Shooting Interior Composite Portraits - Part 1

I can't say I am a big fan of architecture or interior photography.  I am also not a practitioner of the studio portrait.  But what I have discovered is a mix of these two that is a great way to combine an interior shot with a beautiful, character-driven portrait.  This in-depth, 2 part article will cover the entire process, the end result being a well lit and compelling still image.  

I can't say how many times I would look at a portrait shot, and wonder how the photographer got such great light on the subject, even though the light MUST have been very far away.  What I have come to realize is that I was thinking inside the box.  With the power of preparation and Photoshop, you can create stunning portraiture that will leave your photographic peers scratching their heads as to how it was done.  

An "interior portrait" as defined within the parameters of this tutorial, is an image shot with a relatively wide angle lens, which uses the elements of the room to augment the human subject, to create a "scene" that could almost be described as a movie still.  I find myself drawn to photograph the over-40 crowd, especially because their homes tend to have far more character and emotion instilled in them.  This is the most important component of an interior portrait.  The large amount of space surrounding the subject should be there for a specific purpose, every piece of furniture, every knick-knack adds to the story that is the subject.  

This type of portrait must be shot on a tripod, plain and simple.  At first it might feel limiting, but when you spend more time relating to the subject and less time running around with a camera, the end results will speak for themselves.  It is easy to disengage our subjects by hiding behind the camera lens.  They can begin to feel uncomfortable or alone.  By placing my camera on a tripod and using a cable release, I can get my face away from the camera, and devote my attention to directing and posing my subject.  

Once I find a willing subject and identify the idea location for the shoot, the next step is to decide on a camera angle.  My favorite camera-lens combination for these images is a full-frame Canon 5D Mark II with a Canon 35mm F1.4L lens.  I find 35mm to be an excellent "sweet spot" between the benefit of a wide angle lens but without distortion.  As mentioned earlier, you will also need a sturdy tripod and cable release.  

One of my favorite tricks is to have a window in the frame.  I find them to be strong, graphic elements, and also lend an air of believability as to the apparent light source for the image.  I usually let the window over expose slightly, but I am always sure to bracket a range of exposures to capture the full detail, should I decide to use any of it later.  

I like nice, soft light that brings out texture and shape.  This is especially flattering for older subjects.  When using light modifiers like soft boxes, the closer the light is to the subject, the more pleasing the light.  Using the techniques I will outline in this article, I will be placing my light source extremely close to the subject, and thus right in the middle of the frame.  It might seem counter-intuitive to have an obnoxious, bright object in the middle of the picture, but with the right approach, it is not a problem.  

If I were to put the light out of the frame, thus far from the subject, not only would the quality of light suffer, but I would be throwing light all over the scene.  This would destroy the subtle qualities of light found around the room, along with making the entire image very one-dimensional.  

InteriorPortrait Image 1.jpg
"The three images I used to create the final composite portrait.  The very dark image on the bottom was used to bring back in highlight detail in the window and the large wooden chest."

Once my model is posed, scene is set, and light is positioned, it is time to make the picture.  I will settle on a pose, and work slight variations of it for 30 or 40 frames.  All I am focusing on is the subject, not worrying about anything else in the scene, even though I am shooting with a wider lens.  As the initial, completely untouched file shows (look a bit further down for that image) there is more to this technique than taking one picture!  This is only the first step in the process.  It is extremely important that the camera or tripod is not moved throughout the entire process.  I will be shooting a "plate" of the background, meaning I will be removing the strobe from the frame, and shooting a picture of the scene as it stands naturally.  It is always easy to tell how I used the light to make a portrait when you see my original file, because the light is right in the frame.  

Another benefit of this technique is that the model's job is done quickly.  Since the rest of the scene will be adjusted independently from the model's posing, I can focus solely on the model, get those images shot, and then they can leave.  This type of photography can be time consuming and meticulous, but yields images that have richness and dimension that is hard to replicate any other way. 

It is important to note that the main light on the model should not fall on the background.  When the light is removed and the "plate" of the background is photographed, there will be a void where the light was.  It is best to let the strobe only light the model, and use the natural room light, or light added after the model is removed, to light the rest of the scene.  Again it is important to remember NEVER to touch the camera or tripod before the shoot is over, we are counting on the fact that every shot will be perfectly lined up.  

Let me recap the scenario. I have found a model and an interior location that look ideal for a photo shoot, placed my model and light in the scene, and made a photograph.  After that is done, I remove the light from the scene, and shoot a picture again, with no model, just the room lights.  This is my "base" exposure, a picture of the background.  I tend to bracket with a wide range of exposures, so I have detail in every highlight and every shadow.  This will maximize my options in post production.  Since I have never moved the tripod, it will be relatively easy to stack all these images in Photoshop, choosing the elements from each that I want to appear in the final image.  

Thumbnail image for InteriorPortrait Image 2.jpg
"The final result from combining the above 3 images in Adobe Photoshop."

Continue onto Part 2 Here: Link

jf.gifJoshua Lehrer | Website
Josh is a recent graduate of the Advertising Photography program at the Rochester Institute of Technology.  His career started in the NJ/NYC area where he worked as a freelance photographer, writer, and consultant.  He also worked as marketing coordinator for a large photography retailer.  He currently resides in South Florida, where he continues to be heavily involved in the photography industry.