An Elegant Image by M. James Northen

March 26th, 2007

I was recently looking through the images on M. James Northen’s web site after he’s made a comment on photographing upper-end properties. M. James works out of Vero Beach, Florida an shoots for premiere real estate companies, multi-million dollar builders, custom cabinet and kitchen designers and interior decorators in the southeast Florida area.

I chose this image to ask M. James about because I was attracted to the beautiful job of lighting that he’d done on this image despite the obviously very bright outside. It’s always challenging to get such a beautifully lit interior when the windows are so bright. Here is M. James comments on his setup, equipment and post processing:

“This was the first setup of the morning and took about 10 minutes to get right. The setup was very simple – That room faces east to the Ocean, I got there around 9:00 am so the sun was bright in the room. I set up two Strobes ( Alien Bee 800’s – 320Ws) I positioned one to the left of the camera at full power and a little behind me and the other to the right further into the room only half power. I had to watch the angles to avoid reflection in the windows. That was the most time consuming part. I use 48” white shoot through umbrellas most of the time as they are more convenient than soft boxes to move from room to room. The image was custom white balanced using an Expodisk. That typically saves me a lot of time in Photoshop. The exposure was ISO 400 – 1/160 at F11. I used a Canon 1D MKII with a 24mm Tilt – Shift Lens. When not using a Tilt- Shift lens I use an EF 17-40 which does well with the 1.3 Crop factor and allows me to get tighter on the same frame for a more intimate feel. For some really dramatic angles and interesting perspectives I use a Sigma 12-24mm – but only outside.

This was the beginning of a shoot that encompassed around 6,000 sq. ft. under air and a lavish pool and covered lanai. The images were required to be available the next day to be sent to magazines and other marketing venues. I did the whole shoot *.jpg and made fairly minor adjustments in Photoshop that evening. I have an action that I wrote which does the following, Light Shadow recovery, Light Color Saturation and finally basic sharpening. My work flow is to look at all the images in ACDSee Pro select the ones that I like and that also illustrate the home from a real estate standpoint as well as some more artistic shots. I then copy those to a new folder named “In Progress” I then run my action on all of those images in batch. I then go through those images and take the ones that I still like – from there I might have to do some perspective corrections but nothing to dramatic. (I use a hot shoe bubble level anytime I move the tripod) Burn a CD and give to client – with Invoice which I also send via an email PDF.

I like to use natural light whenever possible but on homes where there is a great view I typically light the rooms using anywhere from 1 Strobe to 4 with Morris Slaves as accents and reflectors and flags to control spill and volume. I use Alien Bee Lights as they are constructed well and are a good value. The price of the listing and what the client request dictates how elaborate the shoot gets. I find that keeping things simple works well though.”

I should mention that this image is the second image in his “recent” gallery. M. James said that he believes that the third image in this gallery is stronger than the image above. I’ll leave that for you to decide. I like the image above because it has a more symmetrical composition and I feel drawn into the room with this image where-as the third image keeps pulling my attention towards the glass table to the right.

Thanks M. James for sharing the setup and details of your image.


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8 Responses to “An Elegant Image by M. James Northen”

  • I like the third photo better too.

    M. James – why the high ISO for this shot?

  • Those images are superb, but I have two remarks:
    * the 24mm TS is great, but combined with the crop factor, it’s only a 31 mm equivalent, and it shows: they look tight. Perhaps it’s my distorted experience with ultra-wide angle images, but the rooms doesn’t seem to breathe sufficiently.
    * They remind me of the question of the limit of the additional light in the room (by multi-layer images or strobes): the viewer is used to have a shaded room when the image shows the outside, and too much inside lighting seems unnatural, the aim of pure white walls and ceilings is perhaps a little bit too much? Perhaps it’s because I haven’t mastered the technique to do it properly and search a justification to accept my limits :), but I turned back this goal and try to get a balanced result, with shaded insides.

    (I’m critic for the edge, the quality of the pictures is exceptional, magazine-like)

  • Very nice. I do kinda agree it seems kinda tight, but the photo quality seems to outweight that! I think because these are ocean properties, you kinda want a really, light, bright feeling.

    Thanks for the detailed info!

  • James is doing exceptional work, without a doubt. But on the real estate listings that I commonly shoot, I’d never succeed with 31mm. I’m almost always shooting at 12-14 (19-22) on my 1.6. I’m really more interested in conveying a sense of the space primarily (how one room flows into another) and the contents, secondarily. Elegant kitchen cabinets and counters deserve tighter shots.

  • I’ll add my vote for the third photo. Not wanting to detract from what is obviously nice work, but I agree with Marc that wider is better – the tilt-shift lens shouldn’t have been necessary for a shot like this, I think.
    The really tricky thing with lighting a room that has intense ambient is keeping the shadows consistent – the human eye is very clever about noticing when the “wrong” side of the furniture is more brightly lit. For this reason I find it is better whenever possible to bounce the main light off the ceiling, and fill by bouncing from the walls. I generally eschew umbrellas altogether, as it’s too hard to avoid blowing the highlights near the edges of the photo.

  • Aaron – No real techinical reason on the ISO other than both the lightmeter and camera were there from the shoot the day before which had been Polo. I wanted to set an appropriate exposure. A couple of images later I dialed back down to 100 for the balance fo the day. For some reason when I chose the image for my website I did not pay attention to the settings information but wanted to give accurate information.

    I also like the third image better as it shows the spatial relationship but understand where Larry is coming from also – I guess that is why I shot both frames.

    Marc – Yes the 24 is tight and there are days that I shoot with it and then virtually re-do most of the shoot with the 17-40 to make sure that I have everything. I agree with your comments on lighting. I think some images should be dark and moody with accent lights creating the atmosphere whereas some have to be enhanced and overlit to a degree to make things work for what the images is going to be used for. You are right there was not that sort of light in the room despite the windows and french doors. Real Estate companies like to see light and bright for the most part.

    Karl – Thanks I thought the quality of the image outweighed the tightness but when I was reviewing them it occorred to me that they were a little tight.

    Many thanks to everyone for taking the time to comment, I appreciate everyones insight and compliments.

    M. James

  • Fabulous photography!!! I was curious what your fee was on this job if you don’t mind.

  • […] 24th, 2007 You may have noticed that when M. James Northen was describing his process for shooting the image we featured about a month ago he mentioned that he used a Expodisc. If you are not familiar with with the […]

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