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Interior Lighting with Multiple Strobes by Scott Hargis

Published: 04/12/2017
By: larry

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 whole home within a few hours like the kitchen above. Scott has adapted the lighting techniques that David over at teaches (don't put the 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 the other of the camera. Bouncing off 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. Also, check out Scott's video series here:

Here is a more recent (2015) post over at Scott's blog titled: Why We Light Things.

4 comments on “Interior Lighting with Multiple Strobes by Scott Hargis”

  1. I do similar stuff with the strobes. 800 ISO seems OK for my purposes. I shoot it all in RAW.

    But in addition I do a 5 picture bracket (-2, -1, 0, +1, +2) with no flash. I create an HDR from the brackets and then layer up 1/2 dozen strobe shots in Photoshop. So Photoshop gets the HDR layer and the strobes layers. If I want to make extra work for myself, I also layer in all the brackets. All in all there can be 12 layers. Photoshop brings it all layers automatically from Lightroom anyway, so it's not that hard to manage. Once photoshop is set up, you can simply use which layers are best, then start painting them in.

    A fast computer is needed for this, especially with RAW. Also a SSD is required unless you don't mind waiting. Using hard disks would be painful.

    I paint in the strobes where needed. I can do it all in about 5 -7 minutes per photo. But for elaborate work, it can much longer.

  2. While I rarely ever do HDR, primary is off-camera lighting as Scott summarized above and detailed in his book. Small bedrooms go quick with the single flash, and occasionally two to offset ceiling fan shadows that are being 'difficult' with one flash, letting each flash take out the other's shadow. The ultimate small room is not the bedroom but the bathroom - particularly smaller hall baths - with mirrors and reflective tile and camera/flash position is extremely limited. Flash on a stand is invaluable to snake above the door frame to the ceiling for bounce, chimp sliding along doorframe for ceiling hotspot reflected in mirror. And of course, self timer to remove yourself from a mirror which also allows you hand hold/position the lights stand as you hide behind the wall and minimizing cloning out..

  3. Blast from the past!

    I wrote that over 10 years ago, and while some things have evolved quite a bit (it would be a very different post if I were to write it today), most of that advice is still generally sound. Today I would never advise anyone to expose their shot so that ".. the strobes [are] the dominant light source, with only the windows truly lit by the ambient." On that point, and many more, the book is quite up-to-date.

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