How Do I Photograph A Wine Cellar In The Basement With Very Little Light?

March 26th, 2015

YN560IIIRobert asked the following question:

I have a photo shoot coming up and the house has a quint wine cellar – 10×18 in size, wine racks and bottles, etc. There is etched glass on the entrance door and etched glass for the large front glass planes. The wine cellar is located in the basement of the house and no available light anywhere – only canned lights outside the of the wine cellar and the inside of the cellar has pot lights, tungsten. What I’d like to do is capture the art work on the etched glass. The color of the etched art work is white stencil. I’ve never encountered anything like this and frankly, I haven’t a clue on how to best capture this art work on the window. Any thoughts on how to go about trying to capture this image?

From looking at your site, it appears that you don’t use flash. It appears that you use bracketed exposures and process with HDR software.

Your wine cellar shoot is an excellent application for using one or two small flashes. There’s a couple of ways to starting using a single flash in your shooting:

  1. Use Scott Hargis’s approach to small flash: This post on the PFRE blog is a condensed description of Scotts technique. If you haven’t used flash before this technique will require some practice but it is very simple. Scott’s book and video series give you in depth information on this technique.
  2. Use a bracketing/flash hybrid technique: Here’s a post on the PFRE blog that describes this technique. Simon Maxwell’s book and video series gives more information on how to use this technique.

If you’ve never used flash before #2 above may be an easier way to get started with flash. Either way I think that starting to use at least one small flash will solve your wine cellar shot problem and improve your work in general.

If you don’t have any manual flashes here is a post on the PFRE blog that describes what you need to get started using manual flashes.

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13 Responses to “How Do I Photograph A Wine Cellar In The Basement With Very Little Light?”

  • I shot a cramped wine cellar a couple weeks ago. I used a very slow shutter and a little bounce flash–not going to get me on the cover of a magazine, but it was a nice little shot.

  • It’s difficult to give you a best case solution when you’ve presented a little known worst case scenario.

    Case in point… I’m imagining a dark cherry wood paneling up to the chair rail with rich red brick and crown molding atop. Maybe a cream barrel vaulted ceiling if you’re lucky.

    The again, maybe its simply a white drywall with natural white pine racks. Hopefully the pots aren’t 80s gold and tight enough to be adjusted and hold at angles to iluminate the frosty white glass details.

    Long story short, I’d need to know or see these things to give you my humble advice. I’m not going to tell you there’s a definitive solution. Even the color of the tile floor might have a big impact in how I might shoot it, if it’s even tile.

    However, here’s something that might help…

    Sometimes simple foamcore white reflectors with dual bounce flashes camera right and left (4:30 and 7:30 on the clock, with your camera in the center of the clock pointed at 12) work well in tight spaces. Just keep the flash power down and use it as fill with you ambient exposure cranked up below pot light blowout. Hopefully outside the room, you could bang a flash off an exterior wall to create a backlight through the frosted glass door without reflection but illuminating the etchwork.

    Big honking shoot through brellies and window sized softies never hurt, either.

  • Bring some white sheets/shower curtains and drape the walls that can’t be seen in the frame. Bounce some small strobes off of the white material. You might even be able to use “hot” lights and a long exposure. Be ready to spend some time moving your lights around to get the best lighting without flares from the etched glass.

    If you are proficient in Photoshop, you can shoot the scene in sections with the lighting optimized for the best quality in each section one at a time keeping the camera in a fixed position and blend the frames together. I just had a family room with an oil painting that picked up glare no matter what I did and I didn’t want to change the camera position. My solution was to shoot the painting flat on and use the transform tool in PS to “cut” it into the frame. I would have preferred to get it right in the camera as PS can sometimes take much more time, but now I have it down for the next time.

  • “….a quint [sic] wine cellar – 10×18 in size…”

    10×18 is larger than the largest room in my apartment. “Quaint” is not the word I’d use…

    Anyway: why does this need to be lit? Just because something is dark, doesn’t mean you have to go running for your lights. As long as the relative light levels are within the right range, you just need to expose for it. You can make that wine cellar look like it’s lit with klieg lights if that’s your thing. Open the shutter, wait a while, see what you get.

    As for frosted glass, the key to making it show up is to light it from behind. Which is fine, you’d want the foreground to be darker anyway, so (without seeing the situation, but having shot plenty of these myself) you’d turn off the lights in the outer hallway or wherever the camera is, leave the lights ON in the wine emporium cellar, and you should be more or less in the ballpark with it.

  • If there is no daylight and all the built in lighting is tungsten, then add supplementary tungsten lighting. The nice thing about this kind of lighting is that it is continuous, so you can see what you are doing as you do it. In fact, I think using continuous lighting is the best way to learn how to light, since you get immediate, real-life feedback.

    If you don’t have lighting equipment, you could rent professional equipment. Or, you might even be able to do it using some standard household lamps mounted on lightstands via some inexpensive fixtures made for this purpose. PAR lamps, which have built-in reflectors, can help control the light. You can further control the light with Cinefoil (“black wrap”) and a variety of self-made reflectors or flags. Using a dimmer on the lamps can help control the brightness a little, but be careful of doing too much dimming this way, since the color temperature will change too much. To reduce the brightness, better to use lower wattage lamps or partially block the light somehow.

    As Scott suggests, you may not really need a lot of light. The house lights are probably not that bright and regular household lamps should be bright enough to balance with these.

  • It’s much easier than you would imagine. I am with David Eichler. If it is lit with old fashioned tungsten bulbs, turn them all on. If there are any fluorescent, replace them with tungsten. While I have a studio full of flash packs and other pro equipment, for this stuff I buy some cheap clamp on reflector floods, some tungsten bulbs (by that I mean ordinary house hold bulbs the max wattage the clamp on floors will allow), bounce them off the walls and ceiling out of camera lens range, even if you need to drap a bed sheet (wife might not be pleased) on the wall to one side and use the floods to supplement the existing light. Then clamp the camera down on a tripod, use a decent f-stop for depth of field, shoot 100 ISO for sharpness and bracket like hell. I would recommend setting the color balance for Tungsten or the “light bulb” icon. Even then, ordinary household bulbs are warmer. But I think that bit of warmth gives a sense of place.

    Give yourself 3 stops on either side of normal. Then pull the results together in Photoshop or Photomatix Pro or another program of your choice to blend the different exposures together. Heck, I used to shoot wineries all over France and Italy for magazine stories and I just used whatever light was available even the 25 watt bulbs hanging by a frayed cord. And with film there was no HDR and they looks great. Captured the ambiance even when the cellar walls were black with centuries of muck. Good shooting and don’t worry, with digital you can’t go wrong. But flash? Uck! I suppose you could put a tungsten gel over them to try to get them to color balance with the tungsten bulbs if the cellar is lit by tungsten. You don’t want daylight color in the same shot as the tungsten. Dreadful dogs dinner of colors.

  • I’m in agreement with the advise shared by everyone. Filling your bag with all of these tricks makes for a pretty formidable arsenal. I particularly like the simple solutions 🙂

  • Would love to see the finished product and hear about the choices you made…

  • Love all the ideas and possibilities given. As Jason suggested, “Would love to see the finished product and hear about the choices you made….” Most of us learn that way.

  • Make this shoot the last of the day…and shoot the wine cellar last.
    1. Go in and sit down and have three glasses of their best year and contemplate the shot with the owner.
    2. Put a large white bounce card or white sheet behind the colored glass, bounce your flash into or through it. Or, Use a Large softbox and photograph it through the window. It’s like shooting stain glass windows in a church shot from the inside looking out on a bright sunny day. Piece of cake!
    3. For the rest of the room you may have to pop separate areas for each view and composite them in Photoshop. Kind of like what Mike Kelly does. It’s basic light painting with a flash.
    4. When finished sit down and have the 4th glass of their best year.
    Now, have someone drive you home.
    P.S. If you need flashes, triggers and remotes check out that China company Yogounu ???? on eBay. Their flashes are about $70 and the radio trigger/slave around $40. Remote camera radio triggers are cheap too. The reports on their equipment if very good. I don’t have any of their equipment as I have a bunch of old Vivitar 285’s that just keep flashing along.

  • I shot one of these recently. As mentioned by Scott, it’s a wine cellar, and it’s probably quite moody, so you want to retain that feel. Go with the flow would be the apt phrase, don’t try to fight it. What I ended up doing was using the existing lighting in the room as my predominant light, and putting a few pools of light where I thought appropriate. Put a gel on your flash as David mentions, if you use one. I think the key is not to overdo it. We don’t need to see all the glass etching, right. Maybe just a segment or two. i would purposely leave white balance on the warm side too, because it’s not a doctors office where you may want whites to be pure “clean” white.

  • I agree with Scott and Peter. Use the ambient as a starting point. If it works with the room, add tea light candles or other strategically placed lamps to increase lighting and the mood. Take a shot and decide where the flash is needed if at all. I tend to recreate what the room actually IS (with a few enhancements), rather than overlighting and overcooking the shot. if you are using flash, it will need to be geled to suit especailly if you are using Yongnuo speedlights, as these are naturally quite blue out of the box. (quarter CTO is a good place to start) Nine times out of ten a shot like this can be shot and in the bag in one hit and without too much fuss, but in saying that i would also bracket and flash a few shots off to composite in later if required. White balance will be your biggest hurdle. cheap trick is to drop a sheet of A4 in the room, take a shot and use this as a reference in post.
    It will all depend on a few factors
    – How much time you want to spend on the shot
    – What is the budget
    – How good it the wine
    Final word, use auto focus if the wine is flowing freely…. 🙂

  • Hey Guys:

    In a nut shell, I used the K.I.S.S. method. I did the shoot of the wine cellar with ambient light for the exterior shot. Not fancy lights or flash. I did some interior wine cellar photos as well. I’m relatively new to this forum, so I don’t know how to share my results for everyone to view and offer feedback.

    There was a very strict accounting of all wine bottles in the cellar, so I couldn’t uncork a bottle and sip it loosely. So, I got one of those 3L collapsible Earnest and Jullio wine-in-a-box at walmart for $6.99 and poured the contents into my coffee travel mug. Photo’s didn’t come out to bad for being half-cocked!

    Anyway, how do I post to Flicker so you guys can see everything?

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