Shooting Architectural Interiors – Processing with Nik HDR Efex Pro

In this post we are going to talk about shooting and processing Architectural Interiors.

The reason why

Many of you have probably looked at ads for homes on real estate website or the books you pick up for free at the grocery store. The images are usually taken by the agent to save money or may be even taken by professionals…well that just don’t know any better. They all have the tell tale look. They were shot during the day with tons of light coming into the windows and you get one of two things because of the wide dynamic range present. You get super bright blown out windows and a properly exposed room with quite a bit of flare around those windows. Or, you get properly exposed windows and a room so dark you can’t tell if it is a bedroom or the kitchen.

Now a good photographer could know better and shoot at night when you have more control over light, or they could bring in a huge amounts of artificial lights and  get the scene to work. But the truth is, either the realtor has no budget for this big bucks photographer with a truck full of grip equipment. Or they don’t have the time for shooting at night when the home owners are home. Enter HDR.

Shooting

So lets discuss how to shoot an interior using HDR and then we will go over how to best process that shoot in Nik’s HDR Efex Pro.

Those of you that know me know I am not a big advocate of shooting a gazillion exposures. People think if 3 is good 12 must be amazing. And that just isn’t true. Sometimes it is a waste of time, of computing power and may lead to lesser images because of registration errors, shooting images beyond the dynamic range that is there which leads to soft or noisy images and a host of other reasons. Some of my most successful  Landscape HDR images have been shot with only 3 exposures.

But for this lesson I am going to go against my usual wisdom. For two reasons. One is a mater of dynamic range. As much as we may have shooting outdoors, sometimes we can have even more shooting an interior. We maybe have  EV15 (Exposure Value) light coming through a window, yet we also may have light as low as candle light in the room or EV4, 11 full stops of exposure. ( for an explanation of Exposure Value, see this great explanation and charts at Fred Parker Photography ) So that is one reason we will want to shoot quite a number of exposures, just to cover the Dynamic Range.

Reason two; Detail. As detailed as the outdoors is, we are viewing it from a distance and you may not see all the nuances of texture that every object has in that scene. In interior photography, everything is closer, more defined and with that we need to have texture that we can see and well, almost feel. The nap of the carpet, the texture of the upholstery. We’re closer we need to see that.

For this example I shot 9 exposures 1 stop apart. Exposures because that was the dynamic range I measured. 1 stop apart because of the desire for detail of tonality.

Determine your dynamic range

First I determined the dynamic range I needed  to cover. I could not have done this just from where the camera was on the tripod. Because the camera’s meter averages, even in spot mode. It would not have known the correct exposure for the windows light. So I brought my camera to the window itself and metered the light outdoors. This was my beginning exposure. And no, I didn’t need to shoot an underexposure of the outdoor light, I just needed to get it right. This exposure was f/16,  1/125 ISO250.  I then moved to the darkest area of the room and metered there, this would be my final exposure and I just need to  get between the two readings in one step intervals ( I didn’t do the math, I used the 3 clicks of the dial equal one stop trick) My end exposure was f/16, 2 sec. ISO 250. It took 9 images to get from one to the other.

Do YOU need to do 9 exposures? It depends on what your final destination for your images are. I did test with this shoot and shot HDR’s with 9, 7, 5 and 3 exposures. 9 had the best detail, 7 was very very close, 5 was good, 3 was eh. If you image is just destined for websize on a realtor’s website or in one of those small grocery store magazines, 3, 5 whatever, you’ll be fine and far above those that shoot the windows blown out. But say your image is destined for a big glossy Architectural Magazine or a large print on the wall of an Interior Designer. You want the 9 shots.

So once I determined what I needed for dynamic range , I returned the camera to the tripod and composed the scene . Now I like to turn on as many of the rooms lights as possible to give it a more natural look, or “as lived in” look. I will try to only have one color temperture of light on, Tungsten, Halogen, Florescent, because we will have enough problems with white balance with possibly two different light temperature source, we don’t need 5. For this shoot I was in luck, since the lights in the room were CFL’s balanced for 5000°k or daylight.

My scene was set and I shot the 9 frames. Here they are in contact sheet form. (Click to enlarge) The image sequence runs from the bottom left up and down to top right.

Processing

Now that we have our images shot, It’s time to merge and tone map them into our HDR image.

For this shoot, I knew the right tool for the job was Nik HDR Efex Pro Anyone that has seen my workshop in my garage knows I always have more than one tool for any job . For this job HDR Efex Pro was the correct tool because of the amount and quality of detail.

Selecting my 9 images in Lightroom 3 I exported them to HDR Efex Pro. In the first part of the tone mapping, I wanted to get my overall look. So I worked on the right panel and started with the following setting.  Tone Compression 22%. Saturation 20%, Structure 4%, Black 6% and Whites 8%

This yielded me this image

Using Control Points

Not a bad starting point for overall balance. But the windows just aren’t right. This is going to be hard for any HDR program to get right because the software will look for the brightest points  and the darkest points and put them where it thinks best. It just gets them wrong here. All is not lost though, enter the beauty of Nik HDR Efex Pro’s Control Points. I placed 9 control points in this image. In the windows, on the Photos on two walls, on the ceiling and on the fireplace. I adjusted these all individually to get the best balance for all the areas and most importantly,  to bring back the detail to the windows.

Here are what the control points looked like and also how it looks when you click on the control points mask so you can really see all the areas that control points are affecting

 

Once I had this all the best I could I took the image into Photoshop For some final touches and this yielded us our final image.

I wish you could see the detail in the full resolution file. The grain of the leather and the nap of the carpet is incredible and the print this made was really as the room looked. Truth be told if I was going to submit this to a high end magazine I may work on the windows even further which would have taken a lot of time and may not be worth it just for realtor submissions.

Getting the correct White Balance

As I spoke about earlier, we also need to consider white balance when working with interior shots.  In a big budget shoot, we could of course  use some gels on all the different light sources to make them all the same color temperature. But we may not have the time nor budget to do such things. We could change bulbs. But most homeowners probably don’t want you messing around with all the light fixtures in their home. So let’s just go simple.

In most instances, I recommend doing a white balance for the predominate light source in our scene. But lets look at the room I shot here and see what the real life experience will be. This also is why shooting RAW is so important, besides giving us the ultimate dynamic range and color latitude, it also allows us to go in later and easily change the white balance of our shoot.

So for this image, the predominant light was outdoor light coming in from the windows along with 3 sources of incandecant light as accents only. The day was cloudy and rainy so setting the white balance for cloudy yielded these results.

Not bad and since I am a landscape shooter I tend to like warm light but I think this is just too much

Let’s try adjusting for the Tungsten Light and see what that returns

Yeah, That’s not any better, in fact I think it’s quite worse. The lights themselves look good but the tone overall is much too cool

Hmmm…OK. Let’s try just as it was shot with the Auto-White balance

To me this is the best of all worlds and the best balance that could be had. Comparing a print of this image to the actual room that day was pretty much spot on for “As the eye sees” my favorite reference. Funny I guess Auto White Balance doesn’t suck as much as some seem to think.

I hope this has helped you understand how to shoot and post process Architectural Interior images, maybe this could provide you with a new income stream selling to Real Estate agents that need every tool they can muster in such a down market.

Equipment used for this shoot: Canon 5D  , Canon 17-40 4.0 L ,  Canon Remote Control , Manfrotto Tripod and Head and of course Nik HDR Efex Pro

Hope that helps,

PT

16 Comments

  1. Stacey October 9, 2011 at 8:53 am #

    Great in-depth post. A lot of great information. Loved it.

  2. John MacLean November 3, 2011 at 12:17 pm #

    Overall looks good, my only comment is unrelated to HDR, but I would have either shot it level, or fixed it in Lightroom’s Manual Lens Corrections.

    • Peter November 3, 2011 at 12:37 pm #

      I agree John. Time constraints of writing a blog I don’t get paid for limit me getting things perfect. I didn’t think the image was horribly Keystoned but I should have taken the time to fix it

      Beautiful Interior shots on your website John. Very well done

    • Ivy Higley September 9, 2015 at 11:20 am #

      I agree with your comment about making sure the verticals are vertical. What I found interesting is that on your own site, the first photo in the Architectural/Assorted group has verticals that are terribly leaning.

  3. Noah November 3, 2011 at 8:55 pm #

    These are some of the best HDR architectural shots I have seen. Usually they are an excuse for the lack of caring about exposure. Either the interior photographer has a set of strobes to match outdoor sunlight, or take the shots and then the time and make it realistic like these. Too many architectural photos in Southern California are monotonic over-HDR’ized photos.

    • Peter November 3, 2011 at 9:16 pm #

      Thanks Noah, Appreciated

  4. Bill November 3, 2011 at 9:01 pm #

    Thanks for this very useful information. Question. Do you use a spot light meter? I take HDR real estate photography and find that by using the camera spot meter to meter the windows and walls I can make multiple exposures at the ‘manual’ setting with AV at 8.0. But the difference from window to wall EV values are huge, as you pointed out. I take so many photos I can’t comprehend taking 9 photos for each view. I’m thinking a good spot meter might make my job easier and enable me to chose 3 photos that capture windows and the room. I would very much appreciate your thoughts. Thank you.

    • Peter November 3, 2011 at 9:23 pm #

      Thanks Bill,
      I agree 9 is extreme and it can be done with a lot less and if you find a good center 0 point you can do it with 3 images. I do use spot metering, average or evaluative metering gets too easily fooled. So I will spot meter The window, a neutral wall and then the shadow area of the scene and try to work my way from one reading (Highlight) To the other (shadow) in the least number of steps possible

      • Bill November 4, 2011 at 9:07 am #

        I appreciate your answer Peter. Additional questions come to mind. Do you use a spot meter or the one in the camera? If external, which one? Also I’ve been plagued recently with purple shadows in both some inside and outside photography. The underexposure of the shadows seems to be the culprit. Any cures? I use Photomatix 4.1 and have moved the sliders all over the place to no avail. I set my scene at “faithful” as I don’t want to add color bias to walls, etc. BTY, I set strength at 100 and it really makes the windows pop. Vibrance is at 2-3 as it makes the photos lighter. I really appreciate that you are willing to share your experience and knowledge. Thank you.

        • Peter November 4, 2011 at 10:32 am #

          Bill,
          I may have misinterpreted when you use the term “Spot Meter” did you mean a handheld meter? But my answer would be no, I use the camera’s meter set for Spot Metering. The problem is when you set a handheld meter to Spot Mode ( Usually by moving or removing the lumisphere, )You are now doing reflective metering rather than incident (Light source) metering which is a Handhead meter’s strong suit. So in the case of spot metering there really isn’t a great advantage of using a handhead over your camera’s reflective meter.

          Sounds like you have “Purple Fringing” which can also be known as CA, Chromatic Aberration. It can be caused by poor lens design, Digital sensor noise in shadowed areas and even in the merge process of HDR. If you are using Photomatix, try in the merge section clicking the box for Chromatic Aberration and see if that helps. Also in Lightroom in the lens correction area of the develop module are corrections for CA and a defringing control. Give those a try on your files

          • Bill November 4, 2011 at 11:20 am #

            Thank you so much for bouncing back. I was looking at the Sekonic 758 DR which has incident/reflective and spot meter. But if I can save $640 and just have the inconvenience of swinging around the camera to take spot readings I’ll do it. I was hoping I could set-up the camera correctly for the scene and just point the meter for the readings. I really appreciate your answers. Have a great weekend.

          • Peter November 4, 2011 at 11:53 am #

            Don’t get me wrong handheld meters are great and that one is certainly one of the best of the best But since we are taking multiple exposures within a range it’s not quite as important the precision IF we meter the right things.
            If I was taking a single exposure and adding strobes to natural for an interior, a handheld meter would be indispensable

  5. John MacLean November 5, 2011 at 2:06 am #

    Regarding exposure readings, a quick way to deal with light from outside is to turn on your camera’s highlight warning indicator. When the windows/interior lights stop flashing (Canon), stop down one more stop for security, then open up in 1 stop increments until your bracket is showing detail in deep shadow. I just shot interiors at 3 retail stores and I found that my brackets consisted of 9 to 11 frames. I don’t do HDR, but I give them to my retoucher and she uses one as a base exposure and will Enfuse the bracket if she needs to mask details into lacking areas.

  6. L.A.W. November 7, 2011 at 7:02 am #

    Regarding handheld vs in camera and reflexive vs incident readings; do you prefer the in-camera meter because the light coming through the window is both reflective and incident (a mix of ambient light and reflected light off the adjacent building)? In other words an interior like the one in your example is a mixed bag of light types and you recommend the camera because that’s what the camera uses for the exposures. This occurred to me when you mentioned moving the lumisphere and essentially reversing the type of reading gotten. Your results, are terrific.

    • Peter November 7, 2011 at 10:26 am #

      Thanks for your comments!
      There are a few things at work here. In the first place I am taking 9 exposures so I don’t need to be super precise on my measurement although I DO want to know fairly accurately what my two end points should be.
      Both Incident and reflective meters have their strength and weakness’s and we need to know them and work around what we know. But we also need to know just what it is we are measuring. The window is actually two things, it is both a Part of our image AND it is also a light source for the room.

      If I just took an Incident reading of the light hitting say the couch next to the window I would have gotten a reading of about EV9, but would that have given us a good exposure for the window or the Light source itself? So would need to take a reading for the window itself which would be EV15, we could accomplish that with the camera’s meter. Even though the light source itself was EV15, through distance and diffusion when it hit the couch the light is EV9.

      We would have to know what we are metering though. If what the light was reflecting off of was black, we would have gotten a reading of EV13, if it was white we would have a reading of EV17. But since I knew what was being metered was a neutral tone I was confident with the EV15 reading.
      Alternatively, I could have gone outside and taken an incident reading there. But I really didn’t think that was necessary.

      Anyway, bottom line is although I needed true end points (Highlight and shadow) I was confident I would cover them taking 9 exposures and while a incident meter may not be fooled like a reflecctive meter, it may not measure what I need to know

  7. Steve November 16, 2011 at 12:59 pm #

    my wife and I shoot typically shoot HRD for real estate and try very hard to make it look natural – not HDR and the results can be very good. I love the NIK tools, but lack of a batch mode with HDR makes us go elsewhere for the time being – when you have loads of shots, batch mode is essential. But for everything else, NIK to the rescue! 😉

    I agree about the key-stoning comment – nothing makes an architectural photo look worse to me – it is usually the first thing I fix – just can’t stand to look at it. Although I use a leveling base and a very good architectural lens and try to avoid it in the first place if at all possible…turns out that not all walls are straight!

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