Why the lighting?

Posted by neale on August 8, 2022

Why do you need lights? Why so many lights? Can you not just work with natural light? These are some of the questions that can arise when people see how much equipment I travel with to photograph their projects. Of course once the results land, the questions never come to the forefront again. 

However, it's always good to answer questions, not only that, but question yourself sometimes, because believe me, if there was an easier way to get to the end results I produce, I'd be all for it, I'm only human. The small van load of location lights I take almost everywhere with me when I'm working, is heavy, and it's a long day moving them around a big property for eight to ten hours a shift, quite often over three or four floors. It keeps me fit though, and not only do I like it that way, I know that as existing tech stands, if I want to produce the best possible results, this is the only way for the time being. I've devised a way of working with lighting to very quickly solve all the issues inherent with photographing interiors, which has been honed over the years along with my workflow in post-production, to get great results quite quickly.

Let's look at the first question, 'why do you need lights?'. Straight off the bat, consistency. Natural light has a habit of doing things you don't want at the wrong time of day, especially when it's already been a long day. Now in a perfect world, we'd work our way round a property inside and out working with the light, using it to our advantage, and I do that as much as I possibly can, always, without question. It's not always perfect, sometimes there's limited time or access to a property and I have to produce what I can in that time and the natural light isn't always going to be doing what I want it to. It's just that simple. So the lighting brings a certain consistency in these situations where natural light images would fall flat on their face. Secondly, having a well exposed base 'flash' image is a great starting point for blending in other layers, like ambient natural light layers, using the right blend modes in photoshop, we can keep the colours correct, and bring back some of that natural feel, which I'm all about, I don't want my images to look overly lit, or clearly only lit by flash, this is of no interest to me, I'm aiming for natural facsimile plus style image. What I mean by that is something that looks natural, but has a little subtle something else going on to grab the viewers attention, more on that later, but if we look at this image, you'll get a feel for that.


Looking at this, you'll notice the sunlight coming in from the left hand side, notice how all the detail is retained, without the awful halos from poor post-production or nasty HDR software, which for the record I absolutely despise. There's a lot more going on in this image beyond the blending of the base flash later and the natural ambient exposure layer. Even though it's a high key daylight image, I've got the lights on, and for me this is important. So often I see interior images with lights on during the day, and it quite simply looks awful. There's a reason why a lot of magazines ask photographers to make sure the lights are switched off, and this is because most photographers don't know how to deal with having the lights on in an image without destroying it. The lights will either be blown out, and destined to remain whatever horrible colour temperature they are in daylight, usually a nasty yellow colour, which looks fine at night when the daylight has gone, but not during the day. If an architect or interior designer has specified good lighting into their design, I think it should be evident in the image regardless of the time of day, and using supplementary location lighting is a step towards controlling the inherent ambient lighting. Due to the composited nature of the way I build my images up, there really is no end to the possibilities when it comes to processing the layered images. This next image demonstrates that quite nicely, I really love the wall lights in this knock out design by Bauen Design.


There's a lot to note in this image as well. Firstly the lighting design is honoured without being blown out, the back floor to ceiling window is correctly exposed, and all the colours are spot on the mark. There are natural ambient exposure frames blended in and some composite flash frames to highlight the design, fabrics and textures. There's quite simply no way you could achieve this level of image with natural lighting alone, and that might sound pompous, but it's through experience, and trying so many different approaches myself first. I didn't just arrive at this technique and decide this was it, there was years of trial and error with loads of different approaches, lighting was the final part of the puzzle that brought all my experience on location and in post-production together. It filled in all the problems I had been struggling with. Like pulling a good window exposure, when you try and do that without lighting, it's a mess, there's over exposed sensor blooming around the edges where the outside meets the inside, and there's no HDR software can compete with balancing the exposure out with lighting. There is no comparison in quality. I see a lot of interior images from practising pros with blown highlights all over the place. Maybe they're ok with that, I'm not, I know that information is retrievable, if there's a way to get that back then I'll work that way. Perhaps it's a reflection on my personality, there is a very big control element in photography, or perhaps it's just wanting to overwhelm the short falls of what cameras are capable of capturing vs what we see with our own eyes. It's not the fastest process, it's not point and shoot, but it is the fastest way to achieve this level of imagery. I've quite often got to move quite fast on location, and solving technical problems with minimum fuss to produce the best quality of image I can is paramount. Hopefully the images speak for themselves, and are a good indication of why I use my own lighting on interior shoots.

Sure you can get good results without using lighting, but you're at the mercy of whatever lighting is inherent in the building, and it will more often than not be a mixture of colour temperatures, not to mention brightness. With a good deal of post production you can sometimes partially mitigate these issues, but I tend to find the more you have to hack away at it, the muddier the image becomes, and the quality really starts to degrade. I do at times have to photograph some interiors without lighting, and it's always down to circumstances out with my control, the image below would be a good example.


This is the refurbished ballroom at the Hilton in Glasgow. My client, the talented team at Bell & Swift were responsible for the design of this and the bar/reception area outside. This was kind of a bonus shot, our main areas of interest were the areas just outside the ballroom, which is quite some space regardless. My intention was to light this space initially, but is was a fluid situation, and as you can see it was getting prepared for a big event, and we simply didn't have the time to work this space with my preferred method, we were having to work round other peoples schedule and you have to respect that and do what you can when you're in these situations. It's a serviceable image, but it's nowhere near what could have been achieved given the chance to properly light it all. There was a lot of adjustment of the existing lighting to get something I could piece together, and while to most peoples eyes it will look ok, my eyes only see what could have been possible with the lighting had we had the time. The image below was the bar reception area outside, and thankfully I got to light this as I saw fit.


For me, there's no comparison. But this isn't to say that larger spaces like the ballroom can't be lit up. In fact much bigger spaces can, and do benefit from the same approach. My biggest challenge being the jobs that have come in from Gymshark over the years. In the images below you can see some BTS of the lights that were used, some of them in position and some resulting images. 





Here's some of the resulting images:




One of particular not to really bolster what is possible with lighting is this before and after image, on the left we have an ambient frame in all its glory. The inside of the conference space just simply isn't ever going to be visible with the inherent ambient lighting, there's no way to mitigate this mess unless you have you're own location lights. I'm not going to lie, the process of making this possible isn't easy, I had to shoot specifically for methods I knew I was going to use in Photoshop. There's no one shot fix for this, and there a lot of precision pen masks getting cut to make it work. Another reason to light.


All this sounds like I'm saying there is only one right way to do all of this. Of course that's not the truth, and my methods evolve over time, learning from what I want my images to look like, using the tools I think will solve the issues, and my mistakes as I go, there's a lot of trial and error when you're pushing new equipment, or trying out new ideas, and especially when making frames that are solely there to solve issues in post-production. This particular evolution has happened as a means of me finding the most streamlined way to overwhelm all the problems that have irked when I've been on location, and just as importantly when I'm in post-production, to produce the best possible image I'm capable of at that time, within my clients budget. The interesting thing about photographers is that we do all work in different ways. As ever my only concern when I'm on a job, is to give my clients images they can't wait to share, that show their hard work in the best possible light, if you'll pardon the pun. So much of their time, knowledge and expertise gets poured into their work, and I feel obliged to reciprocate and do everything I can to make it shine. And it works, time and time again, when you see your images getting used for advertising your clients services, beyond the original scope of the requirements, you know you've done something right. Why make all the effort and time to design something outstanding, then photograph it with a mobile phone? Make your projects shine, stand out from the crowd, look like you mean business, and don't fall at the final hurdle of recording your hard work.