If you follow my work, you’ll know that I have a staircase fetish. I just can’t stay away from them. To me, a good staircase is the richest subject around. They’re great metaphors, they’re visually stimulating, they lend themselves well to vertical shots, and they’re technically challenging to light.
But I guess it’s the symbolism that works for me best. Stairs take you places. You can go up, you can go down….there’s all this mystery about the upper level, or the lower level, depending on where you are when you shoot them.
So anyway, I shoot them at every opportunity. And today I thought I’d walk through the process of finding a composition, and then lighting it.
I knew I wanted a killer shot of this one from the minute I walked into the house. My first thought was to go with the traditional straight-on, symmetrical photo. And I made it, but sadly I deleted it that night, so I can’t share it with you. Suffice it to say that it was boring. Ordinary. You’ve seen it a million times.
I needed to help it out a little by finding a more dynamic angle, that showed the second flight more. I played around a little and found this angle, which to me is much more interesting:
In keeping with the style and feel of the rest of the house, this shot needed to be bright and crisp, not a moody, shadowy one. The colors are a fairly bright yellow, offset by white trim and light oak woodwork. Plus those uber-bright windows demand a lot of light if I’m to avoid blowing them out completely.
Because the windows are up on the second level, there’s almost no way that a flash reflection is going to make it’s way back to the camera, so there was a lot of flexibility in terms of light placement. However, that large bank of windows is clearly the dominant factor in the exposure. The brightness was a serious problem. There was nothing but sky to be seen out there, but I didn’t want to blow it out to the point that I lost detail on the windowframes and mullions, and I wanted those large potted plants up there to be outlined and not lost in a wash of light spill.
So my first step was to establish my exposure for the shot, which after a few test shots I found to be f/11, 1/200th at ISO 400. If you want to bone up on how to pull in windows with flash photography, read here:
With my base exposure set, I was ready to start constructing a lighting setup.
Normally, when I have a high ceiling, my first thought is to bounce a strong light off the ceiling, and that’s exactly what I did here. I placed an SB-80 on the balcony, aimed more or less into the middle of the ceiling. This light does all kinds of good things: it helps minimize shadows behind the large plants on the landing, it floods pretty much everything you see (except the extreme foreground) with soft even light, bringing my exposure up about a stop across the board, and gives the sense that there’s a large open space up there (which there is.)
With that light in place, I began building the rest of the shot. Working with the foreground first, I set up two lights, my main light with a diffuser cap near the camera position, and a second light for fill over to my right, with the wide-angle diffuser flap down.
Ok, let’s pause right there and discuss why those lights are where they are, and why I’ve used the modifiers I chose.
First off, I should say that I could probably have used an umbrella on my main light. Looking at the photo now, I’m not 100% sure why I didn’t do that, unless it was because I was too lazy to go get the darn thing out of the bag. Regardless, I needed my main light to be large, and white. The yellow of the walls behind me and all around precluded doing a bounced light source (which otherwise would have been great), because I was worried about color fidelity; I felt that it was very important to have good clean bright whites on the balusters and the ceilings.
So, no bouncing. A direct flash was out, too, because I had to position everything so close to the subject (due to space constraints) that shadows would be a big problem. An umbrella would certainly have worked, but again, for whatever reason, I chose to go with the diffuser cap, which spreads the light beam out equally in all directions, enabling me to use the white ceiling over the camera as a sort of large diffusion panel in addition to the direct light coming from the cap itself. This gave me a little bit of shadow behind the right newell post; which I could clean up later in Photoshop. Had I taken a few extra minutes, I could have probably come up with an arrangement that eliminated that shadow; but this is Combat Architectural Photography — I couldn’t afford to spend more than 10 minutes total on this shot.
So that’s my main light; then I needed some fill from the other side. That was flash number two, with the WAD, at about 1/16th or maybe even 1/32nd power. It doesn’t take much! As it is, you can see some dark shadows on the yellow wall at lower left, all from this flash. But it’s worth it; that area you expect to see some shadow, and that light is what makes the white balusters in the left railing really pop.
I might as well point out a flaw at this point, which was the result of a poor light placement: my main light with the diffuser cap is set too far back behind me, and as a result there is a hard shadow line running up from the corner of the foreground ceiling along the inside of the upper right-hand railing. Dammit.
Ok, now on to the upper portion of the scene.
With those uber-bright windows as a backdrop, I needed a lot of light to bring the walls and especially those large potted plants up to the same level. And when I walked up there and looked at it, I realized that the twin flights of steps themselves were perfectly positioned and angled to act as reflectors for a couple of nice large bounced lightsources. And they were even carpeted with a nice neutral beige!
I had never actually done this before, but it seemed logical, so I set two SB80’s on short stands on the steps, just out of sight of the camera, and bounced them off the steps and also the wall at 1/4th power each. In close quarters like this, that’s a lot of light.
And it worked! I little tweaking of light levels all around and I had what I felt was a very nice shot. The lights in the chandelier are a little dim, but still clearly lit, and the large plants are crisp and well saturated. The windows even have a hint of blue, and the walls appear evenly illuminated from the very upper reaches down to the bottom steps.
Post-production was fairly minimal; I cloned out the worst of the shadows behind the right newell post, and brightened the white undersides of the upper flights. Because the composition required that I tilt the lens, I did a perspective correction using Photoshop’s Transform>Skew tool. A Tilt-Shift lens would have been very nice here! A quick Shadow/Highlight to bring up the color in the plants a little more, and a final Levels adjustment and this one was ready for delivery!