Monday, December 10, 2012

Room With a View: Indoor Photos with Scenic Windows

One of the lighting scenarios that I find most demanding to capture is an indoor room with a scenic window.

You know the issue -- you take a photo of your friends or family with the gorgeous window view as a background.  But all you get is your subjects and totally blown windows.

A shot from another party I took a few years ago.  Most of the details in the scene outside were gone.
The problem of course is that the dynamic range is extremely wide.  However, it is not impossible to capture it all, particularly with the newer DSLR sensors.

The first step is to expose for the windows.  The subjects will be severely underexposed.  However, newer DSLRs have incredible shadow dynamic range, so you will be able to recover the shadows.  If you know your DSLR's highlight dynamic range limit, then so much the better -- you can overexpose the window view to the limit of your camera's sensor to get additional light on your subjects.  In terms of selecting your exposure, it would be best to use the ISO with the widest dynamic range.  Usually this is the base ISO, although on some cameras it is a stop or two higher than that.

The second step is to add flash if possible.  It's not absolutely necessary, but it will make the shadow recovery much easier, and will decrease the noise on the recovered shadows.  If you do decide to add flash, then you should set the shutter speed to your camera's sync speed.  Doing so will decrease the ratio of the ambient to the flash.  Do not go above that and use high speed sync (aka HSS or Auto FP) because you will lose more than 2 stops of flash output, which will be a greater decrease than the decrease to the ambient, i.e. there is a net increase in the ratio of ambient to flash.

What about the ISO and aperture?  There's no combination of ISO and aperture that you can do to decrease the ratio of ambient to flash.  So I suggest sticking to low ISOs in order to get a wider dynamic range.

If the conditions outside are bright and you choose your sync speed as your shutter speed, your aperture will likely be around f/8 or even narrower.  With a low ISO and narrow aperture, your flash will be working extra hard.  In the shot above I was at ISO 200, f/7.1, 1/200.

If you use direct flash, you probably will have enough light:

However, it's very unusual to have a source of hard  frontal light indoors so the flash use is very obvious.  I prefer to get soft light, to mimic the actual light indoors.  To get soft light I used bounce flash.  At ISO 200, f/7.1, my SB-800 didn't have enough power to light up the subjects, even when zoomed to 105mm.  But that's ok.  I know that I'm adding at least some light to the subjects and making it easier to recover them.  This was what the SOOC image looked like with the addition of flash at full power:

Scary, yes?  Seeing this, there is a strong temptation to adjust the settings to bring up the exposure but I knew from experience that the Nikon D600 could recover those silhouetted subjects.

The third step is of course post-processing.  I used Lightroom 4 for post-processing, and I adjusted the following:
- Increased the exposure to brighten the subjects.
- Increase the shadow recovery to around 20 (not more than that, or else the image will look like HDR).
- Decrease the contrast.  This will lift the shadows, just don't overdo it.
- Decreased the highlights -100 to recover as much of the highlights as possible.
- Used the adjustment brush to paint another -100 highlight adjustment (yes, it's cumulative)
- Increase the clarity of the scene outside the window.
- Adjust black clipping and white clipping if necessary.

Here is the end result:

(Note: it was cloudy outside, so the scene outside was really kind of grayish.  There were zero blown details.)

Nikon D600 Hands-On Review
Choosing Exposure for Dynamic Range
Nikon D600 Dynamic Range in the Real World
How to fix underexposure

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, great article. This is an issue close to my heart, our living area at home is quite small and all the windows face west, so it was a pet project for me about a year ago to work out how to light this situation - it's kind of a fill flash situation but as you say, exposing for the outdoor then trying to light the subject adequately with bounce flash is a big ask. I personally find that a slightly more blown background can tend to look a bit more 'realistic' (is that the right word?), but in this case the outside is nice so the result is great - post processing has filled in what the equipment can't quite manage


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