9 Helpful Tips for DIY Home Interior Photography (part 2)

Last month I introduced my nine tips for doing your own home interior photography. Following those guides you can achieve acceptable results for many rooms using just your smart phone camera or equivalent. There are, of course, some trade offs and for some properties or situations you may need more. 

To address that, this month I've taken two photos of a different room - one with my smartphone, and one with my Nikon DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera. 

Here is the DSLR photo I created. I've added supplementary lighting using a technique I'll call "ambient/flash composite" which I will describe further on down. 

And here is the same room photographed with my Samsung Galaxy S5 phone camera using most of the techniques we discussed last month.

Right off you'll notice in both photos I violated one of my nine rules from last month by having a large piece of furniture (pool table) in the foreground. But recall I qualified that rule by saying sometimes it makes sense to violate it. The pool table is a focal point in this room, as is the window and window seat, and I thought it was important to feature them both if possible in one photo.

Now what problems do you see with the Phone HDR photo? For me, these are the biggest issues:

  1. The field of view is too narrow -  I would like to see all of the pool table in the shot. When I took this I was actually out of the room shooting through the doorway so I was as far back as was physically possible. The phone camera's lens just wasn't wide enough for this room.
  2. Overall, the image is just too flat. The area outside the windows is washed out, and the interior lacks detail in the shadow areas. This despite using the HDR (high dynamic range) feature on my phone.
  3. Two of the wall photos are filled with reflections from the window.
  4. Finally, there are some color spill issues where the chairs and floor have taken on a blue hue from the window. This is a common "white balance" issue when outside light is mixed with interior lighting in a photo.

Two Techniques

There are two main approaches to solving the flat lighting issues with this room. They both involve getting the flash(es) off the camera to create a more three-dimensional, textural and professional look.

The traditional technique, which I did not use here, is to set the camera's exposure so the window scene is properly exposed. This underexposes the room interior so we then add supplementary lighting inside the room. It isn't uncommon to use 5 or more off-camera flashes discretely placed around the room to get the desired interior exposure. It often involves several trial-and-error attempts to get the right look. This is the technique I used early in my interior architectural photography.

More recently I've been using an ambient/flash composite approach taking multiple shots with a single flash, and then compositing them together. 

Shooting the Ambient/flash Composite Version

I shot the series of photos using my Nikon D750 DSLR camera and a 12-24 Sigma zoom lens, set at 20mm to give me the desired field of view. I also used a Nikon SB800 strobe flash off camera.

During this shoot, the camera remained stationary, mounted on a sturdy tripod. The general approach used here was to shoot 20 or so images that each optimized the lighting for one part of the overall shot, and then in Photoshop I blended the desired parts of each into one composite image. So for example, I set the camera for proper exposure and color (white balance) for the trees outside the window and took a photo. Then I set the camera's exposure and color for the interior of the room and took that photo. Here is the image exposed for the window exterior.

And below it is exposed for the general interior lighting.

Next I added what would become highlights to the base exposures by lighting key areas of the room with a single off-camera flash. To do this I mounted my strobe flash on a monopod so I could easily walk around the room, point the flash at an area of interest, and trigger the camera and flash. I used three Pocket Wizard Plus III's to handle the radio communications between the monopod, the camera, and the flash. I also used my smartphone to remotely control the camera's settings using an app called qDSLRDashboard. So, working alone I was able to remotely control the camera settings, take the shot, and immediately review it without having to return to the camera

Here is the rig that allowed me to do this working alone. Add an assistant and you could accomplish the same thing with just the camera and the Speedlight.

And below is a timelapse of me "painting" the highlights with the flash rig.

Painting with light from Jerry Norman on Vimeo.

There is a clever trick to this. When taking the highlight photos we want the camera's ambient exposure to be less than the exposure we used in the base photos. That is why the room looks so dark in the timelapse. Then when we "paint" an area with the strobe flash, only that area hit by the flash will be lighter than the base photo. This becomes very useful when we start blending the photos in Photoshop.

Blending the Photos in Photoshop

Photoshop provides a large number of blend modes to control how two images on adjacent layers blend together. In my photograph I used the "Lighten" blend mode to add the highlights to the base image. It works like this: the lighten blend mode samples every pixel from two adjacent layers and uses the lower layer's pixel unless the upper layer's is lighter, in which case it uses the upper layer's pixel. This concept is demonstrated by the following Photoshop screenshot.

If you look in the lower right corner of the screen shot you will see two Photoshop layers. The upper layer contains an image with white text and black background. The lower layer contains an image with only a solid gray background. I've set the blend mode on the upper layer to Lighten. The resulting composition, seen in the middle of the screenshot, is white text on a gray background because only the white text is lighter than the lower layer.

This concept saved me a ton of work because instead of having to mask in each "painted" area, I let the Lighten blend mode do the work for me. I could do this because as discussed earlier, I set the camera's ambient exposure lower in the highlight shots than in the base interior photo. To repeat, the only part of the highlight photos that was lighter than the base interior photo were the parts touched by the flash. So, when I placed a highlight shot above the base interior shot and set the highlight shot's layer blend mode to Lighten, only the flashed area blended with the layer(s) below. Furthermore, I could control the strength of the highlight by adjusting the opacity of the highlight layer. No masking required - just pure magic, as illustrated in the before and after Photoshop screen shots below where I am blending a highlight shot at the right end of the pool table. I believe the end result is very natural looking.

Basically, I then repeated this for all the remaining highlight areas until I achieved the interior lighting seen in the ambient/flash composite version at the top of this post.

Next Month

Note in the Photoshop screen shots I haven't yet replaced the window with the one from the base exterior shot. Any guesses on how the exterior base photo's window was composited into the ambient/flash version? In the past, I would place the base interior image in a layer above the base exterior image and carefully mask the interior window to reveal the exterior's window below it. This was tedious and easily detected if not done well. Next month in the final installment of this tutorial series, I'll detail an easy way to replace the window area using blending.

About Me

I am a freelance photographer/videographer and often do architectural assignments. 

Items discussed in this post

aDSLRDashboard phone app

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