From Drab to Dramatic: How to Make Any Space Photo Worthy - Part II

Sometimes, you go into a shoot with a concept you’ve been planning for ages. All of the details are hashed out, everything is mood boarded, story boarded, and concepted to the nth degree. And sometimes you schedule a shoot and it’s about an hour before said shoot and you still have no idea what you’re shooting, so you put your thinking cap on, raid your dress up closet, and make things up as you go. This shoot was of the latter variety.

(Incidentally, I’m trying to be better about avoiding the latter method and being more deliberate about planning and executing shoots. But I’m also a firm believer in trial by fire, as there will inevitably be times in your career where you’ll need to think creatively on your feet.  The occasional unplanned shoot is a really good way to stretch those creative muscles and practice this in a noncritical environment). 

Anyway, I knew I was going to be shooting at home and inside (it was raining...again). I knew I didn’t want to shoot in my dining room since I had just shot there, and I had another shoot planned with one of the models in the kitchen for that same day, so that was out of the question too.  I wanted to do something cinematic, and vintage (because that’s kind of my jam).  I have been shooting a lot of 70s fashion lately and wanted to go in a slightly different direction this time for variety’s sake.  So I pulled out some clothes that had more of a 30s/40s look, including a slinky silver slip dress, which had a bit of a Film Noir vibe; our models could both definitely rock that Femme Fatale look so I decided to take that as inspiration and run with it.  

So now I've got a general concept, but where do I shoot them? The most logical space to me is the living room since it’s got the most space, but I definitely wanted to switch things up and make it a little less blah and a lot more dramatic.

The first thing I like to do when trying to figure out how to best utilize a space is to take an objective look and identify what works and what doesn’t work. In this space, I’ve got a sliding door and a few windows which are always useful. I like to place artificial lights outside coming through openings. This allows me to control my light while keeping it motivated and realistic looking and I don’t have to rely solely on natural light which may be limited in strength or duration, or existing interior lighting, which, again tends to be underpowered and is often not that flattering. It also keeps light stands out of the scene that I don’t have to composite out later and allows more flexibility for my models to move around. (It’s also essential if you’re doing any video work!) 

Observation of the existing space, including possible light sources.

Observation of the existing space, including possible light sources.

There are a couple interesting furniture pieces in the room as mentioned previously, but also some less interesting ones, like this big eyesore of a couch. There’s also a lot of visual clutter.  The tv & computer are out of place, and the office area isn’t contributing anything of interest to the scene.

What can we use to our advantage in the scene, and what do we want to get rid of?

What can we use to our advantage in the scene, and what do we want to get rid of?

There’s also really nothing that interesting going on in terms of color. We’ve got white walls, grey fireplace, grey curtains, a beige couch, and brown sideboard and floor—really the only color we have is in the rug. Now, neutrals aren’t necessarily a bad thing—they absorb color really easily and can be quickly manipulated to fit a variety of palettes. So how do we address these shortcomings and turn them to our advantage?

For this particular case, the solution came in the form of an Amazon package earlier that morning. I had just ordered 1000 sf of plastic wrap which I use to ship backdrops It suddenly hit me—I can use this plastic to totally transform my space. Not only that, but I can make it part of the concept.  Look, we’ve already got this Film Noir theme, which usually results in murder and mayhem, and nothing says murder like plastic wrap…am I right? So I can hide that ugly couch by covering it in plastic wrap. I can partition off that office area with plastic wrap. Might as well go all out and throw a little extra on the floor for our “body”. And just like that, with $15 worth of material, we’ve already changed the vibe of the space from boring living room to sterile and mysterious crime scene.  

I know it still doesn't look like much now but stick with me guys.

I know it still doesn't look like much now but stick with me guys.

Alright, now we’re getting somewhere. Now I wanted to make a few more quick but big impact changes to the scene, so I swapped out my modern flat screen with a vintage set I bought at a used car parts store for $10, and voila, instant vintage upgrade. And just for good measure, let’s open this drawer a crack to add some mystery, and here’s a lamp we can throw haphazardly on the sofa—maybe it’s our murder weapon, maybe not, but either way it’s got you wondering. 

(I find it’s these little details that really elevate an image from interesting to intriguing. I heard a photographer once say your image can either be an apple or an onion--in other words, you can have everything presented to you all at once, like that shock of flavor when you bite into an apple, or you can peel back layer after layer like an onion and keep finding new meaning and flavor. I’m always aiming for onions, and I think part of that is working in these subtle nuggets—maybe you don’t notice them at first but after your second or third time seeing an image, you pick them up. And maybe they answer your questions, or maybe they ask new ones, but either way they get you thinking.) 

Now one thing I knew would really transform my space here was lighting. With film noir, it’s always about the shadows and the contrast, and obviously we want to go for some serious mood. I also feel like film noir always takes place at night so I wanted it to feel like night time inside. Now shooting at night wouldn’t really be feasible because it’d be too dark, plus I couldn’t guarantee that I could get that nice bright moon for a light source. So instead, we made our own moon by using a long throw reflector just outside the sliding door. The light was gelled with some CTB to give us that cool temperature (like in the spaghetti scene), and we aimed basically right at the ground in front of the sideboard, which seemed like a convenient location to put our unfortunate expired model. 

Mimicking night time moonlight with reflector placed outside. 

Mimicking night time moonlight with reflector placed outside. 

Once we got our main motivating light source figured out, the next space I’m looking at is that office area. I knew I wanted some kind of light in there for a couple reasons—one, I thought it’d just look cool; the plastic acts as a big diffuser so we could definitely add some interesting light play and color if we shone light through it. Also, a light back there adds a sense of mystery—what’s going on back there, why is there a light on, is it a work light, is the house under construction, is it our killer’s lab back there where she’s going to dismember the body (sorry, too much? I get a little carried away sometimes). It also serves as a practical light by adding some separation between our femme fatale, who’s still fairly dark in the foreground, and the background. 

Light coming through plastic wrap for dramatic and mysterious effect. 

Light coming through plastic wrap for dramatic and mysterious effect. 

Now I know plastic wrap isn’t going to be an ideal solution in a lot (well, most) of cases, but it just so happened it was an easy way to address the shortcomings of our set while also contributing to the story line. But there are other ways I could have tackled this space too. For example, instead of blocking off that office area, I could have a) left it dark; b) shone another light through the window by the desk; c) lit it to look like the ceiling light was on (maybe keep the warm light temperature for some interesting color contrast); or d) kept the light we ended up using, but crank the haze up to level 11 so it serves as similar purpose as the plastic, giving us that mysterious vibe that obscures what’s actually in the room. But it would probably be harder to control haze spill into the main space, and I’m not sure how relevant it would be from a storytelling perspective (why would it be so foggy inside??). However, from a visual perspective, I think it would still look pretty cool. 

So now we’re getting some drama here with our light, but I want to make sure I’m still getting all that detail so those nuggets like the lamp and the drawer, as well as every crease and fold in the clothing and the plastic, is going to show up and we get that great texture. To do this, I’m going to add some fill by bouncing a reflector off the white ceiling just to up the shadows globally in the scene. And for consistency’s sake, I’m gelling that light to match our moonlight blue color. 

Here we've added a fill light. It's a subtle effect, but it helps add a little detail to the shadows and brings the overall contrast down. 

Here we've added a fill light. It's a subtle effect, but it helps add a little detail to the shadows and brings the overall contrast down. 

We’re almost there now. But I think our leading lady needs a bit more fill because right now she’s really only backlit—which could also be cool and very film noir, but I want to show off all that beautiful hair and makeup and styling. To keep that dramatic lighting, I placed another reflector up high and pointing down next to our fill, this one gridded and gelled as well. To bounce a bit of that back to fill the front, I placed a white vflat a few feet in front of her. 

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And for the grand finale—I never say no to an opportunity to use a haze machine. I dig haze for a couple reasons: one, it decreases contrast by adding a film of white over everything, bringing those shadow values up; 2) it’s transluscent so it can partially obscure things (great for when we have too much visual clutter or want to be mysterious); and 3) it helps to diffuse light so that light from our sources is scattered around the room just a bit, caught by our fog particles and illuminated. Haze also is used a ton in films, so it definitely gives it that cinematic quality. 

I mentioned briefly the use of gels on our lights, and all our lights are gelled in this scene. Gels are awesome for a lot of reasons—for one, we’re able to create a nighttime color temperature in the scene while shooting at 4 in the afternoon. Gels are also interesting because they add a cast to everything and reduce color contrast by pushing all our colors just a little to one side of the color spectrum.   In other words, it helps to unify the color in the space, which can be nice if you’ve got some clashing colors. This is made even easier when we’re dealing with neutrals that basically have no color until we make it ourselves. Now that white wall and these grey curtains are suddenly very blue.  

You may be asking “why don’t you just change white balance in post”? And that would kind of work but there are a couple differences. One, the saturation of the gel is variable depending on light power output. Lights at lower power are more saturated with gels, whereas brighter lights leave a less saturated cast.  So if you’ve got different strength lights, you may have some variability in color resulting from both those lights. Also, you might be able to get away with faking it in post if all your lights are gelled the same color—but ours weren’t. That light behind the plastic has a teal gel, while the rest have CTB gels. You’d be hard pressed to imitate a mixing of color temperatures in post.

So we covered staging and props, we covered lighting and we covered color, so let’s circle back to concept, which has been sort of developing iteratively as the whole scene comes together, and we’ll walk through the final results.

To recap: we started with this film noir idea which was inspired primarily by wardrobe and by the look of our models. I knew I wanted to shoot in the living room for space and variety purposes, but it needed some serious attention to make it work with the film noir vibe. Enter plastic wrap, which served as a convenient and cheap way to partition space and add texture—it also works with the concept of murder and mayhem; by obscuring areas and acting as a barrier, it adds a sense of mystery. I also like that it is this kind of clinical and sterile material, which maybe adds this sense of detachment and coldness—potential traits of our femme fatale.

Next we added some contrasty light for a dramatic flair, and gelled everything blue to make it look like night time. The blue also adds a psychological component to the scene—not only do we associate the color blue with nighttime, but also with feelings of isolation, melancholy and calculated intelligence. While the scene is almost overwhelmingly blue, we do have a few areas of accent colors that deviate from the monochromatic palette—most notably in the bright red lips of our killer (red being the color of passion), and more ironically, in the orange pants of our dead woman, (orange being the complimentary color to blue, and a color typically associated with warmth and happiness). This juxtaposes nicely with the cool dead skin of our model, who would otherwise fade into the background without that pop of color to draw our eye to her.

Speaking of styling, our outfits now fit really well into the scene, given the concept and the palette. Along with her orange pants, our victim is wearing a teal top that matches the overall blue tones of our scene quite nicely. Her outfit and styling is also very conservative, in contrast to our murderess who is much more seductive with her perfectly coiffed Veronica Lake blonde waves, red lip and slinky silver dress.

The jewelry was the last piece of the puzzle. I almost left it out, wondering if it’d be too obvious, but decided to give it a go. I really liked how our femme fatale was utilizing it as a prop so we went with it, and it ended up really tying the story together by providing a little more context as to why our murder occurred. It still leaves you wondering why, and what happens next, but lets the audience in on a little more of the story.

So there you have it—our film noir murder mystery from beginning to end, coming together in a space that didn’t seem all that exciting at first but we were able to transform it with some cheap props and some imaginative thinking.  By utilizing creative lighting, color and props, we were able to create an interesting concept that worked with our location rather than against it, and we let that location help to inform the narrative of the imagery. 

The real challenge is being able to visualize how a space can be transformed, and that’s something that’s just going come with lots of time and practice. I know it can be daunting at first, but the only way you’ll be able to become versed in this is to just keep experimenting. So I encourage you all to think outside the box, maybe look at the spaces you see every day in a new light, and challenge yourself to transform that space and use it to your advantage.

And there you have it! Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time!