How to light a large room with one tiny Speedlite. All you need is a tripod, a way to trigger the flash as you move around the room, and remote trigger for the camera (A good friend is even more useful).
Since switching to digital capture 10 years ago, I’ve been lighting interiors in a rather unconventional way. We start with ambient light and then add accent lighting where necessary. This preserves the integrity of the architect or designers vision and produces a much more inviting setting than a space flooded with flat light. Nothing unconventional about that. However, since all images end up in Photoshop for processing, I can utilize layering and masking techniques to add our accent lighting. This means that I can place my lights within the frame and then mask away the light source itself and just keep the illuminated area. Normally we’re using large ‘hot’ lights such as Arri or studio type strobes, but this winter, with a little time on my hands it occurred to me that the same technique might just work with a Speedlite … one small Speedlight.
One very important note; Anchor the camera on a sturdy tripod and hang some type of ballast from or over the center column. If you don’t have the luxury of working tethered to a laptop you’re going to have to touch the camera in order to review what you’re capturing and if the camera moves it will cause registration problems later when compositing. Anchor that camera and when you do have to touch it, do so ever so gently.
I began by making a series of bracketed exposures, which could be used for an HDR approach, but in this case I simply chose an exposure that provided even illumination from the window light. This exposure completely blows out the window, so how to bring back that exterior detail? To do that, I determined an exposure that would hold detail in the scene outside and set the shutter speed accordingly. This of course produced a completely under exposed interior, so out comes the Speedlite.
My objective is to create fill light around the window in a way that balances the wall, window frame, and the wood grill with the exterior scene, being careful to avoid unwanted shadows from the furniture. It’s too large an area to cover with one pop of the flash, so I made three captures being sure to overlap the flash coverage. These three images were easily combined into one, which was then masked onto the ambient exposure. Things should become clearer once we get into the masking process.
Here, on the left, I begin to light around the window. I’m using a Radio Popper to trigger the flash (Which is set to manual, full power), and a little $30 remote control unit for the camera. You can see that I’m very close to the wall for a couple of reasons. First, to bring out the texture of the brick wall. And secondly, to avoid casting a harsh shadow from the leather chair. The aperture remained at F16 for all captures and here, to maintain exterior detail, the shutter speed was set at 1/30 th of a second. The earlier ambient interior exposure was F16 at 1 second. Again, for complete coverage I did shot both sides and then one frame for the peak.
Now I have the window, objects directly in front of it, and the wall around it lit in a way that balances with the exterior. There is still one major problem area to address and that’s the framed photo on the left. You can see that in the ambient exposure there is a distracting reflection from the window. It’s an easy fix. I simply increase the shutter speed to a point where the exterior illumination falls to a point where the reflection disappears and then use the Speedlite to light that area of the room. In general, auxiliary lighting that we introduce to interiors should identify with a practical source that already exists. Here I positioned the flash to represent light that would be coming from an existing ceiling fixture. But, don’t get too hung up on matching your accent lighting to an existing source. With interiors there are typically multiple sources around the room, so we’re used to seeing light coming from different directions. Here, with ceiling fixture aimed directly at the artwork, it’s obvious that that’s where the light should be coming from.
From this point I simply worked my way around the room accenting different elements and filling in shadow areas. In total, I ended up with around a dozen different flash lit images to be combined during processing. I added more light to the chairs in front of the window, accented the fireplace, lit the bookshelf to the left, and the sofa table. Curtains, side of the leather chair, and the plant in the foreground as well. Below are a few of those captures.
Now, how to put all of this together! If you’re going to composite images, you have to learn masking. It’s as simple as that. In many cases creating the selection used by the mask can be quite daunting and there can be a steep learning curve. But here, two things make the job a breeze. First, these masks are all made with a soft edged brush and there is no need for intricate selections. The second thing that will speed things along is a change in the blend mode from normal to lighten.
The Composite: I start by opening the ambient light image in Photoshop making it my base layer. All other images will layer on top of it and an accompanying mask will either reveal or hide parts of that image. With the base image open in PS, I open the next image I want to composite. With the move tool selected, I hold the shift key and drag the new image on top of the base image. Holding the shift key will register the new image. Next, I create a mask by clicking on the mask button at the bottom of the layers palette (Circled in red). When only a small portion of the top image is used, hold the option key Mac or alt key PC and the mask will fill with black. Now painting with a white brush will reveal the desired area. You can see above that A is the ambient light image, B is the flash lit wall, and C is the mask with white revealing the portion of the image I want to retain and black hides what I don’t want. As I mentioned, all of the masking here involves a soft edge, making the task much easier.
The second trick to keeping this project from turning into a masking nightmare is changing the blend mode to lighten. Often when we add accent lighting to a subject all we want to do is add highlights. Changing the blend mode from normal to lighten will keep only the brighter values of your accent layer. So what you get are some really nice specular highlights without the strong, and sometimes conflicting, shadows. It doesn’t work for every situation, but it only requires a mouse click to see which mode works better.
And that’s it! Work with the different layers and masks until you’re happy with things, duplicate the file so you can save the layered version and flatten the duplicate for further editing such as correcting perspective, overall color and level adjustments, etc. Whatever you do, always, always save that layered version in case you discover some unwanted artifacts from the masking process.
This obviously isn’t a ten minute, down and dirty approach to shooting interiors. The shooting took about 20 minutes from set up to finish and the processing … about an hour. But, ten years ago when shooting on film, where all auxiliary lighting had to be outside the field of view or hidden behind furniture, I guarantee we’d be looking at well over an hour to do the shot. And that with plenty of studio strobe power. Here it’s just me, the camera, and one iddy-biddy Speedlite.