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The Inside Picture

By Bilyana Dimitrova

One would think that digital photography—now the norm for commercial assignments—would be a faster and easier process. But, in many ways, it’s just as complex as shooting in film, with a new set of issues for designers to be aware of. In a few years the industry has evolved from the standard 4x5 camera to that of the full-frame 35mm digital SLR camera. Now, with the expense of film no longer an issue, along with the greater potential to adjust images digitally, photographers end up taking a multitude of exposures that are layered into one perfectly balanced file in post-production. So, while there’s less dependency on perfecting on-site lighting or time spent setting the stage, considerably more energy is spent in front of the computer screen after the shoot.

The digital format has also shifted photography from just living on the pages of magazines to proliferating across hundreds of blogs and Web sites—with image quality varying greatly. Now anyone with a “share” button can upload snapshots of design projects taken with their phone.
So should designers continue to commission professional photographers to document their work? Is it overkill, when project images may end up as low-res files on a design blog versus in a spread of a glossy magazine? Is any amateur with a decent digital camera and post-production software good enough to document your projects?

If you take your work seriously, no, that’s not good enough. Remember that many people will experience your work through photography alone. Therefore, the quality of the documentation of your work becomes inextricable with the quality of your design. And just as your clients select you for your experience, knowledge, and talent to deliver superior interiors, it’s worth working with a photographer who has the background to provide you with images you’re proud of.

Start by choosing a photographer whose work you respect and who can add something special to the visual presentation of your work. Remember that project photography at its best is a form of storytelling that narrates what it’s like to be in a space. A successful shoot should deliver a set of images that walk the viewer through your project, allowing them to experience it as if in the flesh. A good professional also curates, knowing how to place furniture, props, and people in a way that not only balances the frame but also helps your project read more clearly. Not least, a talented professional can bring to the shoot some of their own experience of your space—their own point of view—which can reveal your project in a new way. As a photographer, I’ve found that these shots often end up being the images the designer ends up liking most. And as a former photo editor at a design magazine, I was most taken with images that went beyond illustrating a space to disclose its life and vibrancy.

Talk to your prospective photographer to better understand how he or she works. Have they experienced challenges similar to the shoot you are commissioning—a tight interior space or a space with no available daylight, for example? Request examples. They should be comfortable shooting with people, who help convey scale and how occupants use the space. Most photographers have the capability to shoot to their laptop, so you can review images at the site, ensuring you get the shots you need. If you require video in addition to still photography, check to see if they offer that service as well. Keep in mind that taking the pictures is only half the process; post-production is the other half, and you want a photographer who can deliver high-quality files ready for print or other forms of distribution.

Other issues to raise include asking for an itemized estimate before the shoot, so you can review the anticipated expenses and determine if they’re all necessary. A stylist’s day rate is often as high as the photographer’s, so finding a photographer who does their own styling can mean considerable savings. Find out if they own or rent the lighting and camera equipment, since you should expect a charge for rented equipment on the final invoice. Also inquire if your photographer requires multiple assistants to help with any clean-up or rearranging of furniture at the shoot. This will be at an added cost, but especially for office shoots, which in my experience require the most clean-up, it’s helpful to have two assistants.

While it takes superior design work to win awards, strong photography of such projects is essential to succeed in competitions. Familiarize yourself with the images of previous competition winners and their photographers. You may see a variety of photographic strategies depending on the award program, so tailor your approach accordingly.

If one of your goals is to get your work published, partner with a photographer with a history of being featured in print. Discuss what magazines you’re targeting, since the photographer can adjust their style to suit that of the publications. For example, Metropolis prefers to showcase spaces in use and in the context of the surrounding exterior environment. Others, such as Interior Design, require detail as well as overall shots. Your photographer’s track record with publications may also influence your project being considered. Keep in mind that print magazines often have set editorial calendars and line up projects several months in advance, so plan ahead.

Once you’ve made your choice, true collaboration and a well-informed photographer are a winning combination. Discuss with your photographer what you want out of the shoot, what story you want the images to tell. A walk-through before the shoot is essential. Convey all the key features of the design. Come equipped with the “must-have” shot list as well as renderings of your favorite angles and floor plans to mark-up during the walk-through and to serve as a reference for the shoot itself.

Let your photographer know if you plan to submit your project for awards or publication and where else you envision the images living, since these objectives will impact the photographic strategy. For marketing materials, for instance, your objective may be to have a few exemplary images of a project type; for a slide show on your firm’s Web site, you’ll aim for a series of shots that tour the viewer through the space.
Consider the benefits of maintaining a long-term relationship with a photographer. He or she will become attuned to your preferences, and a consistent vision of your work will showcase it in a harmonious way—especially when different projects are viewed together, such as in a monograph. At the same time, you may want to try out a new visual style. If you’ve got your eye on a particular photographer who you’re afraid you can’t afford, approach them anyway. There may be creative ways to lower their expenses, if not their day rate. A less expensive photographer may have less experience, which can end up being more costly if the results are unsatisfactory and you require a re-shoot. But you can also start them out with a scouting-shot assignment to sample their work.

Photographers of interiors and architecture carry great responsibility. We’re often given a day or two to document what took designers months, sometimes years, to execute, so good communication and collaboration are vital. So is trust. Give up a little control and allow the photographer to deliver beyond the assignment to document your project. Have faith that they’ll be true to your design vision while contributing some insight of their own—and showing your work in a new light.

POST-PRODUCTION often takes more time than the shoot itself, which is why most photographers charge a fee for each final file. This is when your photographer will format the raw camera files to high-resolution 300 DPI TIFF or JPEG files and sharpen the image. They’ll remove any visible dust and small items like exit signs or power outlets that detract from the design.

Photographers today almost always “bracket” a shot, which means they take multiple exposures of the same shot, and then in post-production they layer the different exposures to create one perfectly balanced file. For example, when shooting an interior, a photographer is likely to shoot one bracket for the view out the window, one for the room itself, and one for the ceiling lights, to insure that nothing will be “blown out” or too dark in the final file.

It’s good practice to view the final files at 100 percent to make sure the quality of the retouching meets your standards. For file size, generally those from most 35mm DSLRs should be sufficient, unless the images will be used in extra-large format, such as a banner or mural.


  1. Good article Bilyana. Just as designers have as a component of their job, the education of their clients about how they work, photographers need to also.

    I'll probably link to this article so that my clients can read it also!

    Thanks! Posted by: on 12.16.11 at 11:53
  2. As an architectural photographer, I thank you for explaining how I and others in my field work. I thank you especially for this comment:

    " If you’ve got your eye on a particular photographer who you’re afraid you can’t afford, approach them anyway. There may be creative ways to lower their expenses, if not their day rate. A less expensive photographer may have less experience, which can end up being more costly if the results are unsatisfactory and you require a re-shoot. "

    The one thing I do not see is a discussion about licensing an image, and adding proper credit lines for the photographer on all uses. If you just need website use, that licensing fee will be less than if you want to use the image for advertising, and brochures.
    If you limit the time you need to use the image, you can save on the cost of the fees as well. Please just arrange with the photographer to contact him as a later date to extend the time limit, and arrange what the costs will be.

    Also, with so much theft on the internet it is very important to put the full credit line for the photographer on each image. Photographers hold the license to obtain payment for infringement. Add your contact info on each image, too.

    If you want an excellent professional, please go to

    Thank you for your time. Please write if you have any questions.

    Carolyn Posted by: Carolyn L. Bates Photograghy on 12.16.11 at 07:45
  3. A very thoughtful article. Thank you!

    Boris Feldblyum, ASMP Posted by: Boris Feldblyum on 12.19.11 at 09:20
  4. Excellent article, I specially liked this point,"Photographers of interiors and architecture carry great responsibility. We’re often given a day or two to document what took designers months, sometimes years, to execute, so good communication and collaboration are vital." So more coordination is required among all involved to achieve good result. Posted by: Qayyum Raza Mir on 12.28.11 at 08:57
  5. I'm glad to hear that this has been helpful! I'd like to add one more thing, for those designers wondering whether there is the need to photograph their projects professionally now that renderings have gotten so photo-realistic. A photograph will always be required to show that the project came out as it was envisioned, the photograph is the proof- be it for a competition or a prospective client! Posted by: Bilyana Dimitrova on 01.31.12 at 09:09

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