13 Tips Designers Should Know About Photography

By Jay Johnson
13 Tips Designers Should Know About Photography

An interview with Chuck DeLaney of the New York Institute of Photography.

Remember having a plastic box camera as a kid and taking the worst photos in the world? Shaky and out-of-focus blurs of people, your thumb, and pets – it's not surprising that designers who had bad childhood experiences with film cameras are now averse to photography.

But it's the digital age, and over 24 million Americans purchase a new digital camera every year. Photo-savvy interior designers use their own images as scouting shots for project submissions to the media; some take their own advertising shots for postcards and web or print ads; and some produce their own nature and fine art photographs to frame and sell to clients. I interviewed Chuck DeLaney, director of the world's largest and oldest photo school, the New York Institute of Photography, to get his advice on photography.

Tip 1: "Most interior designers should own two cameras," said Chuck. "The camera in your iPhone, SmartPhone, or tablet computer can be used like a visual notebook to take pictures of what you see in a showroom, antique store, or auction." Email photos to your client for consideration, or print out the images for a meeting. "Your second camera should be a digital model with a wide-angle lens. I recommend an SLR (single lens reflex) camera because it allows you to put different lenses on the camera; you’ll want to use a wide-angle lens to record interiors."

Tip 2: I asked Chuck what features we should be looking for in a new camera. "For a lower price, look for a point-and-shoot digital camera where the wide angle range is 24mm; expect to spend between $200 and $300. But if you're serious about producing great interior photos for your work, invest in a 10-25mm zoom lens for a digital SLR. For about $1,000, you’d have a great camera. A Canon or Nikon zoom lens costs about $800 more, but Sigma makes very good lenses for about half the price. Buy the right mounting system for the lens, e.g., a Canon mount for your Sigma zoom lens if you own a Canon camera."

Tip 3: But what about using a professional photographer? "Hire a professional to document the really successful jobs that will bring you more work. In the days when there were lots of shelter magazines, it was more likely you could get a magazine to hire a photographer to photograph your job. It's not so likely now." What can a pro do for you? "In addition to the right camera and lens, the pro will provide lighting that will show off a room to maximum advantage, and will help style the room into one that photographs well. Often interiors are beautiful to the eye, but they'll appear too cluttered in a photograph." Chuck told me that one well-known architectural photographer once said, "Ninety percent of my work is moving furniture, and only 10% is photography."

Tip 4: What preliminary work should designers do when hiring a pro? "Not every professional has experience photographing interiors. This type of work is very difficult, and designers should review a photographer's portfolio to make sure it has lots of high-quality interior work. Chances are, your client will be thrilled to have their home photographed, but let them know ahead of time that even with a talented pro, the process will be a bit disruptive for the day of the shoot."

Tip 5: What do pros charge? "Experienced photographers in New York or Los Angeles will usually charge more than someone in Phoenix or Atlanta. But other factors figure in, like the photographer's rights to use or resell the images. Search online for good interior/architectural photographers in your area, pick three whose work you most like, call them, and ask about their pricing. Explain that you're working on some projects that may need professional photographs and you'd like to get an idea of how they go about pricing jobs. Compare and make your choice."

Tips 6–13: Finally, I asked Chuck to give us a few do-it-yourself pointers for taking better photographs:

  • Always keep the camera level. If you tip the camera up (or down), the vertical lines in a room will become distorted.
  • Get a decent tripod because keeping the camera steady is key to getting sharp pictures.
  • Shoot "before" photos of every job. Take one photo from each of the four corners of the room.
  • Shoot interiors when the sun isn't streaming into a room. Overcast days are ideal.
  • Consider camera height. If you're working in a room with 8-foot ceilings, start with the camera at mid-point, about 4 feet above the floor. Again, avoid tilting the camera up or down and use a tripod to hold the camera steady.
  • Be careful. It's easy to step back and bump into a lamp or table when you're concentrating on what's in front of you!
  • Use a room in your home or a friend's place for practice. Move and remove furniture, style and "cheat" angles in seating arrangements, and add accents and flowers to shade the composition.
  • Take a course in photography. Visit New York Institute of Photography online for more information; they offer distance-learning courses where busy designers can learn at home and study on their own schedule.

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In November 2006, Manhattan-based blogger Jay Johnson and his partner Irwin Weiner, ASID applied the popularity of watching videos on the Internet to the house-and-garden arena. The idea for Design2Share was born. On D2S, they share their insight, tips, and strong opinions about how people design and decorate their homes, entertaining over 300,000 visitors a year; their syndicated original videos had over 22 million video views in 2010.