Au Naturel


iPhone Bedroom

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.


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 readStairs, living room 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.



Daylight, Tungsten, Fluorescent, and Halogen, all balanced by flash

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.212 Monte Vista

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.”

5 responses to “Au Naturel

  1. This is a great post, and you’ve convinced me to try adding a flash to my exposure blends. Fixing the white balance issues IS a pain in the rear. What I usually end up doing is setting the white balance for the interior and getting a blue glow from outside, which definitely cheapens the result.

    My question is, if the eye adjusts to white balance differences in real life, why does it not when looking at a photo? Is it because the dynamic range of a photo is so much lower?

  2. Yeah why is that??? Interesting observation Jakob.

  3. My theory is that it has to do with the size of the print. Even a large print, like 20 x 30, can fit within the “sharp-focus” area of our eyes’ field of view. If you were to stand directly in front of something really huge, like a billboard, that completely overwhelmed your immediate field of view, then the “auto-correct” software would kick in again.

    Again, I’m just guessing here!

  4. How many strobes did you use on the white kitchen (2 above this) with the 3 light sources balanced by strobe? Are you modifying speedlights, using soft boxes? Really curious how you get such even light.

  5. Ken, I think there were 6 total. Not sure, because the shot you’re referencing was just made as a gift to the homeowner, who was lending us their kitchen for a “people shoot”. So right after this shot was made I re-did the lighting and did a different project altogether, which kinda erases my memory of this shot.
    The lights are all either bounced, or shot through umbrellas. You can see a partial setup shot of the “People” setup here: