[BTS] The Anatomy of a Luxury Interior Shot

[BTS] The Anatomy of a Luxury Interior Shot

When it comes to interior and architectural photography, there is often much more involved than what meets the eye at first glance. In order to create a photograph that is realistic and enticing, careful planning, staging, lighting and a healthy dose of patience is imperative. In this Fstoppers Original, we dive into a luxury interior shot and see what it takes to construct a mouth-watering interior photo from the ground up.

When shooting an interior, there are many things to take into consideration before I can get close to a final product: interior light levels, exterior light levels, the amount of flash that we want to use, color temperature, composition, who our client is, etc. All of this comes together into two critical questions: "what do I need to show?" and "how am I going to show it?"

For this shot in particular, I was shooting for the homeowners who commissioned a shoot to document their dream house after it had finally been completed. This is important to keep in mind for a couple of reasons, which I will touch on over the course of the article. So without further adieu, let's begin, shall we?

Part 1: Prior to Shooting

The first thing I do when I begin shooting any architectural scene is to take a good walk around and get a feel for the space. Every single scene that I shoot, I want to know the different compositional options available, how the light will affect the scene, where I can place lights if necessary, what interesting architectural features must be shown, and how I should show them. When I first saw this scene, I knew immediately that my compositional options were somewhat limited for the following reasons:

a. I wanted to show the view
b. I didn't want to shoot into a mirror (nowhere to hide myself or the lights)
c. I wanted to show the details of the bar and countertop

Because of what I needed to show, my options were immediately limited. This limitation actually made composing the image a much simpler task. If there is only one option that can accomodate the right composition, I don't need to keep thinking about the perfect vantage point. So with my rough composition selected, I was able to start moving gear into the space and getting set up to create the image.

Part 2: Setup and Gear

When creating an interior image, I try to travel light, which translates to traveling effectively. I personally am always shooting on location, and moving gear around can become a huge hassle. To help myself out, I designed my kit to be quick and easy to both set up and tear down. Here's a quick snapshot of what I'm using. I've labeled it and explained my choices below.

1. Camera, lens, tripod: I use Canon 1d and 5d series cameras, and Canon tilt-shift and L wide-angle lenses. I've got a Manfrotto carbon-fiber tripod, which is solid enough for indoor use with DSLRs. A nice compromise between portability and stability.

2. 17" Macbook Pro, for shooting tethered. In situations like these, there is so much attention to detail involved that it would simply be impossible (well, much more difficult and frustrating, at the very least) to rely on the camera's LCD alone.

3. Paul C. Buff Einstein, with PocketWizard MC2. A great light at a great price. The MC2 allows me to remotely adjust the power, which is quite useful so I'm not running back and forth around the room adjusting light levels. The MC2 also integrates flawlessly with my Plus IIIs, Flex TT5s and Mini TT1s, for when I need an intricate light setup with speedlights and Einsteins.

4. I've taken a hacksaw to a rolling cart and set it up so that I can place a computer on it. I've also covered it with the fuzzy Velcro so that I can have easy access to my lighting modifiers, which for the most part, are all from David Honl's line of accessories. They're all velcro-based, which makes them easy to use and easy to keep on my "Macguyvered" cart.

5. More Honl modifiers. I use the grids, softboxes, gels, bounce cards, flags and snoots religiously on every shoot.

6, 7, 8. Another Einstein around the corner with a shoot-through umbrella mounted on it. More lights outside - in this case, Q-flash with a diffuser on the left, and a 430exII with a Honl Traveler 18" soft box on the right. Lastly, a 430exII with another Honl modifier on it between the counter and the bar to light up that area. All of my non-Einstein lights in this scene are triggered via PocketWizard Plus III triggers with a Mini TT1 on the camera.

Part 3: Composition, Staging, and Lighting

As I mentioned earlier, my composition had more or less been chosen for me, as the only composition that shows all the necessary elements would be quite near to the camera's position (which you can see in the set up image above). From here, it's a matter of fine tuning. I also took the liberty of staging the scene to make for a more pleasing photograph. I'll go through the lighting and staging process step by step so you can get a feel of how the scene evolved.

In terms of staging, I ran into a couple minor problems that were easily smoothed over for this scene. First was the fact that the chairs outside the door that were originally in the shot were very, very in the way of the exterior scene (see below).

They also didn't really mesh with the modern feel of the rest of the room. I quickly found some replacement furniture that complemented the scene, and I was also sure to move the new furniture off to the side so that the viewer's eye would be able to find its way out of the interior and out into the gorgeous pool and view. The next problem was the zebra chair on the left hand side of the frame. While it is a pretty cool chair, it immediately detracts from the flow of the photograph. It does this for three reasons:
  • First, it is facing out of the frame and leads to nothing, which creates some serious tension when viewing.
  • Secondly, it doesn't let your eye move naturally from the foreground to the background; its presence acts as a magnet, drawing your attention away from the flow of the space.
  • The last reason for removing the chair was a practical one: I placed an Einstein with an umbrella directly to the left of the chair (Labeled '6' in the above setup shot) to illuminate the barstools and floor. Because of the chair's position relative to the umbrella, it cast a pretty ugly and unnatural shadow right into the middle of our scene. Out with you, chair!


After I had these main problems taken care of, I got to work on the details: repositioning items on the counter, adding some flowers for color and interest, repositioning the rug to just the perfect spot, and making sure everything was lined up for the final shot.

I decided to replace the chair with another zebra-themed piece of decor, in this case the rug that you see above It fills in the enormous amount of negative space left by removing the chair, lets the light freely fill in the floor and barstools, adds an interesting element to the photo, and doesn't get in the way of our eye as it moves through the scene. That is killing four birds with one stone! I also decided to tighten up the composition at this point, as I felt there was a little too much extraneous information in the frame. Now that I had the staging in order, it was time to perfect the lighting.

In order to light an interior scene that happens to contain windows or open doors, you will need to balance the interior light levels with those of the exterior. In this case, If I were to come in and try to shoot this without lights, I'd be in trouble. Exposing for the interior leaves the exterior looking like Gandalf The White just rolled into town, and if I expose for the exterior, it looks like I'm finally coming to the end of a journey through the Mines of Moria. I've labelled the meter readings for the interior and exterior below. I'm only slightly exaggerating, I swear.

Good luck doing anything with this!

"There is one dwarf yet in Moria who still draws breath!"

To fill a space with soft, natural-feeling light, your best bet is going to be large, diffused light sources. When you are surrounded by a giant white box (like in this particular case), what can you do? Well, you can bounce the light off the walls, ceilings, and everything in between. I decided to bounce one Einstein off of the ceiling joint above my head. The resulting light was soft, directional fill that for the most part filled up the interior with a soft, even, slightly directional light. As I mentioned earlier, I also had an umbrella splashing some light on the barstools. The soft light acts as a sort of fill light to my bounced light's main light, and gives a more three-dimensional quality to the scene, lets us see the detailed woodwork under the bar, and lastly, adds a few specular highlights to the barstools. The last interior light was a 430exII between the bar and counter with a Honl Traveler 8" soft box on it. This served to make visible the detail work behind the bar with a soft, inviting light.

To light the exterior (labeled '8' in the setup photo above), I placed a Quantum Q-Flash on a stand high and to the left to play the part of sunlight streaming over the patio. By varying the light from soft to hard from the foreground to the background, I added another dimension and a certain amount of believability to the scene. For the finishing touches, we put a 430exII with a PocketWizard Plus III opposite the Q-Flash. The 430exII had a Honl Traveler 16" soft box attached to it, and filled in the exterior couches with an inviting light, somewhat of a foil to the hard light coming from the left.

Here's a shot with nearly all of the above mentioned lighting and staging in place:


Not bad, right? But there are still a few problem spots, which brings me to...

Part 4: Finishing Touches

The horizontal window above the door frame was showing a very underexposed ceiling, and because my shutter speed and aperture are dialed up to expose for the exterior, I was not getting a very natural glow from the lights. To combat this, I took a frame that was exposed for the home's interior lights, and in Photoshop, used a mask to brush back in some of the warm glow from those lights. I did the same with that ceiling outside - just a tad goes a long way to livening it up.

After all of these steps, I still wasn't 100% satisfied with the image. The outdoor infinity pool was a little bit overexposed, and the weather on that day wasn't perfect. I replaced the sky via a quick mask, being sure to cover my tracks and take care of the sky in the mirror as well. To fix the pool, I drew around the edge with the pen tool, made a selection, and applied a curves layer to give it some color and keep the highlights in check.

After I was happy with the flash lighting, the ambient lighting, the sky, the pool, and everything else, I merged everything to a new layer and corrected my vertical lines (when you try this, making sure that your vertical lines are parallel with the edge of the frame is a must for any serious architectural photograph), as they were just a tad off directly out of the camera. The finished shot can be seen below:


Part Five: Closing Thoughts

I hope that you learned something from reading about what it took to create this image. It's quite a bit of work, and involves nitpicking many small details. Shooting interiors is a great way to hone your lighting skills, as each shot is like solving a giant puzzle, and no two rooms will ever be lit the same way. Maybe you'll even be inspired to try some of these ideas on one of your shoots in a different genre.

If you want to try an interior or architectural image of your own, I'd be glad to offer feedback and help with lighting, staging and composition. Feel free to get in touch with me via the Fstoppers Facebook group, or by contacting me through my architecture and real estate photography website or Facebook page, which features many shots in the same style.

If you liked this post, let us know! I would be happy to break down more architectural and interior images in this style in the future. Everything from simple one-light shots, to entirely ambient shots, to more complicated setups like this one: it's all fair game, and I could talk about it for days.

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Very informative. Thats way interiors always look much more brighter in adds. I used to wonder how they get the perfect exposure to light the room and show the outside. Assumed that it was done something like its shown. Good to know! 


Scott Pussehl's picture

Why not just use an HDR method to get the perfect exposure for each part of the scene and not even have to worry about light levels, it seems like that would be just as much Photoshop work as what he is currently doing.

Teh Kao's picture

HDR alone is typically really ugly and unnatural.  A bounced light is a better option if you have it.

rastarafi's picture

HDR can be very natural and understated if you nail the settings.

Gary Norbraten's picture

Then it is almost NEVER nailed.  I did a google image search of "interior HDR" and it all looks horribad.

rastarafi's picture

HDR is a matter of taste. Some people like an effect with more presence. Some like it more subtle. It's up to you. I've seen quite a few interior HDR shots that "nailed it". 

I'm not against lighting the scene yourself, not at all.The only question is - are you happy with the lighting, or do you want to manipulate it with your own lights. That's it. Some times a good HDR is all you need. Some times you want to capture the light as the architecht planned it would seem. 

Salvador Sands's picture

Most architects wouldn't be very happy with the 'painter of light' look in their portfolio.  HDR is still not ready for prime-time, except for cheesy landscape pics and cheap real estate agents.

Christian Soucy's picture

You're all confusing HDR with tonemapping. High Dynamic Range can be achieved in two ways, by tonemapping (what we commonly refer to as HDR and can look very bad if not done right) and by layers and masking. You can mask and blend multiple exposures and make it look very good. To simply say lump these two methods of achieving High Dynamic Range is wrong. They are different approaches yielding completely different looks.

Mark Davidson's picture

True, but adding lighting to these techniques early bumps the image into excellent territory.

This is doing exactly that, but not allowing a program decide where to boost the shadows and where to mute the higlights.  Even well done HDR is easy to pick out.. painting in layers by hand with different exposures will give you much more control.

dswatson83's picture

HDR might have looked natural if the outside light levels and inside were close in exposure but due to the 4 stop + light level differences, that would have looked horrible with HDR and require at least 7-9 frames. I use HDR if my light is within 2 stops from my darkest area to lightest area. This will still look natural and saves a ton of time.

Ryan Sullivan's picture

I just shot photos of my home for a real estate listing and could have used some of the tips here.  Excellent [BTS].

Johnathan Evans's picture

For a lower cost solution. I use a bounced SB800, Nikon D90 with Tokina 12-24mm F4 lens. I then adjust and correct in Lightroom. I typically shoot under exposed, bounce the flash off a wall or ceiling backwards to avoid shadows and then add fill light within reason in Lightroom. I under expose to avoid blown highlights from windows. I will bring up the blacks if needed and correct for distortion. Unfortunately most people aren't going to pay the money to have this sort of pro level shoot done. Wonderful article though and great way to show how to get it right "in camera".

rastarafi's picture

If you already went into photoshop, why not just shoot it HDR and be done with it! What a massive bother and terrible flow... If you're already applying masks and replacing the sky, don't go through all that trouble with exposure.

dswatson83's picture

I think if he had cut down the ambient outside by half a stop more, he could have used the outside without replacing the sky with just some simple curve adjustments. HDR would not have worked with such a huge exposure difference. Works well for getting an extra 1-2 stops of light but this looks like he is balancing more than 4 stops of exposure difference between outside and in. That would have been brutal looking with HDR. Plus, with all that white, you would probably have tons of halos  

Jeremy Cupp's picture

Thanks for this. Very insightful. 

Teh Kao's picture

HDR makes interiors look like video games and not photographs.  I really dislike the look and I don't think it does interiors justice at all.

Gary Norbraten's picture

Here's a quick shot I took of an office.

Crappy Tamron with a mounted 430EX bounced.  

Photographik's picture

Thanks for posting this Mike.  I am happy to see another photographer doing great work actually lighting interiors rather than relying on HDR.  I light interiors this way and I think the final images are much cleaner and more professional

Michael Valli Photo's picture

Thanks for the break down Mike! Fantastic to see the effort and thought processes that go into a shot like this.

josephp's picture

This is awesome.  However, when I shoot real estate, I have about an hour to shoot the entire property, so I wouldn't be able to work this way.  HDR does NOT have to look like a video game.  The only thing I use it for is to combine the images.  You can still edit it independently.

Jon Dize's picture

Entirely different market josephp!  There is a market that wants images that can be created in an hour and a market that will pay for the photographer to take some time and do it the best way possible.

Joe Gunawan's picture

Hey Mike! Good to see a post from you! It's Joe, the guy who assisted you for the Julia Dean Workshop interior/exterior shot!

Mike Kelley's picture

 Hey Joe! Good to hear from you :) Add me on facebook, I lost your card and would like to show you the images. Facebook.com/mikekelley

Paul Koziorowski's picture

This is great if you have the time to do a proper setup, however I still feel that you can achieve similar results doing HDR in Photoshop. And no I'm not talking about fixing it, but using the tools provided. This is especially useful for anyone shooting real estate interiors. 

Matt Leitholt's picture

Great article, very helpful. Props for taking the time to light it instead of do lazy HDR work :)

Koert DuBois's picture

Mike, nicely written article to back up a nicely composed shot. It would be extremely cool to see your best attempt at an HDR version of the same shot and also a "painting light with remote flashes" version of this shot. It would be impractical to actually show those comparisons but I would be interested in hearing your opinion of how the final photos would have differed. For example, would it be impossible to do smooth exposure transitions in HDR?

Nathan Peppin's picture

Love it.  Thanks.  And yes MORE please!

David Eichler's picture

HDR? By itself without any supplementary lighting? No way. Please note the examples illustrating the dynamic range of the ambient lighting. HDR would yield a sorry, muddy mess, unsuitable for serious professional photography.

Peter Hernandez's picture

Clearly, all of you people complaining about HDR haven't seen it used well with a non-tonemapping workflow like LR/enfuse.

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