THE OLD, DARK HOUSE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ULTIMATE ADAGE ABOUT OLD HOUSES, I.E.,”THEY SURE DON’T MAKE ‘EM LIKE THIS ANYMORE“, is a sentiment which will haunt the casual photographer at every turn inside an historic home. No, they don’t make them anything like this anymore, especially when it comes to the size of rooms, angles of design, decorative materials, or light flow, and so shooting an antique residence requires a little re-fitting of the brain to insure that you come home with something that you can, you know, bear to look at.
Another cliché that comes to mind, this one about size: “the kitchen was so small, you had to go outside to chew.” Again, it can’t become a cliché unless it’s partially true, and it does apply to many of the rooms in pre-1950’s houses. People were shorter. The concept of personal space, especially in an urban setting, seems claustrophobic to us today. That makes for photos that will also look cramped and tight, so shoot with as wide a lens as you can. This is the place for that 18-55mm kit lens you got with your camera, since it will slightly exaggerate the side-to-side and front-to-back distances within the smaller rooms. It will also allow you to get more in the frame when composing at shorter distances, which, on velvet rope tours, can be reduced to inches.
One crucial thing to be mindful of is that 90% of the light you get on old house tours will be window light. Highlights will almost certainly be blown out on things like sheer drapes, but you need all the light you can get, since it’s a cinch that flash will be prohibited and the interior wood trims, floors and furnishings will likely be very dark in themselves, acting as light blotters. Learn to live with the extreme contrasts and resulting shadowy areas. Expose for the most important elements in a room. You cannot show everything to perfect advantage. In some interior rooms in older homes, you don’t have a shot at all, unless you ditch the rest of the tour group and have about twenty minutes to yourself to set things up. Unlikely.
If you are shooting with a wide-angle, you may not be able to go any further open on aperture than about f/3.5. This means either working rock-solid handheld or cranking up the old ISO. If you do the latter, don’t go back later with an editor and try to rescue the darker areas: you will just show the smudgy noise that you allowed with the higher ISO, so, unless you like the warm look of black mayonnaise, resist.
Again, if shooting wide, remember that you can also zoom in tight enough to isolate clusters of items in charming still life arrangements with basically no effort on your part. Hey, an expert has already been paid to professionally build your composition for you with period bric-a-brac, so it’s easy pickings, right?
Admittedly, shooting in an old house can be like trying to conduct a prize fight inside a shoe box.
Or it can be like coming home.