How I Got That Shot: Mixing Light Sources to Mimic Sunlight

December 24, 2015

By Holly Stuart Hughes


For an Architectural Digest shoot, Sang An wanted to create the feeling of light streaming through floor-to-ceiling windows, giving the space a “loft-like feel,” he says. 

CLIENT: Architectural Digest


“Every time I do a photo shoot, I want to know where the light is coming from, and what time it is,” says photographer Sang An. Any photographer working with natural light could say the same, but An, who shoots still lifes, food and interiors, is typically shooting in the studio and the light in the scene is his own creation. On a recent assignment for Architectural Digest, he wanted to create the look of an airy loft apartment filled with sunlight. He chose to use HMI lights to simulate the sun, a bounced strobe to provide some fill, and some white cards and modifiers to selectively shape and reflect the light. 

An was hired to shoot new products from RH Modern, a new furniture line recently launched by Restoration Hardware. The challenge was one he’s familiar with: To make images that look “clean and modern,” but “not clinical.” As he often does, he started with a broad light source and kept to a simple setup. “I think there are two kinds of photographers,” An says. “Those who add light and those who subtract. I’m one of the light subtractors.”  The effect he achieves is crisp yet serene. 


An says the assignment to photograph the RH Modern line called for him to emphasize the “luxurious, high-end surfaces.” Editor-in-chief Margaret Russell, who had worked with An when she was the editor of Elle Décor, wanted to show the furniture in an environment. “She wanted it to look clean, but happy and inviting,” An recalls. 

An, who divides his time between New York City and San Francisco, went to the studios in the RH Modern warehouse in California where, working with Architectural Digest’s producing editor, Stephen Pappas, he would photograph one-of-a-kind models of the furniture and accessories. “It was pretty amazing, one of the best warehouse studios I’ve seen,” An says. 

Set builders in the studios created room sets. Typically the set might include a wall with a window opening cut into it, he says, to give him a frame in which he could put a light source. For RH Modern, however, he thought a small window didn’t fit the environment he was trying to envision: “I wanted to create lighting that suggested there’s a floor-to-ceiling window in the room, or a big skylight.” The set was surrounded by walls roughly 11 feet high. He decided to set up his main light source behind and high above the left wall.


Once the bed and bedding were arranged, “I knew I wanted light in the top left corner and streaming down through the room,” he says. “I wanted a gigantic light source to give it that loft-like feel.”  

He placed a 1K HMI on a stand, close to the ceiling, where a skylight would be. He then used 2×8-foot foamcore to create the shadow cast against the back wall. “I think the HMI brings an unexplainable quality to the light,” says An. 

To add fill in the details on the bedframe and dark bedding, he used a strobe placed a few feet from the end of the bed. But he chose to point the head away from the bed. “It’s just a bare head directed away from the subject,” he says, so it bounced off the studio’s white walls and back towards the bed. “I basically pop the strobe into the space,” An says. “I find it worked with the space, and it’s more natural looking.”  

Though he chose on the RH Modern shoot to use an HMI for his main light and then strobe to create fill, An says he sometimes reverses that formula. That’s what he did when he shot a still life for one of his frequent clients, Shape, to illustrate a story about the benefits of eggs. Collaborating with food stylist Roscoe Betsill and prop stylist Lisa Lee, An created an overhead shot of an egg carton that was filled with eggs of different colors and markings, and placed on top of a sheet of sandblasted Plexi. Using a bare head at a slight angle, he was able to cast strong, crisp shadows. Then to add fill, he used a K5600 Joker, a continuous light, pointing up and away from the still life so its light filled the space. With the help of foamcore, he could bounce light and add highlights that made the yokes inside the broken eggs gleam.  

The technique delivers a look he’s refined for Shape that includes shadows with well-defined edges. “When I shoot food for them, they want it to look clean and modern, but I also have to find a way to make it not too clinical. Because who wants hospital food?” 


An shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, on a tripod. Though he has in the past used medium format when shooting interiors, like the set for the RH Modern shoot, he likes the accessibility of shooting a DSLR and says with the Canon, “the lens choices are amazing.” He also prefers to shoot on a tripod. He shot at ISO 160. He likes a longer exposure when shooting with HMIs, he says: “Normally I have it at half a second or a second.”  

In the room set, he placed the tripod about 10 feet from the foot of the bed. He notes, “I use a slightly more wide-angle lens—between a 40mm to maybe a 60mm—when shooting furniture because I think it adds drama.” When shooting interiors, “I try not to use a long lens.”  


An likes to shoot tethered and check images himself  before he lets the client see the good shots. “It’s like having a Polaroid to check,” An says. If a shot doesn’t look right, “You don’t kill the Polaroid in front of the client.”  

After he’s previewed the shots, An says, “I edit my images with my clients before we finish the job. I express my favorite and make suggestions.” On jobs for Shape, he works closely with Mari Maeda,  who serves as both digital tech and a retoucher, providing “light retouching on dust and slight color correction.” An says, “She makes it look presentable before she sends it to the client.” 

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