Taking a picture of a room interior with the view outside

Today we will talk about making a picture that shows both the inside of a room and the view trough the window – and we’ll do it when the view outside is in direct mid day sun.

Let’s begin with two test shots just to show the problem:

For the first shot I’ve used spot metering to expose for the outside, it is very bright outside and I wanted to add a flash later so I’ve set ISO to 100 (the lowest value on my camera) and the shutter speed to 1/200 – the camera’s max sync speed (the “max sync speed” is the highest shutter speed you can use with a flash), I’ve let the camera select the aperture and the camera selected F/11 and I’ve got this:

The outside is a little bit under exposed because all the white in the picture (but not by much) and the inside is completely dark.

For the next shot I’ve metered for the inside, I’ve let the camera do all the work by spot metering on somewhere in the room that is a little farther than the window and the camera selected f/5 at 1/3 of a second (ISO is still 100) – this got me this picture:

This picture is a little bit over exposed and the colors are washed up (the washed up colors are probably caused by lens flair from the bright light outside).

What those picture show us is that the difference in brightness between the inside and the outside is way to big to capture in a single image.

Now, since the whole post is about capturing both in a single image it’s pretty obvious I’m going to do something to fix the problem – and that something is to increase the brightness of the room to match the outside.

I’ve connected my cheap YN465 external flash to the camera (the built in popup flash doesn’t have the power for this) and pointed it directly up into the ceiling so the reflected light will illuminate the room evenly.

I’ve put the camera in manual mode and set it to expose correctly for the outside, then I’ve taken a few test shots at different flash power settings until I’ve got the inside brightness up to where I want it to be.

For this picture I’ve set the flash on full power and opened up the aperture a bit to f/7.1 to get a bit more light both for the inside and the outside.

Note that the outside is still much brighter – this is because I didn’t want to make the inside and outside the same brightness, I don’t want to hide the fact that it’s eye-hurting bright outside and a little dark inside – I just want to get them to the point I can capture both in the same picture (if I did get the inside and outside to be at the same brightness it wouldn’t look natural).

Now that we got the camera and flash settings dialed in we can bring in our model and start taking pictures:

If we try to take that picture without the flash we will get a silhouette – and that’s the topic for next week.

Understanding camera modes

All DSLRs and a lot of smaller cameras have a mode dial on the top, the cameras that don’t have a physical dial always have a mode menu somewhere – in this post I’ll quickly cover all those modes, what they are for and when you should use them – I’ll also comment on what modes to use when learning photography.

There are a lot of cameras out and they don’t all have the same modes (and they have different names for the same modes), so, if you see a mode on your camera that isn’t on the list just leave a comment and I’ll update the list – and if you see a mode on the list that isn’t on your camera that’s ok, not all camera’s support all modes.

So, here are the modes in order of automatic-ness starting from the most automatic:

Full auto/ full auto with no flash – In this mode the camera does all the work, modern cameras are actually very good but they don’t know what you are photographing and they don’t know how you want the picture to come out – so the camera will try to make all the safe average boring choices and this is likely to result in a safe average boring photo.

This is a good mode for “safety shots”, photos you take just to make sure you have something if the picture you planned to take doesn’t come out right.

If you see a once in a lifetime event getting a few pictures on auto mode just to make sure you got it is a good idea – and while you’re learning taking an auto shot in additional to a non-auto shot is smart because you are likely to get some badly exposed photos until you learn to use your camera’s other modes.

For learning I recommend using this mode only for safety shots, you are not learning anything while in this mode.

Scene modes (portrait, landscape, etc.), CA, A-DEP – Those are automatic modes where you tell the camera what you are photographing, those are likely to result in a better picture than full auto mode because the camera can make a more intelligent choice about what settings to use.

Those are good modes for people who are not interested in photography and don’t want to learn about aperture, shutter speed and the likes.

For learning I recommend not using those modes at all because, like full auto mode, you are not learning anything while using those modes.

Program (P) mode – In this mode you can use all the camera’s option but not set the aperture and shutter speed directly.

For learning I recommend using P mode for a little while to get a good feeling of selecting the correct ISO to and using the other camera’s features and then moving to A/Av or S/Tv modes.

Aperture Priority (A or Av) mode – In this mode you set the aperture and let the camera choose the shutter speed, in this mode the camera does not make decision for you because for each aperture value you set there is just one possible shutter speed.

This is a good mode for non-action shoots because it let you control the depth of field directly, with exposure compensation and exposure lock you can also override the camera’s light meter when the camera gets the exposure wrong – but you should consider switching to M mode if the camera gets the exposure wrong.

Note that on Canon DSLRs in Av and Tv modes the flash is used as a fill flash only, so if you want to use fill flash just switch to Av or Tv mode, on the other hand if you want the flash to be the main light source you should use either M or P mode, on Nikon the flash is the main light source in P,A and S modes and to use fill flash you should use M mode.

For learning this is a very good mode to use most of the time.

Shutter Priority (S or Tv) mode – In this mode you set the shutter speed and let the camera chose the aperture value.

This is a good mode for photographing moving objects because it let you easily choose a fast shutter speed to freeze motion or slow shutter speed to create some motion blur.

Everything I wrote about aperture priority mode also applies to shutter priority mode.

Manual (M) mode – This is a mode that let you set everything manually, it is very useful in a wide verity of situations (I’ll write about those in future posts) and is easier to use than people think.

For learning getting comfortable with manual mode is extremely important.

Bulb (B) mode – This is a mode where the shutter remains open for as long as you press the shutter, in cameras that don’t have a dedicated B mode you can usually use M mode and set the shutter speed to “bulb” to get the same results.

Movie mode – Used for shooting video, obviously.


Those are the camera modes, and as I said in the beginning, if you can’t find a mode your camera has on the list just leave a comment below.

Look at the background

If I had to choose the one most important composition tip it would be to really look at the background before you take a picture.

When we photograph something we concentrate on that something, on the subject of the photo – after all that is what we are photographing, and when we concentrate on one thing we ignore everything around it (that is what concentration is after all – so when we take a photo, unless we make a point of looking at the background, we just don’t see it.

This tends to lead to disappointment when we look at the photo and see our great subject in front of an ugly dirty trash can (or, for pictures taken indoors, in front of a pile of dirty laundry).

This leaves us with two options – the first is to digitally remove the problematic object in the background (the few latest versions of Photoshop are absolutely amazing at that), the other option is to fix it while taking the picture and make a mental effort to look at the background before pressing the shutter.

“Fixing” the bad background is actually easy If you notice it, the easiest option is to move your subject to a better background (if possible) but you can also move right or left to throw the problem out of frame, you can shoot down the use the ground as a background or shoot up to use the sky, you can even use a flash to make the background brighter or darker in relation to the subject.

So next time you take a picture before you press the shutter take a look at the background, look for trash, dirty laundry and other objects you don’t want to include, look for mess and clutter and while your at it look for objects in the background that blend in with your subject (we’ll talk more in the future about separating the subject from the background)

Using zoom to control the background

It’s obvious we can zoom in and out to make our subject bigger or smaller in the frame and to control the amount of background in the photo – but many people don’t realize that we can control those two factors individually by also using our legs.

For todays demonstration I’ve attached a teddy bear to a lightstand to get it to about human height (just one of the fun things you get to do when you write a photography blog) and placed it in front of a tree.

I zoomed all the way in and took this picture:

Not bad at all, the tree gives us a a nice dark green background for the entire frame, this is a very good setup if I wanted to take a portrait shot.

An interesting thing about this shot is that it could have been taken anywhere – the tree in the background is sort of a low cost replacements for a background stand with some textured fabric roll on it (and the weather cooperated by being all cloudy and giving me nice soft portrait lighting)

You can’t tell if the picture was taken in my back yard, in a forest or in a city in front of the only tree on the street – this is a good thing if you want to to a studio-style portrait but pretty bad if it’s a photo from your last trip and you want it to show where you were (or if you want to include some of the environment because it tells something about your subject).

I then zoomed all the way out and moved closer so the bear looks about the same in the frame, I didn’t move the bear (or the tree) at all, the only thing that moved is me, also, I moved in a strait line in the direction of the bear, I didn’t change my shooting angle – and I’ve got this:

Suddenly you see a whole lot of the environment, bad if you want to focus only on your model but very good for an environmental portrait or a vacation photos.

The effect is easy to understand if we use a diagram (and I just love diagrams):

There’s just one important detail to remember – people look bad when photographed from a very close distance, so don’t take this technique to the extreme at the close end.