In Part One we looked at the basics of interior photography; equipment and composition. If you haven’t read that yet then it’s probably best you do so before continuing. Click here to see Interior Photography – Part One.
In Part Two we’re going to look at lighting and post-production… which is where things start to get interesting! You may remember how I said that a number of elements seem to conspire against you when photographing interiors; light, colour, reflections, space and time. That’s pretty much the entire universe, but it’s not going to stop us trying! In truth most of these problems can be solved with one single element, and that… is light.
There are generally two types of interior photographer; there are those that take their own lighting and there are those that use only the ambient light they find there, whether natural or artificial. There’s no right or wrong, but each approach will have it’s advantages and disadvantages.
Using extra lighting is obviously going to slow you down and you’ll probably need someone to help carry it around and set it up. In my own photography I do use lighting and depending on the size of the property I’d usually need a full day or two days to shoot, working with an assistant and a couple of lights and modifiers. At the same time there are real estate photographers that need to cover two or three properties in a day. In that case it’s not possible, and not even necessary, to get creative with lighting. Budget, time and requirements are going to dictate how you work and the client, quite rightly, should get what they pay for.
So time and money are an issue, but let’s get to the real point here. As photographers there are three characteristics of light that we should be thinking of at all times; quantity, quality and direction. It all comes down to that. If I shoot an interior with just ambient light, either by making a single exposure or a series of exposures as a High Dynamic Range image (HDR – more on that later), of the three characteristics I listed above there’s only one that I have any control over, and that’s ‘quantity’; the amount of light entering the lens. Basically I can get the exposure right and I can make sure the highlights and shadows are not clipped, but that’s about it. I have absolutely no control over the quality or direction of the light.
With my own lighting, on the other hand, I have control over all three characteristics. I can enhance a flat scene with some hard light, I can mimic the soft natural light coming in through a window, I can reveal hidden elements, I can bring out certain surfaces and textures and, most importantly, I can add a sense of depth to the space, creating an image that you can almost walk into. That’s what my lighting can do for me and that’s why I never leave home without it!
Actually, that’s not true. There are times when I don’t add any of my own lighting, for example when the natural light is already perfect or when I’m shooting for an architect that has gone to great lengths to create an effect with the ambient light. In that case, my job is simply to describe that light and not to change it. Respect is due.
In Part One I listed the camera and lenses I take with me so I won’t repeat that here. Let’s just look at what I use in terms of lighting.
- One Flash- I can often get by with a couple of battery powered 400Ws flash units which are small and portable and can take a wide range of modifiers. The power is on the lower limit of what I need, especially once I add a gel or a modifier.
- RX600 Flash – for larger properties and hotels I’ll also take a couple of 600Ws monolites. These are normally powered from the wall but to avoid cables running everywhere I hook them up to a Paul C Buff power pack which can handle them both together.
- Photo Umbrella – I’ll take three of four umbrellas, reflective and shoot-through in various sizes.
- Lastolite Ezybox – for highlighting certain areas or elements in the scene ‘by hand’.
- Lastolite difusers and reflectors – always useful.
- Manfrotto light stands.
- Manfrotto 055 carbon-fibre tripod fitted with a Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared head.
As I mentioned before, I’m not a huge fan of HDR because it doesn’t offer me much control over the lighting. For those of you that don’t know, HDR is a technique whereby you make a series of exposures (on a tripod) which between them will contain all the information in a given scene, from darkest to lightest areas. In this way you can exceed the native dynamic range of your sensor and avoid ‘clipped’ highlights or shadows. It’s not perfect though and it can create a surreal or flat effect if you rely on it entirely.
I do use HDR in my workflow but for me the resulting image is a point of departure rather than a point of arrival. HDR lets me keep a minimal amount of detail, for example, in the windows or lampshades, which I’ll later blend back in.
Once I’ve made a series of exposures for HDR then I’ll shoot some single exposures with my own lighting. Sometimes there’s space to position a light out of frame, which makes things easier. Other times I’ll ask my assistant to make a tour or the room and aim the flash at certain elements from certain angles to add a sense of depth. If you’re careful you can also bring out textures and surfaces that would otherwise remain hidden.
Take a look at the example above. The room and its fabrics were lovely but there was very little light coming in that morning. The shot at the top shows a single exposure and is pretty much what it looked like in reality. It’s obviously dark but the window highlights are already clipped. An HDR here would bring up the overall exposure and control the highlights but it would never have brought out those textures on the wall behind the bed, or the headboard and pillows, the curtains and the panel behind the desk. That’s all the result of my additional lighting.
Using your own lights can also deal with unwanted colour casts. For example, a space that opens onto a garden is going to have a lot of green light spilling in from the trees and grass outside. Or perhaps there’s a yellow building across the street that’s reflecting a yellow glow into the room. Or maybe there’s a red carpet on the floor which is bouncing red light all over the place. All these things are going to introduce a colour cast to parts of the room. But a gentle pop of flash will often clean things up nicely.
Above all, lighting let’s me have some fun. If a space is crying out for some sunlight coming in through the window then I can provide it. If it’s a gloomy day and there’s a dull, flat light in the room then I can add a bit of depth and sparkle. And for those really difficult locations I get a certain sense of security knowing that with my lights and some hard work I can pretty much always come away with some nice images.
Ok, so we’ve taken the pictures, our SD card is full. Now lets get them into the computer. The problem is, a photographer talking about post-production is like a chef talking about how he or she blends their ingredients together. It’s often just a question of taste and experience and the best way to learn is by actually doing it.
My own workflow starts in Lightroom and I’ll probably have between five and ten files going into make one final image. Each file with have a different exposure or lighting but I’ll edit these with standard white balance and lens correction so that each series starts from the same baseline.
I export these as tiffs and run the HDR series through PTGui software to give me a flat, pretty lifeless file which I’ll use as a base to build upon in Photoshop, masking and brushing in by hand files with a different exposure or lighting effect on each layer until I get a result I’m happy with.
Working in this way requires a certain amount of pre-visualisation when making the exposures. Even at the stage of composing the image I’m already looking for problems that I may encounter later on the computer. Nailing all my lighting options during the shoot will save a lot of time in post-production.
It all probably sounds quite complicated. In truth it is complicated! But the results go beyond what you can achieve with ambient lighting alone and if you’re subtle enough it should still look fairly natural.
You’ll need a sturdy tripod of course to avoid problems with alignment and your assistant must make sure not to touch or move anything in the scene once that first exposure has been made.
Basically it goes like this: breathe in, HDR, flash, flash, breathe out!