When shooting interiors, I use lights a lot. I’ve recently begun dabbling in exposure blending techniques, with mixed results, but it’s a fair assessment to put me squarely in the “lighting” camp.
There are photographers who shoot exclusively ambient, and I think that’s admirable if you’re adhering to some sort of personal fine-art aesthetic. But for a commercial photographer to deny himself a tool…that makes no sense to me. The goal should always be to produce a deliverable product, and if you’re going to compete in today’s marketplace, you won’t always be able to wait for conditions to be perfect to get any specific shot. If the ambient’s there, and you can shoot it straight, then do it! Ambient light is a wonderful thing. But it won’t always be there. And you can’t allow yourself to be constrained, from a compositional point of view, to what’s “available” vis-a-vis the ambient light.
“I WANT IT TO LOOK NATURAL”
One refrain I hear a lot is, “I don’t use lights because I want the photo to look just the way the room really is.” Well, I certainly can’t argue with that. The question is, what does the room really look like?
The camera is not like the human eye. Our eyes, and the brains they’re connected to, are remarkable little machines. They make white balance, exposure, and focus adjustments on the fly, as they roam across a scene.
I can stand in the middle of a room (where it’s about f/1.0), and find the brightness inside perfectly adequate to read my newspaper, and then casually glance out the window (where it’s f/8-zillion) and have no difficulty with the transition.
Likewise, I can show you a piece of white copy paper outdoors on a sunny day and you’ll correctly identify it as “white”. I can show you that same piece of paper deep inside an office building under the greenest fluorescent tubes GE ever made, and you’ll still pronounce it “white”. And what’s even more impressive is that we can do this even when we’re confronted with both environments simultaneously. Think of a typical living room on a sunny day: the areas close to the windows are getting a ton of daylight (somewhere between 5500 degrees Kelvin (straight daylight) and, oh, 6500 degrees K (daylight after it’s bounced off a cloud, a few trees and some grass). Meanwhile, the inner parts of the room are mostly lit with the incandescent light fixtures, which are around 2700 degrees Kelvin (typical tungsten white balance). Do our eyes notice the dramatic color shift from one side of the room to the other? Does the carpet appear to go from yellow to blue in the space of 15 feet?
No. Automatic corrections, my friends.
The camera can’t do this. Those color shifts are very real, and the camera will faithfully record them, forcing you to either ignore them, or perform Herculean feats in Photoshop trying to overcome them while retaining anything resembling color fidelity in the furnishings. You can set your camera to balance for one, or the other of these color temperatures, but not both.
ENTER THE LIGHT
Popping a little bit of strobe into a scene, even when you don’t need it for your exposure, will go a long way towards evening out all those competing color casts. Think of it as diluting both of them into something in the middle.
Likewise, you can use added light (whether flash or continuous) to “dig out” shadows and bring them into a range the camera can handle. When standing in a room “live” you might well acknowledge that the high corners of the room are a bit dim, but you probably don’t have any real difficulty in discerning detail up there. So your photograph shouldn’t lose detail there, either. Your photo should be darker where it’s supposed to be darker (and brighter where it ought to be brighter), but you need to faithfully replicate the experience that a human eye would have when actually in the room, “live.”
That’s how you make the room look “natural.”