Don’t be afraid to turn off room lights

Thanks Monika Seitz Vega for being a great sport. ISO 100 1/10 sec @ f2.8 Canon 580EX Speedlight (right) on 1/64th power triggered by Canon STE-2

In most interiors, indoor lighting is chosen for maximum illumination and highest energy efficiency.

Based on this, you can safely assume, the light is usually coming straight down from the ceiling and chances are, they are fluorescent light fixtures.

Whenever I have to photograph someone in such surroundings, I always ask “What would the room look like without the overhead lights especially if there is a large window?”

Experienced photographers understand and appreciate quality of light over quantity of light.

They also know their equipment and their own limitations.

They know the shutter speed they can successfully handhold for any lens in their arsenal.

By the time they take a light reading, they know not just the size of their canvas, how much of the scene before them will be in the final image, but also whether they’ll need to boost the ISO, use a tripod or add supplemental lighting.

Recently I was asked to give an impromptu lesson on using fill-flash for an environmental portrait by another instructor.

Environmental portrait

An environmental portrait is usually taken with a wide angle lens.

This allows the photographer to include some elements of what the subject does as a vocation or for fun.

In contrast, a head-and-shoulders portrait is usually shot tight with a medium telephoto lens.

Sources of light:

  • the room door (but I made sure it was closed)
  • large window on the same side of the door.
  • over head flourescent lights. Potential color temperature problems.

Gear I used:

  • wide angle zoom 17-35 f2.8 lens
  • Canon 580EX Speedlight
  • Canon STE-2 infra red transmitter to trigger Canon 580EX Speedlight off-camera

Keep in mind that a wide angle lens gives you greater ability to hand hold low shutter speeds.

But the wide angle presents you with other potential problems.

It takes in more of the scene, so it also introduces clutter. In fact lots and lots of clutter to distract your viewers from your subject.

My solution ? Turn off the overhead lights. Mouse over the picture above to see what the room looked like with the overhead lights off.

Below is a picture of most of the room.

Here's a stitched panoramic image of the classroom taken with my Canon Powershot G11. The blinds on the window (to the right of the tv in the backgrround) are drawn in this picture.

6 thoughts on “Don’t be afraid to turn off room lights”

  1. Jim,
    How nice of you to stop by! I can’t tell you how many times I hear beginners parrot this, “I only shoot RAW”

    What’s the point of shooting RAW for beginners? When they don’t even understand the basics like White Balance and Color Temperature? Another key thing to remember is this:
    An out of focus picture is still out-of-focus or blurry in RAW and they take up more room so your hard drive fills up faster.

    It’s better for beginners to understand the evils of mismatch color temperatures than to tell beginners to shoot RAW and that it will cure everything.

  2. I know a recent photog student, her instructor insisted they all shoot in auto WB and RAW so they could “fix” the photo’s in post. She told me many of the shots in multi color light couldn’t be fixed no matter how hard she tried.

    You have the right of it Peter; get the light right in the scene because you can’t fix mismatched light in post.

    I like the clutter in your environmental portraits too. There’s a lot to look at and enjoy in the photo’s. My eye wanders all over the place wondering about all the people and things in the pic, yet it always comes back to your model.

    This was a very informative and useful post. Thanks!

  3. Paul, whenever I had to shoot in florescent lighting, I hated having to use magenta filters over the lens and that that gnarly green filter over the flash especially for transparency film.

    In the digital realm, it’s still a royal pain. There are so many folks I hear say, “Shoot RAW and fix it in post.” I get tired of hearing those “co-called advanced photographers” who have no idea what that means.

    Those who never shot film and don’t understand that color temperatures in your scene should always be very close. Fixing in post for RAW is not going to rescue a mismatch of color temperature especially if there is DAYLIGHT and FLORESCENT in a room.

    In the end, it’s still better to turn off the room lights, control the clutter and light just what is important—your subject. Not bad for a very short 15 min demo/lecture.

  4. Great advice.

    I’ve always hated florescent lights. One of my photo teachers called them “Satan’s Revenge” due to the extreme difficulty to properly color correct them. Also, they change color temps.

    Most photographers won’t shut the lights off, though. They just shoot something and go.

    Thanks Pete.

  5. Hello Mike,
    Thanks for posting your comment. They were paying attention but probably self-conscious and shy?

    But that’s all the more reason to shoot wide open at f2.8 and not over-light the entire scene?

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