Terrible Room with Terrible Light Transformed

Outside of shooting in a studio with the luxury of controlled lighting and backgrounds, photographers must be able to adapt quickly to their surroundings and make any location look great. The ability to do so separates great photographers from average ones.

But how do we make that transition and make any scene look better?

When options run out and your location is less than desirable, such as a boring conference room with bad lighting, simple light modification and quick post-production editing can make a world of difference.


Here are some tips for transforming a bad scene:

1. Set Ambient Exposure (Usually Darker)

Even in the most unappealing backgrounds, there are sometimes qualities worth preserving, such as an interesting texture or wood grain. While adjusting your ambient exposure, consider how much of the original background you wish to reveal in the image and adjust accordingly.

2. Use grid/snoot to control flash spill

After you have established your ambient exposure, it is important to carefully control the light that you add back into the scene. Using a grid or snoot on a pocket strobe will allow you to avoid light spill and instead add light only where you need it.

3. Add main light (light top down)

Start with one light and adjust from there. We recommend directing the light top down for a natural look, as opposed to bottom up lighting that more closely resembles campfire lighting, which can cast unflattering shadows on your subjects’ faces.

4. Adjust/modify main light

Modify your main light to get to your desired quality of light, whether that be diffused or specular, soft or hard. If you find that the edge of the light is too sharp, for example, use a scrim to soften the edges. Remember, the larger the light source, the softer the light fall-off. Place your scrim further from the light source to increase the size of the light. Hold the scrim closer for the reverse effect.

5. Decide on second/rim light

If necessary, or depending on the look you want, consider using a second light to add a little kick of light to the edge of your subject. This second light, or in this case a rim light, should further define your subjects’ features and separate them from the background.

6. Adjust/modify rim light

As is true with the main light, be sure to modify the rim light as needed to complete the setup and achieve the look you are after.

7. Photoshop

Adjust images to taste in Photoshop, adding contrast, adjusting white balance, as well as dodging and burning to accentuate features or draw focus. The amount of editing for each photo depends largely on the genre in which the image exists. For fashion and beauty portraits, for example, the “acceptable” limits of retouching generally go beyond what would be deemed acceptable for regular client portraits.

This article relates directly to a video from our Photographing the Couple workshop, where you can learn how to pose, light, capture, and post-produce creative and inspiring couples portraits just like those that you see above. Upgrade to SLRL Premium now to enjoy full streaming access to this workshop and many others in our extensive library!