How I Got That Shot: Mimicking Sunlight for an Interior Shot

August 7, 2014

© Alec Hemer

Hemer’s goal was to draw the eye from the foreground to the product and then toward the girl sitting on the floor, capturing a sense of motion around the girl running. The set was illuminated with a 1.2K HMI bounced towards the back and left, and two carefully placed strobes.

Client: Crate and Barrel
Art Director: Debi Kogan

Commercial assignments for furniture and bedding have to strike a balance between the believable and the aspirational, says New York photographer Alec Hemer. “It’s always my goal to make it look real and inviting,” says Hemer, who shoots interiors for magazines such as House Beautiful and Country Living and advertising for West Elm, Macy’s, Home Depot, Armstrong and others.

On a recent shoot for Crate and Barrel, he had to create a warm, sunlit scene of two young girls in their nightgowns running through a bedroom as if they had just gotten up and were ready to play. Though the set was built in a daylight studio in Chicago, the day of the shoot was dark and gloomy, so he had to recreate the look of morning light using a mix of HMI and strobe lighting.


The bed and the thrown-back duvet were the stars of the shot. Says Hemer, “We wanted the eye to move from the girl running to the bed and then to the back of the set,” where one little girl was kneeling. Art director Debi Kogan also wanted to be sure there was room in the image to run copy on top of it.

Hemer, Kogan and stylist and set builder Bobbi Lin discussed some ideas for what the girls could be doing in the shot, and decided to have one running toward the back of the set where the other girl would be playing. Hemer, who likes photographing people in his interiors, notes, “This shot was cleanly styled and the models added a lot of life and vitality.” He wanted to capture some of the motion of the little girl running through the room, “but I didn’t want her to be totally blurry.”

Working with kids meant he had to shoot quickly, before their attention wandered. “Kids take direction really well, in my experience, but you have to keep it fun.”

When he’s collaborating with a set builder, he says, “I feel it’s important to make a workable set that not only looks great, but also accommodates a good lighting strategy.” However, he always comes to the shoot prepared to improvise.


In the room set, Hemer needed to light two different areas, he says: the bed, which was closer to the camera, and the area in the back where the little girl was kneeling.

To light the area where the girl was running, he set up a Profoto ProDaylight 1.2K HMI light on a C-stand, and bounced it into the wall and ceiling to the back and left of the set. He had to flag the light off using two pieces of foam core taped together, so it didn’t illuminate too much of the area at the back of the set, which he had lit separately. Without the flags, he says, the bounced light would have complicated the strobe lights he had planned for that area of the set.

To add drama and interest in the area where the girl was kneeling and the dresser across from her, Hemer set up two Profoto heads with standard reflectors. These heads, which he attached to the back side of the set, ran off a Profoto Acute 2400 watts/seconds pack. “One of the heads shot away from the set window and bounced into the actual window and wall of the studio,” Hemer says. “The other head was boomed out about a foot from the set and shot straight down through the set windows to emulate daylight and create some bright patches of light on the floor.”

Hemer says he often mixes continuous lights and strobes. “For a constant daylight-balanced source, there’s nothing stronger than HMIs.” At the same time, strobes can be easily dialed up or down to change output. In this shot, he chose to use strobes “because I wanted the bits of light on the ground to be brighter and hotter than the light the 1.2K HMI was providing at 1/50th of a second,” he explains. “To do that with an HMI light, I would have had to have a huge HMI that required an electrician and it would have been more difficult to rig.”


Hemer shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 tilt-shift lens at f/4.5. “I wanted to feel like I was in the room,” he says, and the 35mm and the focal length he chose for the lens worked well. In addition, the tilt-shift lens, which can be swung or tilted so it’s not parallel to the camera sensor, offers some of the controls that a view camera does. “The other nice thing about a tilt-shift lens is that I could swing the lens a little bit so I could keep the left side of the model a little softer and the side with the bed a little sharper,” Hemer adds. “It’s a great tool if you want to keep certain parts of a shot in focus but other parts slightly out of focus.”

To capture some motion blur around the girl scampering across the floor, he shot at 1/50th of a second with the camera on a tripod. He could have tried to add some softness to selected areas in post, he notes, “but it always looks fake on this scale.”

Post Production

The digital tech on the shoot adjusted the color balance and levels, and that took care of most of the retouching needs. “There was very little post on this shot,” Hemer recalls. Though he prefers to capture everything in camera, on commercial assignments, he is often required to shoot plates and composite them to overcome a problem. For example, he says, “I might have to shoot a dining room table that’s set for six, but the company only has three chairs.”

On this Crate and Barrel shoot, he says he was happy with the image he got in camera. “The stylist was able to create a bed that looked natural but also inviting. That’s not easy to achieve.” He notes, “For what I do, stylists are indispensable, and set builders are unsung heroes.”