Inside HONOLULU: The Struggles of Photographing Tiny Homes in Hawai‘i

The camera adds 10 pounds and hundreds of extra square feet. So how do you shoot small?
tiny homes
1. Natural light from the window looked great on the Potters.
2. A strobe filled in the darker pockets of the cabinet.
3. The Potters.
4. Tethering the camera to the laptop allows us to see what the photographer sees.
5. A tight space required our photographer to hop on the bed, assuring us all his socks were clean.
6. See the final photo, here.
Photo: James Nakamura


I Grew Up in a tiny Home. I was too young and too small to realize it, of course. The two-bedroom house—with our family of four—seemed labyrinthine, with towering doorways, tight enclosures and tiny crawl spaces. The house that inhaled the outdoors through bright, billowing curtains stands tall in my memory.  A recent visit showed me another story. We lived in a shoebox.


It’s all in the perspective and that proved a big challenge for our small-spaces feature. Much like that of a child’s perspective the view from a lens expands the space around it. The walls enclosing a child’s lunchbox could look perfectly inhabitable through the lens of an iPhone.


“This doesn’t feel like a small space,” observed photographer Olivier Koning when we arrived at Nicky Yamamoto’s Makiki apartment. Technically, it wasn’t: 1,000 square feet with floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors, a lānai that overlooked all of Waikīkī and Ala Moana, small furniture and shallow bookshelves made the living room feel expansive. It was when the four children of this family of six politely introduced themselves one by one that 1,000 square feet seemed to shrink down to about 10.


“This place is big,” Olivier said again when we opened the door to the new Howard Hughes ‘A‘ali‘i showroom. With a bed that folded up into the wall to become a wall shelf, the 373-square-foot studio felt airy and open. Impeccably styled and color coordinated, sparsely populated with carefully curated bowls and books, the setting was inviting. It wasn’t until we brought in the cardboard moving boxes we’d be using as props, rolled in the photo equipment and the five people there looked for a place to sit that we realized this was going to be a cramped few hours.


We went through 221 photos to select the 11 used in the feature.


You can see the effect a wide angle lens has in real estate ads, where small rooms seem expanded and stretched. Often, the photographer has squeezed into a corner for an image with telltale spherical distortions along the edges. A 50mm lens, on the other hand, provides a view closest to how our eyes actually see, but it lacks peripheral vision. A flower vase could fill the shot, but the walls—out of frame and mind—might as well be miles away.


We needed something in between.


When Kamuela and Brent Potter welcomed us into their North Shore home, the vein on Olivier’s forehead popped out. “It’s huge,” he sighed, hand to forehead. The successful Inspired Closets Hawai‘i owners had fitted each room with gleaming white cabinetry, and every room in the house was tidy, with all belongings tucked neatly away in their proper spaces. In the bedroom, Brent showed us their desk topped with only an iMac; in the cabinet above, a trove of 28 pairs of his freshly polished shoes.


“Why do they keep shoes above the computer like that?” exclaimed managing editor Katrina Valcourt, later at the office as we were reviewing their portraits. “Where do they keep their hats? On the floor?” she joked.


SEE ALSO: A Tiny Home Offered This Hawai‘i Family a Fresh Start After Kīlauea Erupted


And, that was the point. Odd as it seemed, this was the visual detail we needed to communicate the idea that with a smaller space comes much compromise.


In order to fit Brent and Kamuela into his lens, it was necessary for Olivier to hop onto their bed and back up against the opposite wall. Editor at large Robbie Dingeman and I squeezed into the corner, struggling to stay out of view. At our feet were the extraneous miscellanea we cleared away for a cleaner picture: a ceramic vase that held coins, a picture frame, a tote bag filled with towels. Our acclaimed veteran photographer bounced around on the bed, craning his neck left and right for the perfect angle as the images popped up one by one on his laptop. On screen the Potters looked happy, healthy and proud of their home. So did the rest of our domestic minimalists.


Read more about them in the May 2019 cover story