Troubleshooting interior photography (Part 1- White balance)

What’s this series all about?

One of my favourite past times when walking down the street and seeing an estate agents is to heavily critique and judge the photography they have in their windows. Now, I may be much more aware of things like this as after all it is my work, but I know that even if you don’t know what is technically “wrong” with a photograph, you can still see the image as aesthetically unappealing.


What I want to do is create a series of posts that will break down what it is about an interior image that makes it visually great to look at, and where in some cases it is going drastically wrong!


You don’t have to look far to find examples. As someone currently searching for a new home scrolling through the online mass of photos you will come across images that make you wonder how someone in their right mind came to the conclusion that it would be a good piece of marketing material. There is so much awful content being uploaded online everyday that there is even a dedicated website for you to enjoy it at;


https://terriblerealestateagentphotos.com/ has the best of the best. Have a good laugh at someone's genuine work. That they were paid for. Yes.


Now I don’t want to spend this entire series slating other people's work (who am I kidding that’s exactly what I want to do).

I will however hopefully bring to light some simple changes that can be made, or mindset adjustments in some cases, that will make a huge difference to the quality of the photography work you are creating. Or alternatively as an agent, selecting to use for your marketing material.


A quick note on the quality of the home

First things first. It is easy to photograph a beautiful home that has been professionally styled and come away with good pictures. People will look past the errors in the photos and focus on the gorgeous home. The real skill comes in producing the “wow” images, or when you have a particularly average or below average property to photograph and come away with images that still look great. Whilst researching for this post I came across a property marketed at £12,000,000 with images that weren’t level, flash marks showing in shower screens, flash shadowing, blown out ceilings and poor composition. They were clearly still done by a professional photographer, so I hope to be able to bring to light the impact that shooting and editing correctly can have on your end result, and the value of employing an experienced specialist photographer.

In the example below you can see the difference from the original images taken by the owner, to the images taken by myself a couple of years ago.

White balance

To understand what makes a photograph have the correct white balance we first have to understand the concept.


The tone of an image is made up of four colour components. The most well known and most usually adjusted in interior photography is the amount of yellow (warm)/ blue (cool) in an image. This can be referred to as the “temperature” of the image. The other is the green/ magenta tint which I will come to later.

Natural light is blue/cool balanced and interior light is yellow/ warm balanced. Flash light is generally matched to natural sunlight. These are the three lighting options you will be working with in interior photography so it is important to keep the temperature differences in mind. There are exceptions to the rule as always; taking images early in the morning or late in the evening will give a warmer tone to natural light as the sun sits lower in the sky. In the image below taken at sunrise the warm colour of the sunlight has tinted the snow a yellower colour than its normal pure white.



Here is a chart showing the relative temperatures of different kinds of light (the lower the number the warmer the light)

Quite frequently the issue with an interior images is that the tone is too yellow, or warm.


This can be down to a number of factors;

-The interior lighting in the home is yellow based

-The property or room lacks natural light

-The walls are painted yellow and this is reflecting back

-The settings in the camera are not balanced for interior subjects


The example above (aside from many other issues...) shows a very warm toned bathroom. This makes the room feel older, dirtier, and isn't true to life. On the right hand side the only adjustment I have made is to cool the tone on the image and make the whites white.

A properly balanced photo will primarily have "white whites". It is as simple as that. This can be difficult to judge in some cases, which I will tackle further on in this post.


In some cases it is a factor of the property to have a warm yellow tone, and to edit that out would actually take away from the quality and cosiness of the home

The example above shows a character cottage with warm lighting. If you balance this image too cool it makes the home seem cold and a little sad as shown on the right. Choosing your white balance requires you to think about the individual home and bring out the best qualities of that property.


Outside light; windows and doorways vs interior

Creating a balance between these two different lighting environments can be tricky. Especially when you are photographing in winter, using longer exposures and the sunlight is significantly cooler than interior lights. If it is very obvious when you are taking the image, one option is to turn off the interior lights, and only light your image from natural light and your flash. This can work fantastically if you are in a low light environment with a long exposure, but will most likely “blow out” your windows. This can be beneficial in urban environments when the view outside is a brick wall.

Your other option is to make a composite of images of the room lighting different areas with your flash in each one, so you have an exposure for your window, an exposure with ambient lighting and other exposures as needed for darker areas that weren't lit in the previous two shots. This is quite a time intensive process so if you can get good results with other methods/ different lighting do try that first!

If you have access to editing software that enables you to select areas of a photograph to adjust you can compensate for this difference, but make sure you keep it believable. Visually our brains know there is a temperature difference between natural and indoor lighting and it can be obvious that it is “faked” much like overdone HDR images.


This is my original image. It was taken at around 8.30am in December in London, UK. It was very dark outside and as you can see the picture doesn't effectively show the place at it's best. After cooling the whole image to reduce the yellow tones my windows looked very blue.

I initially brushed in the areas with a warmer hue, but this didn't look right either. The colour was too strong and saturated, it looked unnatural. I eventually used the brush tool with a reduced saturation, and a warming tone to balance the image correctly. Not forgetting any reflections of the windows in mirrors!


Externals

When it comes to editing your external images most often you will want a split warmth- you will want the building to look warmer and the sky to look cooler. Obviously this is dependant on the shot and the lighting you had at the time, just be mindful when making adjustments that your sky does not end up washed out, or your building too cold.


This example was shot on a late autumn morning so I had to warm up the foreground to show the warm colour of the brickwork and the trees changing colour. I tried to keep the blue in the sky and maintain a realistic balance.



How to correctly set your white balance- in camera

Each camera has a different set of menus to work through so if you want to learn how to change the white balance on the camera I recommend searching for a personalised tutorial for your equipment. If you are shooting in RAW format the camera will store all of the information needed for you to adjust the warmth of the image in post processing. If you do not shoot RAW then you will need to balance with a white card. But honestly if you aren’t shooting RAW you aren’t going to own one of these, or have the motivation to do it.

Some cameras have presets for interior lighting, cloudy days, and other common lighting situations- these are great to use, just make sure you change the settings back once you have moved from that environment!

So in summary- Shoot RAW if you can. Set your camera to Auto white balance and it will do some of the work for you. Change any issues in post processing.


Post processing- if there is a problem with your image or for making adjustments.

Hopefully you had the opportunity to correctly take the image with the right white balance. If you missed something or your camera did not give you the option to change the white balance however all is not lost.

First make sure your screen is displaying your images correctly- make sure any “night light” settings are switched off as this will turn your screen a warmer tone.

Even basic software will give you the option to adjust the “warmth” of an image, however I use adobe lightroom classic for my editing and strongly recommend it.

Bring up your image into your software and locate the white balance slider. It is good if you have a visual memory of the property to reference against when you adjust the settings.

Move your slider until something in the photograph that you know to be “pure white” is shown as such. This will get easier with time. Sometimes your brain gets confused especially after doing a few corrections, get up and move away from your screen for 5 minutes, come back and try again. The reason for this is that our brain can compensate for the tone of image it is viewing- think of when you first put on your sunglasses compared to a few minutes later when everything looks the right colour. Another useful tip is to slide the slider to a position you know to be incorrect, (either too warm or too cool) and then pull back until it looks correct.


Consistency across images; using presets

When editing a series of images from one property it may be that you need to adjust the white balance the same amount in all of your images. Using a preset in adobe lightroom classic allows you to apply this adjustment (as well as many others) to multiple images in one go. Use your time wisely, and set one up. This video below from photography concentrate explains the process well. Do make sure to still check each image individually after you have applied your presets.


But it still looks wrong!


Sometimes the colour cast is not down to the temperature of the light. This is where the green/ magenta tint comes in. In the graph below you can see the white spot in the middle. This is a great way to visually see how white light is made up of all colours. If you are sliding your temperature up and down, but your original image is primarily too green or magenta toned, the white balance will still look wrong, i.e. not pure white.




Personal preferences

As much as possible you should try to keep your images true to life. Some photographers styles will lean more towards cooler or warmer images, but make sure you don’t go too extreme. I like to add a tiny amount of pink tint to my natural landscape images as the greens can be quite strong from the trees and plants.


In Summary

-When you are physically in the property make note of something that is “pure white”

-Make sure your camera is set up to do some of the adjustments for you.

-Correct any issues at home using those pure white areas as a visual reference.

-Only post images that are true to real life! Looking at you estate agents ;)


If you liked this post and think it might benefit someone you know please share it with them!

I’d love to know what your pet peeve is in interior photographs, so leave a comment to let me know and maybe I will cover it in a future post.

I’d also really appreciate any feedback you have so please please leave a comment :)