Mike Kelley, Balboa Peninsula

Taken for an interior architect and designer, this photograph was one of the more complicated that I've done in the last few months. While it may look like a matter of just being there at the right time to capture everything in one shot, there are actually many different pieces put together to make the final image. Some of the frames used in this shot are images that were taken hundreds of miles away, which are then composited to create the image that I had in my head.

The assignment was to create a twilight shot for the designer. These images are what I've become most known for over the last few years, and every one is a challenge, for different reasons. In order to get this looking exactly the way I wanted to, it would take some serious pixel wrangling. I'll start at the beginning and walk you through every step.

The image below shows the general composition that I've chosen. This is going to be our base image—that is, on which we're going to build the rest of this shot. This composition was chosen for a number of reasons. The designer wanted to show off the amazing kitchen, the central dining table, and the view into the harbor. The entire house is set up to bring in that incredible view, and it's so integral to this whole shot and creating the setting for the image. If you've ever been to Southern California, you're probably familiar with the Balboa Peninsula at Newport Beach—it's a hot piece of land, and sitting out there for dinner watching yachts pass by with a beautiful sunset overhead is a killer way to pass the time. Anyway, it was absolutely necessary to capture that view. But in the first shot, to be honest, the view isn't that great.

In order to get the view, I put the camera on a tripod about a half hour earlier, and took a series of shots as the sun went down, exposing JUST for the exterior, as seen in the image below.

This gives us a perfect view out the window, but with a really underexposed interior. I'll use this frame and take the view, and using the pen tool in Photoshop, I cut the view from this one frame and paste it on top of my base image, as seen in image three, below. 

Now this is starting to look pretty good, but it's not really finished, in my eyes. The table outside is a black hole and the interior doesn't really have any color or contrast yet. Since the designer took a lot of time to design this entire scene, I want to get some light on the important areas. I'd consider these areas to be the foreground dining table, the exterior dining table, and the kitchen to the left. Using a Lowel GL-1 hot light and a few long exposures, I walk through the room and paint light over the cabinetry in order to get it to pop and sparkle a bit. This definitely takes some experience, and trial and error. It can be tough to avoid reflections and get the light angled so that it looks good. If you want to try this, I would recommend practicing on your own home before going out to a paid gig. Once I’m satisfied with my light painted frame, I blend it in on top of my base layer, as seen in image 4.

You'll notice how the interior really comes alive after light is added. This is all done using just one light, and a few long exposures that I then combine as separate layers and stack onto the base layer. Note that I’m not trying to go nuts with the additional light, as I want the image to remain believable, but I want the light to add color and contrast that isn't there in the unlit raw files. Materials like wood really look nice with some light added to them, and they take on an ethereal glow. Again, experiment with adding just a touch of light to bring some real depth into your photos.

Most people might think that this looks great. And I think it does—but I'm slightly neurotic and a total perfectionist, so I'm going to keep on experimenting to see what I can get. At this point, I think the sky outside looks a little flat, so I'm going to bring in a shot of some clouds that I took while on assignment in the Lake Tahoe area about a year prior to this. I have a library of literally thousands of skies—whenever the sunset is looking like it's going to be a good one, I'll go outside with a camera and just snap in all directions. I try to have a combination of not only sunset skies, but also daytime and sunrise skies, as each has a different quality to add to my photos. I will replace skies on both interior and exterior shots as necessary, as I feel the sky can add so much impact to an image. Boring, clear weather makes for boring photos—even when architecture is the primary subject. Below, you can see how I skewed in the sky from Lake Tahoe and then blended into the exterior scene.

I think that looks pretty killer! I love the new clouds that we added and I feel that the pink clouds really bring a bit of believability to the wet tile outside (we used a hose to sprinkle a few puddles out there for that whole “post-stormy” effect). I think wetting the entire driveway or patio is way too cheesy, so just a touch works fine to add some storytelling elements.

We're almost at the end! Stick with me. The last few things I'm going to do are add global contrast, go through and clone out any problem areas, and then add a crop. I remove anything that the client requests, such as light switches, fire alarms, window knobs, etc., things that aren't designed into the room but have to be there for practical purposes. After a few back-and-forth emails with the client; we also decided to dodge and burn some areas to add a bit more brightness, and that was that. The final image can be seen at the top of this post.

So that's what goes into making one of my images. I hope you learned something and you'll apply some of these ideas to your next architectural, real estate, or interiors shoot.

Gear used:

Exposure times: Varied from 1/25th to 8.0seconds

Aperture: f8-f11

ISO: 160

White balance: Daylight

About Mike Kelley: Kelley studied design at the University of Vermont, where he found that he had a knack for photographing and lighting interior and exterior spaces. He slowly fell into shooting for interior designers, architects, and luxury real estate agents. On May 28, 2014, Kelley will be conducting a class entitled “Intro to Compositing and Light Painting” as a part of the Fstoppers Workshops, located in the Bahamas, at the Atlantis Resort, in Nassau.

Discussion 11

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Great work! That base image - any comment on under counter lighting? It looks too perfect to have occured by chance. Love that both the cabinet woods beneath upper cabinets at left and the stone backsplash at rear are flawlessly lit. Properties of this caliber probably get attention to such details, but my experience is more often tortured by horrid color casts. How do you address?

Hi Danny,

Thanks for the kind words! The counter lighting is used as it was - it was dimmable but I didn't use any modifiers or photoshop work on it. Thank my designer for installing photo friendly lights :) 

I usually deal with color casts with curves, hue/sat, and color balance adjustmeny layer masks one at a time. It can be a pain in the neck!

Do you typically remove electrical/safety fixtures for architects?  If so, is that a given in the industry, or do they just request it?  Regardless, excellent work as always and don't forget to make time for your coffee table book!

Wonderful image...meticulous lighting!

I see there is some light painted on the outside patio set. Was that exposure made along with the ambient exterior?

Keep up the great work...

Thanks for the kind words - and yeah, I generally take that stuff out, it seems that every client of mine wants it gone, as it doesn't pertain to their design in any way but is mandated by law.

I shot this back in October and to be perfectly honest I can't remember. I think there is a flash or a hot light out there! I know I did add some light, though.

Definitely nicely done! I probably would've hosed down the patio to make it completely wet for a uniform look and removed the reflection on the ceiling. But that's beeing nitpicky... Thanks!

Fantastic tutorial Mike!

- Joe G

Great tutorial Mike.

Is Lowel light a must or other sourse of light will work as well for light painting?

While the  is a good option for light painting (as it is portable, hand-holdable, output controllable, and powerful), you may light paint with any continuous light source.  People have used things from flashlights, to sparklers, to shop lights, to continuous lights in softboxes (and many more options) for light painting needs.

Hi Mike,

Do you use daylight for interiors or exteriors as a white balance? coule you chime on that a little bit more please?

It's great tutorial and can't stop at the images all day and read this tutorial over and over :)

Thank you for this wonderful information and work you shared with us.