It’s all about the details. Interior design photographer Joe Schmelzer gives us insider tips on shooting perfectly imperfect rooms.
Two decades of photographing interiors for such magazines as Architectural Digest to Elle Decor have made Joe Schmelzer an expert on what it takes to produce a great photo. “It’s about telling a story,” says Schmelzer, who holds an BFA from the Rochester Institute of Technology and an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts.
“People love to say ‘Oh, you shoot interiors. That’s easy!’ But you can’t just put a camera in a corner of the room and shoot. When I walk into a room, I ask myself, ‘How does this room make me feel and how can I communicate that feeling to the viewer?’ Sometimes that is a full room shot, but sometimes all it takes is a well-composed vignette in the corner.”
In some ways, Schmelzer says, interior photographs are actually some of the hardest to execute. “If you’ve got a celebrity or a really good looking model, you can get away with taking a mediocre photo, but with interiors, you can’t afford to be sloppy,” he says. “There’s no beautiful or recognizable person to carry the image for you, so every detail counts.”
With that in mind, here are some tips for taking a stunning interior photo.
1. Consult with the Architect or Designer Whenever Possible
“I’m always keen to learn what the architect or designer’s vision was [for the space],” Schmelzer says. At the same time, it’s important to remember that a good photograph is a collaboration. Sometimes, the designer is too close to the project to see the room clearly, so you need to bring your own thoughts and feelings to the table.
“Sometimes, you walk in and you know right away, you just feel it, like, this is the picture of this room. But sometimes, you may need to investigate a bit more.”
In those cases, Schmelzer suggests taking a few reference photos, putting them up on the monitor, and discussing with the architect or designer which angles best illustrate the story you’re both trying to tell.
2. Avoid Using Wide-Angle Lenses
Wide-angle lenses can cause distortions, which can disrupt the harmony of the image and give a false sense of the space being photographed.
“In architecture, lines have to be straight,” says Schmelzer. “There can’t be any distortions, so I normally don’t shoot with anything wider than a 35mm lens.”
3. Natural Light is King
If you’re shooting multiple rooms in a house, the first thing you need to do is walk through and plan your shots based on when the natural light in that room will be optimal. For this, Schmelzer recommends using the Sun Seeker app and consulting directly with the architect or designer.
“Architects and designers pay a lot of attention to windows and skylights, and where and how light comes into a space when they design it. So we, as photographers, have to pay attention to that, too,” Schmelzer says.
“Even when you do add artificial lights, you still want to pay attention to how natural light works in the space, so that the light you’re adding makes sense . . . For instance, you never want to have light coming from multiple directions and casting double shadows.”
4. Keep Practicals off Unless There’s a Reason for Them to Be on
You don’t need to turn on a lamp if sunlight is streaming in through the window already. In fact, according to Joe, most editorial assignments these days come with notes explicitly forbidding the use of practicals.
If a room needs more light, your best bet is to either photograph it at another time or utilize lighting rigs to amplify the effects of the natural light you do have. The exception is night shots, where you might choose to create a certain mood by utilizing warm lamplight or a crackling fire.
5. Don’t Feel Like You Need to Keep Everything in Focus all the Time
Blurring elements of the photo can add dimension, change the mood, or focus the viewer’s attention somewhere specific.
“It all depends on the space and the goal of the photo,” Schmelzer says. “If you’re shooting a kitchen and all the appliances need to be in focus—because it’s an ad for appliances or something—then, yeah, the whole photo may need to be in focus.”
But, say you’re shooting a library and there are bookcases and a couch with a little table in front of it.
“Maybe you want the focus to be in the foreground because the prop stylist has left a little drink on the table and that’s telling a little story,” Schmelzer says. “In that case, the back walls and all the books don’t need to be in focus from edge to edge. We can create more of a mood by letting the focus fall off. Maybe that makes things feel a bit more romantic.”
6. A Good Prop Stylist Makes all the Difference.
“Every space is different,” Schmelzer says. “But even in spaces that lend themselves to minimalism, propping can help tell the story, even if it’s just a few touches.” And a good prop stylist can help you ensure that the story you’re telling is consistent from room to room.
Good interior and prop stylists can also help you keep an eye out for all the little things that can ruin a photo—crooked curtains, vacuum lines on a rug, fabrics that haven’t been smoothed out so all the fibers go in the same direction. Beds are especially tricky and should always be styled by a professional.
“There are people who only style beds,” Schmelzer says, “and we probably spend more time setting up bed shots than any others because they can be so tricky, especially if you’re going for a messy bed look, which is so popular right now. It can’t just be messy because it’s poorly made or no one steamed the sheets.”
7. Don’t Wait to Do in Post What You Can Do in the Room
Retouching costs money and often takes much longer than just addressing the issue head-on before you start shooting.
“If I can Swiffer a floor in two minutes, why would I pay a retoucher all that money to remove the dust later?” Schmelzer says.
“Some things can only be dealt with after you take the photo—like if we’re shooting a chandelier and we have to suspend it from cross beams and then remove them in post. Or, if there is an ugly electrical socket in the middle of the wall that distracts from the image. But something like a power cord, unless it’s there for some compositional reason, we do our best to just hide it. If you can fix something on site, why wouldn’t you?”
8. Don’t Let Things Get Too Perfect
Rooms are meant to be lived in, so try not to get too precious about your set-up. “Sometimes I say to the stylist, ‘Let’s style it until it’s perfect and then let’s give it a little quirk. Mess it up a bit,’” Schmelzer says.
“Maybe we take one of the pillows out and put it on the floor. Or, for instance, we just did a Christmas story and we shot this cozy little reading nook with a chair and a mug of cocoa and a plate of cookies. But, then we broke one of the cookies and sprinkled a few crumbs on the table. Maybe the viewer won’t even notice, but it gives the photo this hint of life, like someone could actually exist in that space.”
9. Use Real Plants and Fresh Flowers
“Fake plants are a no no,” Schmelzer says. “Even if you couldn’t get a stylist to go to the flower market that morning, just go to the grocery store or something.”
“And, no orchids!” he adds. “They are so overused. They’re just sticks with flowers on the end and, most of the time, you can still see the twist ties holding them up. Unless you’re shooting an orchid farm, find something else.”
10. Use People (or Pets) Purposefully
If you are shooting a person or animal in a space, make sure they’re helping to tell the story of that space and how it is meant to be used.
“Sometimes, if you’re not shooting a celebrity, it’s less about the person than what they represent and how they relate to the space,” Schmelzer says. “Like, if you are shooting a pool, do you show a bunch of kids playing in the shallow end or is there a single person swimming alone?”
Each of these scenarios tells a different story, and it’s up to you to decide which story is the right one for this particular pool in the context of this particular job.
11. Never Stop Learning
Even after all these years, Schmelzer still learns new things on every shoot. And, between shoots, he keeps his eye keen by studying interior magazines and catalogues.
“I play this game where I go through them with a Sharpie and circle everything that bothers me. Not to [denigrate] the photographer who shot it, but to remind myself what to look out for when I’m shooting.”
Things like pillows with overly aggressive karate chops, props that have been moved from one room to the next, or overlapping chair and table legs, which can suck the air out of a photo and make it look busy.
“Remember that photography is a lifelong journey,” Schmelzer. “You’re not just going to pick up a camera and be the next big thing right away. You have to have a passion for it.”