Interior Lighting With Multiple Strobes: By Scott Hargis

December 3rd, 2015

ScottHargisLighting-300x198Note: this was originally posted on PFRE July 23, 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, or Yongnuo) to light interiors. So recently I asked Scott to summarize the lighting explanations that he puts on his Flickr images into a description of how to approach lighting a room with multiple strobes in a systematic way. Here’s Scott’s description:

  1. Set the ISO to 400 – this gives you much greater latitude with the strobes.
  2. Set the aperture to f/6.3 as a good starting point. With wide-angle lenses, DOF is not really a problem.
  3. 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…..
  4. 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.
  5. Flash power settings will be highly variable according to the light level in the room, the size of the room, etc.
  6. 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!

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 book. Check it out here.

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 workshops. I highly recommend it!

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10 Responses to “Interior Lighting With Multiple Strobes: By Scott Hargis”

  • I was surprised to read Scott’s comment tat “..most times my strobes are 24 inches above the floor.” That seems inconsistent with the pictures shown.

  • 1) When Scott first published the lighting series, ISO 400 still tended to be slightly noisy. But today’s sensors can easily double that number with ease. A good full-frame sensor will get you to 800, and you will have to pixel-peep to see any noise. This really gives your small flashes a lot of latitude without any real expense (other than perhaps a harder time controlling ambient light).

    @Jerry – In kitchens, that statement may very well be true. I’d guess from that sample image alone that he has two strobes at 24″ or lower (one behind the peninsula, another behind the far end of the island). Maybe Scott will stop by and confirm.

  • BTW Jerry, I just checked out your site. Your paper work series is very cool!

  • I read and tried this technique for basic real estate for some time. Found that the amount I was paid vs. the hassle factor didn’t equate. Most Realtors (and me as well) don’t want you to spend a lot of time moving lights and adjusting lighting power to get the results you want. Other things that contributed to the hassle were keeping my batteries for my speed lights and syncs charged (and organized if uncharged), and the straw that breaks the camels (photographers) back – lugging all that equipment around. I don’t do that for real estate anymore. For a commercial client – then yes – I bring all that I may need, but find that what I need is not even close to what I bring. Handcart a must for these shoots.

  • I’m curious how some of the newer, high dynamic range full frame sensors could have an impact on the use of strobes, which in effect are providing that expanded dynamic range. I’m finding that even with my cropped sensor (24 megapixel) and new versions of lightroom, I’m able to recover many highlights and shadows, and wonder if this kind of technology would replace the need for strobes.

  • After reviewing the past “photographer of the month” on this site for the past 2 years, very few of them use the one-shot-in-the-camera-multiple-speed-light method. Most use bracketed shots, light painting and photoshop layers and masking, and I would like to learn more about those techniques. IMHO, hardware and software technology advances have replaced the need to carry a trunkload of flashes, batteries, lightstands, umbrellas and etc to a MLS shoot.

  • Wow…this post is ancient, haha! And needs to be re-written for the current decade, for sure.

    For those who believe that lighting is only about compressing dynamic range, you might be interested in this blog post:
    http://blog.scotthargisphoto.com/why-we-light-things/

    While I’d agree 100% that a single exposure, in RAW format, can yield better results that any HDR or blending routine, there’s nothing that software can do about poor light. Once you transition from “taking” photos to “making” photos, you’re going to have to take the steering wheel and be responsible for the photo….for better or worse. That’s why we bring lights!

    @Jason — my real estate kit was small enough to fit in 2 small-ish shoulder bags.

  • agree with scott above and use his methods as described in the ebook and video series. I travel light and keep it simple. I keep my charged 7D with 4 speedlights in a Lowpro back pack at home or in the office and 4 tripods in a lighting case in my trunk. I usually know a day before if I need to shoot a house, so I have rechargeable batteries handy. agents I shoot for want me to take my time and don’t mind waiting until I am done. Since my marketplace has many similar style homes, I’ve got this down to a science now, so I can do a nifty 1700 square foot home within an hour and a half. they help me move lights or hold one if needed. they love being part of the process too. it’s been fun and nicely profitable. and yes, bouncing a light 4-5 foot from the floor into the wall creates awesome light.

  • As I get better with flashes and strobes, I find that I spend less time in post. I shoot in RAW to have the most latitude when editing, but there is a breaking point where the image falls apart badly if I push too hard. With supplemental lighting, I can get very close to finished in the camera and only need a few minor tweaks in LightRoom to output a finished image. Using flashes is also a great way to overcome color balance issues. It used to be just daylight, tungsten and florescent. Now there’s LED with color temps all over the map and strange Color Rendering Indexes (CRI) depending on the quality of the lamp manufacturer.

    I still bracket many shots, but I’m in and out of most smaller rooms with just a few frames done in a couple of minutes when I use flash. I use PS for sky replacements, gradients and masking and only rarely for corrections. I’d much rather be shooting than sitting in front of the computer doing post production for RE work.

  • @Jason — That was my thought as well, “…the amount I was paid vs. the hassle factor didn’t equate. “. But, from what I learned from this site and others over this past summer, I now use a couple off-camera flashes and bracketing for most of my interior shots. In my experience, I spend a little more time in the home — A large home that would take an hour with just hand-held ambient light shots, now may take an hour and a half. The time is more than made up by much less post processing needed. And, the real benefit is, the final images are better!

    I don’t spend a lot of time setting up each shot. I have the flash units fire with Yongnuo RF-603C triggers — one is on my old (from film days) Vivitar 2800D, the other on the camera, so I can hand-hold both flashes and trigger the shot from the Vivitar. In some cases I set a flash on the floor behind a counter or on a shelf, or down the hall. No light stands or umbrellas.

    “…the straw that breaks the camels (photographers) back – lugging all that equipment around. ”

    Here’s a photo of all I take to a RE photo job (plus a tripod that I’ve had since 1972).

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/allenteam/23541487216/in/dateposted-public/

    I could lighten the load even more since I NEVER use the longer lenses for RE. But keep them in the bag in case I see a shot I can’t resist on the way there and back.

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