Winchester Gardens: Lighting Review

 Joe Kitchen is a commercial photographer in New York & Philadelphia that photographs architecture & interiors, hotels & resorts, still life and beverage.  Joe regularly travels to Washington DC, Baltimore, Boston and the rest of North America for projects.

A better and older architectural photographer than I once told me, “if people start to think about your lighting, then you failed.”  Ever since then, I always strive to have my lighting appear natural and non-present, to at least the layperson.  However, this often leaves people wondering exactly what I did, if anything, with the lighting.  So for those interested, whether you’re a designer, a fellow photographer, or just a curious bystander, here is a quick lighting overview of a recent project. 

The project was Winchester Gardens, a retirement facility in northern NJ, designed and photographed for KDA.  Overall, we (myself, two assistants, and two designers from the client's office) created 10 interior images in a day, and I will be reviewing 4 of them.  (Just to note, all final images shown have had the highlights layered in from shorter exposures.) 

First image of the day was the 4th floor common area.  The goal here was the show the overall space, give a sense of the layout, and have the finishes come out.  A wider composition a good deal away from the fireplace felt best.  First order of business was to light up the fireplace with a 650w Fresnel.  Since the fireplace is dead center and very dark comparatively, this was necessary to avoid having a black hole in the image.  Next was to imply the hallway/dining area left of the image and between the two pillars.  Adding a bounce and strip box in that area did the trick.  This also added nice shadows to the fireplace wall, bringing out the woodwork.  Last, a 3x4 soft box and another bounce light was incorperated for overall fill. 

Later in the day we moved to the 3rd floor common area, which was actually at grade, for a similar image.  The layout was basically the same and to avoid capturing the same image twice, we moved closer in.  First thing was to light the fireplace again (along with the table), which had a greater effect since the wood was lighter.  We also added another bounce light and 3x4 soft box for fill.  Initially I decided to use the same bounce and strip light combo on the left as before, but felt it was too obvious since the pillars will not being shown.  So I removed them, but doing so made the far wall look a little dead.  I made up for this by placing a strobe with a hard reflector outside illuminating the fireplace. 

Towards the end of the day, we moved into the lobby.  This image was the most complicated since two different rooms were being shown.  In order to have the viewers eye travel through the reception to the far room, I decided to use soft light in the foreground and harsh light in the background.  First, we placed a strobe with the narrow beam reflector outside and hitting the far bookshelf, and added a strip light just right of the shelf to reinforce that look.  A 3x4 soft box was also used in that same room for fill.  For the reception area, we opened the inner door of the vestibule (on the left), allowing sunlight to come in, and placed a strip light there to help break up the room.  A wall bounce was place left of camera to simulate soft window light and add fill.  The right side of the room still looked a little dull, though, and I decided to use a bare bulb strobe, which creates a look similar to a sconce, to brighten it up.  There was also 2 or 3 tungsten Fresnel lamps used in various places too. 

(If I could go back and make one change on this image, I would have gelled the bare bulb strobe to be warmer.  Although I do not feel it is obvious what I did, making the light warmer would certainly feel better.) 

Last, we moved in for a detail of the far bookshelf.  Really, much of the work was already done here from the previous image.  We kept the narrow beam and large soft box where they were, moved the strip box (on the right) a bit and added a ceiling bounce on the left. 

Pro Tip: an issue that came up on this shoot, and others, but probably does not deserve its own blog post, is how to deal with soft box reflections on wooden walls.  Often is the case that I will place a large soft box in just the right spot only to get a glare on a semi-glossy wooden wall.  Most people would choose to just move, which would compromise the lighting.  My solution often is to leave it where it is and gel it to be warmer.  Usually it is the bluer light of the strobe that makes the reflection stand out.  Bringing the color down to 3200K or warmer will make it less noticeable and appear natural, especially if there are windows in the image. 

Back Label? Leave It, Sometimes!

            Typically, whenever we do a bottle shot, the back label is removed.  This is because in order to make the bottle glow we need to reflect light through it from behind with either silver foil or bounced light off of the background.  If the back label was left in place, it would shade that reflection and make the trick look obvious, not to mention it would be distracting.  Sometimes though, it is best to leave it in place.  Such was the case with this Bulleit Bourbon image. 

            Unlike most liquor bottles, the Bulleit Bourbon label only has one label that wraps around the bottle.  To remove the back label would mean we would need to cut the label in half at exactly the point where the label turns to the back, which would be dependent on the angle of view.  If we cut just a little before or behind this point, the cut would be seen, so we would need to be very precise.  Being this precise is always an issue, not to mention it cements our view and keeps it from changing. 

            Another issue is that those who know Bulleit Bourbon know the label wraps around the bottle.  Altering the label would not look right to the aficionado and could be distracting in itself. 

            So we decided to leave it in place, and, with this bottle, it works very well.  First, the back label is not overly large, so it only blocks a minimal amount of light from coming through.  It is not really that distracting.  Second, because of how the bottle is light, the front of the label is bright where the back of the label is dark, and vice versa.  This creates a nice contrast, adding dimension, and helped accent the dye cut of the label.  

The Hybrid

            Usually when you see a liquor ad in a real location, the bottle was shot in studio and dropped into a stock image.  There are a couple reasons for this.  First, properly lighting a bottle requires 5 to 12 lights, depending on the effect, and at least one diffusion panel.  This takes up space, which real life locations rarely have.  Second, if you have a generic bottle shot on white (or black), you can drop it into many different stock images, giving you some variety. 

            However, you will never be able to reproduce the nuances of how the bottle fits into the environment.  The image will look somewhat fake, maybe not enough for someone to articulate why, but enough for them to feel. 

            In some cases though, the bottle was actually shot on location for that nuance.  However, since real spaces are small, you usually can not light the bottle as well as you could in studio. 

            To solve this, I prefer a hybrid method, shooting the bottle on location and in studio, and compositing them in post.  This gives you a nicely light bottle while still maintaining some of the nuances of it being in a real environment, and you will still have a studio bottle shot in case you need to change it up later.  Here is how it works. 

            For the image above, we first started with the location shoot.  Working on a tripod, we composed and styled our image, and then lit the bottle with one light.  This light’s main purpose was to illuminate the reflector behind the bottle so the bottle would reflect on the bar.  It was not flattering, but all we wanted was that reflection.  We then proceeded to light the rest of the image, capture the final, and measure the exact placement of the bottle to the lens. 

            Then, in studio, we carefully replicated the bottle and lens placement and lit the bottle correctly, which required 6 lights.  Specifically we used three rim lights, one side light shooting through a diffusion panel, and two snooted lights, crossed polarized to the lens, hitting the main and neck labels.  We also paid mind to the colors of the location image and gelled the lights accordingly.  Now it was off to post-production. 

            Anthony, from Pixel House, helped me with the post production by layering the studio bottle shot over top the location image.  Then, to add even more depth, I also had him layer in some car light streaks and a brighter left bar from two additional location captures.  A little tweaking in PhotoShop and we ended with a well lit bottle shot that seamlessly fits into its location.