Composition For Interiors

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I get asked to review a lot of photographers’ portfolios. Usually they’re asking me for advice on lighting, but I find that I usually have more to say about the compositions than anything else. And generally, it’s the composition of the photo that drives the other factors, especially the lighting.

With that in mind, I asked videographer (and photographer) Malia Campbell to help me record a quick video outlining some of my thoughts on composing for residential interiors. Malia takes you right inside my camera, so you can see exactly what I’m seeing as I compose shots!

Malia did a fantastic job on this – so be sure to click the HD button and see it large. We shot this in one long day, at a house in Oakland California. It’s my first attempt at a true instructional video, let me know what you think!

Composition is an enormous subject and in a twelve-minute video all I could hope to do was get a few concepts out there. I didn’t spend any time at all addressing the foundations – you can look up basics like the Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines, and Vanishing Points on your own. I wanted to get people past the “rules” and thinking about nuances. Likewise, I didn’t get into tilt-shift lenses or technical cameras, at all — but of course that opens up a whole other universe of possibilities!

Sometimes we get so tied up in the technical stuff that we neglect the artistic element. No matter now technically perfect your work, if there’s no feeling, people just aren’t going to respond to it the way you want them to. It’s important, then, to step back and view the photo with a different mindset (I often pretend that it’s someone else’s photo) and try to see if the composition works. There are few rules; instead, you have to develop an aesthetic sense of your own. In time, this will become a unique style that can set your photography apart from the crowd. But to accomplish that, you have to relax the left brain, and let the right brain take over for a few minutes.

In the photo above, as my client and I see it, the strong lines of the pendant lamps and cabinetry immediately pull the eye down from the top of the image. Then, there’s a thread of green that pulls the eye from the countertop in the foreground around counter-clockwise into the middle of the image. On yet another level, there’s even more going on – the highly ordered and rigid upper portions provide an almost dissonant counterpoint to the random and chaotic nature of the foreground, with the tile backsplash mediating between the two. This image “works” because of a successful blend of great styling and thoughtful composition (the lighting is quite simple).

This has been said a million times, but it’s true: If you want to learn about composition (and light, for that matter), study the work of the Old Masters. They laid the foundations, and their use of perspective, light, and composition will blow you away once you start examining it. Treat your camera like a canvas to be painted, and you can take your photography to a new level.

51 responses to “Composition For Interiors

  1. Wow!!!!! Thank you so much! I’m on my way to photograph a home right now, and I will do my best to remember all your comments. You are so generous with your knowledge. I think I see a TV show in your future….
    Great video work, Malia.

  2. This was really good. I hope we see more of these in the future. Thanks.

  3. This is fantastic, Scott. I learned a lot just from this short video. Almost more than anything else you’ve convinced me that a wide-angle lens might be preferable to the 20mm prime I usually use. Those small focal-length changes can make a huge difference. Having the flexibility to use 22mm or 37mm instead of just 20, 24, 28 or 35mm can really be helpful.

  4. Excellent video, thanks for sharing Scott/Malia!

  5. Great insight Scott, and a wonderful video Malia. I do have one question. How do you plan for the MLS posting with the 4:3 ratio as opposed to the 2:3 ratio of your camera? If you’re composing totally in camera wouldn’t you be cutting even more off in post?

  6. Thank you for sharing great video

  7. I really appreciate your tips on the small things that add up to make a photo so great. I know when a photo is good but sometimes just can’t put my finger on it. Now I have more to look at and consider and, hopefully, have better photos.

  8. Thanks for the feedback, everyone. This was fun to do, and hats off to Malia for a first-rate job shooting and editing this!
    @ Shinka — For sure. I’m ordering the 1.4x converter that will take my 24TS to a 33mmTS — can’t wait for that!
    @ Dan — If you’re shooting for real estate, you have to compose with the 4:3 aspect ratio in mind (unless you have a particularly enlightened MLS board in your area). I actually deliver whatever crop works best for the shot, and let the MLS do what it will – my real estate clients are generally more concerned with their print materials and websites than they are with the MLS. There are also special focusing screens that will help you compose to a specific aspect ratio (you’ll see guidelines through your viewfinder).

  9. Hi Scott

    Thank you for this great video. Small, but so very informative. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface here in Portugal with this type of work, but your book and these small “instructions” are so helpful. There’s no recipe for success, but without your help it would so much more difficult. Thank you!

    PS – the big eye opener for me was the height of camera in kitchens. Rising it to not see the lights under the cabinets was a a-ha moment! Thank you again.


  10. Now I am waiting for your next e-book, the one on composition…’s in the works right 😉

  11. Wonderfull and to the point information. Well done!

  12. Thanks from Sweden. At last someone is talking about important stuff and not just technic.
    Greetings, Peter Wärmare SE360

  13. Very well done Scott. A nice continuation to the seminar in Vero Beach. BTW, the cover on your latest book looks vaguely familiar.

  14. Thank you for the video. It was a great idea to show the effect with the camera and you explained very well. To be improved: the sound. In some parts it’s really bad. The rest it’s perfect! 🙂
    If this was a full lesson (not only composition but also lightning) then you might also consider to add to the video a map of the flash and the settings you used.

    • I know the sound is terrible in spots. I’m still learning about audio techniques for video. I cringe when I listen to this but Scott and I felt the rest of the production was valuable enough to release this video anyway and that, hopefully, people will forgive me the few crappy spots of bad audio.

      This was a fun project to put together. Glad you guys (mostly) enjoyed it!

  15. Just starting out.
    Looking forward to more great information.

  16. Thanks, Scott — A great video that proves there’s always more to learn, even in the basics! I appreciate you sharing, and love the through-the-camera views in the video.

  17. Excellent video and Malia I understand the sound issues. Are you using a separate mic or one attached directly into the camera. A separate mic tends to work better even if you need to do a few minutes extra for the sync. We use a Tascam which allows us to use the TASCAM 4 internals, and up to 2 other types of mics. I never add voiceover direct from computer mic either, but rather watch my video and narrate into the Tascam while I’m viewing it on the screen. Then I take the file and coordinate with the video in the software. If its an interview – that’s a different story and a lavalier type mic is best for that but again , not in the camera.
    We have a clapper on the ipad that we use to mark scenes and coordinate video and audio.

    • I use wireless lav mics but they were picking up a lot of interference at the house for some reason. Also, trying to figure out how to “mix” sound in post processing… I have a lot to learn and my next video will be much better in terms of audio!

  18. Great work both of you. I’ve been leaving my camera on the tripod but on todays shoot I will start the composing hand held. I’m sure this simple change will greatly improve my work. Thanks… Oh, as a side point I now liberated to sit on the kitchen counters :).

  19. Great instructional vid, Scott! Great for SEO too… but if you want better SEO impact with your vids, I suggest hosting on YouTube.

    Nice use of bitter melon on the counter too!! Looking forward to more real estate videos!

  20. Hey Scott and Malia-
    Thanks so much for all the time and effort you’ve both clearly put into this. It’s very much appreciated! This is a fantastic learning tool. I think it’s an especially good idea that you review some too-wide compositions and talk about why they aren’t necessary, and the same information can be conveyed with a tighter shot. The review of the last complex kitchen shot was most helpful… those give me trouble.
    I know this was a big production, both on site and in editing. Really professional work. Thanks again to both of you!

  21. Wow! Great job by both of you on this. It’s one thing to think about what you said in the video, but I don’t find I always walk through the process. When I’m taking photos I don’t always walk all the way through the thought process in real time and this shows why taking the extra couple of minutes is worth it.

    Again, great job!


  22. A rockin’ good job you two! Now for “Lighting Interiors – the movie!!”

  23. Thanks for sharing! Would love to see more in the future.

  24. Thank you, very very helpful, can’t wait for more!

  25. Just saw this – you did an excellent job on this! I have photographed interiors, but now I’ll ‘see’ them better, after viewing this. Thanks Scott!

    David Sr.

  26. Great work Scott, really enjoyed this and seeing the difference in the shot when you zoomed in and out is something I’d love to show agents. I also really agree with your description of what we do, showing how a room feels rather than just showing how it looks.


  27. Thank you for this great video!


  28. Excellent Scott. Fascinating to watch and expresses so well what feels right and what doesn’t in room compositions. Make more, you are good at it!

  29. Great instructional video Scott. I’m just getting started with interior photography and on my first shoot I found challenges right off the bat with camera angles, perspective, etc. You are so right about the fact that subtle changes in camera position make a world of difference in tight areas. I bought your eBook and can’t wait to dive in. Maybe the next video could be a broad intro to lighting?

  30. Thanks Scott, really enjoyed the video. Keeping it short and only covering a few concepts makes it easier to absorb and incorporate it into my photography. Looking forward to the next one.

  31. This stuff is not easy to communicate and you did a beautiful job – as a working interiors pro I do this stuff everyday intuitively but struggle for a way to communicate these concepts . Bravo!

  32. Incredibly practical, useful info. Don’t care about the audio short snafu. Hope you do a seminar in Portland, OR or teach a course at Sante Fe or Maine Workshops. You sold a book via this video. Llved on the Peninsula for 17 years.
    Paul Sivley

  33. Can’t wait for one on lighting, as that’s always my stumbling block – positioning lights, use of modifers in diverse situations.

  34. I learned great stuff by watching this video. Thank you for sharing!

  35. Great stuff- I shared this with our company, RE/MAX Properties in Colorado Springs. Lots of great feedback. One agent even asked how we could get you to our monthly sales meeting :o)

  36. I’ve watched it several times & you absolutely nailed it by including the finished still shots. Video work was really smooth & fit the casual flow of the narrative. It would have been a nice bonus to see how you had your lights set up. Thank you so much for sharing. My usual approach to composition is to shoot a million shots & hope something looks good!

  37. Great tutorial Scott and Malia, thanks. Every time I’m taking an interior shot I mentally envision your message here. “Less is more…” and I tell my self to either move closer or zoom in.

  38. Scott….this video was very insightful. I found your ideas on camera placement interesting. My greatest challenge when doing real estate photography is my height. I’m only 4’10” and while getting those lower shots are no problem for me, there are times when that is problematic. For instance, when take photos of kitchens. It’s difficult to get up high enough to eliminate the view of the underside of the cabinets. A step stool is my best tool for those occasions 🙂 Malia, don’t be too concerned about the audio. You did great!

    I do hope that the two of you will continue to produce more real estate instructional videos!

  39. Thank you for making this video. As has been said previously, great job regardless of the audio issues. I’m in the middle of your Lighting For Real Estate Photography video series. It’s very well done, and I feel that with lots of practice on my part and some new lighting gear, your videos will help me get to the next level in this business.

  40. Hey Scott

    Great to meet you on Friday over a beer here in Melbourne mate.

    Great video mate.

    Do you think it is a common trick/ style for architectural photographers to use tilt shift photography for interiors and more specifically to set the camera up high only to then drop the shift down to show more of the bench tops etc and give that unique perspective? Is this how the architectural digest guys do it do you think?

    Cheers Grant Kennedy

    • Grant, tilt is of very limited use for architecture, but shifting is absolutely fundamental – you can’t shoot architecture properly without lens movements (or better yet, moving the film plane – as on a technical camera). While I shoot most of my real estate with an ordinary 17-40 zoom lens, my shift lenses almost never come off the camera for any of my other work.

      • Hi Scott

        Thanks for your response.

        For higher end interior photography is it common to set the camera higher up than usual but drop shift down to give that perspective that we commonly see in architectural digest.

        Those photographs to me always seem to have a unique perspective than you would normally see using a 17-24 lens for real estate interiors

        They seem to show more of the top of the benchtops without pointing downwards and having bowing of the walls on the side so I just assume its a tilt shift down.

        Is this common practice to do exactly as how I’ve described it?

        Or am I just imagining it.

  41. Great points Scott. What is your rule on turning on or turning off lights in a room? Do you use the center focus and reposition or do you prefer to use one of the focus points? Thx