Monthly Archives: November 2015

Why We Light Things


If you spend time on a photography forum where interiors get discussed, you’ve seen this exchange:

Photographer A:   Hey, here’s a photo I made. I used a bunch of strobes/hotlights/umbrellas/whatever.
Photographer B:   Nice photo, but you could have just done HDR and gotten the exact same result way faster.
Photographer A:   Uh, no, I couldn’t. HDR isn’t the same as lighting stuff.
Photographer C:   I could have done that with one flash. My new strobe has 1.21 Gigawatts of light!
Photographer A:   Wait, I….
Photographer B:   HDR is just the same! It’s just two different ways to get the same result!
Photographer A:   I think you’re mis-understanding what I did here….
Photographers B & C:   NO WE AREN’T! YOU’RE BEING ELITIST!!


It usually goes downhill from there.

HDR, and exposure blending, and Fusion, and Photomatix, and all their cousins, means taking a series of exposures, from over-exposed, to under-exposed, and using software (sometimes referred to as “instant photographer” software) to blend them together, kind of like making sausage. Sometimes the results can be pretty nice, but only when the light is already nice to begin with. These methods can help compress a dynamic range into something the camera can handle, but they can’t do anything to change the quality of the light, at all.

And what’s more important in a photograph, than light? Without some way to manipulate light, a photographer is utterly at the mercy of Mother Nature (even when you’re deep inside a Manhattan loft), and an evil and capricious mother she is…

Make no mistake — when the light is already good, then you run with that. Here’s a shot where I did almost nothing other than a little boost in a couple spots, which in theory at least could plausibly have been done in post:


Likewise, sometimes the blending techniques can come in handy. In this shot, I did some lighting with strobe, but I also used Photoshop Layer Masks to blend in a shot where the girl was posed just right, and another to add in the dog (because a 5-year-old and a Sheepdog just can’t seem to do things right on cue, dammit). While I was at it, I blended in a better exposure for the far corner of the yard, which was just a little too bright in my “base” exposure.


Trouble is, the existing light almost never conforms to my vision for the shot. For example, here’s a shot I made earlier this year. This is “ambient” light only, and the exposure was easy — well within the camera’s dynamic range. One click of the shutter button, and I was done:


So it’s OK, right? Decent composition, evenly lit…..but not really memorable. All the light is coming from a huge floor-to-ceiling window to the left of the bed. It’s flatter than a pancake!

So we pulled the blinds, and replaced that light with our own:


We also fluffed the pillows and swapped out some of the knick-knacks, but it’s the light that makes this photo. Check out this detail of the fur blanket and orange throw:


No amount of software is going to give you this result. And this light wasn’t going to happen, naturally, ever.

Here’s another example. This bathroom (designed by my client Holly Bender) had a single recessed tungsten light above the vanity (sometimes called a “can” light). Here’s what that bathroom looks like, in it’s own lighting conditions:


Again — simple exposure, one shot, this is 100% reality. Holly looked at this shot on my laptop and said something like, “Uh…yeah. Sure. Ok. It is what it is, I guess…”

I told her to come back in half an hour…and showed her this:


This time, her reaction was a bit more, uh, exuberant, and involved a fist pump. And I was right there with her! Suddenly you can see how the wallpaper has this metallic inlay that makes the tree trunks and pears really POP….when the light is right.

Lighting for interiors doesn’t mean simply getting an exposure up to match the windows. It means the difference between taking a photo, and making a photo.

Below are a few more examples of shots that were manipulated with added lighting, in some cases dramatically, in order to establish texture, depth, and mood. None of these could have been achieved simply by massaging the existing light.