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Shooting an Empty Room with a Bright Window and Shiny Floors

Published: 01/08/2018

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Steven in Jersey says:

A few months back, I had a photo shoot in an empty house with wood floors. In post-processing, I noticed what a poor shot it was. Recently, this happened again. The dark/light extremes and exposure are really kicking me in the pants. In post, I can bring the exposure up but I really get unnatural results. Any suggestions on how to shoot a bright room with shiny wood floors in vacant houses that don't have any drapes or curtains?

The best way to handle shiny wood floors is to speed up your shutter speed to kill the ambient light (reflection) and then flash the room. If you are using HDR or straight ambient, you’re most likely going to be stuck with those reflections.

In this empty room shot above, I was using one flash, ISO 400, 1/60, at f/5.6. I could have gone much faster with the shutter speed to reduce the reflection but I wasn't concerned that much with the reflection. I did have some control of the window light.

Larry Lohrman

14 comments on “Shooting an Empty Room with a Bright Window and Shiny Floors”

  1. Long before I started shoot RE photography, in fact back in 2003, I was shooting for a hand crafted wood flooring company, Patina Old World Flooring. We had exactly this problem. Their "patina" was usually a satin finish along with hand scraped wood floors, actually the first to resurrect this process from the old French and Italian artisans who scraped the floors as part of their refinishing old and damaged flooring. This company was reproducing "antiqued" wood flooring that they copied from French and Italian castles. So my brief was to both show the color, wood grain, detail and the hand scraping gouges. Those gouges only showed up photographically in that window reflection either from a real window in an actual house or one we created in the studio. So we needed that window light with the window in the image so that the irregularities of the hand scraping would show up as different tones, undulations and reflections of the window light.

    But as you have pointed out, with only ambient light you either get a good exposure in the reflection or in the flooring but not both. In my case, unless I was shooting a sample, we also had the room (an actual room in a house or set up in the studio) furnished and styled which avoided the bare room you show us. But the lighting you show is the same.

    This was before digital photography was viable. I was shooting with a 4x5 film view camera set about an inch above the floor with a very wide lens to capture the detail of the grain in the flooring (something I do for houses with interesting floors in RE as well but with a digital camera these days) and as Larry says, expose first for the available light exposure (that I sometimes had to help along with a flash unit placed outside). Then I filled the interior with 8,000 watts of flash to get exposure into the wood grain yet not over power the interior available light. So bounce and umbrella lighting.

    Then my job was to shoot and sell the flooring, not the room. In RE we are trying to sell the room. But interestingly enough, customers wanted to know all about the room as well. At that time, most flooring shots were just room shots that happened to have flooring. We made half the shot the floor with the rest of the room from midway and up. Just a difference in emphasis.

    So that is one viable way to shoot the reflection that uses shutter speed to get the correct exposure in the highlight of the floor whether it is wood, tile, stone or combinations of all three or vinyl or anything else that has a sheen along with lots of flash.

    As digital cameras evolved, I was able to shoot the same floors with much less flash since I was using some of the early 2005 Canon digital cameras and could use photoshop to achieve the same effect that with film I had to get with lighting at the time of the shoot. Although sometimes, I had scans made of the light and dark film exposures and worked with those in PS in layers. But with the digital camera scan this was both easier and cheaper. And there were times when we were barely tolerated in a client's home after the floor installation was completed so I had to shoot fast. No time for dragging in flash.

    So I started doing what HDR software does today just the manual way of layers in Photoshop.

    So here you have another method, use HDR. And/or use flash and HDR. So 3 different solutions. Hope that helps.

    Shutter speed for the reflection and f-stop and flash power for the interior; plus HDR or Layers to complete. I did the same for food but that's another story.

  2. Dark shiny stuff in a room with light pouring in through a window can be one of the toughest things to get a good photo of. Polished stone floors are even worse than wood floors from my experience.

    My approach is to get an exposure I like for the floor, one for the walls/ceiling and a flashed frame of the window exposed for the amount of view I want out of the window. I'll often do a 3 frame bracket of the floor so I'm sure I have the best exposure to work with in post. In Lightroom I make any global adjustments I want for each frame I will use in the composite. In Photoshop, I use the "darken mode window pull" method for the window and cut in the exposure of the floor that is darker than what the ambient room frame is, but not too dark that it looks completely fake.

    The ideal way to get the best image in your situation is to shoot the room at a better time of day where the dynamic range isn't so large and get everything done in camera but I know that frequently that isn't possible. You should be doing your initial walk through with an eye for how the sun will be moving so you can photograph some rooms before the sun is a problem and put other ones further along in the schedule if they might get better towards the end of your session. I offer my customers a discount on vacant homes where I am given a code. This gives me the option of coming back at a different time to avoid some of these issues. I have even done half of a home one day and finished it the next and used it to fill up some available daylight time on both day which saved me having to make another trip to the same area on a third day to shot the vacant house.

    While it's often best to get the exposure all done in camera, there are times when it's faster and easier to "shoot for post" and composite an image. After a while you get a feel for when either approach is more appropriate. Hallways can be a middling problem where you can get everything else in the composition nicely lit but be left with an adjoining hallway that you want to show but have no way to light. You get the 95% of the image in the camera and then get a frame that is exposed for the hallway and blown out for everything else that you will use in post.

  3. I have a question on your tip. How do you shoot st 400+ shutter speed without getting the camera shutter in your shot? I max out at 200 before the bottom of my picture starts growing a lovely black shade!

  4. I agree with with Stefan that a polarizing filter will reduce most of the glare and saves time in post. I've also used the Dehaze filter selectively in LR which helps a bit.

  5. @ Mike Leffert. Use flash that has high speed sync (provided your camera has this capability). This will allow you to sync faster than 1/250 sec.

  6. @Michael Leffert, If your camera is set to ISO 100, your aperture is f8-11 and you are still past your max sync speed, a neutral density filter could help. The other option if you plan on compositing the image is to turn off the flash when you are exposing for the floor. Since you will be cutting it in from its own layer later, there is no reason to have the flash(es) on. You will also avoid any specular highlights from the flash.

    A polarizer works for some situations but not all. If I know I will be doing any compositing, I don't like to be changing gear on the camera in the middle of a sequence since it's more likely to get bumped and there could be alignment issues later. I agree to try the simplest solutions first.

  7. So, let’s make it a little tougher. What if the ceilings are wood? We shoot a lot of coastal homes with exposed wood and “lodge”-type beams above and on the wall.

    Usually, very long ambient exposures and careful window blending get us there, but it’s a very different look than flashing Sheetrock, especially when looking towards a window/lightsource. Has there been a thread on wood/lodge structure shooting?

  8. High Speed Sync is not going to do you any good in most situations. Nor will ND filters. The problem with both is that they're going to affect the flash output.
    If you're at your maximum shutter speed, you're also very likely already maxed out on your flash power. Applying density over the lens just means all the light, flash included, gets diminished. If you have unlimited flash power available, then great -- although you're also (probably) going to have a very "flashy" photo (more on that below).

    As for HSS, the way it works depends on the flash output dropping by a stop, for every stop of shutter speed gained. The only way to gain it back is by adding flashes (which will have to be communicating directly with the camera, so no off-brand flashes). Won't be long before you'll need 8, 10, or more speedlights just to get back where you started.

    It's extraordinarily rare to actually need to be in this position. There is no plausible environment when a bright sunlit exterior scene should be darker than the adjacent interior scene. Relax your windows a bit, or a lot, and you'll be surprised how much (bright, sunny) detail is still there, and how much easier it is to light the room in a believable way.

  9. I haven't read any of the comments by other colleagues so please forgive me if I may have repeated what has already been written.
    I looked at your image, as the thumbnail was on the small side I increased the res to 3000 pix long side with Alien Blow Up. Now having something to work with, I masked the blown out window and set this mask to multiply. This revealed more info and the vertical sun blinds hanging there. You took your photo before closing them which would have been a great help.
    If this didn't provide the desired effect I would have placed a scrim or similar outside to block the sunlight to reduce the glare, thus reducing the irritating reflection on the floor. From the now revealed shadows it would appear there is fencing outside the window - ideal for mounting a blanket, scrim etc.
    Reflections on the floor are a real pain in the backside, I overlooked this point once on site rendering the image only suitable for the trash can.

    Another way I would have tackled this would have been with multiple bracketing shots and then compositing.

    I did manage to improve your image a little but my effort certainly doesn't render it suitable for commercial purposes. The image file is available on request.

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