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How to Shoot Dark Wooden Spaces

Published: 10/09/2019

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Dan in California, writes:

"I'd like to hear how most of you deal with wood. Wood on the ceilings, wood on the walls, wood on the floors. Many homes I shoot, and some commercial buildings have cedar or knotty pine ceilings, including more and more of the $1 million+ homes I work on. I also tend to have nice views.

So, while I know that bouncing lights off of sheetrock usually is an excellent way to light my rooms and balance window views, I also know that bouncing light off of raw cedar will turn everything orange.

In those situations I default to long exposures for the interiors, and quicker exposures for the windows, balancing color casts on each frame later in Lightroom. That's fine, but time-consuming, and often the final image is lacking in some of the detail I get from bouncing lights around the room. Dark corners, between couches, under cabinets; inevitably, there's a greater contrast to the final image.

What's your approach to an all-wood room?"

Thanks for writing in, Dan. I don't shoot many wood homes but when I have in the past, I've pretty much followed the same principles that you've mentioned above. When I was reading your question though, one of the first people that came to mind was Whit Richardson. Whit is based in Colorado and shoots a ton of dark wooden spaces; so I decided to reach out and get his input.

Here's what Whit had to say:

This is something I deal with week-in and week-out; wood/stone/metal interiors, huge windows and views, bright clouds and snowy mountains; dark trees, and sunny, high altitude, non-hazy light making for extreme contrast. You cannot blow out the view in these situations because it’s one of the most important aspects of the property, and often a large percentage of the frame is actually the huge windows. I’m not always successful in achieving the right exposure and color balance, but the view is so important to the realtors, that I’m okay with things looking slightly unnatural sometimes.

Here is the workflow that I have come up with:

I will start by taking a set of ambient shots around 1 stop apart with my first one exposed for the interior, and last one exposed for the brightest part of the view out the window. I will then add my flash frames. Add flash to your ambient frame where the view is just slightly overexposed. I find for most of these scenarios, the rooms are quite large so I use two Flashpoint Xplor 600’s on light stands shooting into medium sized white umbrella reflectors. Shoot through umbrellas work as well. Place one on the left side of the room to light up the right, and visa versa. In LR I will make adjustments to the bright ambient frame to get it looking as best as possible. I will do the same to one of the flash frames and copy the adjustments over to the other flash frame(s). The adjustments (particularly color) will differ between the ambient and flash frames so unique adjustments need to be made between the two. I'm mostly trying to get the color just right and I'm not going too crazy with all the other sliders. Open them as layers into Photoshop. In Photoshop, blend the flash frames with a gradient or paint over a mask. Then with the ambient frame on top of the layer stack, apply a black mask and slowly paint it in where you want to bring back some of the natural, directional window light and sometimes color. Most of the time I’m able to use Normal blend mode, but occasionally I’ll need to change the blend mode of the ambient layer to Luminosity because its colors are too far off. If you have reflection issues in the windows, then add in the ambient layer exposed for the view and brush in where needed.

That is the basic workflow but of course, it’s never that simple so here are some additional notes:

  • Sometimes the view outside the window itself is very contrasty so you may need to do additional flash frames exposing for bright and dark parts of view out the window.
  • The framing and mullions between the windows can look a bit flashy with this technique so you can try two things:
    • 1. Point the flash nearest the windows away from the windows and into the room towards the opposite corner. Use full power.
    • 2. The second flash farthest from the windows, use at lower power and don’t point right at the windows. In addition to doing this, you can take additional flash frames exposing (remember, slightly overexposing; maybe like a stop) for the view but with a lower flash power setting so that the window wall looks right. In Photoshop, brush in these frames around the windows where the full flash power frames look flashy.
  • You can add in even more flash frames taken with slightly less flash power and more ambient light bleeding into the room to give a more natural look. Again, add a black mask and brush into the more flashy frames as you see fit. If you don’t have the flash power in the first place, then you may have to settle for these as your base working layers in Photoshop and then make a selection around the windows and mask in the ambient view layer. Or, just shoot at twilight which is pretty much how I did every shoot when I started out years ago since all I had were Speedlights.
  • The strobes can cause a bit of flare so I simply stick my hand out into the frame and block the flash from the lens.
  • When subtlety is needed, I highly recommend using a Wacom tablet with a brush at 100% opacity and 5% flow. See next comment, but I can get to this brush setting with one click using Actions.
  • I use actions extensively so this all goes very quickly. I put the actions panel in "Button" mode with everything color coded. I also use TK actions extensively--useful for Luminosity and color selections as well as built-in actions for color correction and frequency separation; and illustrated one-click buttons in the menu for most everything you use regularly. Lumenzia is another good third party option for all this.
  • I just made a post on my Facebook page with a set of photos shot a week ago to help illustrate:
Brandon Cooper

7 comments on “How to Shoot Dark Wooden Spaces”

  1. It has taken me many years to come up with something that simplifies dark wood interiors. Lately, because Im always adapting, I've been changing the way I do the ambient frames (no flash). I do use flash also, but differently. The idea, or goal, is to use the very same equipment that I use in a regular house, at the same shoot speed. So that means, tackling it in 40 minutes or less.

    I first shoot an ambient frame. Oddly enough, this will be using Aperture Priority. That is to maintain an f8, and iso400. The shutter speed it the the variable, and the camera sets it, with me adding +1.3ev compensation. And this is the only case where I let the camera decide color balance. This single frame is actually pretty good right out of the camera.

    The next set is the bracketed set. First one has a flash, the next two frame dont get flash because they dont recycle that fast, which is intentional. It give me tow more exposures to paint with. The differnce in the flash this time, is small 5x7" softboxes on the flash units, pointed directly at the scene, something I never ever do except when I shoot dark woody stuff.

    And finally, the window pull.

    In PS, you start with the ambient frame on Layer 1. Then drop on the Woody direct flash frame, mask it and paint whatever interests you in, but without adding any of the shadows from the flash. Or you can do those layers in reverse. doesn't matter much, really. The drop on the brightest ambient remaining frame (klest in sequence) and use it to fix things, but also to paint in ambient light across furniture. Lastly, mask and add the window pull. Then finish it out like you would any other set. It frankly doesn't add much to the shoot time or the post time. Seconds maybe. But it does solve the large dark woody space problem.

  2. @Chibi The only real change in video is probably shooting an ISO of 10,000 instead of 5000. One of the great things about video is that grain is mostly problematic with under-exposure, so you can go clear up to ISO10,000 as long as you expose to the right. IF its a large dimly lit woody interior with dark brown leather furniture, you're probably SOL no matter what you do, you're just going to have a grainy/sucky video most likely. You could maybe overcome it if you had a crew of gaffers, but you most likely won't have that option for RE shoots. And even if you did add lights, moving cameras on gimbals typically require UWA lenses to keep the video viewable, and there's nowhere to hide the lights from a lens like that, unless you limit yourself to slider moves.

    But really, this is where advice from Whit Richardson and Fred Light is invaluable. They are both extremely adept at still and video work in dark interiors.

  3. My first paid shoot was a small vacation cabin with wood walls, floor and ceiling. It was like shooting inside a wooden box. To complicate things, the floor was glossy, the lighting was warm, and the sun was blasting in.

    It took two trips, all the flash my tiny speedlight could muster and a lot of compositing.

    Now my workflow is simpler: I take ambient brackets, then pump the room full of light with a single monolight and reflector.

  4. I can usually find something white to bounce off of...a door, a wall, a plate from the cabinet, etc. If not, I'll just shoot ambient brackets and cut the windows in post. It's really not a big deal unless the window(s) is really blasting. Then I'll shoot direct flash and blend.

  5. If you want to photograph this kind of subject with consistent high quality, you need lights for dark rooms with very bright windows or lights, and often the more powerful lights the better in cases where you want to illuminate the room to balance with the exterior, which is the process I suggest you start with before exploring a range of techniques that rely on advanced digital retouching. If adverse reflections are unavoidable with a single exposure, then moving one or more of the lights around while making multiple exposures (which you will combine in Photoshop) will move the the reflections around so that you eliminate them in the processing.

    As for color casts if you bounce lights off of wood walls, this doesn't matter if that color cast dominates the scene throughout. This sort of thing works better in rooms without windows and that are relatively small, since the wood will not reflect much light, for example, the interior of a sauna.

  6. I shoot a series of brackets, 2 stops apart from very under exposed to very over exposed with flash added in the final 3 or 4 shots (I'll usually shoot 6 or 7 shots). I always bounce the flash(s) off a white reflector(s) and dial them up to a high power. I usually always wear a white shirt to these shoots as I can bounce the flash off of myself and that white shirt. It helps alot in different situations. The final image is a blend of the brackets.

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