We recently had a call to do some photo work for a local Chandlery business that deals in sailboat rigging, equipment and supplies. We had some fun shooting cool products in the studio including a winch and some colorful rope such as in the photo on the right. It is always exciting for me to tackle items I’ve never seen before much less tried to photograph.
But a challenge arose when we were asked to do an exterior shot of their store location. they wanted to let the viewers know that they had all manner of related product so that meant seeing the interior. but they also wanted to show them the exterior so that you could recognize the place. So it was time to revisit a technique that was common in architectural shooting in the film days: the blending of interior and exterior exposures.
In film it was tricky since the two shots needed to be perfectly exposed and on the same sheet of film meaning NO camera movement was allowed. But the results were really nice so good architectural photographers worked hard to master the technique. But it is still possible to recreate that look and digital technology has made the process easier and a bit more flexible. in film, since both exposures were on one sheet of film, what you got was what you got… period… unless you could afford some airbrushing to fix little problems.
The approach is pretty much the same. Set up for two shots: the first one when there is light on the building itself. This is usually done during twilight just before the sun sets in order to get the most drama to the shot. The second shot is then taken after it gets dark and the interior lights are turned on shining out of the now silhouetted building.
The initial shot was planned for around 6:30 – 7:00 but just before we were ready to shoot, a sky filled with beautiful puffy clouds turned nearly flat grey. All of the wonderful sunset color and lighting atmosphere vanished. The scene was grey and FLAT!!! In film this would have been fatal but in the digital world there were post production options we could call into play. Here is the unprocessed camera shot.
The final will be cropped considerably but I wanted plenty of editing room in the captured file. Since blending two exposures needs critical alignment, the cropping will have to wait until the final view is all assembled. There are other issues at play here including the street sign on the left building corner blocking the building name, really dirty sidewalks and a gutter needing paint, a dead gray sky and flat light. There is some keystone distortion from the lens and angle that needs a little attention but some lighting correction will need to wait until the parts are assembled so it all matches. However the general cleaning can be done now. Here is the cleaned up shot.
After the first shot was taken it is time for kick back and wait… and wait… and wait until the sun is down and the window light is noticeably brighter than the building, at least 2 stops to make subsequent blending easier. When the RAW shot was opened it was obvious that the interior lights had not been planned with photography in mind. There were regular incandescents (now ferociously yellow), some fluorescent lights (green), and what appeared to be some halogen or LED spotlights (blue) all mixed in the scene. It took some effort to isolate areas illuminated by the different lights and bring them into some general color balance that looked OK overall. Here is that second shot for the lights AFTER color balancing the lights.
Blending the two main layers is actually pretty easy in the digital world. The shot of the lit interior is placed on a layer above the base shot and given a blending mode of “Lighten.” The effect is that you are seeing the bottom layer but any place that is lighter on the top layer — here the interior lights — is now showing up.
Well now we are getting somewhere but the sky is boring and we still need to crop out extraneous stuff. When we were waiting to do the second shot I happen to look up as a gull flew over and saw that the sky overhead was beautiful so I took another camera (you must not move the camera aimed at the building) and took several shots of the clouds and sky. Since this was the sky that had actually been there before the onshore winds blew in the fog bank it seemed appropriate to have it handy to put back into the shot.
Now all that was needed was to drop in the clouds to replace the gray fog bank then make a few lighting adjustments to add some drama and make it a more believable night or evening shot, crop the whole shot and get it ready to show the client. And here it is..
So here is an example of an old film-based technique as used modernly using exposure blending in Photoshop plus some retouching for effect. By using digital we did not have to wait for the second shot until pitch black and the building going into silhouette, and the lighting effects would have had to be done with serious lighting a la movie production or via very expensive airbrushing.