Interior Photography | My Two Light Approach for Getting the Shot

For this blog entry I’ll be talking about interior photography and sharing my two light approach for getting the shot. I’ll be sharing some behind the scenes images of a recent shot I shared here on my blog. The shot was of a living room that featured a fireplace and a Christmas Tree. The challenge wan’t getting a shot of the room, the challenge was in creating exactly the shot I had in my mind. Instead of just pointing my camera at the room I ended up using two flashes and a few post-processing techniques to create my image.

Creating an interior shot is not as easy as it sounds. I’ve been shooting interiors for years and the challenges are many. When I shoot in office environments, for example, the type of lights installed in the building may need to be balanced with light from windows and when you need to fill shadows with flash you introduce yet another light source. These situations call for careful choices in color balance and may require you to introduce flash gels to keep things under control. For my style of photography I often introduce colors to enhance a scene. The Christmas tree shot is just such an example of multiple types of lights working to make things difficult. But with some planning and a little on location trouble shooting you can create an incredible image.

Setting up and getting started

I usually start by breaking out my tripod and I decide on a lens. I usually stay around 24-28mm for interiors but going as low as 16mm isn’t out of the question. Much more and you begin to bring serious lens distortions into your shot (and that will make lines seriously curved). When you’re doing this kind of work for a client you can’t exaggerate a space by going with a super wide angle lens. Straight lines and normal geometry is much more important than getting absolutely everything into the shot. Most of the time I’m shooting with my 28mm f2.8 prime lens and a full frame sensor body.

Once I have a lens choice I determine where the camera position will be. I’m looking for important elements that need to be included in the final shot and I’m also keeping my eye on the overall composition. It’s important to find harmony in how elements in the room work together. When you get it wrong you can feel a little stress when you’re looking at the shot. When you get it right you’ll feel a sense of ease and want to be in that space. A small change in camera position can make a huge difference so don’t necessarily go with your first idea. Try some alternatives out and see what feels best through your viewfinder.

With the camera position figured out it’s time to capture some base line shots. I’ll shoot an image and then take a close look at it to see what I’m working with. This kind of shooting is perfect for working tethered. Here’s a quick look at my first shot of the room (the camera was in Aperture priority mode and set to f8).

Because of the bright sunlight outside the windows the interior turned out pretty dark (due to the automatic exposure mode in the camera trying to figure out a complicated dynamic range). Capturing a series of exposures to create an HDR is an option but it takes away some of the creative freedom I can have when I’m using flash. Another issue with trying to capture this scene as an HDR is that it won’t help eliminate the shadows created by the windows and the ceiling lights.

One more thing to take note of is the overall color of the shot. It’s pretty neutral which makes the scene totally accurate from a color standpoint. Unfortunately I’m not always a fan of capturing perfectly neutral. I want more of a warm and inviting feel so I plan to make some moves with flash color and white balance.

It was time to break out a large translucent collapsable reflector, some stands, boom arms and two flashes to fill in the room. My plan involved using the 4′ translucent reflector as a shoot through light softener (to keep shadows smooth) and to use a second flash to light up the christmas tree separate from the room. I turned the flash 90 degrees to get more vertical coverage and to exaggerate the color coming from the lights on the tree I used a cinema yellow gel on the tree flash. To keep the yellow light from going all over the place I used a 1/4″ grid on the tree flash. The grid helped keep the yellow light focused on the tree. Here’s a look at the final setup for the capture:

The big “main” light was positioned almost directly above the camera position to help keep shadows and reflections under control. This positioning is super important and changes based on the room, reflective surfaces in the room and the camera position.

The importance of proper flash placement

To give you an idea why this position worked here’s a look at what happens when the flash is in the wrong location. This first shot shows what happens when the flash was positioned to the right of the camera:

At first glance this is a pretty OK looking shot. There’s still some information outside visible through the windows and the room is much better illuminated. But when you look close you can see a nasty looking reflection on the bottom left corner of the TV from my flash:

This isn’t the end of the world because I could fix this in Photoshop (but it will take some time). This is an easy fix on location. You just have to move the main flash to a different location in the room. Details like this are easy to overlook but when you’re shooting tethered it should jump right out at you.

Seeing mistakes like this at the time of capture is a skill that is important to master. When shooting location portraits it’s easy to overlook a background issue because you’re making sure that key elements (like your subjects eyes) look perfect. Don’t over concentrate on the key elements. Try to evaluate the entire shot. I used to miss details like this reflection all the time and after years of practice I’m much better at catching issues during the shoot.

Here’s another look at what happens when you don’t get your flash placement correct. In this shot the flash is located to camera left:

The first thing I see with this plash placement is that I no longer have the nasty reflection on the TV. Unfortunately, the second thing I see is a bunch of really bad shadows. With the flash placed this far to camera left I’m throwing a lot of shadows from left to right. Here’s a quick look at the shadows that bother me the most:

Fixing shadows is not something I want to try to fix in Photoshop. It’s not impossible but it’s crazy time consuming. Believe me when I say that it’s best to see the issue and fix it during the photo shoot. 5 minutes of moving a light stand can save hours in Photoshop.

It turns out that the best place to put the main light flash is directly above the camera. WIth the flash located here I was able to get nice even illumination of the room without reflections or harsh shadows. Here’s a look at the room when the flash was positioned directly above the camera:

There’s still a bit of a shadow from the ceiling fan but it’s much softer and it has a realistic feel to it. This was the final shot captured before packing up and beginning to post process the shot.

Adding the finishing touches in post-production

Could I deliver the shot as captured? Sure I could. But I knew how the shot was going to be used by this client and with a little post production time I knew I could improve the image.

I began my post processing by placing an image on the TV and with some extra layers, Photoshop filters and layer blend modes I was able to make the image look like it was being created by the TV. Next up was a change to the color balance of the room.

People have always responded more to warm looking environments. This is true in reality and it’s especially true with photography. I almost always go for a warm look with my photography and with this shot I wanted it to look like the room was being lit by the fire and the lights on the Christmas tree. To make this happen I adjusted the white balance towards warm in Lightroom.

With the entire room warmed up I wanted to add in some color contrast. My solution for making a scene look more colorful is to remove or reduce the color from part of the image. in this case I chose the white ceiling to help me increase the color contrast. I made a selection of the ceiling (excluding the ceiling fan) and I removed all of the color. I also did a little bit of targeted color correction around the room and on the fireplace mantle. Those targeted color adjustments were very subtle because I wanted an overall warm feel and not a high color contrast image.

My finishing move for this shot was to add a glow to the room and an exaggerated glow to the tree. To get the room glow I used Perfect Effects (I applied a Hollywood Glow) and for the tree I used my own photoshop technique for adding a glow to just the tree. Here’s a look at the final image after some post production time:

And that’s the final image that was delivered to my client. It was the result of using some flash and some colored gels at the time of capture and adding some finishing touches in Photoshop.

Flash Gels

Getting dramatic color from your flash is easy with gels like these. I’ll be talking more about using flash gels in future blog posts but I do have this blog entry about using flash gels if you want to learn more now.

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