How I Got That Shot: Lighting a Garden at Night

April 3, 2014

© ABC Carpet & Home/Photo by Jason Madara

One of eight ads Jason Madara shot for ABC Carpet & Home. The photographer was inspired by the color palette of Dutch landscape paintings.

Client: ABC Carpet & Home

Art Director: Angela Gruszka

A brilliantly colored silk carpet is spread beneath a canopy of trees at night. A path, illuminated by unseen light, leads into the distance. This fairy tale image is one of eight ads in the campaign for ABC Carpet & Home, the luxury home design and carpet store in Manhattan. Jason Madara photographed eight handmade, one-of-a-kind carpets over the course of two nights on the manicured grounds of the LongHouse Reserve, a sculpture garden in East Hampton, New York. Working under a moonless sky from 7 PM until 4 AM, Madara had to provide all the illumination in the garden. “I basically approached it like it was in the studio,” he recalls. 

Madara, who is based in San Francisco, says he and Angela Gruszka, the art director for ABC Carpet & Home’s advertising, spent about two months brainstorming the campaign. For a previous campaign, Madara had photographed carpets in empty rooms. Each wall was painted a different hue, highlighting the colors of a carpet’s design. For the new campaign, they wanted something different, but equally dramatic. They decided to take the carpets into nature. “Considering last year was inside, outside made sense,” the photographer says. 

When he is conceiving images, Madara typically creates mood boards to show his ideas to clients. For the newest ABC Carpet & Home campaign, he took inspiration from Dutch landscape paintings in which the rich colors of forests and pastures are enhanced by afternoon sunlight breaking through clouds. 

In composing the shots, “it was a delicate balance,” Madara says. “The rugs are the heroes but you couldn’t showcase the beauty of the rugs without the environment,” he explains. “As far as the lighting, we knew it had to be dramatic and strong, making a strong statement.” 

Says Madara, “Shooting in the dead of night brings its own challenges. Lots of work lights, bug spray and generators fix that problem.” The locations for each of the eight shoots were chosen during a scout around the LongHouse Reserve. He and his crew would first set up work lights so they could see what they were doing. Then the digital tech set up the computer and monitor, while Madara’s assistants set up lights and power packs. Handlers put each rug into position. Then Madara captured separate images of the foreground and background for each scene, as well as plates of certain areas. When all the exposures were done, the crew packed up the gear and walked to the next location for the next ad. Each ad took about two hours to set up and shoot. Madara recalls, “We didn’t stop from 7 at night until 4 in the morning, we just powered through it.”

Whether he’s shooting an interior, an exterior or a portrait, Madara’s lighting plan begins with one light, then he adds more lights in succession. In each shot of the ABC Carpet & Home campaign, he took an approach similar to what he would do when creating a portrait, he says. “I start with the background and how I want it to look, always separating it from the key light on the foreground, occasionally letting the background light bleed into the foreground for overall mood and [ambience], then add the key light to the subject, normally with a gridded beauty dish or a seven-inch grid spot that’s focused directly on the subject.” Before lighting the rug, he first worked on lighting the background to set the mood. In each shot, he used between six and eight Profoto lights, each with 5-, 10- or 20-degree grids. 

“Grids make a bold statement and I thought the whole environment should be specular and contrasty,” he says. The hard lights are unforgiving, he notes, because moving any light by an inch changes the look, but he likes their effect. He notes, “I always travel with softboxes and umbrellas but never end up using them.”

In the shot with the garden path in the background, he began by lighting the tree at camera left, then added grids pointing toward the bushes next to it. Tucked outside the frame, he placed another light on a stand about 15 feet high pointing down through the trees, like moonlight. Another light with a grid was placed out of the frame at camera left to illuminate flowers and branches. At the furthest visible point of the path leading into the distance, he had an assistant place a 10-degree grid about three feet above the ground. “It helped open up the path,” leading the viewer’s eye into the distance and giving the image more depth.

He lit the rug using a silver beauty dish with a grid at camera right, pointing down on the middle of the rug, creating slight fall off at the edges. “We did test shots of the background first, then started doing test shots with all the strobes on to see how everything looked together.” Next, Madara says, “We did a few exposures of everything on, then separate plates with only particular lights on, to then put them all together in post later.”

Another ad from the campaign. © ABC Carpet & Home/Photo by Jason Madara

Madara used a Hasselblad H4X with a Phase One IQ260 back. “We knew we wanted big files with a lot of latitude to eventually make giant prints for the store,” he says. For lenses, he used a 50mm and an 80mm. 

He bracketed each shot to make sure he provided his retoucher with enough variations in light and contrast. With no ambient light in the scene, “all bracketing was done through ISO brackets, leaving the aperture and shutter speed the same,” at f/11 for a quarter of a second, he says. He also bracketed some shots by turning the power on the packs up or down.

Rebecca Bausher, a retoucher in San Francisco, has collaborated with Madara on all of his projects over the past four years. “She’s really involved in the concept process,” and had seen the paintings he had referenced when planning the ABC Carpet shoot, Madara says. When he provides bracketed shots to Bausher, “I make notes on the RAW image of where I want the shadows and highlights to be.”

During the post-production phase, the backgrounds were scarcely retouched. Attention was paid to accurately reproducing the colors in the carpet. Once Gruszka approved each composite, Madara provided the client with two files—an RGB file for use on the Web, and a CMYK for print ads and in-store displays. 

As Madara notes, dark, contrasty shots are more challenging to reproduce accurately when printed on paper. In converting the RGB files to CMYK, the contrast was “pulled back a little,” he says, “because we had to be wary of how they would print.”

The ads have appeared in Wallpaper*Whitewall and other style magazines, and the campaign itself has been featured on design blogs. Says Madara, “It turned out exactly as we had planned.”

Watch a behind-the-scenes video from the shoot below:

Behind the Scenes: ABC Carpet & Home fall… by WhitewallTV