July 23rd, 2007
First of all I need to point out that this is Scott Hargis’s post. Like many of you I’ve been admiring the way Scott uses a hand full of strobes to light a room to look like an Architectural Digest shoot and still keep the time to shoot a hole home within a few hours. Like the kitchen above. Scott has adapted the lighting techniques that David over at Strobist.blogspot.com teaches (don’t put strobe on camera, use manual flash, use Cactus radio flash triggers, etc) to light interiors. So recently I tried to summarize the lighting explanations that Scott puts on his flickr images into a description of how to approach lighting a room with multiple strobes in a systematic way. I sent it to Scott and he re-wrote it and added a bunch of detail. Here’s Scott’s description:
- Set the ISO to 400 – this gives you much greater latitude with the strobes.
- Set the aperture to f/6.3 as a good starting point. With wide-angle lenses, DOF is not really a problem.
- Adjust the shutter speed to expose for the windows. Generally, for a “blown-out” window effect, 1/80th or slower will work. To bring in a view completely, dial up to your camera’s maximum sync speed (usually 1/250th) and only then start stopping down the aperture. Once the windows are exposed properly…..
- Add an off-camera light to one side or other of the camera. Bouncing from a wall or the wall/ceiling joint results in a much larger apparent light source, and thus yields softer shadows. However, watch for hot spots! In particular, reflections in windows, mirrors, and glass cabinets are problematic. Hot spots on the ceiling are also common, but can be fairly easily dodged/burned out if the light can’t be re-positioned.
- Flash power settings will be highly variable according to the light level in the room, the size of the room, etc.
- Most wall colors are fine for bounced light with no noticeable color cast. However, deep, bold colors will result in a tint to the light that bounces off them. In these situations, an umbrella or reflector is very useful.
In my opinion, if you’re accustomed to shooting with one on-camera light, the best way to ease into shooting with off-camera lights is to start SMALL. Try a bedroom, turn off your on-camera light and use only the remote one, placed a few feet away and bounced off the wall, to get used to the idea and discover the tricks of “hiding” the light source from the camera. Then, add in the on-camera light with a diffuser for fill.
For more complex rooms, like kitchens and living rooms, start with an ambient-only exposure and then add lights one at a time, chimping every step of the way. Remember that aiming the strobe directly at the subject will result in harsh light and hard-edged, deep shadows. For me, this is the last resort.
Because flash duration is extremely short (about 1/20,000 of a second), it is not affected by the camera’s shutter speed. For most rooms, it is possible to make the strobes the dominant light source, with only the windows truly lit by the ambient. At this point, control is completely in the photographer’s hands: shutter speed will control the windows/ambient, and aperture will control the strobes. Once I have the lighting evened out, I often fine-tune a shot by adjusting my aperture to move the histogram up or down as desired.
When I walk into a room, I’m looking at the surfaces and dividing them into two camps: surfaces the camera will see, and those it won’t see. The ones that aren’t going to be visible are all candidates for bounced lights. Then it’s just a matter of taking a few seconds to plan out the lighting. It’s amazing how quickly you can gain an intuition for this. Also, many rooms (like bedrooms) are pretty standard – the same setup will work again and again with minor changes.
A note about gear: To learn about ways to remotely trigger strobes, the Strobist blog and Flicker site are invaluable. Nikon CLS and Canon IR are problematic for shooting interiors as the signals will not travel reliably around corners and into distant rooms where we often put our lights. With regard to “hiding” lights in a room, a light stand with a small footprint is very helpful. I use the Slik SVD-20, which can remain upright and stable with a footprint less than 4″ across. Most of the time, my lights are about 24″ off the floor. I also keep a strobe in my hip pocket with the little “foot” attached so it can stand upright on its own. This light is incredibly useful for tucking into small places, on top of mantles, bookshelves, etc.
There you have it. The complete Scott Hargis lighting approach. Thanks Scott for being willing to share all the details with us!
Update October 2010: This post has been one of the most popular on this blog ever since we first put it up in 2007. Now Scott has finally taken this subject to a whole new level with the release this month of his new eBook, The Essential Guide to: Lighting Interiors, Techniques of lighting with small flash. If you are interested in lighting with small flashes I assure you, you will be interested in Scott’s new book. Check it out here.
Update Sept 2013: Another resource you’ll appreciate if you are trying to learn Scott’s technique for lighting interiors is his Lighting For Real Estate Photography Video Series. This is a wonderful set of video tutorials that gives you almost as much information on this technique as you would get going to one of Scott’s work shops. I highly recommend it!