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Setting Up the Camera and Lights

When setting up your camera, make sure to level it, using either your tripod's bubble level (if it has one) or a carpenter's level. I often position the camera to shoot at a slight down angle, so getting the camera plumb can be tricky. Occasionally it's possible to align one side of the frame with a vertical element, such as a door jamb or window casing, but this can result in too much distortion on the opposite side of the frame. I prefer to put a little error on both sides of the frame to even things out.

To avoid nasty reflections from windows and other shiny surfaces, I frame up shots (keeping in mind the compositional elements noted above) before placing my lights. This makes it easy to see hot spots through the viewfinder.

When changing camera position, it's often necessary to adjust the position of the lights as well. To make setting up the lights easier, pros sometimes cheat by using Krylon Dulling Spray (800/457-9566, www.krylon.com) on reflective surfaces (don't use hairspray, which is a lacquer and can damage the finish).

A good way to determine where additional light is needed is to first shoot the room using available light. As I place my lights (for locations, see floor plan, above), I like to follow the lighting that's been established in the room by the lighting designer or architect (or even by the electrician). For example, if the lighting is configured to be moody, I try to mimic that ambience. If the room is bright and airy, like the kitchen shown in this article, I try to make my lighting full and even. My goal is to avoid adding too much light to the shot, which would make the room seem unnatural or the windows dark.

By the way, this isn't necessarily a fast process. It takes years of practice to light a room quickly, so plan on spending a day, if necessary, to get the lighting right. Be patient and don't be afraid to move your lights around and experiment. Since you're shooting digitally, the only cost will be your time.

Key light. The main — or "key" — lighting for most shots typically comes from behind the camera, and at a slight angle. On this shoot, I used a double 500-watt work light and a 1,000-watt pro light, for a total of 2,000 watts of key lighting (Lights A and B on the floor plan, previous page). To minimize shadows, I bounced the light off the ceiling, and while I didn't use any diffusion material, I was careful to place the lights so that harsh shadows didn't fall in the foreground, especially on the chairs.

Setting Up a Shot

Once the shot has been framed, I always double-check to make sure that carpentry tools, photo equipment, and other distractions — such as the open garage door visible through the window in this shot — have been removed (1). To determine how much extra lighting will be needed, I start by shooting with available light only (2). I shot this kitchen on an overcast day, which made it easier to balance the natural light with additional lighting.

Next, to brighten the foreground without casting harsh shadows across the chairs, I placed key lighting behind the camera and bounced its light off the ceiling (3). Positioned just outside the room in the hall, another light opened up the middle part of the kitchen (4). And to light the back of the room, I put a 500-watt work light in a closet (5), with diffusion material layered over the lamp.

In the final shot, all of the natural and artificial light sources work together to create a natural-looking image free of harsh shadows and distracting reflections (6).

1. Frame the shot

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2. Check natural light

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3. Add foreground lighting

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4. Add side lighting

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5. Add background lighting

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6. Finished shot

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What Kind of Camera Should You Buy?

I used a Nikon Coolpix 4500 4-megapixel camera to take the shots in this article. It's no longer made, but I recommend any similar split-body camera because it can be held over the head (or at a very low angle) and twisted so that its back LCD screen is still viewable (see photo). Whatever you decide to buy — a digital SLR or a less-expensive point-and-shoot camera — here are the features to consider:

Resolution. The size of the digital film chip in your camera is not as important as you might think. While newer cameras boast 6- and 7-megapixel chips — which are big enough to produce high-resolution prints of 8x10 or bigger — 4 to 5 megapixels are more than enough for smaller photos or for Web-site use. This means you can buy last year's camera or a used one and still have more than enough detail in your shots.

Viewing system. Don't buy a camera that doesn't have an eyepiece, because using a mini-LCD screen as a primary viewing device is very difficult, especially when the site has a lot of extraneous light. Also, look for a large LCD display, which makes it easier to view and review your shot. If you can get a clear view of the shot you just took when you test out the camera in the store, odds are it will be okay on the job site.

Storage cards. Most cameras use either CF (compact flash) or SD (secure digital) cards to store digital information; in my experience, CF cards are sturdier and harder to damage. While card memory and costs vary, I recommend high-speed cards, which decrease the time needed between shots.

Controls. Some cameras have dedicated software controls for such features as review/delete, flash, and white balance; on other cameras with fewer controls, you have to dig through layers of menu options to get to the function you want.

Size. On a job site, smaller isn't necessarily better — your camera should fit comfortably in your hand and balance well.

Extras. Be sure your camera has a tripod mount. And buy a good case: I like the waterproof, dirt-proof, crew-proof hardened plastic ones made by Pelican (800/

882-4730, www.casesbypelican.com), which come in a number of sizes and configurations.

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At your own photo shoots, remember to spread out your electrical sources, and try to use the home's 20-amp circuits; otherwise, you'll be running back and forth to the circuit panel a lot. It's also a good idea to disable smoke detectors, since a whiff of smoke from your lights (burning gels or dust) can set them off. And keep some first-aid cream handy: It's easy to get burned moving those hot lights around.

Fill lights. For additional lighting, I took advantage of an open doorway leading into the room (Light C, floor plan) and a utility closet (Light D, floor plan).

Positioned just outside the room in the hall, Light C was a 1,000-watt pro light on a stand; it was covered with diffusion material and a Rosco Full Blue CTB #3202 gel tungsten conversion filter. To avoid overlighting the shiny ovens, I moved the light around a bit so that the door opening cast a shadow on them.

Placed on the floor in the closet, Light D — a 500-watt halogen work light — helped open up the back of the room. I also positioned another 1,000-watt work light (Light E, floor plan) on the floor in front of the island return. This light helped open up the area in front of the sink and filled in the shadows thrown by Light D in the closet.

Finally, to balance the daylight and help correct the incoming light to match my tungsten sources and interior tungsten lights, I took advantage of being on the ground floor and covered the windows from the outside with large rolls of 1/4 CTO filters (which convert 5,500 K daylight to 4,500 K). I did this even though I'd left in the window screens to help cut down the light and had used full CTB filters on my light sources; it allowed me to warm up the daylight even more.

As I frame up my shots, I always try to shoot a bit loose (I can crop the pictures later). That way, I don't have to worry about hiding every light. Also, with most midrange camera lenses, the edges of the shot are not all that sharp and they tend to have the most distortion. Plus I find it hard to bend my eye into the edges of the viewfinder (especially since I wear glasses), so I occasionally miss things on the periphery.

There's Always Photoshop

I bring a laptop computer to photo shoots so that I can check my images as I take them. If I've made a technical mistake, it's better to know about it while my equipment is still set up and I'm on site.

Later on, I'll open up the images using Adobe Photoshop software and do some spot color correction, retouching, and cropping. Most new cameras come with basic editing software that allows you to adjust brightness, contrast, and color balance; crop and resize the image; and perform other editing tasks.

Photoshop — which comes in several versions with varying levels of tools and cost — offers even more editing options.

Steve Greenberg is a professional photographer and the estimating coordinator at Byggmeister, a design-build remodeling firm in Newton, Mass.