Capturing monumental interiors

 In Architecture + Cityscapes

Chicago is a city of incredible architecture — inside and out. Much of it can be explored during the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s annual Open House Chicago, which I’m privileged to help organize. (Mark your calendars now for October 14-15, 2017!)

I’m largely self-taught as a photographer, but over the years I’ve zeroed in on a few different tricks to capture stunning available-light shots of Chicago’s incredible interior spaces. Below are some of my tips — but you can learn more if you attend the session I’ll be leading at the Out of Chicago Photography Summer Conference 2017!

St. Jerome Roman Catholic Church, settings: ISO 100, f/14, 10 second exposure

If you can use a tripod

For crisp interiors, a tripod is incredibly helpful — especially in very dark places. Make sure that you have permission to use a tripod, and that you aren’t inconveniencing or posing a safety hazard to others.

To make the most of your tripod, you’ll also want:

  • A remote shutter release to avoid shake (the self-timer will work, but will slow you down)
  • A good, clean wide angle lens (I use a Tokina 11-16mm)
  • A lens hood to cut down on glare and reflections from lights

Levere Memorial Temple, settings: ISO 200, f/13, 3 second exposure

Keep your camera in automatic mode while you test shots and adjust framing. Then, when you’re satisfied with your setup, switch to full manual mode and configure your camera:

  • Set a low ISO (100 or 200) to minimize grain
  • Make the aperture small (f/8-11 or so) to maximize depth-of-field and keep as much of your shot as possible in focus. This also produces nice starburst lights. Note that a small aperture will make dust, dirt or scratches on your lens much more visible, so you may need to open the aperture to hide these problems (unless you want to fix them in Photoshop later).
  • You’ll then need a long exposure time (often 1 second or more) to capture enough light. Shoot using a range of shutter speeds to give yourself lighter and darker options — it can be hard to tell which shot gives you the optimal highlights and shadows until you’re editing on a computer.

Once you’ve figured out your exposure settings for one shot, you can usually make incremental adjustments to the shutter speed as you move around a space to capture different angles.

Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist, settings: ISO 200, f/10, 0.8 second exposure

If you can’t use a tripod

Sometimes you aren’t allowed to use a tripod, or don’t want to carry one.

I often carry an UltraPod II with me. It’s small and discreet, but gives you most of the advantages of a tripod, plus a cool from-the-floor angle. You can stand it on furniture or use the included strap to anchor it higher up if needed.

If I don’t have the UltraPod but really want to attempt a longer exposure, I might place the camera on an available flat surface and place items from my camera bag under the body or lens to adjust the angle. This doesn’t always work well, but it’s worth experimenting.

New Regal Theater, settings: ISO 100, f/4, 4 second exposure

If there’s no way to keep the camera stable, or if I’m just in a hurry, the solution is simple: crank up the ISO and shoot handheld. Modern cameras produce great images at high ISO settings, up into the thousands. I’ll usually keep the camera in automatic mode and adjust the ISO upward until the shutter speed is 1/30 or faster so I can get clear handheld shots.

Yale Building, settings: ISO 320, f/4, 1/60 second exposure

A note on editing

We all have our preferred editing software and workflows. The two most important things I routinely do in editing are:

  • Apply noise reduction if it’s a high ISO shot
  • Turn down highlights and brighten up shadows to show more detail across the scene

Aragon Ballroom, settings: ISO 200, f/8, 1 second exposure

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