We have all photographed those bright spaces full of luxurious daylight poped a few strobes into a softbox or wall and come away with breathtaking shots. For me there is nothing better to walk into a room like this on an assignment because I know the work has essentially been done for me, all I need to do is get a good angle and open the shutter long enough. Yet there is another type of space that can crush even the most experienced interior photographers, the low-key room. A room with little or no ambient light with dark corners and screaming highlights, one in which the tonal range is heavy in the darks and bright highlights and not much in between. What can we do to conquer this type of space?
I can distantly remember back in the days of 4×5 setting up shots in darkish, rooms and with my f8 snider lens hardly seeing anything through my reflex viewer. It was a lesson in sectioning off a space and looking at it detail by detail with a lupe on the ground glass. Although with digital and laptops that happens much less often there are times when I bring up live view to see essentially nothing. This was definitely the case when I approached the stunning Kiodo bar in the Miami Design District. I was confronted by a bewildering assault of shiny gold, mirrors, matte black walls, shiny black floors, and blasted-out bottle arrangements. We had one short night to capture all the shots, so there was no time to space in getting bogged down in technical morass.
In a space like this just getting a good composition can be a huge lift as the fine details are lost on the laptop screen. This is where having the time to slowly work through each area of the shot, to ensure everything lines up as you wish and there is a good flow through the image. Once you start in on an image like this with the time constraints there is no going back, you are locked in for better or worse. To make the workflow manageable, it is essentially the same process as the 4×5, breaking up the shot into sections then adjusting each area over and over until the puzzle of the shot looks whole. Working hand in hand with the designer is also key, they will have a deep knowledge of the space and can lead you to some good angles right off the bat.
Once you have your composition down you are off to the dirty work of designing a mental lighting and composting plan. For a space with this many small details, one must ensure that what light you do lay down is easily merged with overlapping areas of the shot. The light you do use should not overwhelm the design of the space either. The supplemental light has to hide in plain sight while compressing the tonal range of the image. Due to the nature of this particular space, the light needed to be carefully positioned as most of the surfaces were shinny with little texture. If the light position was off by even a few degrees you would have a terrible highlight blast, off a few degrees in the other direction, and the light disappears.
The type of lighting does not matter so much as does the color temperature and modeling of the light. In this case, we used Flashpoint battery-powered strobes with some CTOs to keep the color temp of the lights down. All the light was direct, using grids and there were no bounces. This being the case there were about a dozen lighting positions that needed to be set up and merged in post. Anytime you are required to use direct point source light the number of lights needed will go up as each is only lighting a very small area of the shot.
Post-production on a shoot like this can be relatively straightforward if done well, with a few basic overlays then some fine-tuning of details, however, if you mess up the initial layer set on the location you will be sitting in front of your screen for multiple hours masking out and adjusting a subpar shot.
Space like this is not for the average pro, but don’t be afraid of taking them on and experimenting with light to make these spaces pop. Once done well these elite-level images will set you apart from your competition.