The Taos Historic Museum is one of my favorite clients. It is operated by one of the nicest, most dedicated and professional staffs of any organization that I’ve known. The Museum owns several historic properties, including the Martinez Hacienda, a 200-plus year old historic building with adobe walls that are 8-10 feet thick. The Hacienda contains period artifacts that impart an accurate sense of what life was like 200 years ago for residents living at the Hacienda. I was privileged to have photographed the Hacienda and these artifacts to illustrate Dr. David J. Weber’s excellent book, “On the Edge of Empire, The Hacienda of los Martinez”, published by the Museum of New Mexico Press.
The Martinez Hacienda is maintained just like it appeared 200 years ago. Furniture, implements, tools, household goods are all authentic to the period. The adobe mud and straw bricks used to make the walls are covered with traditional mud “plaster.” The interior walls of the bedroom pictured above have additional natural elements mixed into the plaster that lighten the walls to better reflect light. The walls tend to sparkle somewhat due to tiny pieces of mica that are part of the plaster. The floors are made as they were 200 years ago: soil is mixed with ox blood that has hardened, making sweeping easier. White sheepskins are thrown about the floor to serve as rugs. The cloth around the small table with the votive candles was woven using an old loom located at the Hacienda. There is a small window to the left of the scene that opens to one of two inner courtyards. The window is recessed by several feet due to the thickness of the adobe walls. In that this photo was made in the evening, the minimal light coming through the window had no effect on the scene itself.
The scene appears to be lit by the available light from the beeswax votive candles on the table and by the candles on the wooden candelabra. This was intentional so that the dimly lit visual tone of the room could be maintained in this photograph. However, the candles produced very harsh lighting that would not translate accurately photographically using either film or digital cameras. In short, while normal human vision could easily see the scene as it appears in the above photograph, the light provided by the candles had too much contrast and thus the contrast range was beyond the ability of film and digital mediums. The solution lay in adding additional light to reduce the contrast range enough so that the photograph could be made to look as if the room’s light came solely from the candles seen in the photograph. Had additional lights not been used, much detail would be lost, especially in the floor area of the photograph.
There are three primary considerations when adding additional light sources to achieve a “natural light look” to any interior architectural image: (1) location of the supplemental light(s), (2) type of light source [spot, umbrella, direct reflector, etc.], and (3) spectrum of the light used. Each of these is interrelated in that if a poor decision is made in one area, the overall result is much less than what it can and should be. The decision as to what type of light must be used is directed by both the types of sources in the scene and the light spectrum that these light sources emit.
In deciding the location of the supplemental light(s) one has to evaluate where the existing light is coming from and place the additional light source(s) where they will boost this light level without undue and seemingly inexplicable shadows. In practice, this task is not as simple as it might first seem. Normally, one or two additional light sources are all that are needed. It should also be noted that adding more than one or two supplemental lights is difficult, and the chances of overpowering the existing light increases with the number of supplemental lights that are used. The lighting provided by the candles in the above scene is harsh. The candles are not in reflectors. This causes extreme fall off from their light. The candles on the table are set farther back on its top and so their light tends be cut off by the top of the table’s edge. Because of this, their light plays no significant role in lighting the floor and its two sheepskin rugs. The candles in the candelabra are high above the floor and also provide minimal illumination on the floor. Thus, the scene when lit only from the candles has very minimal light striking the dark earth floors.
Two supplemental lights were used to make this photograph. A 60-inch white-surfaced umbrella was used high on a light stand to the right of the scene. This umbrella had a black fabric cover on its outside to keep uncontrolled light from bleeding through and bouncing around the room. This light provided wide, soft somewhat directional fill light to boost the overall volume of light in the scene. A second light was used, also to the right of the scene, but much lower and somewhat closer to the camera position. It was fitted with a snoot and a 20-degree “honeycomb” grid spot attachment. This light was used in order to provide soft-edged, limited area light that illuminated the corner of the bed and the floor space near it. The immediate impression when viewing this photograph is that some additional light seemed to come from another candle group just to the right of the composition. In a more careful examination of the photograph one can see minimal, yet distinct “unexplained” shadows beneath the bed and on the wall behind edge of the headboard of the bed. These are caused by the lower light with its grid spot attachment and are unavoidable. It was decided that the enhanced quality of the light from this grid spot on the floor and bed outweighed the minimal visual impact of the shadows produced by this light.
When considering where to locate additional lighting one must also consider the type of light source that will best add to the scene appropriately. The large umbrella for the main fill light offered the best solution to the challenge of increasing the overall volume of light in this composition so that a smaller aperture could be used in order to have a greater depth of field [focus] throughout the scene. The snoot coupled with the grid spot attached to the lower light provided the increased area light needed to illuminate an otherwise very dark lower section of the scene.
This brings us to the third consideration: the spectrum of light to be used in the supplemental light sources. As was indicated above, this decision is directed by the existing light sources in the scene, in this example, candles. Whether using film or digital camera mediums, one must take into account the quality of the light produced by the light sources within the original scene. Light is measured in terms of its color temperature, which is expressed in degrees Kelvin. Candles produce light in the lower [red] spectrum of light, about 1,930 degrees Kelvin. Daylight film is manufactured to produce optimum accurate color when exposed to light in the 5,500-6,000 degree Kelvin range. So-called Tungsten balanced film is manufactured to produce optimum accurate color when exposed to 3,100-3,200 degrees Kelvin light. Color correction [cc] filters and light balancing [LB] filters are used either on light sources or in the form of optical filters on the camera lens in order to balance lighting with film types used. In the case of digital cameras, most of the advanced amateur DSLR and all of the professional grade digital cameras enable their users to set the light spectrum range according to the type of light source in the scene. This is a tremendous help [think savings of hundreds of dollars or the equivalent in other currencies] because when using film cameras one must own a large number of assorted expensive filters, either for one’s camera or specialty gel filters for light sources, in order to accomplish proper balance between existing light sources in a scene and the type of film used. Additionally for photographers using film cameras or digital cameras, it helps to own a specialty three-color light meter [such as a Minolta Color Meter V] that indicates the makeup of the light spectrum in a scene so that one will know what filtration to use. These light meters cost about $1,200, US. With digital cameras one can obtain excellent results by setting the color sensitivity on the camera before making the images. Tables and charts for basic light sources such as incandescent bulbs [approximately 2,900 degrees Kelvin] can be found on the Internet or in books such as Michael Freeman’s excellent book, “The Manual of Indoor Photography”, Ziff Davis Publish Company, New York, [pages 10-11].
Now, returning to the decision as to the type of light source to use in this room where candles are the existing light sources, a decision was made to use electronic flash in the umbrella and in the soft-edged grid spot. A 4x5” view camera with a bag bellows and a 47mm Super Angulon XL lens was used to expose daylight balanced film. [This particular lens is the rough equivalent to the angle of view that a 16 mm lens would have on a full frame 35 mm format camera. Use of the view camera enabled me to use its standard movements so that I could avoid introducing unwanted distortion.] Two very slight warming gel filters were placed in front of the flash heads. One reasonably may ask why, since the approximate color temperature of the candles is less than 2,000 degrees Kelvin, did I decide to use electronic flash which is 5,500 degrees Kelvin and then lower color temperature of the flash heads slightly with warming gel filters? One might think that use of a tungsten-balanced film would have been a better choice because its color temperature (3,100-3,200 degrees Kelvin) more closely matches the spectrum of light produced by the candles. My reasoning was a follows: (a) producing an authentic looking scene was the goal, (b) while tungsten balanced film does more closely match the color temperature of the candle light, the exposure time for a proper exposure using a small aperture would have been several seconds and the candles’ flames would have moved and created unnatural looking flames, (c) use of electronic flash enabled me to use a much shorter exposure (1 second) so that I could let the candles burn and create a natural appearance in their flames and in the warmly rendered light that resulted from using a blue sensitive film with reddish-yellow light, and (d) by using a slight warming filter in front of the flash heads I could use the very brief flash to help “freeze” the candles’ flames while lowering the projected light from them to better match the mood of the scene. I used one additional technique to further warm the supplemental lighting: during the exposure I kept the 250-watt quartz halogen modeling lights turned on that are in the flash heads. The color temperature of these is approximately 3,200 degrees Kelvin.
By adopting this type of modified supplemental lighting mixture I was better able to obtain a subtle balance of color temperature controlled light whose qualities mimicked those produced by the candles, without overpowering the existing lights from the candles in any obvious manner. The result is a pleasing and largely believable photographic image of this scene. The time to set up the equipment, adjust the lights and make the exposure was approximately 45 minutes. A unaltered, straight scan was made of the original 4x5” transparency and is included above. Film was used to better represent the soft, yet directional light of the scene. Use of a 4x5” scanning back was not feasible due to the long exposure time required by such devices. Had such a back been used the slight movement of the candle flames would have rendered the scene unnatural.
This article was originally published in 2004.