Walking into a beautifully designed room, you instantly feel the warmth and personality of the homeowner. You should feel at ease and comfortable sitting down. However capturing this on film is a completely different story, no matter how wonderful the design is. This takes many years of experience, knowledge, and talent. After several failed attempts to photograph my own designs, I needed help and was introduced to Muffy. She has since photographed many of my designs, some of which have appeared in Sunset Magazine Books. I’ve learned quite a bit about photography from Muffy and hope that you will pick up a few tips here as well.
How did your interest in photography begin?
I always took pictures as a child. My dad really liked photography, he had a Hasselblad in WW2 and taught his sister how to photograph. My dad always had a darkroom. Although I never learned from him.
I went to Art School and did photo printmaking originally, then photo-litho where you transfer the image on to a plate. I then realized I was ruining my pictures. I really liked the original photographs. I got my masters and started as a photo assistant in the 80’s in SF. I saw it as an educational opportunity; learn the commercial side and go out on my own. I had not yet picked what kind of photography I wanted to do. I started as a car photographer (using the compass to learn where the light was going to be ) then it was fun being a fashion photographer but I wasn’t that interested in fashion. I liked the intensity of food photography but you need a really nice studio (which is a lot of overhead). My grandmother had a house designed by William Wurster, and her Interior Designer was the infamous Michael Taylor. Paige Rense (the editor of Architectural Digest) asked Michael Taylor what he wanted to shoot for the magazine and he wanted to shoot his first job which was my mother’s house! My sister and I were there when they were photographing and I realized that was what I wanted to do. This is perfect. I don’t need a studio, I like going into peoples houses and learning their story, it’s like being inserted into their lives. You learn so much about people when you see how they live in their house. The room that you are photographing this drama in is the container that holds the story. You have to pay attention to the container. It changes the way the story unfolds.
Just because the room looks fabulous doesn’t mean you can take a great picture of it. What makes it work for a photo?
When you take a photo of a room you are flattening out several different planes that are stacking up in the photo, which is different then walking into a home and experiencing them while walking through the three dimensions. Photos tend to look more cluttered as well. You really need large accessories. A small bowl with a few lemons in it does not work. You need a huge bowl with a grocery bag full of lemons in it. Better to have a few large items and eliminate the small accessories which make things look cluttered. You don’t want too many horizontal accessories, you also need vertical accessories because everything flattens out into horizontal stripes. Also, photography can see less contrast then your eye can. When you take a picture, those shadows that you can normally see into, and are interesting live, look like a giant black blob in a photo.
You submit work to magazines…do homeowners hire you just to take pictures for themselves?
Occasionally….there used to be homeowner contests for magazines, but no more, as magazines are getting fewer and farther between. Usually I work for designers or architects. Magazines call me when they need projects for books etc. I just shot for a book about In-Law Units. Quite a bit is about the relationships of the people that live there and why they are choosing to live next to each other. In one case a womans children had left for college, in antother case an independent woman with alzheimers. Others are people that want to age in place. Coming out March 12th “In-Laws, Outlaws, and Grannyflats”
Do you photograph homes where they do not spend much on furnishings?
The time has past when I go in to homes and see millions spent on furnishings and art. I feel like the idea of smarter design and how we make what we have work is, and should be, happening much more. It’s a challenge to make that work as well because people need to understand, and need help with, playing up the strength of the design. It’s great when people make the most of what they have in their house and make it work. In some cases I just bring cushions off my own couch and jam them into the couch on the set. Once I used a tablecloth to look like a duvet cover, it was fabulous. They wondered where I got this beautiful cover. Once I went out and bought some great, very inexpensive towels to use in the house I was photographing and the homeowners bought them they loved them so much. It’s also good to get some nice color in your accessories. I was going through my pictures preparing for the AIA show that’s coming up and I realized I had two colors in my pictures, cream and brown. So I think that it is really important to look at adding color with accessories.
If you want to take a picture of your own house
Use a regular point and shoot but look at the numbers 35mm equivalent you want it to be between 24-28, a good wide angle lens, and for telephotos the bigger number the better for doing close-ups. Wide angle for house, 24-25/ 105. I would suggest you look at the B and H website in NY. They are very helpful. They have specs for every camera and use the same specs for reviewing every camera. I’ve called them as well when I’ve needed advice. I have a Lumix which is very wide, also a Canon G12 I like because all the controls are knobs that you change right on top, instead of having to go in to a menu. I also like it because it shoots raw if you want it to. They are a bit more expensive, about $500.
Some things to remember when taking your own interior pictures:
-Consider using a tripod (good way of doing things).
-Turn the ISO up really high because the flash is too strong and you lose the character of the light.
-Whatever the camera is reading off of, the center of the focus, it trys to turn in to mid-value grey, then the rest of the room turns black.-Angle of incidence = angle of reflection. If you are facing right into a mirror or window, the flash will bounce right back into the camera. If you move aside and angle the camera toward the window, the reflection will also move away from the camera.
Muffy currently teaches photography at The Art Institute in SF. The founder of the photography department was Ansel Addams. She is now teaching an Art in Commerce class, which is more about how to do a job and what kind of jobs are out there. She also has a new book coming out with author Michael Litchfield titled “In Laws, Out Laws and Grannyflats”. You can find more information at his blog, Cozy Digs.
Muffy currently is part of an Architectural Photography Exibition at AIA San Francisco Center for Architecture + Design Gallery. She can be reached at 510-459-7414 and you can also see more of her work on her website.
In : Photographer