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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Blogger Kerrick said...

I'm a real estate photographer by trade, and I must say: no matter what branch of photography you dabble in, David, you knock it out of the park! I guess good lighting skills are transferable if you really know the why and not just the how. :-)

February 06, 2012 10:19 AM  
Blogger TMJdoc said...

Looks like you moved that table, on the left also !!! Great job... something for me to do on these cold wintery days !!

February 06, 2012 10:30 AM  
Blogger Adrian said...

GREAT POST! I have shot interiors for real estate before and I have to admit that my first experiences looked like your initial shots. Ambient plus a huge blast of bounce flash. I am sure this post will be helpful to many fledgling photographers struggling with lighting big rooms. Cheers.

February 06, 2012 11:02 AM  
Blogger Kyle Fullmer said...

These are the best kinds of posts. Thoroughly explaining the thought process while giving a step by step and pictures that show what these changes do. Thanks for that. Also, your kitchen looks amazing.

February 06, 2012 11:10 AM  
Blogger Adrian said...


I just found your site and thanks to it have taken my first, wobbly steps into the world of manually controlled, off camera flash.

Can't say how much I appreciate you putting this site together, and especially the step by step processes like this one. Previously I'd have looked at this shot and just said, 'wow, magic!' Now I find I can look at photos and have some chance of figuring out how they were lit.

Thanks again.

February 06, 2012 11:29 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Nice looking Kitchen Mr Hobby... Well deserved I'm sure. Hopefully lots of Mountain Dew in that fridge.

Thanks for taking the time to make this site. I really enjoy reading it.

February 06, 2012 11:53 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great post! Did you get a discount on the labor for the image? I hear that some photographers trade services, just wondering if you do. Also, are you combining exposures with a mask/opacity type of approach? Thanks again.

February 06, 2012 12:28 PM  
Blogger Larry said...

Thanks for the tut. Great to see how you layered this one out...

February 06, 2012 1:04 PM  
Blogger stan chung said...

Love it- I've always wondered what are those grid adapters for. LOL

I find them very directional and harsh. Then again I'm a newbie at lighting.

February 06, 2012 1:10 PM  
Blogger Katie Stern said...

I love it! But what would you do for the ceiling if you didn't have bulkheads to hide the hot spot?

February 06, 2012 1:24 PM  
Blogger said...

Great post David!! Love the walk through. When I saw your final image the first time, I was like..that's not impressive. Then when I saw the base line image...WOW. I've obviously never tried this type of photography. You did an awesome job!! Thanks!

February 06, 2012 1:29 PM  
Blogger Sharon Campagna said...

Thanks for the lesson. The lighting looks fantastic!

February 06, 2012 2:03 PM  
Blogger Andor said...

Its a great post again, can learn a lot from it - thanks for sharing it!
Agree with Kerrick: you've just transferred your excellent skills in lighting to interior. Actually the way you described it, reminded pretty much of a good portrait-excercise.
Well - probably every lit-shot can be considered as a kind of portrait at the end of the day? :-)

February 06, 2012 2:14 PM  
Blogger Sara Lando said...

really great job on explaining how you work lighting stuff in layers!
I love this kind of posts.
(And I know it's a bit cliche, being a woman, but I can't help but admire the finished product: GREAT kitchen dude! That's some serious worktop space! I can teach you how to make homemade pasta to put it to good use!)

February 06, 2012 2:24 PM  
Blogger Nas said...

Great post, I'm sure Bill was over the moon with the images. I don't know why but I'd have sworn this was on a yacht if you hadn't let on this was in your house.

February 06, 2012 2:24 PM  
Blogger Jack and Brenda said...

Well done, thanks for the details on the lighting. Great looking kitchen.
P.S. I'm a cabinetmaker and would not have given a customer that center drawer front on the far left side.

February 06, 2012 2:24 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

Beautiful Kitchen, David. Looks like you're contractor did a nice job and you made his work look great.

When we recently refurbed our kitchen my wife found something called a "cabinet depth" fridge. It's about six inches smaller front to back and matches the counter top dept so it tucks into the enclosure like yours but somehow still has the same space inside as a normal fridge by using sort of ephing magic I suppose.

For your sake don't post this cause if Ms. Strobist finds out about those fridges you're gonna be forced to pony up some more $'s...

February 06, 2012 3:05 PM  
Blogger Patrick Snook said...


Are you warming (1/4 CTO?) those flashes?


February 06, 2012 3:11 PM  
Blogger Bruce Prichard said...

For many years I have worked in the kitchen remodeling industry and have taken before and after photographs. Thank you for sharing your perspective on "how-to"

February 06, 2012 4:03 PM  
Blogger Nic Granleese said...

Looking forward to more posts on lighting for architectural photography

February 06, 2012 4:09 PM  
Blogger Alexander said...

David: did you gel any of the flashes to match the warm tones of the practicals? I always find my flashes have a cool tone to them and don't match the ambient lights.

February 06, 2012 4:26 PM  
Blogger gkolanowski said...

Nice photo and nice remodel! I do a lot of work for builders, both production level and high end, as well as some high end real estate. One technique I use all the time for lighting from "inside the box" is putting a light directly in the shot to light far corners and also to get some direction and modeling. I'll start with a base shot of the practicals, main and fill lights that can be hidden, then just layer in the areas that my inside-the-box accents are lighting. It's very quick and effective as long as your camera is locked down, especially when you are doing Photoshop tweaks anyway. Just make sure that your light or stand doesn't interfere with the area it is lighting.

February 06, 2012 5:41 PM  
Blogger alexander solla said...

As much detail as you explained with, I am still trying to imagine where these flashes were placed. How about an overhead drawing? Any chance?

February 06, 2012 5:43 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Two great points I have come to agree with from in there (besides all the how-to lighting walk-thru):

1) Color temp is largely subjective and a lot about the "feel" of a scene can be conveyed by your choice of it.

2) Indoor house photos are a great no-pressure learning playground for lighting photogs. After the original post on this I had a blast shooting my brother-in-law's rental property for my practice & his use. 
Results are here for those who care to look:

February 06, 2012 6:24 PM  
Blogger Jenika said...

I was almost too busy admiring your kitchen to read the post - whoa!! What a knockout photo of a knockout kitchen! Is it weird to congratulate someone on a remodel? Awesome job. Thanks for the lighting walk-through, and for showing the individual lighting 'layers' - really helped me conceptualize how you were doing it.

February 06, 2012 7:10 PM  
Blogger dan cumberland said...

Super helpful post! Love the walk through. Thanks!

February 07, 2012 1:42 AM  
Blogger gretsch said...

Great walkthrough as always Dave.

As a current househunter, I am astounded at the (terrible) quality of property photos, esp. since in these days of new fangled electricity and stuff most of us surf the net and look at galleries before deciding which houses to even view. The GAP market <- identified.

February 07, 2012 3:16 AM  
Blogger BallardFamily said...

Great photos as usual. If I only had a grid...and three extra flashes.

BTW, as a cabinet maker I think the contractor needs to replace the third drawer-front down (under the appliance garage). The color does no match and it was the first thing I noticed in the photo.

February 07, 2012 8:02 AM  
Blogger Drew Gardner said...

Nice Kitchen David!

Chat soon Mate


February 07, 2012 11:08 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

You are truly a lighting wizard. Great walk through the process. It really helps to cement understanding.

February 07, 2012 11:10 AM  
Blogger builderlee said...

I had not thought of real estate photos as an extra source of income in the slow months, anyone have an idea of realistic pricing for these jobs?

February 08, 2012 12:17 AM  
Blogger udijw said...

That is one nice kitchen _and_ some nice light.
I love those detailed walkthroughs, it really helps to understand the motivation for each light.

February 08, 2012 7:09 AM  
Blogger ArchConPhoto - Jason Ryman said...

Step right up for a refreshing drink from the fire hose...

A recent post just mentioned that only 10-15% of listings are using pro photogs.

One more blog of interest for real estate photography:

February 08, 2012 7:22 AM  
Blogger Carpenterbee said...

Are those LED lights Dave? OOOO is that a subzero fridge?

February 08, 2012 1:19 PM  
Blogger Mike Kelley said...

Looking good, David! I love to see when you post about interior and architectural-style photography, and as usual you do a great job with it.

February 08, 2012 3:46 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I've never commented on the blog have been reading for some time now. Love how you took us through the thought process and built the lighting for the scene. It was great to see a method that can really be used in other situations.

Who knew that lighting a kitchen could be so interesting and helpful?

February 08, 2012 5:32 PM  
Blogger Randy Jackson said...

As another one who shoots real estate for a living the hardest thing for me to learn was the art of building the shot from ambient to one flash at a time. One tip I discovered is to use a Lightsphere when you don't have walls or ceiling to bounce off.

February 09, 2012 3:04 PM  
Blogger Donald Watson-Huxley said...

Really good job.

February 14, 2012 7:17 PM  
Blogger The People of Detroit. said...

Thank you for another instructive post.

February 20, 2012 5:26 AM  
Blogger Chris Milner said...

A very helpful post, thank you for sharing.

February 23, 2012 2:45 PM  
Blogger bronney said...


I finished reading all your on assignments and lighting 101 and 102 and now I am onto reading all your blog posts. And I've done all that in 3 weeks :)

btw this was my kitchen in 2008, I've since cleaned it and moved to another flat. But just for comparison sake, I think my shot is better than yours *ducks*

May 18, 2012 12:35 AM  

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