Through the Gadling Lens: shooting inside

When we think about travel photography, we usually think of images of amazing vistas, vast seascapes, impressive skylines — you know, the world outside. But the truth is, when we travel we spend a considerable amount of time inside: in museums and cathedrals, local homes, great restaurants, caves, castles … wherever. And so, while every travel album must have beautiful scenic shots (which we discussed in last week’s post), no album would be complete without a few interior shots, as well. So this week, we’re going to talk about how to take great interior shots — what to shoot, and how to shoot them.
There are a couple of tricks with shooting an interior shot in order to capture the ambiance and the actual feel of the joint when you photograph it. While every photographer differs in her practice, the following are the three steps that I’m very careful about ensuring that I do to maximize my chances of getting a true-to-life shot:

1. I turn off the flash. For me, flash is, in essence, “false light” — and if I really want to capture the feel of the place where I’m sitting, the flash will take away all sense of ambiance and mood. I never say “never,” but 99% of the time, I make sure that the flash is turned off.

2. I adjust my ISO. Remember the “light catchers“? Since I’ve chosen to turn off the light while I’m taking a particular interior shot, now is the time my ISO really comes into play. Because there is likely not going to be tons of light, I tend to adjust my ISO to a pretty high number: if I’m near a window that is bringing in lots of natural light, it could be that 400 will be sufficient; if, however, there isn’t very much light, I might up it to above 1000, to ensure that camera shake isn’t an issue. If, however, you want a nice sharp image (and therefore, want to use a low ISO number), remember that you’re going to need a tripod (or somewhere to rest your camera so that it holds steady) so that the shutter can stay open without the risk of camera shake.

3. I look for the light. This is slightly different from step 2: I’m not talking about just being aware of the quantity of light, this step is about the quality of light. Is there merely one incandescent bulb, casting a beautiful shadow? Perhaps that’s what I’m looking to capture. Or is light flooding into the dark space, and I want to capture the rays? Either way, I take a look at the source of the light, and help it frame my composition.

Given the rules above, here are a few examples of how I put them into action:


If the place I’m staying is pretty singular — accommodations I find extra-special, perhaps, or located in a place that I’m not likely to visit again, I almost always take a shot of the room before I get myself situated (read: make a mess of the place with all of my stuff). The point of a travel album, after all, is to provoke memories of your trip — and since you spend a considerable portion of your sleeping hours in some sort of shelter, why not ensure that you’ve captured the feel of your room, as well?

For example, the photograph above was taken at Acajou, a small eco-hotel on the north coast of the island of Trinidad, in the Caribbean. When my family lived in Trinidad, one of our favourite things to do was to travel to the north coast to witness the nesting of the giant leatherback turtles — and one year, we’d heard of this new eco-lodge that had opened up that was quite comfortable, so we decided to give it a try. This place was truly lovely — dim lighting (so as not to disorient the turtle hatchlings), cottages made from locally sourced wood, and the cuisine in the tiny restaurant was all organic and locally sourced. The hotel was staffed from locals from the remote village where the hotel was located. A really beautiful place that added to our fantastic experience.

Needless to say, we visited several times after.

Because the room was relatively dark (due to the dark wood), I opened the small door that led to the tiny deck, and turned on the lamps — and then rested my camera on a nearby shelf. I upped the ISO to about 600, and set the self-timer, and clicked the shutter, and walked away — the camera took the shot by itself, with no camera shake, and the result is the relatively non-grainy image you see above.

The shot above was taken at the Hotel Valencia in San Antonio. It was taken on a sort of impromptu trip, courtesy of Hurricane Ike: when my husband Marcus and I saw that Ike was bearing down on our home in Houston, we decided we wouldn’t ride it out, and instead head inland to San Antonio. I quickly got on the internet to look for a hotel, and decided to make a mini-vacation of it: Marcus and our young daughter Alex had never been to San Antonio before, so I found this great little boutique hotel and quickly booked a room.

The hotel was really lovely, and had this great interior courtyard where guests could relax quietly. Because, technically, this isn’t an “indoor” shot — the courtyard is open to the sky, above — there was lots of natural light flooding in. I took the shot holding the camera at a relatively low ISO setting (somewhere in the neighbourhood of 400). Our “vacation” was tense — we spent much of it combing the news services looking for images of how Houston was faring with Ike — but this image reminds me of the lovely place we stayed as we waited it out.


When it comes to museums, cathedrals or other monuments, you need to be really careful: in some cases, photography is strictly forbidden (for example, they tend to frown on your taking shots of the British crown jewels at the Tower of London); in other places, they don’t mind you taking pictures, as long as you don’t use a flash (because, ostensibly, they fear what the light from the flash does to the museum pieces). Again, as a general rule, be sure to turn your flash off before capturing any images.

I’m particularly pleased with how the shot above turned out. This was taken inside Pendennis Castle in Cornwall, England (the exterior of which you can see as the first large photo in last week’s Through the Gadling Lens column). When we got inside the castle, it was incredibly dark, except for the bright light outside streaming into the windows. I wanted to capture the moodiness of the castle, so this time, I actually set the ISO to really low — like 200. I placed the camera on a low bench (like the ones you see in the image above), and again,
set my timer to shoot the image. The shutter ended up staying open quite a while (there’s no way I could’ve taken this shot by holding the camera), but the result is the lovely, non-grainy shot you see above.

This shot is of the organ in the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral. Photography was not prohibited in the cathedral, but in such a holy place (the sounds of the choir could be heard practicing when we arrived), there was no way that I was going to use my flash as I walked around. So in the shots I took here, I cranked the ISO way up — to somewhere like 1600. It still didn’t eliminate all camera shake, but the image, I think, is still far better than if I’d used a flash.


When it comes to shooting vast interior spaces, the rules are pretty much the same as shooting any landscape — make sure your lens is wide enough, adjust your ISO, and click away. My only additional recommendation is that when you do shoot a large space, don’t forget to look up: often (as in the case with the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, shown above, or Waterloo Station in London, shown below) architects take advantage of large spaces by making beautiful or utilitarian ceilings, so be sure to capture them in your shot.


And finally, one of my personal favourite moments to capture while traveling are mealtimes. I find that often my most memorable times occur while breaking bread with friends, or locals, or trying out a new restaurant (which might explain my current struggle with managing my weight, but that’s a post for another blog).

Again, the same rules apply: watch for the light, turn off your flash, and adjust your ISO accordingly. If you’re lucky enough to be eating at a location where there is tons of light flooding in, then shooting is easy. Just grab the moment where everyone is sitting with excited anticipation (as above) …

… or in the alternative, grab a shot of your picture-perfect food.

For those times when there maybe lots of windows, but it’s doing nothing for your light situation, try to figure out how to make your light work for you. For example, the following shot was taken in a little tea room in the Cotswalds — despite the large picture windows, the cafe itself was amazingly dark. So instead of giving up I decided to shoot into the light: the unsuspecting patrons were therefore silhouetted (giving no real clue to their identity), but the mood of the cafe was captured.

And finally for those great night shots at fabulous restaurants, this is where that great trick of lowering your ISO, using your dinner table as a tripod, and telling everyone to hold their breath while you use your timer comes in handy. You can get great shots that truly capture the ambiance of a tony restaurant (like Two, below), in just this manner:

See? And no customers were harmed by blinding flash in the taking of the above photo.

So that’s it for interiors — and the best part? You don’t actually have to travel to practice! As always, if you have any questions or comments, as always, please leave them below, or e-mail me directly at karen DOT walrond AT weblogsinc DOT com. I’ll be happy to address them in upcoming posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
And for more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.