Hey world, meet Natalia Robert, a wonderful architect turned interiors photographer based out of sunny Southern California, by way of — well — all over the planet! Not only is her work catalog-esque, beautifully lit and styled sublimely, but Natalia is at her heart, an educator. Founder of The Grove Studio, she has taken on the beautiful mission of getting more Women of Color involved in Architectural Photography, which is frankly a field lacking in diversity. Natalia is a wonderful woman, so let’s jump on in and get to know her!
Lexi: Let’s kick things off with your background and career trajectory! You’ve lived in some pretty amazing places, and were originally an architect. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became an architectural photographer?
Natalia: Yes, my road to today has definitely had lots of twists! I’m originally from Argentina, and my family immigrated to the States when I was in first grade. We lived in Pittsburgh, PA – culture shock! I loved photography since high school, but my parents were scared of me being a “starving artist”. After some exploring in a local university, I found and fell in love with architecture. I completed my BArch at Virginia Tech, which included countless nights in the darkroom (my therapy!) and two travel abroad programs. Soon after graduation I made the decision to move to California. Things quickly feel into place for me on the West Coast, but about 4 years into my architecture career I got an unexpected offer. My sister had been living in India for a while, teaching Spanish at the Embassy school in New Delhi. She was about to go on maternity leave, but the school couldn’t find a substitute… so they offered me the job! I dropped my life in San Diego to jump on the opportunity to live and work in New Delhi for a semester.
Once I came back from that adventure, it was early 2008 and the economy had collapsed. I finally found work as a graphic artist with a signage company – creating digital graphics for large building signs, from concept to installation details. I was miserable! During this time I turned back to photography for a creative outlet, and soon realized that I need to create my own way out of this dead-end job. I saved for a bit, started getting out there to shoot, and then quit that job in 2012 to start my photography business!
In 2011, though, I had signed on as a network photographer with AirBnB, who few people had really heard of at the time. At first, I would shoot anything because…bills. My early shoots for AirBnB, though, were critiqued by their photo department and taught me a lot of the basics for shooting spaces. Those early shoots for them also planted the seed of wanting to do more with photographing built spaces. I had given myself a 5-year ‘deadline’ to make this business work, so at my 4-year anniversary in 2016 I rebranded in a last-ditch effort to grow the business a bit and make it sustainable. The rebrand changed everything! My website became what you see today and I positioned myself as an architectural photographer – not a photographer of all things. Around the time of the rebrand, I started doing some writing for photography sites. Doing this extra work got my name out into the community a bit more, it gave me practice with teaching photography online, and it gave me confidence in my skills.
Having some sort of educational branch to my business was always in my mind from day one, I just didn’t know how or when it would happen. In 2019, though, it was time. I had been granted a spot to speak at Altitude Summit in Palm Springs in March of 2019. I suddenly had about an hour to talk about the Interior Photography process! This was my opportunity to create the educational platform that I had been dreaming about and to start my work as an educator. The Grove Studio launched in early 2019 and it’s been evolving ever since. My photography work is now finally consisting of solely interior clients, with a specialty in residential interiors.
Let’s talk a bit about that educational branch! You write and contribute a ton of instructional content to sites like Digital Photography School as well as leading The Grove Studio which teaches interiors photography and offers a mentorship program with you. That’s awesome! What sparked your decision to teach others about interiors photography, and what resources did you lean on to learn from when you started out in this field?
To any photographers who dream of teaching or who have a talent for writing, I highly recommend being a contributor for others’ photography sites! It’s a confidence boost while also being extremely humbling. I wrote for DPS first after a colleague sent me the link to their open call for writers. Since then I’ve also written for Expert Photography and PhotoBlog, as well as a few unpaid guest posts here and there. I feel like I’ve always loved educating, just not in a classroom setting. There’s something amazing about being able to pass on what you’ve learned and seeing others take that information and thriving with it. I come from a long line of do-it-yourself women who love to learn new things constantly, so it also comes naturally for us to want to share all that juicy stuff that we learn. I also taking something that seems scary and breaking it down so it feels more doable.
Once I launched The Grove Studio in 2019, I decided to walk away from all writing gigs for other sites so that I could focus a bit more on branding and creating content for it. Being a one-woman operation while also maintaining the photography business makes it so that my time is pretty limited for content creation. The Grove Studio was intended to be the type of resource that I wished I had when I was learning the ropes, especially as a woman in such a male-dominated field.
When I was learning there wasn’t nearly as much information available yet about architectural or interior photography online, so there was a lot of trial and error. I would take some things from other niches of photography, like my pricing structures were originally from learning about portrait packages. I learned some things about real estate photography because there was more information available that was specifically about shooting for real estate. And thankfully I did eventually find a few online resources like Mike Kelley’s early courses on Creative Live that were super helpful. Digital Photography School, Creative Live, and YouTube were my go-to sources!
As I focus on growing The Grove Studio, though, I seek to make it the type of resource that is needed so that it can fill a unique gap. Today, The Grove Studio strives to create multicultural diversity and promote inclusion in the architectural photography field by educating and supporting women of color. We need more female voices on this stage!
Yes! That is so, so awesome! I’ve loved checking out all your BTS stories on Instagram. You shoot in so many gorgeous places, put your tripod in sketchy spots, and seem like you are always having a blast on set! Can you give us some insight into your shooting process?
I prefer to keep things as simple as possible! I don’t typically work with an assistant, so it’s just me and the designer that are on location. When I’m just shooting interiors and there’s not a lot of indoor-outdoor spaces to play with, I love shooting midday to the bright light is indirectly bouncing around inside. I typically will walk in and first take in any big moments – views, large features, accent walls, etc. Those are typically going to dictate at least a few shots. Then I’ll look at how the light is coming in – do I need to start in this bedroom before the sun starts to beam through the window too much? Do I need to leave the kitchen until later so that I can get better sunlight on the sweeping view out the window? Is there any space that gets no natural light at all, like a hall bath? This all starts to tell me what I’ll be focusing on and the order of my process for this space. Finally, I’m thinking about lifestyle – how do you use the space, where do people interact most with the space, what connections are there from one space to another that I can take show off? All of this is to get myself more familiar with it so I can do it justice in photos.
I shoot on a Canon 5D Mark III, and I use one Godox AD200 flash strobe, handheld. My go-to lenses are a 16-35mm/2.8 and 50mm/1.8 – I’ve had them for a long time and still love them! I’m not too into the technology and the latest gear, but rather I’m about learning technique and building on your craft. My updates in gear have been on an as-needed basis only! I manually bracket my shots, usually doing one flash shot as needed for a window, to add definition, or for a touch of fill light. As much as possible, I love taking advantage of natural light!
And yes, I have a tendency to twist myself into weird positions in corners of a room. My tripod has been in countless showers and tubs, I’ve straddled countless strangers’ toilets, and I’ve said countless prayers that my tripod doesn’t tip over (but once it did and broke my PocketWizard – ouch!). You gotta find that perfect angle!
How much time and effort do you devote to post-processing?
My general guideline when I plan my time out is that I spend about twice as long editing as I do shooting. Sometimes it’s less, sometimes it’s more, but that has been a good rule of thumb for my process.
I offer my clients an online gallery after our shoot with more images than they pre-paid for, giving them a few options to pick from and giving myself the opportunity for up-selling. Since I have this approach, I like to present fully-edited images in that gallery, which does require more editing effort upfront. I’m very selective about what images I do show in the gallery – there are always outtakes! – but what I show clients are fully edited and ready to download.
Alright, last question! Are there any new techniques or pieces of gear that have been making your life easier, lately?
I admittedly haven’t changed my gear or techniques much lately, but there’s one tool that I’m looking forward to working with. I use CamRanger to tether to an iPad that is shared between me and my client, but with COVID policies for future shoots, we can’t share devices anymore. So I’ll be adding a second iPad to the shoot location that is dedicated for my client and using the CamRanger Share app, which I’ve never used before! It’s a small change, but I’m excited about trying it out so that there can be multiple devices plugged into the action.
Also, I swear by Canva. I worked with graphic design softwares for years, but Canva has been a huge tool in getting things quickly thrown together for my website or social media. I can access it from my phone, iPad, or any computer. I have the pro account so it has my branding graphics, colors, fonts, etc. all saved in there for me. It also a ton of templates with sizes specifically for the platform you’re using it on. Even when I was using the free account, it was a total game-changer for my time management!
A huge thanks to Natalia for sharing a bit about herself and her process with us! Definitely hop on over to her site nataliarobert.com or her Instagram @nataliarobertphoto to see more of her work. If you’re interested in learning more about Natalia’s instructional platform The Grove Studio, head over to meetmeatthegrove.com.