If your business has anything to do with the interiors of homes – designing, selling, decorating, building or remodeling – you depend on photographs to communicate the value of what you do to your potential clients.
You already know that great photographs can make an ok project look fantastic. You also know that poor shots will make a great house look second-rate.
You want every project to look great.
Architects and designers know that winning a design competition is almost as much about the quality of the photos as the quality of design, and so they routinely spend thousands of dollars on the best architectural photographers they can find.
What professional photographers know about shooting house interiors is that while the human brain and eye are excellent at adjusting for a wide range of contrast, cameras are not.
If you don't compensate for contrast, you end up with shots where the dark areas are a little too dark, and the light areas are a little too light; or, the exposure on the interior is just right, but the world outside the windows is much too bright; or the exposure outside is just right, but the interiors are much too dark.
Too light and too dark is how your eyes routinely see the world – but your brain balances the contrast and makes good images out of bad ones.
Cameras can't do that, so the pros compensate by adding lighting – lots and lots of lighting – to make everything bright and greatly reduce the contrast, which results in a much better picture.
Three Wrongs Make A Right
But you don't need lights to get great interior photos; you can turn three poor shots into one great photo with just your camera, a tripod, and a $100 piece of computer software.
It's a process called High Dynamic Range photography, or HDR. It's very easy to do and you'll be astounded by the results. HDR takes the "just right" shot of the windows, the "just right" shot of the interiors, and combines them with the average shot into one great photo.
All without expensive lighting or special skills.
With HDR, you'll never attempt to take one great interior photo again; instead you'll take at least three bad ones and combine them into one that shows off your best work.
Stand Still, Laddie!
HDR only works if the three "bad" photos are taken from exactly the same spot. You'll need a steady tripod for that, and you'll need to be sure no one's walking around the house, causing the camera to vibrate.
Your digital camera also must have manual aperture and shutter speed controls; 35mm SLR cameras have these features but "pocket" digital cameras usually don't. I use an older Canon Digital Rebel and it works just fine. All the photos in this article and most of the photos on my Architectural firm's website were taken with the Rebel.
Ready, Aim, Shoot – Shoot – Shoot!
The first photo you'll take is the "average" one. Use the camera's automatic setting and note the shutter speed that the camera selects when it takes the shot. This will be our "middle" shutter speed.
Now turn off the autofocus and put the camera on one of the manual settings. I use the "Time Value" setting on my Rebel, which allows me to control the length of the exposure. Be sure you don't change the focus or zoom!
Next, adjust the shutter speed so that the photo is much darker. If you have windows in the shot, try to find a setting that makes the view outside the windows look properly exposed – regardless of how the rest of the room looks. If you have to take a bunch of photos to get the right shot don't worry – when you process the photos in HDR you'll choose the ones you want to work with.
Finally, turn the shutter speed dial the opposite direction to create a shot that's obviously much too light. The windows in this shot should look extremely bright, but don't get so bright that you lose all the detail. Again, keep all the shots; you'll select the right one(s) later.
HDR to the Rescue
I use a little $100 program from HDRSoft.com called Photomatix to process the three lousy photos into a mind-blowing great shot. It's a quick download from the Internet and is very easy to use. Photoshop also has the capability to process HDR photos but I prefer the results I get from Photomatix.
You can process more than three photos if you like, but I've found I usually get very good results from three carefully selected images.
All the software requires is for you to drag your three photos into the editing window and it does the rest. I won't go into the details of operating the software, but you'll be offered a series of previews of how to process the photos; some are more artful and some are more realistic. You'll choose the shot that appeals to you best.
Save the processed photo and you're done! I'll often crop the photo or adjust the brightness a tiny bit with Photoshop at this point, but that's about it.
Up to Snuff?
Are the HDR shots as good as you'll get from a pro? Nope – but they're far, far better then you can get without HDR and they're practically free. HDR won't turn you into a professional photographer, but you don't need pro shots every time – especially at three or four thousand dollars a job!
With a little practice, you'll learn what exposures work best to get fantastic results. You'll know how to tweak the software to get amazing depth and color, and you'll learn to make even average interiors look great.