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How To Light a Big Hero with Five Dollar Lights
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Technique

How To Light a Big Hero with Five Dollar Lights

By Stephen D. Schafer

I have a client who builds luxury apartment complexes all over California, and I’m their pool guy. I know it sounds funny, but they call me whenever they need pool and exterior images (they call another photog to do the interiors of the model apartments.)

The job and their needs are always similar: I have full access the day before the tenants move in, the lounge chairs all get rolled white towels, I need to make the pool look ‘BIG,’ and they always want the pool deck wet and shiny (even when it’s 100˚ outside). Oh, and they want the main pool view to be a ‘HERO’ photo, I have taught them my slang for the master twilight photo, the ‘magazine cover’ if you will.

On this project my client is hiring me to create marketing images, these will be used as website splash pages, glossy brochures, ads in local rental magazines, submissions to award shows, and a gallery the property managers can email to prospective tenants. The photos all need to be horizontal (I usually deliver 16:9) and they generally are used smaller than 11 inches wide at 300 dpi (8 megapixels). Occasionally they get a spread in a magazine or blow up their favorite HEROs as 30×40 inch aluminum wall prints or sometimes even 80 inch wide trade show graphics, so the final delivered files need to be more than 8MP. This image was captured on a 32 Megapixel Nikon D800e with a 16-35mm f4 VR lens. I put the full size 26MP cropped image on my Flickr in case you want to pixel peep.

 

Here’s a overview of the day:

9:00AM We roll up on the property, a just-completed 650 unit, 5 story luxury apartment building in Northern California. We unload the truck and spend the day photographing exterior images, moving tables and chaise lounges, working around contractors putting the finishing touches on things and rolling the towels for courtyard views.

3:00: Since the building is new and vacant, we get the keys to every apartment in the building except for two or three in our view that already have early tenants. My intern and I begin to go door to door on each floor dragging our giant “duffle bag o’ lights.” We turn on every light in every room. The bedrooms of this apartment building don’t have lights and so we plug in ‘CageLights’ on the back wall of every bedroom (good thing I have 50 of them). Even better thing that the elevators in this five-story building work.

3:30 – I set up the time lapse on a lark, I’m not very good at video, I stick to stills mostly. The time lapse video came about because I had bought a Nikon D5300 and 10-24mm lens as a backup camera (but subsequently didn’t like it). I set up the D5300 on my backup tripod behind the main camera and set the intervalometer to take a photo on Program mode every 10 seconds.

3:45 – Partial clouds are blocking the sun and the whole scene looks lifeless and flat. I position my Nikon D800e with 16-35mm f4 VR lens and settle on a final angle of view, focus, zoom and aperture. (ISO 100, Aperture f10, auto shutter speed, zoom to 28mm, Quality set to 14-bit Raw + Jpeg medium) I set up my Slik Professional 4 Tripod Legs with a Bogen 405 geared tripod head, I like the Slik because it is very heavy and stable and can extend to 8 feet high. In this case, I use the tripod unextended at about 3 feet high in order to make the pool look like a vast sea with a lower than usual camera position. The lens is slightly tilted up to get a little room above the palms, the horizontal axis is leveled using the electronic level on the live view screen of the D800. I add a Heliopan high-transmission slim circular polarizer and shade the lens from above with a Dinkum Compact lens shade in the hot shoe of the camera body in addition to the standard lens shade.

4:10 – After making small adjustments of all the lounge chairs, my intern and I begin to wet down the pool deck with two water hoses. (The rolled white towels were deployed earlier in the day for the daytime courtyard views).

4:24 – Just as we get the deck-wetting finished, the sun peeks through and shines directly on the building for about five minutes while the high clouds look good against the polarized sky. I take a lucky shot. Exposure 1/3 second @ f8.

4:30 – I hang my CamRanger WiFi dongle from a loop of wire fishing leader I have permanently attached to the left attachment point of the D800. I plug a 12-inch right-angle USB 3 cable (from Amazon)  into the camera and boot up my iPad Mini Retina. I set the CamRanger intervalometer to take a single frame every 40 seconds and set the bracketing to three frames at +1, N, -1. Camera Settings were f11 at aperture priority automatic. Focus set to manual, and vibration reduction is switched off. New batteries are put into the CamRanger and camera along with a newly formatted CF card before all HERO captures.

4:45 – We keep wetting the deck because it keeps drying. It gets chilly and I put on a jacket (it always gets chilly).

 

5:21 – The exterior pole lights turn on. Pool lights are already on.

 

5:23 – We get the TV monitors in the tent canopy turned on. We keep wetting the deck because it keeps drying.

 

5:50 – The sun sets somewhere behind the buildings camera left. We keep wetting the deck because it keeps drying.

5:54 – High pink clouds, lit from below, blow through the blue sky and give me a perfect “sky” layer for Photoshop. Exposure 4 seconds @ f10.

5:58 – I take a quickie snap on my iPhone and text it to the client. While my intern starts to coil the hoses and put unused equipment in the truck.

6:02 – My intervalometer unceremoniously captures the HERO master frame that becomes the layer for the building and courtyard with lights and glowing windows. Exposure 20 seconds @ f10.

6:09 – I throw two chaise lounges in the pool to block the too bright pool light on the left side. This creates a bad green cast but mitigates the blown-out pool. This gives me an imperfect but usable pool layer for Photoshop. Exposure 30 seconds @ f10.

6:16 to 6:55 – I pull the chaise lounges out of the pool and my intern goes to turn off all the apartment lights and pull our CageLights and then lock the doors of each apartment. I put away the iPad and CamRanger and strike the main shot. While the lights go off one by one, I take some additional night photos of fountains and the tent canopy.

7:00 – We strike tripods and cameras and duffle bag o’ lights into the truck.

7:15 – We go have pizza and beer, after another long day.

I won’t go into details about the Photoshop retouching on this photo, but the final HERO image is a rather straightforward blend of only three layers. A 5:54 Skylayer, a 6:02 Masterbuilding and lights layer, and a 6:09 Poolwith chaise-blocked light layer.

I got a freebee daytime view at 4:24 which is why I always get the props set early and set the camera on intervalometer while we do other things, sometimes you get lucky.

You may notice some things … I almost always wear a neon safety vest when I do my photography. It’s something I learned doing HABS photography; besides making you look ‘official’ the surveyor’s-type vest I wear, has lots of useful pockets. I also wear Carhart double-knee work pants with a layer of neoprene wetsuit material shoved into the knee pad holders, since I always end up on my knees in a typical day of shooting (pool shots always seem to be low) it makes the constant kneeling bearable. I have a contractor’s nail pouch permanently strapped on my tripod. It allows me to keep things on hand and is just big enough for the iPad Mini. I use a polarizer on EVERYTHING. I have never had an architectural photo that it did not improve in some way with a polarizer. One reason I don’t shoot with the Nikon 14-24mm is the polarizer issue. The 16-35mm Nikon is very sharp if you get a good copy, but it has quite a bit of distortion. Since 100% of the distortion is corrected automatically in Lightroom, it’s never been a problem for me. It’s hard to tell, but my tripod legs are covered in plastic shrink tubing to protect them and cover up years of scratches. If this sounds interesting to you, my tripod-slip-cover-hack video is also on my Vimeo channel. The correction for verticals in this image was minus 6, and I doubt a shift lens would be better in this case. (Besides they don’t make a modern 28mm shift lens.) I no longer use the $8.00 ‘CageLights’, because I stopped using CFL bulbs last year. The cages were necessary because the glass CFL bulbs would shatter in transit (and in use). I now just use simple $2.50 plug-sockets and $2.50 unbreakable LED plastic bulbs from Costco, (60 to 100-Watt equivalent, 3500 Kelvin preferred). Yes, I have about 50 single bulb LEDs in a big wheeled duffle bag, five bucks each.

Now you know how I deploy the smallest, cheapest lights to illuminate huge apartments, make a living, make my clients happy and make my subject (and myself) look like a HERO. We’ll be back tomorrow with our $5 lights, to go up and down the elevators, to do another HERO of the front entry to the complex from the median of a busy street … the client wanted two HEROs on this project.

My name is Stephen Schafer. www.schafphoto.comI opened my commercial photo studio in Ventura, California in 1989 using a 4×5 camera for most jobs. Back then, architectural photos were about a quarter of my commercial, corporate and advertising work. In 2011, I closed the studio, bought a 4×4, bolted a shooting platform on the roof, and began to exclusively pursue architectural photography, with a hyper specialization in HABS documentation. At the moment (2019) my equipment for digital photography is Nikon Full Frame SLR. I began using Photoshop at version 2.5 on a beige Apple desktop and I now do all my perspective correction in Lightroom on an iMacPro.

 

I tell my clients that I’m extraordinarily talented, but in truth I’m one of thousands of average, mid-tier, architectural photographers. In 2016 wrote a snarky book about being a photographer, I have traveled the world teaching on Semester at Sea, aboard a traveling university ship circumnavigating the planet. I teach workshops mostly at the Los Angeles Center of Photography www.lacphoto.organd mentor students one on one. I love photography and plan to do it until I can’t anymore. (Note: most of my projects still require me to shoot 4×5 and 5×7 black and white film and develop it in my darkroom, but that’s another story for another day.)

 

 

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