Lighting Techniques

How I Got That Shot: Balancing Artificial And Natural Light

January 23, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Noah Webb

While shooting inside the modernist Sheats Goldstein house, photographer Noah Webb wanted the light inside to match the sunlight seen through the window, but not overlight the scene and lose detail on the furniture.

Client: Nursery Works
Senior Brand and Marketing: Jenny Tang, MDB Family
Creative Director: Tiffany Wong, MDB Family



Noah Webb shoots a variety of subjects for editorial and advertising clients, but what comes through in all his images is an interest in space. When he scouts a location for a portrait, for example, “I go through the space and do a mental Tetris game,” he says. “I’m looking at how space and objects work together.” On assignment, his approach to composition and framing is usually careful and deliberative. “My lighting is more natural than artificial, but it also has an extra kick beyond what nature supplies.”

He’s recently been applying that esthetic to his work for Nursery Works, makers of ultra-chic, high-end furniture for kids. All the images have been photographed in iconic modernist homes in Los Angeles. While photographing two child models at the Sheats Goldstein residence, designed by architect John Lautner in the early 1960s, Webb foresaw some challenges. After a walk through, he knew his main shot, showing the crib and a rocking chair, had to be in the large living room of the house. A glass wall overlooked a sunny pool area, but the interior was dark. Balancing the inside light with the outside light would be tricky, but he wanted the light inside “to be soft, not too harsh.” The interior, made of concrete and glass, didn’t appear “kid friendly,” he notes. “So how do you make it believable and also warm enough that the kids don’t just seem like they’re inserted?”

He chose a technique he often uses: bouncing powerful lights off the ceiling for fill, then adding a single directional light to provide contrast where needed. He managed to capture both the interior and exterior in detail, while freezing the action of two restless child models.


For most assignments, Webb says, “I’ll figure out the space and shoot it first, without any lighting, so it’s really contrast-y. I’ll do that to get a sense of the lines and the space and what I want in the frame.” After he shot this test, prop stylist Lauren Machen brought in the furniture and props.

Once Webb and assistants Nicholas Trikonis and Tanner Ott had brought in lights and stands, they had to avoid creating reflections in the glass wall. Webb says he doesn’t like relying on post production to fix flaws. “I want to do it right the first time,” he says, adding that this dates back to when he started out in photography, shooting only film. His crew wrapped light stands and the room’s built-in furniture in black cloths. “Sometimes I’ll bring in 4×6 foamcore with a black side to it, just to block things off,” Webb notes. With his tripod and camera to the right of the room and at an angle to the glass wall, he was able to keep his own reflection from appearing in the shot.

“I think the prep time to get to this shot, just with lighting and moving props, was two hours.”


Webb used a similar lighting technique while photographing artist Doug Aitken for Architectural Digest. © NOAH WEBB


Webb says his goal for the lighting was to balance the light inside and out, but also maintain highlights and contrast in the interior’s details. Webb’s crew arranged three bare Profoto 7a heads, running on Profoto 2400 packs, on high stands in a semi circle behind him. “They were bouncing into the ceilings for fill,” he explains. The ceilings were more than 15 feet high and made of concrete; unlike white ceilings, they soaked up light.

Just outside the window, some plants under the overhanging roof were falling into shadow, so Webb added another light outside, at a low angle and low power, just to create minimal fill.

Webb notes that if he had lit the room too brightly, the detail on the turned rungs of the crib would have been lost. To add some directional lighting, he placed a five-foot Profoto Octa softbox to the right of the lamp. Directed down, the light hit the girl and the boy’s face, and provided definition to the shape of the crib.

He used a similar technique—bouncing light down towards his subject—in a portrait of artist Doug Aitken he shot for Architectural Digest. The shoot took place in Aitken’s home in Venice, California, which he featured in his video piece, “Acid Modernism.” When Webb scouted the house, he recalls, “I said, ‘This is like going to art camp for a day, I have eye candy all around me, and I can play.’”

To photograph Aitken against a wall of colored glass panes, he bounced two Profoto D1 heads into the white ceiling to create overall fill. He also placed an Elinchrom Octabank just to the left of the camera, and directed it down at Aitken. “I like the Octa for direct light because it has some contrast and sense of direction, but it’s not harsh,” Webb explains.

When he scouted the room, sunlight was coming directly through the glass, but by the time Webb was ready to take this portrait, the sun had gone behind a tree. To replicate the sun, he placed a Profoto 7b just outside the glass wall and moved it close to the glass. “The raw head is pretty focused,” he notes. Like a beam of sunlight, it cast colored reflections onto the floor at Aitken’s feet.

Aitken, who has been behind the camera often, “knows how to pose for the camera.” Webb adds, “I don’t like to direct too much.” He starts by chatting with his subjects, finding a connection with them and then, once shooting begins, suggests some poses. With the two young subjects in his Nursery Works shot, he had everything set up before they were brought on set so he could make the most of their limited time and patience.


On the Nursery Works shot, Webb used a Canon 5D Mark III with a 24-70 mm lens at f/8. He wanted to slightly drag the shutter to make the most of the daylight, but he notes, “We couldn’t go too slow, because the kids were moving around like crazy.” He shot at ISO 320, 1/50th of a second. “We got enough daylight but at the same time not too much daylight so that the shot was blown out and we lost detail.”

Post Production

Webb says his background as a film shooter still influences his approach to shooting. “I think I’m deliberate about how I shoot,” he says. While his travel assignments and personal projects sometimes require him to take a looser approach than when he’s composing a portrait, he says, “I still like to consider what I’m shooting before I snap the shutter.” For the portrait of Aitken, for example, he estimates he shot only 60 frames.

Shooting tethered, he previews his images and does light cleanup in Lightroom. For more retouching, he uses Photoshop. He does his own retouching “about 70 percent of the time, because I’m a controlling person when it comes to my images.” When portrait retouching is required, he says, he turns it over to an experienced beauty retoucher. After doing an edit of his low-res images, he’ll send his selects to the client via WeTransfer.

On the Sheats Goldstein house shoot for Nursery Works, he notes, “I think half of the day was spent on that shot, and we did different variations: tighter, pulled back, more furniture, less furniture and visited the space at night.” The selected photos of the cribs and models in stark and dramatic rooms have appeared in Nursery Works’ branding and marketing materials.   

Related Links:

Thomas Brown on Creating Simple-Looking Lighting

Mixing Light Sources to Mimic Sunlight

CreativeLive Video Tutorial: Seeing and Shaping Light, by Lindsay Adler

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