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Photographer Quinn Ballard: ‘the best photographs are the ones that feel touchable, inviting and real’

Quinn Ballard is a photographer from Nashville, Tennessee, with over 10 years of experience in architectural and interior photography. In this interview, he provides some valuable insights into his work and reveals what it takes to make it (and excel) as a professional photographer.
Please tell us a bit about yourself.

The older I get the more I feel like a little kid—I’d rather cook a great meal with friends than go out to dinner. One of my heroes is Jim Henson (you know, the guy who created the Muppets), and I’m convinced that the underlying purpose of everything is to love and serve others well and boldly and humbly and joyfully and genuinely and truthfully.

How did you get into photography?

I had a job (not photo-related) travelling back and forth from Tennessee to Asia for a few years, and when I was in Japan I was blown away by the architecture and buildings. The buildings I saw seemed like they were from an alien planet or the movie Minority Report: sleek and minimal while still being earthy, organic, and never sterile. There were concrete walls with hard angles and hidden doors alongside curvy windows that looked like water next to unexpected gardens and 100-year-old trees.

That was the first time I experienced how the look and shape and design of a building or room could actually have an affect on how it made me feel, and I was hooked. Meals tasted better because the restaurant ‘felt right’, and conversations were deeper and more full of life when the rooftop deck helped you feel like you’ve escaped to a tropical jungle a thousand years in the future.

Only I didn’t have to go halfway around the world to experience that. It turns out I just wasn’t paying attention to what was already around me in Tennessee.

When I finally got back to the US, I wanted to phase out my job and figure out a way to do something in the architecture and interior design world. I didn’t want to actually be an architect and I didn’t want to look at upholstery or drapery all day, but I noticed that a lot of the architects and interior designers around the southeast US didn’t really have images that showed their work at its best. There were incredible boutique hotels and homes and restaurants that looked amazing in person, but the pictures of them that were online or in ads definitely did not do those spaces justice.

I wanted to solve that problem, so I bought a camera, and a friend who worked at an interior design company hired me to take pictures of their showroom. I think that design company had pretty low expectations of what the images would look like, but they needed some new pictures for their website and a few decent pictures were better than the outdated ones they were using. That was my first paid photoshoot, and it’s been an adventure since then, that’s for sure.

Describe your approach to architectural photography.

I approach every shoot by letting the architect’s style and the building itself shape the look and feel of the images. Even though every photographer has a ‘style’, I never try to inappropriately force my personal preferences (I love both earthy, natural, and touchable images and well as bright and quirky and poppy images) onto a project.

After all, the architect is hiring me to take images of a project in order to help them showcase their work and ultimately make bigger profits or higher-calibre future jobs, so I always look at that architect’s style, their branding approach, their website, their marketing materials, the images they already have which they love and use, what tone and style they like, what they don’t like, and how I can best help them achieve that. I ask a ton of questions leading up to sending a proposal for a project because I want to function as a part of the architect’s team and make sure they have pictures that fit perfectly with their brand.

Do you have a favourite room you like to photograph more than others?

My favourite rooms are the ones where the sunlight moves perfectly through them in the late afternoon/early evening. Go figure.

The long shadows and warmth and cosiness is something that even the best artificial lighting can’t quite recreate. If we can time that right during a photoshoot, they always end up being some of the best images.

How do you handle a project where the homeowners are present?

I love it when the homeowners are there. Usually they love it, too, because they’re excited that their home is being photographed. It’s a special part of their week (not many people are used to having their home photographed), and they’ve been gracious enough to open up their home for a photoshoot, so I want to make it fun and easy for them.

Logistically, I’ll work ahead of time with the architect, interior designer, landscape designer, or anyone else involved in the photoshoot to map out a shortlist for the day and communicate that with the homeowners. I’ve found that there is no such thing as too much communication and it’s my job to make sure everyone knows exactly what to expect leading up to a shoot (timeline on the day, order of rooms and setups we’re shooting, when we plan to wrap, stuff like that).

What would you say it takes to be a good interior photographer?

Practice and patience times ten thousand, as well as understanding that you’ll make more progress and be less stressed if you learn only what you need to know when you need to know it. Forget the tempting trap of always feeling like you need be getting ready, to get ready, to get ready. You’re totally going to make mistakes and learn stuff along the way, and because of that I think it’s important to always ask yourself “What actually is the most important thing for me to learn or do right now?”

The answer is rarely “Get a new camera,” or “Adjust the fonts on my website.”

I’m 12 years into architectural and interior photography and I’m always learning and figuring out how to grow and make better stuff. There’s no finish line, and to me that’s freeing and relieving.

Interior and architectural photography is a whole different world than wedding photography or lifestyle or product photography, or portrait photography. All of those fields have their challenges, but it’ll be harder and take longer to learn how to shoot multiple exposures of a room and composite them together on your computer, if you’re also sorting through a few thousand wedding images to edit and working on super corporate headshots of your dad’s friend’s company.

I’m a huge fan of focusing on one thing (or a couple very closely related things), in order to make the most of your time growing and learning at how to excel at that thing. You’re not locked into it and it doesn’t have to be forever, and that’s good news.

Very practically, if you want to experiment with interior photography to see if you enjoy it, keep it simple: set up your camera on a tripod in your living room, start taking pictures and then edit them. There’s nothing at stake. There’s no potential disappointed client, because it’s not an actual photoshoot job. It’s not costing anything but your time and energy, and you’re going to learn some invaluable stuff along the way no matter what.

So, start by shooting your living room. Is the room orange? Why does that fluorescent bulb make stuff look so weird? Is the camera too high? Am I zoomed out too much? Are the windows overexposed? Do I like the windows being overexposed? Do I wish I could see both the interior and the view through the windows? How in the world do I do that? Does the picture feel right? Why is the back wall not in focus? Is it agonising even thinking about all of this stuff? Or do I kind of love this puzzle?

In a nutshell, what does it take to be a good interior photographer? Practice and patience. That’s not all, though. If you want to be a good interior photographer who people want to hire and keep hiring, keep reading—talk about a cliff-hanger!

Talk to us about lighting. Do you tend to take photos at a certain time of day to make use of natural light, or do you bring the lighting with you?

When I first started shooting interiors/architecture, I was terrified of using flashes or artificial light, simply because I didn’t know what in the world I was doing or how to begin. It turns out that that’s where baby steps and practice come in…

I prefer to use natural light whenever I can, and I try to get a blueprint of the building or drive by the location to see where the windows are and how it’s oriented (north/south/east/west), in order to figure out the time of day we should shoot.

Most of the time I start with all-natural light (a couple exposures with all of a room’s lights off, one with the lights on and dimmed down if possible, and a couple exposures of the windows). I’ll use a flash if I need to get some more light in a darker corner or to help bring out a certain area, and I’ll use Affinity Photo to gently brush in those areas I used the flash on.

Unless the tone of the shoot is supposed to have a very bright, poppy, contrasty, clean look, I’ll rarely bring in more than a couple of small flashes. There are times when I’ll use a giant softbox or two, but only if we’ve determined that’s what’s needed for the feel of the images.

I try to shoot any room, space or location in a way that is as close as possible to how it looks if someone were there on the most perfect day at the most perfect time with the most perfect staging. How we achieve that look can vary, but a simple and smart route is usually the best way to get there.

What details do you believe make the best photographs?

I think the best photographs are the ones that feel touchable, inviting and real. I know that’s kind of an ambiguous answer.

There’s not a special gauge or grading system to figure how touchable or inviting a photo is, and I love that. As technical and as heavily-edited that some shoots can be, I know we’ve landed at the best version of the photo when it simply feels real and helps the viewer feel like they’re walking into the space on a very normal yet perfectly beautiful, time-is-almost-slowed-down kind of day.

“There’s not a special gauge or grading system to figure how touchable or inviting a photo is, and I love that. As technical and as heavily-edited that some shoots can be, I know we’ve landed at the best version of the photo when it simply feels real and helps the viewer feel like they’re walking into the space on a very normal yet perfectly beautiful, time-is-almost-slowed-down kind of day. ”

To me, sometimes the image that feels right is the one where the home’s front door was accidentally left open, sometimes it’s when the dog ran through the kitchen when we weren’t expecting it, sometimes it’s when an almost unnoticeable bit of grain is added during edits, and sometimes it’s removing a powerline from the photo afterwards that turned out to be way more of an eyesore than it was in real life.

How much time do you spend taking photos, versus editing photos?

I spend at least four or five times longer editing than I do shooting. Over the years I’ve gotten faster and better at editing (Affinity Photo has been huge at helping me make better edits more quickly), but most shoots are about 20-25% shooting and 75-80% editing.

Why did you start using Affinity apps?

I started using Affinity Photo because I had just begun to move into slightly more editing-heavy interior and architectural photography work (e.g. needing to composite multiple exposures, removing odd-shaped eyesores like power cords, adjusting specific sections of a wall to remove colour cast), and I was not interested whatsoever in subscribing to my previous photo editing software’s subscription plan. I didn’t know how often I’d need to rely on editing software that could handle what I needed to do, and I was bummed that I felt like I was being forced to subscribe to software that I didn’t know how much use I’d get out of.

I saw the beta for Affinity Photo on Product Hunt, and I thought “This is too good to be true.” It wasn’t.

What was your first impression of Affinity Photo?

I remember being sceptical that a program as affordable and intuitive as Photo could be so powerful, so I wanted to see how hard I could push the Inpainting brush tool. That’s the first brush anyone goes for, right? The Let’s-See-If-This-Brush-Can-Fix-Stuff-Automatically-So-I-Don’t-Have-To-Mask-Or-Manually-Select-Anything brush.

I opened a picture I took of an ivy-covered brick wall that had been spray painted and I used the Inpainting brush on a section of the spray paint.

I could not believe what happened. The spray paint I brushed over was gone, the reconstructed bricks matched up perfectly, and somehow, (SOMEHOW!), the ivy that was growing around and up the brick looked like it had never even been spray painted over.

I actually said out loud, “Oh my gosh.” I don’t typically talk to computer software. Affinity Photo was that good. It’s five years later, I still remember it and I’ve never looked back.

Do you have a favourite photograph of all the ones you’ve taken?

My favourite picture I’ve ever taken was this one of Table Mountain in South Africa.

I saw the sun shooting down through the clouds right before dinner time, I grabbed my 2002 silver paperweight blast-from-the-past Sony Cyber-shot, took a single picture and ran to catch up with the group of people I was with to eat dinner.

I didn’t check out any photos from my camera for another week until I got back to Nashville. When I opened this picture up on my computer, I saw the silhouette of the kid in the photo for the first time. I took the picture on a playground and there were kids all around us, but I didn’t have a clue that one ended up being framed so perfectly at just the right time. That picture was a gift that South Africa gave me.

Lastly, what advice would you give to someone looking to pursue a career in photography?

One thing that I think is more important than being a technically great photographer (of any kind), is to find specific and helpful ways to serve your clients insanely well. Yes, it’s necessary to spend time learning and practicing how to create great work and understanding the business side of photography, but that’s the bare minimum if you’re a photographer (or any kind of professional anything).

It’s just as important (maybe more important?) to spend time reaching out to people who have hired you simply to tell them “hey” and find ways to let them know that you don’t see them as merely a pay check. Learn how to communicate well, ask others how you can communicate better, get feedback on how you can improve, ask other photographers what mistakes they’ve made so you won’t have to make them, figure out ways to be proactive so your clients always know what to expect during every step of a project. When you start to do things like that, everyone wins.

All of these things are important, but they can’t (and won’t) happen all at once. Google and YouTube and other people are your friends. Figure it out as you go. I mean, what other option do you have?

You’re not going to die if you mess up, make a mistake, or learn something that will help you improve next time—at least, you probably won’t die.

Do the best you can right now with what’s in front of your face and with the things you have to work with. Learn and grow from it. Don’t spend too much time worrying about stuff that’s not in your control. It’s normal to be afraid of messing up or making a mistake, and I encourage you to get very real with yourself (maybe for the first time) to see what it is that you’re actually afraid of and why you’re afraid of it. Get to the bottom of it. Doing that can help serve to set you free in every part of your life.

Finally, what you do can be done excellently and can help you make a living, but the relational aspect of how you do it (i.e. your interactions with other people) is what makes all the difference. That’s how a career is planted and nurtured and grown, and there are so many joys on that route than there would be otherwise.

“Finally, what you do can be done excellently and can help you make a living, but the relational aspect of how you do it (i.e. your interactions with other people) is what makes all the difference. That’s how a career is planted and nurtured and grown, and there are so many joys on that route than there would be otherwise. ”

You can find more of Quinn’s architectural and interior photography on his website

Artist relations

Amy is part of our artist relations team here at Serif. Amy loves going for walks with her little boy and going to the gym, which she offsets by drinking tea and eating biscuits. Get in touch with Amy if you have work you have made in Affinity apps to share with us, she always loves getting great creative work in her inbox, or tag your work with #madeinaffinity in the usual places.

Credits & Footnotes

All images © Quinn Ballard.