You’ve heard of Frank Lloyd Wright, but have you heard of Ezra Stoller? A few years ago, NPR ran a story on Stoller with the headline The Photographer Who Made Architects Famous. You’ve probably seen some of his iconic images, including black and white interiors of the Guggenheim Museum, Seagram Building, and T.W.A. Terminal. Stoller was famously unpretentious. He once said, “I’m not interested in art photography. I’m interested in architecture as it is, to look at and enjoy.” Still, he was a master with a singular command of light.
The Guardian’s Christopher Reed, in his 2004 obituary for the photographer, wrote about Stoller’s habit of visiting the buildings he photographed at various points during the day, with the sole intention of watching the light. The New York Times echoed this sentiment, reporting that the photographer was “Famous for his ability to capture a building in just the right light.”
We wanted to know how contemporary photographers deal with light, so we asked a selection of ten Shutterstock photographers to tell us how they shoot interiors. Do they only use natural light, or do they add something artificial to illuminate they space? It would seem the jury’s still out.
1. “Follow the light, try to catch it and use it.”
“Talking about interior photography, as well as for my portrait and reportage photo shoots, I mostly look for natural light. In my youth, I worked for years as an assistant to Magnum photographer Ferdinando Scianna, who had a reporter background. That was one of the hints I got from him: follow the light, try to catch it and use it.
Lighting with the flash means interfering somehow with the atmosphere around you, and if I don’t have a specific request from the client, I like to keep things as they are as much as possible. I already make my own choice about what lens I’m going to use and the point of view. When I think about an interior, I imagine the person who was in charge of the lighting design, the idea, and the atmosphere. My goal is to keep that in mind, respect it, and enhance the ideas the lighting designer had.
Having said that, I don’t take the natural light setting as a dogma. That is the attitude I usually start with, but I’d don’t take it as as an ideological issue, and I don’t pretend to be more realistic with my pictures. I know using a flash can be challenging, and I like very much the sound of that little explosion of artificial light.”
2. “When I’m doing a house story, I still use only daylight.”
When I started with interior photography 35 years ago, I only used existing light, mainly because I did not like what my colleagues produced with flash, and also I couldn’t afford it.
I found out long exposures work extremely well. Eight seconds up to a minute, combined with an f 5.6-8 on German lenses, gave beautiful soft tones and contrast. It needed a bit of extra magenta filter, and unlike my American colleagues, I never put the house lights on! Later on, I learned how to use my light. At first HMI light, then Kino Flows, and now LED light panels. When I’m doing a house story, I still use only daylight, combined with a little bit of fill from the camera’s position with a soft light panel in a separate layer. It’s different with product shots. More light is needed. The big advantage with interior photography is that furniture does not move. I like that a lot!
3. “I prefer long exposures in dark areas more so than a well lit room.”
Considering 99% of the time when I’m photographing interiors, I am trespassing in abandoned buildings, I tend to prefer natural light. Artificial light tends to mean I am probably somewhere I really shouldn’t be, as opposed to a place I probably shouldn’t be. In the off chance there is power in any of these places, I’m often greeted by ugly overhead flickering fluorescent lights, which are never fun for anyone. I prefer long exposures in dark areas more so than a well lit room, so natural light just suits me better.
4. “Natural light is my best friend.”
Natural light is my best friend. Even if it’s a cloudy day or even raining, with a long exposure I can let the light seep into my photos in such a pretty way. Sometimes during a long exposure, we will pop a strobe or bounce in a reflector card as well, but often it’s just the natural light showing us the way to a beautiful photograph.
5. “I always work with the existing light.”
Rob van Esch
I always try to create images that surprise, that show something not everybody immediately sees. I want to create an atmosphere in my images that matches the subject. Photos need life. I always work with the existing light, which preserves authenticity in the images. I am patient, and don’t mind waiting long enough to find the best light. By taking time to make a picture, I hope that the photos I produce can stand the test of time.
I love huge spaces, and symmetry is certainly well-spent to me. I love the rhythm often found in large spaces. At the same time, I’d like to keep an eye for detail. This picture is of the immense main hall of the British Museum. Converting the image to black and white strengthens the rhythm of the building, in combination with the roof and the many visitors who add dynamics to it.
6. “The shadows become softer than with light from a flash.”
I prefer shooting interiors with natural light. With natural light, the shadows become softer than with light from a flash. Natural light often produces the mood I want.
7. “A window or skylight is typically enough for me.”
I prefer shooting interiors with natural light, as it depicts the true essence of a space and is more realistic to what our human eye sees. I may flick a switch or fill a bit of shadow, but a window or skylight is typically enough for me.
8. “Scout the scene beforehand to get an idea of how light falls in the space.”
I always prefer shooting interiors with natural light because it usually aligns with the architect’s vision of the space. Sometimes on some larger assignments, I’ll location scout the scene beforehand to get an idea of how light falls in the space at a given time. If I notice that the lighting is too flat or too harsh, I’ll schedule the shoot a little later in the day, when the lighting will accentuate the overall architecture of the space.
9. “Most of the time, you have to mix both sources.”
If I had to choose to shoot interiors with natural or artificial light, I would prefer with natural, but sometimes you have to go with artificial. Most of the time, you have to mix both sources.
I think most of my work is a mix of both natural and artificial light, and by artificial, I mean the light sources of the interior itself. I also use flash or external, continuous light. My technique is to shoot multiple exposures (a minimum of three) and then manually compose the image in Photoshop, choosing the highlights, mid-tones, and shadows from different images to create the final photograph with the exposure I want on each area. For areas that are too dark, or if I want to highlight something, I will use an external light source.
My preferred hour to shoot is at dusk in summer because the natural light coming from the windows is very soft and light blue, and with the mix of lights from the interiors, the color and dynamic range is wonderful. You always have to be careful about color temperatures.
10. “Capture the mood of an environment the way it appears in the evening.”
When possible, I prefer working with and manipulating the natural light. The quality and type of light that a room receives is part of the story of that space, and architects consider this in their plans. That said, it is also quite fun to capture the mood of an environment the way it appears in the evening. This can often be more challenging, as it includes mixing many different light sources.