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Lighting Inside the Box

After 15 years of long-term planning (and saving) Susan and I finally took the plunge with a full kitchen remodel. We were really pleased with the results, and at some point I had promised the contractor a nice photo of the final product.

In a room like this you are basically illuminating the inside of a box by using hidden lights, which turned out to be an interesting exercise. And it's something I would recommend for just about any photographer.

Why shoot interiors of your own house?

First, as I said above it's a great learning exercise, which you can do at your own pace.

Second, when the time comes to sell your house, good photography can make a big difference in your chances for success -- and final selling price. Long-time readers will remember how photography and a pop-up blog helped us to easily sell our last house during the deepest trough of the 2008 recession.

Third, if you are (or have a spouse who is) in real estate, there is no more symbiotic setup than to have an onboard interiors shooter. For a very good primer on lighting for interiors photography, I would recommend Scott Hargis' eBook. It is specifically designed for high-end real estate photography and packed with tons of good info.

But in this instance, the last two didn't apply to me. I was merely trying to show some appreciation for the extra hard work and attention to detail shown by Bill Law, our contractor. Plus this would be a little bit of a challenge, and I am always up for that.

So here's what it looks like, mid-process. Encouraging, huh? I had shot some interim photos as examples, so Bill's future customers would not be too discouraged at how rough things could look during the changeover.

But this also shows the empty box we'll be shooting later. Daylight would be hard to control with external flashes, as the window is to the right and two stories up from the ground outside. So in this photo, as in the final, it's all flash with a balanced practical -- just pushing light in from the outside.

Start With the Ambient

Adjust the practicals first, with an ambient exposure. A "practical" is the term used for an existing, continuous lamp in the scene that you want to show as being a light source. So for this type of interior photo, it really makes sense to start with the practicals.

Here they are, auto exposure, daylight white balance. This is basically an available light shot of the room, which shows you just how much of this is going to be lit by flash. (No sunlight here -- we are shooting at night for maximum control of the light fixtures.)

Right off the bat, we can fix this color by swapping out to another white balance -- tungsten, with a little additional adjustment:

This is better. But all of the warmth will also be gone. Is that a good thing? There is no right answer; it's personal choice.

So, I am going to go back to daylight and drop the exposure. The idea is to keep the glow of the practicals and some of the warmth. Rather than a full exposure, as above, I just want them to influence the scene a little, with some warm light:

Build the Fill

So now let's add some flashes. We'll use a total of four, starting with the frontal fill light:

Pretty, huh? Nope, but it is doing its job.

This light, on camera and bounced straight up, serves several purposes: detail on the front of the closest cabinets, pushing light into the middle of the box and, finally, as a trigger for my other (slaved) lights.

Remember, that ceiling is gonna get cropped out. As far as I am concerned, it's a just a big light mod.

Speaking of which, now is a good time to talk about the weird framing. Because of all of the ambient light sources in the frame, there is no perfect vantage point here. I know, because I spent a helluva long time looking for it. It's a compromise between straight lines, seeing all of the kitchen and trying not to have the lights stacked up too badly.

My superwide for my full-frame D3 is a small-chip Nikon 12-24mm f/4. Again, not ideal. This lens is meant for a smaller chip and there is some major distortion happening in there. But it is what I have, so it is what I use.

The off-center composition is basically a poor man's view camera. Shift the point of view and then crop instead of using the view camera or shift superwide that you don't have. And I'll make minor corrections on top of that in Photoshop after the fact.

Add the Key

Fill in place, let's bring in what will be our key light:

This light starts to bring the photo together. In fact, it is only now that the picture that is in my head is starting to happen in the camera. We are lighting the inside of the box from inside of the box. It's a little sneaky, but that is exactly where the flash is.

This is another (SU-4'd) SB-800 flash, mounted on an LP605 light stand behind the counter. I love this compact stand, and this is one of the reasons. It can drop down to very short when you need to hide it, which is what we are doing here.

As for the light, it is fitted with a grid spot and positively nuking the ceiling inside the kitchen behind the bulkhead. Thus, a bright spot of light on the kitchen ceiling is becoming our new light source. It is right inside the frame, but you can't see it. The bulkhead hides the nuclear hot spot and the grid keeps that hot spot small enough to be hidden. (I.e., it doesn't spread over to where the overhead fixture is.)

We are ninety percent home now. Let's tweak it a little.

Add the Accents

From out of the frame at camera right, I am now firing a gridded flash into the "garage" area near the fridge at camera left. The grid allows for distant placement of the light without the beam contaminating everywhere else.

Those cabinets on the upper right are still pretty dark. So let's do the same thing from the other side and bring them up. The gridded flash is outside of the door at camera left. I'm actually using the frame of the door in conjunction with the grid to control the spill. The angle will also highlight the three-dimensionality of the doors:

Even with all of that control, the flash splashes into the under-cabinet lighting area a bit. This is because I am using it to light the top and bottom cabinets, and the splash area is in between.

So I'll lasso the splash areas each individually and bring them into line with small tweaks in Photoshop. Ditto some other brightness and color adjustments, to make the room closer to the way my eye sees it. Add the crop and some straightening, and we have our final:

So this is sort of the "follow the bouncing ball" expanded version of lighting this scene. But it felt like it might be hard visualize in just one shot with a lighting diagram.

As for the power settings on the flashes: modest in the front, nuclear for the gridded/bounced key, low on the gridded accent lights. No idea on the exact power levels -- just work with one variable at a time and the adjustments are easy to do by eye.

Next: Caleb Vaughn-Jones


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