Anatomy of an Interior Photo Shoot

McLain_on-set_1As the 79 new students who are in Missoula for Summer Intensive will soon learn, lighting is what can make or break a photograph. This may seem obvious when looking at an image of a spectacular sunset or harsh light on a models face. In these situations, lighting is dramatic, impressive, and “in-your-face.”  It can also be achieved with little or no additional gear. On the flip side, to light a scene in a way that makes the light appear seamless, without distracting shadows, and makes the viewer assume that there was NO lighting gear used at all can be a real challenge.

Interior photographer and RMSP lighting instructor Jeff McLain recently found himself in San Francisco after being hired to create images for an interior designer. He submitted this interesting behind-the-scenes description of the shoot. If you’re like me, you’ll love this glimpse into the gear and process of a professional photo shoot. So, without further adieu, here’s Jeff’s recap. Take it away Jeff….

After a latte and a warm cannelle, I headed into the Castro District to meet my client – a 30-something interior designer who just finished her most recent residential project. We essentially were taking overall shots of a living room and a dining room and some vignettes. In the interior world – there is a distinction between interior designers and decorators. Designers often must create original pieces of furniture, draw it, work it up in AutoCad and send it to a builder to create. Whereas decorators are more accustomed to knowing where to shop and what to get to create a certain ‘look’ in a space. This client had created many of the pieces we were photographing as well as shopped for others. At one point I shot a wall-mounted lighting fixture for her. The fixture was from a popular catalog, but she had custom-designed the lamp shade. So, while there is a distinction between the titles – often the skills cross over.

130611_Moore-1816My approach and style with interiors is clean, cheery and sunny, so that it’s showcasing the designer’s work more than doing anything too flashy with the photography. Mostly interior photography is about problem-solving and working with sometimes-complicated lighting scenarios and colors. Complicating things this day was the overcast sky – which meant I was going to be dragging the shutter and pumping a lot of light into the spaces to make it sunny.

My kit consisted of a Canon 5d Mark II body, 24 Tilt/Shift lens, 24-105 f4 and a 70-200 lens (of which I used for one shot of curtain hardware up high). I keep all my stands and scrims and soft-boxes in a couple long hard-cases that are meant to house golf clubs. My heaviest case is a Pelican case that I gutted the foam out of and filled it with A-clamps, Cartellini clamps, Superclamps, black Cinefoil, gaffer’s tape, hand tools, and gels (see thumbnail image). 2012_11-281In this case I also carry a soft gardening pad and work gloves. The pad comes in handy and offers some comfort for my knees when I need to get low and work on the ground. The gloves are ideal for handling hot lights, moving stands and coiling dusty extension cords.

The 24 TS lens is beautiful manual focus glass – but due to its wide angle, it can be tricky to use. I often find that if objects get too close, they look huge and distorted, so if I have room, I back up so that the outer border of the shot is throw-away and I can crop in to the center of the image circle – still maintain my perspective control, but lose any of the strange distortion that comes with this lens.

I brought two laptops and one Tether Tools Aero Master table with the intention of shooting into Lightroom, and a backup laptop with Phase One’s C1Pro. After the first few shots tethered, the ‘spinning beach ball’ showed up on one machine, so I switched to the other to get up and running without sucking up too much time fussing over the stalling machine. For most of the shots, I used two Profoto heads with Acute 1200 packs. One light was my ‘sun’ (and often shot productionat full power on the pack and placed outside shooting in to the space) and the other was a fill light bouncing into the ceiling inside. After each completed set-up, I would back up the raw files to a folder on a portable hard drive. Since my machine running Lightroom was acting up, I shot to C1 Pro.

Most of my exposures were around f11 with a couple at f16 and in the 1/8th of a second shutter speed range. At one point I used some prop flowers as a makeshift cucoloris to break up the light with some pattern. More often than not, I take extra exposures so later in post I can paint in slightly darker window scenes as needed, or if there are reflections on wall art, I’ll have my assistant hold some foam core and get clean plates for post-production later. Often if a lamp is close to a window, the long shutter and strobe lights make the lamp too ‘hot’ so I’ll get my assistant to gobo the light and paint those in as well. I’ve found that trying to pull some info from a darker bracket in-camera makes tones go towards dirty grey – whereas getting the extra shot at the hero exposure but with lighting tricks (or what I affectionately call “Jedi Lighting”) makes for cleaner pixels with which to work.  All of this is really par-for-the-course type stuff in this line of work.

I was longing for either a Toyo G view camera or, if I had my dream camera, a Linhof 679 medium format view camera and a digital back. But, alas, most of these clients nowadays are throwing the images on the internet and the big cameras start to feel like overkill when the end product will be twelve inches at 72 pixels resolution! Nevertheless, I hope to test out a Sinar arTec or LanTec camera someday for my architectural work. And the only other thing I wished I’d had was a 2400 ws pack and a fresnel to really pump more light in so I could shoot at ISO 100 and not 200! Work with what you got!

Nevertheless, the client was happy with the shots and we managed to knock out 7 set-ups with propping versions and extra exposures in six hours.


Does working with studio lighting equipment interest you? Join Jeff from August 18 – 23, 2013 for his Intro to Studio Lighting workshop held in Missoula.





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Charlie Bulla


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