Lighting interior photographs

Posted by neale on September 7, 2018

It's not always about controlling the van load of location lighting that I take to my commissions, it's about using them to control the lighting inherent in the location as well. It can be a lot of work balancing them all out to achieve the look that your client desires, and each client has different tastes in what they like to be reflected in the images. My own preference isn't always theirs and you have to take that into account. Dr Darren McKeown's new surgery in Glasgow was going to be a challenge in that exact respect. The interior was by Ian Smith Design, I've worked with Ian a lot over the years and know he likes tones to be warmer with and emphasis on the lighting he has spent a lot of time considering. In order to keep all the lighting in check, I usually try to establish a base exposure that I know I can work from, this always starts with some test ambient frames to see what the light is doing on it's own. Here is one such ambient frame:

As a starting point, this isn't great, the wall lights are starting to blow out and the shadows are completely lost. The colour temperature is obviously slightly out, but bear in mind this is just me interrogating what we have before I introduce my own lighting, it's also worth pointing out that this is a stitch of three images using the Canon TS-E 45mm shift lenswhich is a great lens for interiors, I love the perspective, not too wide. Here is the single middle shift frame prior to stitching:

Still a nice image, but I prefer to have as much as I can get by stitching the shifts in. It gives you plenty scope for cropping as required later, the ceiling details and the floor tiling are important aspects of the design as well. Moving on from this shot I decided to start adding my own lighting to establish the base exposure to work from:

In a space like this you have to understand that compositing non negotiable. There's limited space to hide the lights, if you look in the mirror behind the desk partition, you can see my flashes at work, you can also see them reflecting in the partition itself, which is undesirable for the final shot. So between the mirror and the partition there is nowhere to hide the lights, this was as good as I could get in camera. Crucially, I knew I could make this work. You make an omelette without breaking some eggs.....right? There is also some pretty serios fall off in the lighting towards the end of the image, not to mention the nuclear hot spot in the mirror. Here we have the next frame where all the issues have been rectified:

I've started to introduce some more hidden lighting and composited in some that was in frame in a bid to even it out slightly and address the fall off towards the back of the image. At this point it's looking promising, I've still got the actual interior lights to deal with but as a base exposure goes, I knew this would work. No blown highlights and no clipped shadows, which means no noise and a good clean base to build from. Next up the frame with the lights on:

Now we have the full effect of the actual interior lights without blowing them out. There are about five different exposure layers of different blend modes to achieve this result. To be honest there are so many different ways to do this, and the chosen technique very much depends on the look my client is after, which is why I always save layered photoshop files so I can adjust the layers to suit the taste at a later date. In this instance my client wanted to keep it dark and moody, which as you can see from the finished image below I have managed to achieve without clipping the shadows or blowing out the built in lighting. Looking back at the ambient only frame above you can see that digital cameras, even the high end expensive pro spec models cannot handle the dynamic range you get in these scenes, not to mention being able to control the colour temperatures of the built in lighting as well which to me is extremely important. You can keep some of the warmth with it being overly yellow. Knowing how to get from here........

To here..........

Or even here if you like it a bit cooler.......

....is not just a case of turning up with a camera and tripod and blasting away brackets and seeing what you can salvage with some exposure blending software at post-production stage later. You just won't get close with that software, I know because I've tried, and the results are always disappointing and very inconsistent. You need to know how to control lights, and how to make frames to solve the problems later down the line as well. You can see the full set on my website here: