BTS: Building An Architectural Interior Photograph From The Ground Up

BTS: Building An Architectural Interior Photograph From The Ground Up

In today's post, I'm going to walk you through how I build an architectural photograph from square one. We'll discuss composition, lighting, staging, styling, and posing models in an architectural interior in order to create the image that the client has in mind. Despite appearing as a rather simple image, this shot took over an hour to finish on location with multiple steps and a lot of pre-visualization.

While I'll do my best to describe in detail what went on to create this photograph, I highly recommend that if you're interested in learning more about my techniques that you head over to and check out the in-depth workshops that I'll be teaching from May 28th to June 1st in the Bahamas. I'm offering classes on everything from Photoshop techniques to location work, and it's going to be an amazing time at a great location with an intimate, laid-back feel.

As most people who are familiar with my work know, I like to take control of a photograph. I build each one up from the ground, taking my time and selecting the best pieces from multiple photographs to create one polished final image. To be honest, you probably could get pretty close to what I'm doing in a single frame without compositing - but I find that my approach is just the way that I like to do things. Not that it's any better or worse; but it's how I learned and how I find it easiest to work. I'm afforded an insane amount of control, and I'm able to do it with minimal gear. I like to keep things simple - working with only a handful of lights, shooting so that I can put together what I have in my head later in post.

This assignment was for an architect looking to document a renovation of an office space in Southern California. Part of the location had been turned into a library / study room that recorded the firm's history, including artifacts and documents important to the founding and continued mission of the company. It was important to the client that we showed the layout of the space itself, the way the artifacts were arranged in that space, and the different ways in which the room could be used.

Finding the composition

The first thing that I ALWAYS do when I arrive at the scene is find my initial composition. Everything we do will be built upon this critical element. Staging, lighting, styling and post processing all come into play. Questions that I usually ask myself while finding the composition are:

1. Does it show the architect's intent? That is, does this angle represent the room as envisioned by the architect, and could potential clients of that architect see this photograph and realize that they align themselves with this architect's work? Will this photograph make a potential client want to hire the architect? Does this room show the room being used in the way that the architect and client envisioned?

2. Can I light it from this angle? Honestly, sometimes there are compositions that look great to the eye, but are nigh impossible to light, even with compositing and traditional field techniques combined. Direct sunlight, high ceilings, super wide angle shots, etc, all make it harder to light. Sometimes we have to suck it up and do our best, but if I can help it, I will compose in such a way that lighting the scene won't be a total friggen' nightmare. In this case, it was going to be tough regardless, but I know that I have the tools in my skillset that will let me pull it off.

3. Can I stage and style the scene in a way that shows the space being used well? Sometimes there are compositions that don't really let us know what's going on in the space. I want to compose in such a way that I can show the objects in the scene adding to the photograph. If I were to, say, shoot this ultra wide, the objects might lose their significance and would not register as historic artifacts due to their small size in the frame.

Too obvious, nowhere for the eye to go Too obvious, nowhere for the eye to go

Better, but blocks shelving which is important to the shot Better, but blocks shelving which is important to the shot

Just right! Dynamic, interesting, and shows everything we need to show Just right! Dynamic, interesting, and shows everything we need to show

In the end, I settled on this one-point perspective (do your homework!) composition which created a very dynamic and artistic representation of the room. It also allowed me to place objects and people in a way that showed the volume of the space, the contents of the space, and the multiple ways that the space can be used. Always try to think about these points when composing your shots, and your architectural photography will be much better for it.

I cannot stress how important it is to take your time when shooting this stuff. If it helps to make a checklist, do it. You can really squeeze a lot of graphical interest into an architectural photograph (which is one of the reasons that I love the genre) and composition is so incredibly important when THE ENTIRE frame is the subject. If something isn't helping, it's definitely going to hurt. It's not like a portrait where you can shoot at 1.4 and turn that ugly street sign into a blur: you've gotta actually work around objects, remove them, or replace them until that piece of the composition is complete. Walk around and explore all the angles of a space at multiple focal lengths before deciding how to shoot it.

Staging, Propping, Styling

I don't care who ya are, I guarantee that when it comes to architectural photography, there are always ways to improve the scene by changing the objects within the space. Even if a designer says 'it's all set and ready to go,' I promise you that from many camera angles that isn't the case. While this room was pretty well appointed, from the camera's point of view, we could do a lot to improve it. Since we're telling the story of what this room is used for, we are going to re-arrange the objects to help that story. I think this point is so important that while we were filming our tutorial DVD, Where Art Meets Architecture, I made Lee and Patrick put their cameras down and help me turn an entire room upside down in the middle of filming so it would look better (and also so that it would make for an interesting segment). I've created a gif image (below) which shows a few frames of our staging experimenting so you can see what goes on during the process.

 Stop motion gif of staging Stop motion gif of staging

By doing a little experimentation with the CamRanger, the client and I were able to move a few of the museum pieces around to better tell the story of the room. By putting some of the older objects near to the camera, it becomes slightly more obvious what the room is for. We also moved the tables and bench around to add to the dynamics of the composition. This introduces motion and helps the eye flow through the scene a bit better: the bench leads the eye from the front to the rear, and motion is introduced into the photo.


Now that my composition is set, the scene is staged, and my models know roughly what they'll be doing (more on this in a second...), it's time to light it. I would consider the lighting here to be pretty straightforward. On one hand, I wanted to emulate the soft filtered light coming through the skylights, but on the other hand I also wanted to show some of the lighting that the architect had designed into the space. In order to do this, I'll have to do a bit of compositing and pre-visualization.

Since there was nowhere to hide lights, what I ended up doing was bouncing light on the white ceiling in multiple places. This (roughly) approximated the light from above and kept the mood of the room intact. The bounced light isn't really a HUGE deal here - I'm mainly using it to add some snap and contrast to an otherwise flat room. The light from that skylight is soft, but I prefer a more contrasty look, which strobe lights provide when compared to natural light. So, same directional light, but a slightly different quality which reads better in photographs.

And light for the left half of the frame Light for the left half of the frame

Light for the right half of the frame Light for the right half of the frame

Since we want to show not only what the space is but also how it's used, I'm going to introduce a few models to the scene to help accomplish that, and now, during the lighting process, is the time to do it. I settled on using a young girl and an older gentleman to show this. I generally give the models some vague direction, and I really try not to get too specific as I find that this takes away from the realism. In this case, I told the young lady to take her time looking at the trumpet/cornet/horn object, and I told the older gentleman to thumb through some of the books we had on hand while sitting at the table. Quite simple, really. I try not to overthink it - what would people be doing in this space? Answer: Looking at things and possibly reading about them. I opted to photograph the models with the lighting in place to make it easier to composite them in.



Now we've got our models! Onto the next piece of the puzzle: because of the large amount of light coming in from above, it's killing the small recessed cans which shine light onto the exhibits. Those little guys - visible in the black cabinet on the right and above the glass cabinet on the left - are only about 15w or so (read: basically nothing). While these are visible to the naked eye, the camera really struggles to pick it up. So what I'm going to do is take a speedlight and replicate each of those lights one by one. I'll aim it in the same direction as the cans in order to make it appear that the cans are stronger than they are in order for the camera to be able to 'read' them. Again: since the camera cannot see the light from the small recessed cans on its own, I'm adding light to beef up their appearance. Note that I'm not going nuts here, or adding light where there isn't. I'm only embellishing what is there so that the camera can see it. I want to keep the light that the architect designed, but I want it to be seen by the camera, which they aren't doing on their own.

Adding accent lights with speedlight Adding accent lights with speedlight

Adding accent lights with speedlight Adding accent lights with speedlight


Now as you can imagine, I've got 20 or so shots from this scene that I've got to put together. It's pretty simple in theory, but can get messy in practice. Here's how I do it, in a (hopefully) somewhat easy to understand list.

1. Select the base image. This is usually a properly exposed image which preserves the highlights and shadows of the scene.
2. Add the big lighting elements. In this case, I had two frames of me bouncing the light on each half of the room off of the ceiling. I select each half and by using layer masks, remove myself and the light from the scene, leaving only the light created on the opposite half of the frame. This can be confusing to describe, but is easily figured out once you try it on your own. Here's the base image that I used for this shot:

Base image Base image

In Photoshop, draw a rough lasso selection around the area of light that you want to keep, excluding yourself and the lightstand in the selection. Then, simply hit the 'add new layer mask' button, and you're left with just the light that you want in the scene, layered above the base image.

If you're interested in learning more about layer masking and photoshop techniques for architectural photography, I suggest you check out 'Where Art Meets Architecture,' a 7.5 hour tutorial on the subject. Here is a quick tutorial that FS Writer Sean Armenta did on the topic, as well, though it isn't architecture specific. I've also released a few videos which describe the process in detail, such as this Fstoppers original filmed on location in Phoenix, AZ.

3. Add the little lighting elements. Using the same technique, but on a smaller scale, I add all of the 'little' flash pops that I did to embellish the small 15w recessed cans. This took about 10 or so layers to complete.

4. Add in the people. Since our people were shot as individual elements, we can composite them in using layer masks one at a time. The scene hasn't changed at all - and the camera's on a sturdy tripod - so they fit right in with no hassle.

5. Add contrast, clone any extraneous bits, fix color if necessary and fix any perspective issues by using the skew and warp tools.

And we are, at last, left with our final image, which took about an hour on location and just about as long in post.


And lastly, here's a gif that shows our inital test shot and our finished final image.

Finished! Finished!


I would consider this a pretty simple shot in the grand scheme of things. There is a lot of work going on, but none of it is particularly complicated. The Photoshop work is simple, as is the lighting. The biggest thing would be learning how to pre-visualize and see the finished result before you even start setting up the camera and tripod.

If you are interested in learning more about this genre of photography firsthand, I will be giving a a number of workshops on the topic at the Fstoppers Workshop in the Bahamas from May 28th to June 1st. To learn more, head to If you're unable to attend for any reason, but still would like to know about how I do what I do, I highly recommend checking out the tutorial I did with Fstoppers which covers all of these topics in-depth. You'll learn all about masking, compositing, and adding elements in to and removing them from the scene. I also talk about a number of architectural photography principles and techniques that I didn't have time to touch on in this, or any of my other articles. Here's a video that provides more information about the workshops.

And again, for those who can't make it to the workshop, I suggest checking out the tutorial that I created with that goes into detail on this and many other architectural photography subjects. Check out 'Where Art Meets Architecture: How To Photograph Real Estate, Architecture And Interiors' by clicking here.

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Thanks for another informative article Mike. I am sure all those fortunate enough to attend your workshops will come away with many new ideas and skills.

Mike Kelley's picture

Thanks, Craig, appreciate it! Glad you like the article.

Mike, this is by far the best BTS I've seen! Excellent stuff, very informative, and easy to access and learn your technique. You're a great educator as well as photographer. Thank you and please keep it up!

Mike Kelley's picture

Thanks! Appreciate the kind words, more coming soon :)

Your articles are great and the information I've seen from you has been top notch. I'm curious if you have anything coming about marketing yourself as an architectural photographer. I'm trying to get away from the agency and generate more of my own business leads.

Mike Kelley's picture

Thanks Marshall, appreciate the kind words. As far as marketing goes I have always said there isn't much to it other than being persistent and being a good person. Let potential clients know you are there, spend money on the good marketing materials, and just be kind and friendly, and never be a dick to anyone. That is seriously all I do, I don't even send email blasts, just mailers and I try to always be polite and friendly. That will take you very far.

E Port's picture

Love your work Mike; It has personally improve the architectural elements in my compositions. Quick question. I'm having a hard time seeing the ceiling pops in the final comp. It looks like the exposure was brought down even lower than the ambient levels. Were they included in the final image? And was this something you foresaw? I'm just trying to figure out how much pre-visualization goes on in your head and how much room you leave for experimentation in post.

Mike Kelley's picture

Thanks for the comment, glad you like the articles! As far as the flash fired into the ceiling, that isn't to light the ceiling, but rather to light the floor. There is a lot of improvisation that I do on location that I couldn't explain perfectly, however many months later ;)

Spy Black's picture

Nice work. I usually just shot a couple of exposures and do similar stuff from RAW in Photoshop, but some nooks and crannies can certainly benefit from a custom exposure. Great job!

Matthew Odom's picture

Once again Mike you've took it to another level brother!

majority of the architecture photographers doesn't not shoot like this. For most architects , they are more interested to see non pose shot or more about the concept of the space and usually have a huge wish list to be completed. On average an architecture photographer actually need to complete more than 30 - even 100 images in a single day working with sunlight.

This style of interior photography cater mainly for marketing materials in my understanding as you require a more glam up image to sell a space. Usually with a property agent or hotel will prefer the result of this method and you can only about 1-6 images in a day.

For photographers who are interested in architecture photography should understand different working style for different clients.

Spoken like someone who has no practical experience shooting architecture. You are as wrong as it is possible to be in three paragraphs!

30+ photographs in a day is what we call "spray and pray" -- producing a huge number of poorly composed, thoughtless snapshots in the hope that a few of them will be acceptable.

Hi Scott,

Please refer to the post I've replied to Mike. It is just a different kind of architecture photography you are exposed to doesn't means i am wrong.

Mike Kelley's picture

I have never in my life encountered an architect or designer who has asked for more than 20 pictures in a single day. I am not sure who your clients are but that isn't realistic at all for anyone who seeks to create a great photograph of architecture.

Hi Mike,

I am not coming here to attack your post. They are great information for everybody to learn about. I am just trying to share that there is setup for architecture photographer that require to deal with different kind of client requirements. You can take a look at Tim Griffith and Iwan Baan's work and this is the case for them.

Mike Kelley's picture

You wrote...'majority of the architecture photographers...'

While I agree that there are different ways to shoot architecture (e.g. Iwan Baan) the 'majority' do not operate like this, IME. Even Iwan Baan and Tim Griffiths are incredibly calculated in their approach - I would be absolutely shocked and would probably quit if either of them delivered 30-100 images in a day. They're both amazingly talented - but look at their blogs, and you can immediately discern the slow, calculated approach that they take to creating their images. Scouting, waiting for the light, arranging the scene...even compositing objects in and out! They operate with similar techniques (though I readily admit that their talent far surpasses mine)

I take that back and would say not majority but 50/50.
I've worked with Tim and we did an average of 20-30shots per day.
I've also worked with photographers like Jorg Sundermann and we only do 1-6images max in a day. Like I said, It is just diff requirement for diff kind of client.

Interesting to see your process and what goes into a shoot for this one image. I understand you may not go through this exact process each time, but I admire how much detail you spent on considering lighting - and lighting half the image, then the other half the image. Excellent process to share with those looking to get into architecture photography. What lens did you use for this shot? <a href="" rel="nofollow">Travel Photography </a>

Mike Kelley's picture

Hi Jared, glad you enjoyed the article. This is a Canon 24mm TS/E II lens.