Photographer's Lighting Handbook: Lighting Interiors- Reflections and Contrasts

In this edition of “The Photographer’s Lighting Handbook” I will be discussing: Lighting Interiors.

Once the view of an interior is set, the rest is controlling contrasts and reflections—in other words, lighting!

Back in the days before Kodak stopped making color transparency film, photographing interiors required a boatload of light bulbs in varying wattages, gels for brightness and color control, and teeny-tiny flashes that could fit in lamps. Clients who didn’t want reflections to show in artwork that was framed under glass had to remove the glass before the shoot. Today, thanks to digital, gear that controls contrasts and eliminates reflections can be in the shot for that element and then masked out with the original. This style of interior lighting makes clients very happy. It reduces the amount of equipment: stands, cords, packs, rolls of color-correction materials, neutral-density gels—you get the idea; photo clutter. It’s fast. A setup that’s lit to be captured in one shot takes hours, and introduces complexity and compromise. I can usually shoot a medical office in less than a day; before, it could take two-and-a-half. Now, a relatively small set of gear handles the job. The time savings lies in assembling properly lit pieces in post.


Shooting the Pieces

Lighting interiors reflections and contrasts

The key to this style of lighting is to analyze the interior on the screen of a laptop. I make a list of each element needed. After I’m certain that the framing is correct, the tripod is locked down and sandbagged to avoid movement. The camera is tethered to the laptop, which also serves as a remote shutter release. I meter the light and then make the test exposure complete with ColorChecker Passport. I check the composition of the elements, rearranging them as required. I view the test at 100% view onscreen and note the unwanted reflections (outlined in blue), overly bright areas (green), and those that are too dark (red). The last two are the areas of high contrast that distract the viewer’s eye from the overall photograph. The window wants less light and the closet needs more.


Lighting interiors reflections and contrasts

The specular highlights in the pictures under glass hanging on the walls are mirror images of light sources illuminating the photograph. The rule for shooting mirrors is to have them show what you want them to show the camera.The picture on the left is reflecting the light from the door and the lobby. The two on the right are showing other lights in the room. Black is perfect for a mirror to reflect back to the camera. A 4×4′ panel covered in black fabric is positioned to block the pass-through window into the lobby. My assistant, Theresa, holds another panel (42×72″) also covered with black to block the lights striking the other pictures. 


Lighting interiors reflections and contrasts

These [contrast] distractions are as easy to control as the reflections. The light streaming through the door and window to the side are more than three stops brighter (measured with a reflected meter) than the interior illumination. It’s controlled with the 4×4′ panel covered in a grid material called Bobbinette available from Rose Brand ( As an alternative, neutral-density gel can be taped to the outside of the window. 

After making the exposure for the door, Theresa moved the Bobbinette panel to cover the edge of the window for the next shot. It’s much quicker to mask sections that are in perfect register than it is to cover the entire door and window with light-reducing material. 

Lighting interior reflections and contrasts

I use Bobbinette or neutral-density gels to reduce brightness when the outside light is three or more stops over the exposureon the camera. A difference this big actually burns away the edges of a window. A faster shutter will cut down the brightness. Unfortunately, an outside window controlled this way will leave a dark line around the original opening, making the assembly look fake. 

The coat closet is an open area without a light. It’s easy to see when hanging a jacket, but in a photo it becomes a deep, dark distraction. I put a flash at super-low power—about 30W/s— in the room opposite the closet, and then made an exposure. An added benefit is the highlight added to the vase.


Lighting interior reflections and contrasts

The last exposure is without any corrections (except for the Bobbinette behind the door). All of the equipment is out of the shot. Nothing else is moved. Theresa taps the keyboard of the two computers to display a previously made exterior of the office. The final photograph is the base. The other elements are layered and masked in postproduction. Assembly usually takes between 20 minutes on the low side to 45 minutes on the high for more complex scenes. 

Lighting Interiors

If you enjoyed the detailed specifics in this post, check out courses offerings and books  on KelbyOne and live on tour classes we have in your neighborhood.