Today’s photograph is of the hallway in my house and the shot is lit by no less than 6 light sources.  Two of them are in the frame and the other four are off camera flashes that are out of sight.  As I set up the lights and went through my test shots I took some photographs with different flashes on and off so that I could break down the lighting of the image here in the first, and possibly last, of what may become a regular series on the blog.

The motivation in taking this image was two-fold.  First, I wanted to show off the wonderful carpet cleaning work I had spent much of the previous two days doing with the stairs carpet in particular, which would have been kindly described as ‘grubby’ when we moved into the house last May, finally looking decent.  Secondly, as an assignment to myself, I wanted to see if and how I might light the space to mimic, but improve on, an available light image.

The first step, before unpacking my flashes, was to see how an available light image would look.  I had a fair idea what the problem areas were going to be, but it’s always worth trying an available light image before diving in head first with a whole load of off camera flashes and finding later that you’re solving a problem you didn’t actually have.

So for my final image I want reasonable depth of field to keep as much of the scene in focus, so I start off at an aperture of f/8 – I’d go to f/11 or f/16 but at 11pm that is going to cause me great headaches on my shutter speed, especially when I want to shoot this handheld.  I could have set up a tripod, but I know deep down that the available light shot isn’t going to cut it and most of my shooting time will be at hand-holdable shutter speeds, so why bother setting one up for what will be a test shot?

I push the ISO to the upper limit of what I allow the D300 work at, which is 1600 (again, knowing this is really gonna be just a test shot), and the shutter speed falls (in aperture priority mode) at 1/15s.  Just barely hand-holdable at 17mm, which is the widest lens I have to use (without going fisheye).  So my ambient light shot – f/8 @ 1/15, ISO 1600 – looks like so:


Actually, that’s not bad at first glance.  Closer inspection reveals problem areas.  First, even at web resolution you can see the noise from the high ISO – colour noise at that (i.e. not something I can pass off as grain).  Secondly, and for reasons I don’t fully understand still, the wall at the top of the stairs has gone green – it is the same colour as all the other walls, but whatever way it has been underexposed and whatever way the colour balance is, there is a strong green tint there that I don’t like.  Thirdly, and most importantly, the two light sources in the frame – the lamp and the ceiling light – are totally blown out.

To solve the first issue I could get that tripod and do a long exposure at ISO 200.  To solve the other two isn’t as easy.  The green wall is, I suspect, due to underexposure of that part of the scene, so I’d need to add light there to bring that back up, or overexpose the rest of the scene. The lights are overexposed, so I need to either remove light there, or underexpose the rest of the scene.  Conflicting solutions to two problems in the one image.  Sure you might think a HDR image would work with multiple exposures for the shadows, mid tones and highlights all merged into one image.  But how can I fix the problem in-camera without needing to open HDR software?

Next step – let’s expose for those lights.  After all it’s much easier to add light than remove light, so if we get those looking good first, we can sculpt the light for the rest of the scene later.

So I play around with the exposure and find that at f/8, 1/60s, ISO 200 (note – much better than 1600) I get this:

expose for lights

I’m liking that – notice that the detail on the lampshade is visible now for instance – so I have my base exposure.  Now I just need to add light as I go.  Apart from the three flaws of the ambient image, I was quite happy with the general look, so I’m going to try to add light in a way which brings me back towards that look, but without those three flaws.

First step is to light the kitchen which is through the doorway at the end of the hall.  In the frame above there is a light switched on in there, but it’s not register at this exposure, so I put an old SB-20, triggered via an Elinchrom Skyport receiver with a transmitter mounted on my D300, in the kitchen just to the left of the doorway.  I need to tweak the power a little, but quickly settle on 1/2 power with the light pointing up to bounce off the ceiling, to give me this:


Apart from the highlight on the ceiling and the resultant shadow of the ceiling light, that’ll do nicely.  In hindsight I could have moved the flash further to the left inside the kitchen and minimized the highlight, but I was going to be adding light to the hallway anyway so didn’t dwell on it at the time.

Now the hall itself is quite long, and so I reckon it needs two lights to give me an even exposure along its length.  Firstly I hold a Nikon SB-800, set to fire off its optical slave, in my hand with it aimed at the ceiling just a little in front of me.  My motivation here is that it’s going to bounce from where there was an out-of-frame ceiling light in my ambient-light image, and so hopefully throw light on the nearest part of the hall much like that light does normally.   The position of the second flash – an SB-600 triggered via my second Elinchrom skyport receiver and a hot-shoe adapter – is similarly motivated. It is just out of sight where the hall shimmies to the left, sitting on the floor and pointing straight up.  Both are zoomed to 24mm to thrown the light wide.  I’m still at f/8, 1/60, ISO 200 and I set both those flashes to 1/4 power.  I’ll get more light from the SB-800 at 1/4 power than I will from the SB-600 but that’s ok because I want it to throw a little light up the stairs too.  Another press of the shutter and I get this:

three flashes

Looking close to my ambient shot now, but still a few issues.  Firstly, the top of the stairs is not getting much light – and why would it?  It’s furthest away from all my light sources so far.  Secondly (and this is minor) the shadow above the thermostat on the wall is irritating me.  So is the funky effect going on above the ceiling light, but that’s not going to be easy to solve (maybe in post-production?), so I’ll live with that for now.

I make two final adjustments.  First I throw some of the light from my handheld SB-800 next to the camera a little more forward to fill those shadow areas, and while I’m at it I bump up it’s power by 1/3 of a stop.  Secondly, I place a fourth flash – a Vivitar 283 – at the top of the stairs, just out of frame, and triggered by an optical slave connected to its hot shoe.  This is set to “purple” which in the funky Vivitar world of flash power settings is close to full power.  That gives me the final frame above, and reproduced again below, with sufficient light at the top of the stairs, shadows from the other flashes reasonably under control, and an image that looks a lot like the ambient-light image, but without the three flaws that were to be found in that.

4 flashes

kitThis final frame is being lit by six light sources – the four flashes that I mentioned (to recap: one in the kitchen; one in the hall behind the corner; one in my hand next to the camera; one at the top of the stairs) and the two light sources you see in the frame – the ceiling light and the lamp.  There are other lights switched on (including one above the camera) but they’re not contributing to the final exposure and so don’t count.

So there you have it.  Is it a convuluted way of photographing the hallway at 11pm at night? Certainly.  Is it a good exercise in lighting?  Definitely.  And it was an excuse to use all the equipment you see on the right.

As always your thoughts, criticisms and experiences are welcome in the comments below.  Meanwhile I’m going to think about what I might be able to shoot for the next Flash-lit Friday post, which incidentally is unlikely to be a weekly series, but hopefully a regular one all the same.

9 Responses to “Flash-lit Friday: Lighting a hallway”

  1. Yet again Ronan you make an interesting technical explanation of something that most of us just take for granted when we see it in professional shots but for which we have no idea of the complexity that goes into achieving the end result. Sweet!

  2. Yip…this is a good article!

    Do you use CLS at all, or do you always keep in manual?

  3. Thanks Charles and Glenn!

    I will on occasion use iTTL, but it would be rare – I prefer to manually set the flashes. Whenever possible I use the wireless feature of CLS to trigger flashes, even if I am setting their power manually. That wasn’t possible here as only 2 of the four flashes I used would support it, and the other two optically slaved would have been confused by the pre-flashes. But generally, where it can be used, it’s great.

    I like the repeatability and predictability of manual over iTTL which is why I generally opt for that when doing off-camera flash stuff. For instance this shot is an example: http://www.ronanpalliser.ie/blog/2009/12/11/dolce-group-shot/

  4. My best guess for the green color cast is that the top of the stairs is being lit from some other light out of frame upstairs. Do you have a fluorescent light up there anywhere?

  5. Interesting, though not perfect.

    The shadows of the ceiling light and the thermostat, as well as the stair banister – even though they are more or less subtle – are very distracting. The additional shadow play on the ceiling above the lamp is just too much.

    Instead of dismissing this scene and going to the next flash-lit image in a week’s time, I’d really be interested in how to do away with these flaws and optimize the photo – of course without any post-processing.

    For instance, the flash around the corner on the floor just seems in the wrong spot. What household light source is placed on the floor? The shadows caused by this light alone make for an unnatural look.

    I know it’s easy to criticize when you’re not doing it and I admit that my skills probably couldn’t produce a better result, but I sure would not be satisfied with this photo and try a lot harder.

    I would welcome it if you did too and showed us what can be squeezed out of this set up.

  6. Joe – I ruled out that idea myself initially but now that I think about it it’s possible the bathroom door (above my head when I took this shot – i.e. a floor up) was open with the light inside there (a fluorescent light) switched on. I didn’t dwell too much on it at the time as I was always going to do this strobist style, but I guess at ISO 1600, 1/15s, f/8 some of that light from the other end of the landing would have registered. Good spot!

    Georg – I agree entirely that it’s not perfect, and I will be trying to find a solution. There isn’t one that comes to mind for me given the dimensions and shape of the hall especially but I’m all ears if anyone has some ideas. The motivation for me to put the light on the floor pointing up was so that the bounced light would come from the general area of the ceiling light you can see in the frame. If there was space to soften the flash first it would do a lot for the shadows of the ceiling light itself I guess but the space on the floor is too tight, given that I need the flash to be out of frame. If I solve that problem successfully in camera, I’ll definitely be posting about it here!

  7. What if the light to the left was up on a light stand, and still pointing back into the top corner, to bounce the light back down towards the thermostat? Or snoot it, so that the light is not travelling directly from the flash to the visible walls?
    Does this make sense?

  8. [...] you’re interested in lighting in photography, this is an interesting blog post about how the photographer used many light sources to photograph [...]

  9. Thanks for the suggestion Glenn – the space is very tight, but if I can get a lightstand in there with legs not too splayed (or photoshop them out – though that kind of defeats the purpose here) it is worth a try. This shot is definitely one I’ll be returning to so I’ll let you know how it goes!

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