Remodeling a Room? Think Like a Photographer



Long-time readers of this site are already familiar with my family, having watched my kids grow up in photos. Seen above, on the left, is my daughter Emily. You guys met her when she was eight.

She's seventeen now, and headed off to college next year. Which meant this is the last time we'll put up a Christmas tree while we are all living here together.

I have always tried take lots of photos around the holiday season. And even more so, now that the kids will be graduating soon. And as we have successively remodeled many of the rooms in our house, I have made it a point to pay special attention to the lighting.

Why? Because you can get a lot of bang for your buck when it comes how a room looks just by thinking like a photographer during the remodel. And another bonus is that your quick available light grab shots will look much better, too. Even if you are just using your iPhone to shoot it.

Take the living room, for instance. Before remodel, it was lit mainly by a small, four-bulb fixture attached to a ceiling fan. You can probably imagine just how flattering this wasn't. And it was something that bugged me enough to lobby to get rid of the fan just so we could have more of a choice about our lighting.

In the end, I got the okay. And I have long been happy that we did it. Here's a quick run-through on the decision process for this room, in the hopes that it'll inspire you to think about how you can use your lighting skills to improve the quality of any room you might choose to remodel in the future.
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Here's a photo of the living room as it exists now. Mind you, this is purposely shot available light, as that is kinda the point. The lighting in the room is not designed to exist in an overall interior shot. (In fact, that's kind of impossible if the lights are part of the subject matter.)

But here it is, exposed for the room rather than for the light sources, to give you a sense of how the lights are distributed.

First and most important is the drum lamp hanging from the center of the ceiling. Remember the four-banger bare-lamp light I mentioned earlier? That's long gone, and replaced by what is essentially a soft box pointing straight down. It's three feet across; a legit beauty light.

And the arrangement of the room around the light means that anyone sitting in the room is sitting under a quality light source, and at a good angle. The only harsh place to be around this light would be directly under it. And you can't go there. Because guess where we put the coffee table.

So if you are sitting on the sofa or the love seat or the chair, you look good. When you're in the room the effect is not unlike sitting in a lounge in a nice hotel, where they have taken the time to design the light for the effect that they want.

And standing or sitting, pretty much anywhere in the room, a snapshot of you is gonna be reasonably flattering at the very least. And that's true whether it was shot on a purpose-built camera or a smartphone. To wit, the example at top of the page.

Over at camera right are two wall lamps, which serve to fill the shadows of the overhead "key" light—or to become pretty nice rim lights for someone sitting on the couch. No major surgery here, as the lamps came with conduit assemblies to run the cords right down the wall. They're just plugged in behind the couch.

At back are two "can" lights in the ceiling, washing down on the fireplace. They just keep it from going super dark back there. (And of all of the lights, they are the only ones that are built-in, and pre-dated the remodel.)

Two other items of note. One, the lights are all on dimmers. This gives us tons of control of both the absolute level of light and the lighting ratios between the different planes. You really can accomplish a lot of looks with a few different planned-out light sources and some dimmers.

And two, all of the lights are LEDs. Which means that this entire room—seven bulbs—totals only about 36 watts of energy consumption. And that is if they are on full-blast, which they almost never are. I just nuked them up to buy myself some exposure here. We normally keep them pretty subtle and balanced. But that also would look bad in a photo because a light cannot easily serve as both subject matter and light source.

But dialed down, I would guess we are typically lighting the room with around ten watts of power, total. It's just well-distributed.
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Remodel Like a Photographer

When choosing lights for a room remodel, here are some things to think about.

• If you can spring for a big, soft main source, splurge. You won't regret it. This could mean a drum lamp (we had ours made here) or a light that bounces off the ceiling. In our case, the main light does both. Unseen (from almost exactly my camera position) is a smaller version that hangs down over our dining table. The two light their assigned spaces beautifully and tie the double room together visually.

• Think of task lights as doing double-duty. First, they accent a room. Second, they fill the main light. Oh, wait, make that three—they can also create mood by dimming them down and using them without the main.

• LED bulbs are getting better and better—they have passed CFL lights—and will save you tons of money over their lifespan. Good quality ones are as low as $5 at Home Depot (these are Philips, FYI.) The room shot above is a poor representation of the light color/quality. That's because the lights are serving as both light source and subject. If I chose one or the other (as in the top photo) they would look good. And to the eye they look great.

• Dimmers on each circuit and dimmable LED bulbs will give you lots of options to shape the room. Just make sure to use modern "triac" style dimmers (most all sold today are this type). Those work best with LED lights and also don't just waste energy through resistors when you dim down.

• In the overall cost scheme of remodeling a room, decent lighting design (and the forethought of a photographer's approach to lighting) is about the best value you can get for your dollar. I've done this with every single room we have remodeled, and have been really pleased with the results.
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While we're here, from our family to yours, Merry Christmas.

Oh, and check back in next week if you get a chance. We are going to unwrap a project we've been hard at work on for three years.



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