[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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Previous comments

Thanks Mike! The BTS was very useful. In my experience a lot of clients want the whole room and thus a small, long room is enormously challenging. I also have a lot of interiors with a load of mirrors that really limit light placement. The other constraint that others mention is that unless you let them know ahead of time they really think you should shoot a whole house in a couple of hours and still get awesome results. Moreover, if you tell them it will take longer and cost more they get antsy and respond by choosing the $150 guy who left the flyer at the office.
One other detail is that some designers get really touchy about changing the details to improve the photograph.

Lucas Fladzinski's picture

Great article. It's funny, I use the exact same method from start to finish with the exception of the Q-Flashes or 430ex's. I use an array of Einsteins for the interiors and exteriors. My PS workflow is the same. It took me about five years to figure out this setup for myself and another five to hone it and consistently get the results I had been looking for. But when I shoot editorial pieces - I shot a Dwell spread last year - they were adamant about natural light and limiting my use of artificial light. When I'm not shooting editorial work that does not limit my lighting setup, I revert back to my typical lighting workflow.

Jose Cusati's picture

all HDR images!


Perhaps not the 100% perfect images, but if you have just 2hrs for each apartment/house I have to do the best I can. No additional lights, 3 to 5 images merged in Nik HDR Pro 2 with no presets, all necessary adjustments have been done in LR or Photoshop after HDR merge.

Jose Cusati's picture

btw. I can't see the pictures from the post!