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How Do You Light and Photograph a Large Interior Space?

Published: 19/07/2017
Real Estate Photography - Shooting / Lighting a large space - Part 1

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in Iowa asked:

I have been asked to photograph the interior of a commercial property. I went there in advance to see how I would set up my lighting, but honestly I'm having a hard time coming up with a plan. It is a gym with huge open spaces and very high ceilings. I thought maybe using HDR would be a better way to go however, some of the shots will need to include people working out. Any suggestions?

Yes, shooting brackets and processing with LR/Enfuse would be one approach. Some people call that HDR, it's not. I would not use HDR processing unless you have extensive experience at making HDR processing look natural.

Here are some other approaches:

  1. Use a number of large powerful lights as Rich Baum illustrates in this video tutorial. Your space may be bigger than the one Rich is lighting.
  2. Blend together in Photoshop an ambient shot(s) and a number of shots with just selective parts of the large area lit separately.
  3. You can use the approach in #2 above to add an image of the people working out to another image of the gym.

Does anyone else have advice for Luciana?

Larry Lohrman

9 comments on “How Do You Light and Photograph a Large Interior Space?”

  1. I have shot a number of large interior spaces with people.

    I utilize as much of the ambient light as possible. In a gym sometimes that is not possible because the cheapest way to build a gym is without windows.
    If you have only artificial light you need to set your WB appropriately and I strongly recommend shooting RAW. I recommend an ISO of at least 400 to get a decent shutter speed at about f7.1 or so. You may need to go up to ISO 1600 to get a decent shutter speed as gyms tend to be dim even though the lights seem bright.
    Noise is not an issue for any camera made in the last 8 years at these speeds.
    I set up and take a few base images of the space without people.

    You can also shoot with strobes ( I recommend gelling to match the ambient lights) to add color and contrast and open difficult shadows. Take several images and move the lights around to get all parts of the room.
    I then stage the talent in the positions I want. As they are talent you can make them hold a pose.
    Again, I will use strobes with umbrellas and gels to light the talent to add a bit of snap. You only need a bit of light to open shadows and add some contrast and good color.
    I also have people move to different parts of the space and turn in ways that they cannot be identified. I may have people switch jackets, hats etc. so that when I combine images it looks like I have more people than I actually did.

    I layer the images in PS and mask out my lights for the final image.

  2. I forgot to add that tripod use is mandatory in this scenario.
    I suggested a higher shutter speed to ensure that the talent does not show any motion blur.

  3. Good question and tricky solutions mainly due to the presence of people. I agree with Mark above. It will involve layers in Photoshop if that is your preferred software.

    I would do a test using no flash, just correcting for the ambient light with a few people posing in the sort of positions you want them to be in for the actual shoot. So yes, most definitely a field test before the final shoot. This way you can test out the lighting, the color, the shutter speed and f-stop and what shutter speed you would need to capture the people sharp; that is if it is necessary to have the people sharp. Frankly, I think this is a situation where the blur of movement can add to the feeling of what a gym is all about which is movement of people not of things.

    In doing this, first shoot bracketed shots of the gym with no one, then add people. With a bunch of people, you will seldom if ever get everyone doing what you want them to do all in one shot so expect to lay in the best shots of the people onto the gym shot that has no people.

    I just did a test on my fairly new Tamron 10-24mm lens that has recently been introduced and at f-3.5 I was able to get from 4' to the far side of my studio, about 34' all in focus. Not so with my 2012 Sigma 10-20mm lens. So experiment and see just how far open you can get your lens to go in this test before either you loose depth of field or start getting softness around the outside of the image. That will allow you to gain either shutter speed or lower ISO.

    If that does not work due to lack of enough light or mixed colors of light then plan 2 is in order - more complex.

    With this option, I would shoot the gym without people first but with flash using umbrellas to create look and feel of the lighting you will need to use to capture the people. As Mark said, move the lights around even if they appear in the photo to make sure you get the right evenness of light throughout the gym. If there are skylights in the gym, having flash will make your lighting the same color or close.

    Then on the day, place the camera on a tripod and never move it. (True of the first option as well). Since you will have to use layers in Photoshop or your editing program you will need each exposure with the exact same visual content. Then take your shots using flashes on stands of the people doing whatever you want them to.

    Now is the tedious part; you will have to layer the over all gym shots and erase the umbrellas to allow the non-umbrella/stand part of the shot from a different image to come through.

    The outline or clip out the images of the people and lay them over that finished image being careful to retain the person's shadow on the floor. Get rid of over lap excess and you will end up with something that hopefully will be usable. But the trick, other than your Photoshop skills, will be to light the people so the light on them is consistent with the lighting you have created for the gym itself.

    My preference would be the first since it is simpler to shoot and to work with in Post.

    A gym is a much bigger space to shoot than the room in the video and no place to hide light stands. So I am not sure it is much help in this instance. Frankly, to my eye, there is too much flash light in the foreground anyway but that's not about the technique, just the lighting judgement.

  4. What an interesting problem! I hope others chime in.
    If you try to do this all in one shot, high iso will be the key, along with noise reduction in post. So a low noise camera will help. I've done a shot in a gym, with moving people shooting baskets. and the results were okay for documenting how kids can use the space. Maybe not good enough for marketing materials.
    If you take Larry's approach #3, there are more steps, but each step becomes easier, and maybe the results would be better. Shooting the room might involve using whatever lighting they have in place, along with a tripod, long exposure, and white balance correction. I would also take duplicate shots and average them to reduce noise. To add people in later, maybe flash them in separate images. For these shots, if the room behind the people is dark, you might be able to help blend them into the room shot with a lighten blend mode.

    As for lighting a large room with flash, I purchased a Flashpoint RL600 pretty much for shooting large rooms. It works well for some rooms with cathedral ceilings. in a large gym, I imagined the light would just get swallowed up.

  5. How do you know it needs additional lighting, at all? Seems unlikely...but in any case the general strategy might be to shoot a "back plate" with no people, and then composite the people in either individually or in groups. Very often we shoot the back plate with the highest possible image quality, then crank the ISO up to capture the people, or light them individually (or both) -- and composite them in with simple layer masks.

    @ Peter Daprix -- Actually, both of your lenses will deliver identical DoF (assuming the same focal length, aperture, focus distance, and sensor size) -- because they both obey the same laws of physics. In fact, all lenses throughout the universe are bound by these laws.

    So, while it's always good to conduct tests to gain a sense of how your lenses perform, you don't need to test for DoF. You can still find printed tables for this, but better are the many smartphone apps which can instantly calculate the near, far, and "critical sharpness" boundaries for any focal length (there's even one that can handle tilt/swing movements on my 4x5!). The apps don't ask you what brand or model of lens you're using, because they all behave exactly the same in this regard.

  6. A couple of observations regarding depth of field.

    Lenses do not actually focus on a perfectly flat plane, and the deviation from this ideal varies with the lens design. Some lenses exhibit a distinctly curved field of focus, while others will come very close to the ideal. I believe it is usually the case that, when noticeable "field curvature" exists, the lens will focus closer at the edges than at the center. A lens with distinct field curvature will complicate the depth of field calculation, since you need to account for variations in focus across the field of view.

    Regarding depth of field scales and charts, the standard printed tables and the depth of field markings on lenses are based on a standard image display size and viewing distance (typically an 8 x 10 print viewed at about arm's length). Change either of these variables and the depth of field changes. The larger the image display size and/or the nearer the viewing distance, the smaller the aperture you will need to use to achieve the desired depth of field. Some of the online depth of field calculators allow you to select a different size for the circles of confusion (yes, a real technical term), which allows you to account for different viewing situations if you know how to use this criterion.

  7. In my experience with large open spaces, like a gym, it's practical to just use the ambient light. They tend to be well illuminated with all of the light sources being about the same. I agree with Scott in shooting a "back plate" without the people first. If that's possible. If the facility is open and there are customers in there then pick a time of day with the least activity. That way you can take several shots with the customers in different places and use layer masks to create your "back plate" image. Then you can place your models in the scene to get the image(s) of them to mask in.

    One concern that I have is have you arranged to get model releases signed by the people that are going to be in the scene?

    If you are still unsure as to how best to complete this assignment....give me a call or send me an email. I don't think I am that far from you and would be willing to help out if the timing works.

  8. Just a quick response to Scott's comment about lenses. Many things sound good in theory and I don't disagree with the theory. But in practice other things can factor in. So I tend to rely on real life tests and compare the results. And I find that when used wide open at 10mm, there is a big difference between my 2012 Sigma 10-20mm lens and my 2017 Tamron 10-24mm lens. It is more than just depth of field, it is also the overall sharpness from the center to the outside of the image. To get full edge to edge sharpness with the Sigma I have to shoot at at least f-7 but I usually have to shoot around f-9 or 10. Not so with the Tamron. And even in production, there can be differences between the same model. So while it is tempting to buy a lens over the Internet, nothing can take the place of buying from a brick and mortar that will allow you to field test the lens before purchase commitment.

  9. Median stacking a series of images together may also do the trick, though depending on how long people use any one machine, it could take a bit to get enough images for a median stack to remove people from the final photo. Also, machines being left in different positions. But it would be worth a try in the future just to experiment with it and see how it turns out, while you still make sure you have frames that will do the job in case the median stack doesn't work out as intended.

    Some HDR programs (Photomatix) will de-ghost, so the movement of people as they are on an exercise machine can be captured as still, so that might be an option as well. Problem is, Photomatix produces garish results even in the Natural and/or Real Estate fusion modes and its de-ghosting function may produce aberrations where you don't want them. I'm not aware of other HDR programs or plugins that have de-ghosting, unfortunately.

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