. Afterwards, I went to photography school to become a commercial studio photographer.

    But, I would always look at all the upscale home magazines, especially Architectural digest. I wanted to combine my architectural training with photography. Architectural digest is still a wonderful publication and shows interiors both shot for documentary and artistic display. in Film days, there was a hi-end German camera company (Linhof) which published a magazine that specialized on large format photography which I used as a great interior photography guide.

    Depending on your location, there are upscale home magazines that specialize on homes in your area. We have homes of Sarasota, Homes of FL, Homes and homes of Miami. all show documentary images, and very artistic views (which most the time would be too drastic for a virtual tour, but still very cool angles).

    But, in my travels, I have seen Homes of Seattle, homes of Arizona, homes of Sana fe country homes etc. some beautiful country home magazines.
    I think these are great places to see the images of working photographers and images that are being published. it will help you take your photography to another level, and shoot angles that you might not even think about.

  6. Off the top of my head, two recommendations for composition in architectural and interior photography...

    PERSPECTIVE - Learn the basics of 1, 2 & 3 point perspectives. Just like lenses, there is also a Circle of Confusion rule that applies to each given composition. Once you've mastered the 3 point perspective, there is a limitless quantity of addional perspectives that you can explore and utilize in your compositions.

    CLOSURE - you may not find much about this, but it's one rule that can be used in so many ways that it seems like cheating, sometimes. You can make windows, doors, openings, lights, etc. look bigger, smaller, wider taller, on and on. It saves compositions that normally wouldn't work, cleans up messy views, and generally allows you to refine every framed edge.

    Hopefully those two basic suggestions help some with further digging!

  7. Specifically for interiors, I learn by looking through the upper end RE magazines (Luxe, Distinctive Homes, Tatler, etc) and break down the images that appeal to me. I try to make a sketch of the room as it can be seen and note the camera placement and make my best guess as to lighting. I also decompose pictures that I don't like to identify the components that are turning me off. Reading through the critiques on the Flickr group is helpful to identify why an image isn't working when I can't put my finger on the problem, though I know there is something not right.

    Sometimes it's like Scott constantly preaches. Slow down and think. What features of a given room are going to be important? Shooting the corner of an empty small bedroom conveys almost no information so why waste the time?

    Sometimes it helps to "write" the description for the property in your head and make the images that support the text.

  8. While I think it is important to study high quality architectural imagery-paintings and renderings, as well as photos-I think high-quality marketing images for the hospitality industry might be more closely applicable to real estate photography than interior design photography. I would suggest being careful about trying to draw too much guidance from interior design photography, since a significant amount of that kind of photography will involve tighter compositions that emphasize the furnishings, surfaces and fixtures rather than the spaces, which are mostly what real estate agents and home buyers are interested in. Even interior views intended to emphasize the architectural design may not be wide enough for many real estate agents and homeowners

    This is not to say, however, that tighter compositions and detail shots may not be useful to some real estate agents, just that these kinds of shots would tend to be supporting shots to the main views of the rooms, with the possible exception of homes that are of exceptional architectural quality. Nor am I necessarily advocating extreme wide views for real estate marketing. It is just that, on average, for real estate clients, many of the views may need to be wider than the kind of views that would commonly be used for emphasizing the architectural or interior design.

  9. Bruce Barnbaum a b/w landscape photographer from Washington wrote a book titled "The Art of Photography" He had had a chapter on composition.
    Yes, it's landscape but it will get you thinking. I am not a big fan of composition rules, but they do help in the beginning. Start by taking your initial composition
    then start trying to simplify it, don't just look at it, study it.

  10. The listed books as well as Scott's video are great - but there is nothing like experience and "having an eye". I recommend taking a course in interior design or architecture at a community college to learn about composition and design. Brad has a master's degree in architecture and this combined with his technical photography training help him to create compositions that the client's really love.

    Photoshop and lightroom, etc can give you great color, fix the image, but if the composition isn't good - it is not a great photo. I think that perspective warp came about because the composition on images wasn't always the best and this feature of photoshop allows a change - it can actually turn a building and reposition the angles.

    Sometimes a client want to have a photograph of a room from what they perceive is the best angle or viewpoint. If you don't agree with this, you can always shoot the image the way you feel will represent the room better from a composition point of view. If you have an external monitor - you can use this to convince the client of your viewpoint prior to setting up the lighting for the image.

    Finally, take an architect or interior designer or stager to lunch or for a cup of coffee. Discuss what they look for in an image. Show them your portfolio and ask for suggestions. Who knows - maybe they like what you are already doing and will choose you for photography next time - although the purpose of the exercise is to get a portfolio review.

    Ah - portfolio reviews - maybe Larry we should set up a portfolio review program. I know you have the contests, but judging from your viewership - the entries represent only a small portion of your blog's reach. We do portfolio reviews for recent graduates of the Art Institute of Phoenix (Brad teaches Architectural photography there in the Bachelor's program) and it really gives the students some real view input.

  11. Here is my advice:
    1. Get a subscription to Architectural Digest magazine. In each issue closely examine each image and try to deconstruct it for lighting, camera elevation, camera position, angle, room staging, etc. In other words, imprint your brain with good images and attempt to mimic what you see when you do your photography. Don't get caught up in "volume" jobs at low price. Set a fair price and take your time to do the best job you can. Speed will come with lots of experience. Doing 1-2 jobs a day should be plenty to develop your skill. If you develop the reputation of a "gun and run" photographer with low prices you are not doing yourself or anyone else any favors. Be Professional!
    2. For information on compositing images check out Watch the video he has there for compositing using Lightrooms enfuse plug in. He also has a link to a Image Exporter plug in for Lightroom. Personally, being 71 years old I had to view the video and stop and start it while making two pages of type written instructions and then had to go back twice after trying to do what he did. Once I got it down and set up the export presets I shot a job and it went like a wiz!
    Basically I've finally got so I lock in my ISO at 800 (Nikon D800) and my f/stop at 5.6 or f/8.0 for my 14-24mm full frame lens. I use only two lenses, 14-24 and 24-120 and most come in at around 16-20 mm which allow me room to crop and I shoot everything available light. Check a downloadable depth of field app or chart to see where to prefocus your shot to maximize depth of field. My 1st exposure is the windows spot metered at a good exposure in manual mode, then I bracket 6 more stops brighter at 1 stop each, only with shutter speed, (self timer, and auto bracketing for seven shots) and that normally gets me to a good over bright image for the interior where windows are totally blown out but I've got good shadow areas.
    3. Scott Hargis's information is good if you want to use flash, but it's rare that I can't get a great enfused available light image without flash. However, there are occasions where I'll add a flash to another room in the background to bring up the light level there or blink one at low very power into a dark corner. Right now, I can't justify the time to set up 1-3 flashes and make adjustment to get a good exposure as a $150 - $200.00 shoot doesn't warrant it.
    Now, give me a custom built luxury home where the realtor is willing to pay $1,000+ and I'll break out the lights and the rosco colored gels and create images like Mike Kelly.
    Well, enjoy and keep shooting.

  12. Hi Olivier M.Z.

    Just translated your article on composition via google translate. Thanks very much. I love the subtle change between Rule of Thirds and Golden Ratio/ Section.

    Very helpful, thank you.

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