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Photographing Interiors and Products Part 1: Exposure Basics and Aperture

This is part 1 of my Photographing Interiors and Products series. This series is designed to help you get your DSLR camera off automatic mode and start taking beautiful photos! Part 1 focuses on the exposure and aperture basics for photographing interiors and products. This post contains affiliate links, which helps me provide great free content for you all! You can read more about that here. Thank you!

Photographing Interiors and Products Part 1: Exposure Basics and Aperture

I’ve had a few people approach me and ask about DSLR photography lessons, classes, and tutorials. While I would love to do that, I honestly don’t have the bandwidth to do one-on-one lessons or create a course right now. Sad face. But I decided to run with the idea and put together a free series of posts that outline the basics of using your DSLR camera (I use a Nikon d7100) to photograph interiors and products with a focus on terminology, lighting, shooting in manual, composition, editing, and a few other topics sprinkled in.

The series focuses on shooting interiors and products, so if you’re a blogger, have an Etsy shop, or just want to learn how to take great photos, I’ve got you covered!

(Want to make sure you’re notified when the next part in this series comes out? Sign up for my mailing list at the end of the post and I’ll drop you a note in my weekly-ish newsletter!)

graphic that says photographing products and interiors part 1 exposure basics and aperture

But before we jump into the specifics of interior and product photography, we need to talk a bit about photography basics. So that’s what the first few lessons will be about. I know! You want to jump right in! But you need a good foundation first, so we need to start there. So let’s chat exposure and aperture basics for photographing interiors and products.

Exposure Basics 

Before we even talk about touching your camera, you need a primer in some terminology. I want to help you understand what goes in to taking a great photo and how different settings work together to get you off of automatic mode. Let’s chat exposure first.

Exposure just means how bright or dark your photo is. There are many elements that go in to getting the perfect exposure. If I shoot on automatic, my camera controls the exposure. Your DSLR is a fantastic piece of machinery and typically does a great job of selecting the right settings to get a great exposure if the lighting conditions are good (outside on a partly sunny day, for example). The three settings that your camera decides on are your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. These all work together to create the perfect image (sometimes with the help of some other tools that we’ll talk about later).

Here are a few examples…

Here are some different rooms all shot under very different lighting conditions.

modern living room
modern baby nursery
modern powder room
black and white bedroom

Shooting on automatic can become more problematic when you are either working in more challenging lighting conditions or want to get more creative with your photos. Shooting in semi-manual or manual mode gives you more control over what your camera captures. Have you ever looked at something, taken a photo of it, and then thought, “that photo looks nothing like what I’m seeing,” or “that looks way darker than what my eyes see.” Taking control of your camera’s settings can help you fix this

Let’s look at a few comparisons of automatic vs. manual mode. My living room is a well-lit room, but even on the brightest day, it’s difficult to photograph.

Automatic (with camera’s internal flash triggering)

Here’s a photo of it shot in automatic mode. (Reminder: That means my camera decided on all settings for me.) Since it was too dark, the camera’s internal flash also triggered.

dark living room

Automatic (with no flash)

Since I don’t like how unnatural built-in flashes can make things look, here’s a photo of the room with no flash. Still not good. Now there’s even less light (notice  the darker areas in the foreground like the baby gate area on the stairs and the couch).

dark living room

Shot in Manual Mode

Here’s a photo of my room shot on manual with me taking total control of the settings.

beautiful living room with light flares

Ahh, bright, crisp, clean, and sharp. With the bonus of lens flares (those little light bubbles) caused by shooting into the light, which is a stylistic thing I love, along with the blown out (super bright/overexposed) windows.

Here are a few more examples of flash on automatic, no flash on automatic, and manual (and yes, these are all shot within a few seconds of one another!):

dark dining room
Automatic mode with built-in flash triggering.
dark dining room
Automatic mode with no flash.
bright dining room with plants
Shot in manual mode.
plants on shelving shot with a flash
Looks like a mugshot, no? Automatic mode with built-in flash triggering.
plants on shelving shot with no flash
Automatic mode with no flash.
plants on shelving
Shot in manual mode. Yes I know that pothos plant need some love right now.

Interested in learning more about how taking control of your camera’s settings can help you achieve images like this? Let’s move on to the first of the three basic elements you can use to control your exposure and get creative with your images: aperture.

The First Element of Exposure: Aperture

Your camera’s aperture is a set of blades in its lens that controls how much light is let in when you take a photo. The set of blades can open up, letting in more light as they open. You can also set your aperture so that the blades let in less light. When I first began learning photography, picturing the aperture as a human eye helped me understand how it works. If you are in a darker room, your pupils get larger to let in more light so you can see. When you are outside on a bright, sunny day, your pupils get very small; you don’t need any more light (and you might even need sunglasses).

Have you ever watched a house cat “hunting” a toy? Their pupils can go from black slivers to wide black dots in a millisecond. It’s to let in more light and help them more effectively hunt their prey (or their small toy mouse, as it were). That’s another helpful comparison to understand aperture.

Cat looking through a plant
Very big, very real, very scary hunter.

Aperture is measured in “f-stops.” Higher f-stops mean the aperture hole is smaller and lets in less light. In this case, you might think “higher” means “more light”—but that’s not the case. Don’t let that trip you up. For example, an f-stop of f/4.5 lets in much more light than an f-stop of f/20. (Side note: since light is a precious commodity in photography, different lenses can have different f-stops. Some more expensive lenses can have more f-stops that can let in more light.)

This is part 1 of my eight-part interior and product photography series: exposure and aperture basics for photographing interiors and products. #interiorphotography #productphotography #photography #blogphotography

If you take a photo of an image at f/20 and it is far too dark since f/20 doesn’t let in that much light, you can “open up” your aperture by decreasing your f-stop to let more light in.

But your camera’s aperture also controls the image’s depth-of-field. In the most basic terms, depth-of-field means how much of your photo is in focus and how much is blurry. A smaller aperture like f/4.5 (or smaller, if your lens can do it) is a great setting to use if you want to focus on one part of your image and make the rest blurry. For example, if you want to take a photo of a fern leaf and have the rest of the photo be out of focus:

fern leaves with a shallow depth of field

Or a cat crashing your tutorial photoshoot, and you want the focus to be on his undeniably stunning face:

cat with a shallow depth of field
Call me for all professional cat modeling opportunities.

The area out of focus doesn’t just have to be in the back of the photo, either. It can be anywhere in the photo, including the foreground, like this shot of Ramona’s nightlight in her room:

bear with a shallow depth of field

If you want to take a photo of a landscape or an interior room, however, you’ll typically want the entire photo to be crisp and in focus. That’s when you’ll use a higher f-stop. When I take photos of rooms or my projects, I use the highest f-stop I can muster. Notice how everything in these photos is extremely clear, sharp, and crisp:

living room with a Christmas tree
living room with a Christmas tree
orange and wood bead garland

Depth-of-Field Comparisons

Here are a few back-to-back comparison images I took one day at the library that illustrate how changing your depth-of-field can change the entire feel of an image.

photo illustrating shallow depth of field
wood beads on a kids toy
photo illustrating shallow depth of field
books at a library
photo illustrating shallow depth of field
lamb on the floor in a library

So now that we know how your camera’s aperture contributes to exposure, you should be good to go, right? Ah, not so simple. Imagine this scenario: I want to take a photo of my living room, so I want the entire image to be crisp and in focus. So I set my camera’s aperture to f/22. Excellent! Here’s what my living room looks like shot at f/22:

dark living room

Yikes. That’s dark, even on a bright day! If you’ll recall to earlier in the post, higher f-stops let in less light. On the other end of the spectrum, suppose you want to take a photo of a small item with the rest of the image out of focus. You’ll need a much lower f-stop, which lets in more light. That can lead to images that are too bright (over exposed). Ugh. So how do you get the balance right? How do you get a crisp, clean image that’s also well-light? Or an image that focuses on one item but doesn’t blow out the image with light?

Next up…

Photographing Interiors and Products Part 2:

Shutter Speed and ISO

Next we’ll build on your understanding of exposure basics and aperture to chat about the other two exposure essentials: shutter speed and ISO.

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