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Setting the Mood: Indoor Photography at Night

After Julia challenged us to a nighttime photography shoot-off, we shared the guts of our home at the most relaxing time of day (in our minds, anyway) – the evening. After work. When laptops and cell phones are stashed (far, far) away.

After that post and throughout the following week, we received comments and emails that asked, how did you get your photos to do that? First, I will say that there are many ways to get your photos just right – some easy, some a bit more complicated. The simple answer? I blended 2 photographs in Photoshop, with a goal to create what we see in our home, at night.

As a starting point, I shoot all of the photos you see on this blog in raw using manual mode, so I do have a little more freedom to play with the exposures and recover “hot spots” (those very bright, very overexposed areas in your photo) once I open the files in Photoshop. However, these quick steps will work all the same when using jpg files, and it’s a start in the right direction at getting as close as possible to real life, nighttime photos indoors. After all, your evening photos should reflect that cozy, warm feeling you get when you’re snuggled on the couch catching up on your Hulu queue, right?

So, let’s set the mood.

Below is a fairly simple method of how I take two differently exposed photographs of the exact same image and blend them using Photoshop (I use CS5). Both photos were taken on a tripod from the same spot, with Photo 1 exposed for the foreground and Photo 2 exposed for the light source only. I also lowered the saturation and contrast on each of them so they felt more true to life; when the sun goes down, colors seem to fade and hard edges melt together. Note: Find these settings in Photoshop > Image > Adjustments.

ONE. For this example, I’ve saved Photo 1 and Photo 2 as jpgs. You can see (above and below) that Photo 1, while lit fairly well overall, is too bright where our silver pendant hangs over our end table. On the other hand, Photo 2 is dark and dim, but you can – at the very least – make out the edges of the pendant and all the stuff on the coffee table. So, using your move tool (circled below), hold down the Shift key and move Photo 1 on to Photo 2. Go on; you can just drag it right on over.

At this point, you can minimize Photo 1 and work directly off of Photo 2. As you can see in your layer panel for Photo 2, Photo 1 is now Layer 1. All you can see is Photo 1, but Photo 2 is still there as the Background.

TWO. Next, we’ll want to add a Layer Mask to Layer 1 by clicking on the Layer Mask icon while Layer 1 is highlighted in your panel. From here on out, we’ll be working on the Layer Mask to show off the areas we really want to see.

THREE. Select your brush tool, and set your brush color to black. We’re going to gently brush over the areas in the Layer Mask (Layer 1) that we want to erase away; this will slowly reveal the original Photo 2 underneath – the properly exposed pendant light. Because we want to do this carefully, I’ve set my brush opacity to 30%, and now I can brush away the over exposed area above our end table and too-bright parts of the coffee table, too.

FOUR. Continue to play with your Layer Mask using the brush tool until you’re happy with the results. You’ll notice that you can see your brush strokes on the layer panel (the black areas on the Layer Mask), and at this point, you can even play with the opacity of the layer itself. I set my Layer Mask to 80% to help blend both images together overall.

FIVE. Now, save your file! In all cases, once I have my image looking how I’d like, I always save a high resolution Photoshop image, then I re-size that file to our blog width (550 pixels) and save for web as a separate file. These are the photos that make it to the body of a post.

And that’s it – you can blend exposures! You can take photos indoors at night. Look at you, you fancy thing, you! Of course every blended-experience will be different depending on your subject matter, and the complexity of your photos can, of course, make your merge more complex overall. Again, there are so many ways you could do this, but remember to just play with brush sizes (making your brush smaller or larger depending on the area), opacity (more or less depending on how aggressive you’d like to get), and have fun!

Whether you’re photo savvy or not, we’d love to hear any of your own tips and suggestions – questions, too! (I’ll give ’em an honest try, at the very least.) And since I sincerely love to grow and learn when it comes to photography, let’s get geeky and talk shop, yeah?

PS: This is a great video for avoiding over-blown windows (which also uses layer masks), and this one is for blending exposures in Photoshop Elements!

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  • renee4.10.13 - 7:44 AM

    A photoshop lesson! Love it. Ha! I have a few tips. How long can my comment be? JK. Good job Vargo.ReplyCancel

  • Shannon4.10.13 - 9:07 AM

    This is brilliant! Thanks so much for sharing! :)ReplyCancel

  • Kati from so happy home4.10.13 - 9:21 AM

    My husband is a photoshop wizard, and I’m only just learning, so this is awesome! I was JUST talking about how I wanted to start using photoshop for photos (and not just mood boards), so I appreciate the mini-tutorial. Now, I just have to keep the house clean by nightfall and I can try it.ReplyCancel

  • Julia [Chris Loves Julia]4.10.13 - 11:42 AM

    Taking notes. ;)ReplyCancel

  • Jaime Lopez4.10.13 - 12:13 PM

    This was beyond helpful. With still learning the ins and outs of photoshop, I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to show the process. I loved your evening photos and now I can try to do this too!

    – JaimeReplyCancel

  • Kim4.10.13 - 12:51 PM

    Renee, thanks! ;)

    Kati, try it!

    Jaime, I’d love to see how yours turn out!ReplyCancel

  • Rebelwerewolf4.10.13 - 3:45 PM

    Thanks for the tutorial! I’ll have to try this out. Now to get a dog that lies in the same place for two pictures…ReplyCancel

  • Kim4.10.13 - 3:51 PM

    Rebel, snap the photos really fast – back to back! Plus, I got lucky.ReplyCancel

  • Julia @cuckoo4design4.10.13 - 5:52 PM

    Yay, thank you so much for this awesome post!!!!ReplyCancel

  • It’s going to take me a minute to absorb this…thanks for sharing. I’m fairly new to photoshop and in LOVE. I want to learn everyyyything. :)ReplyCancel

  • Jaye Brown4.16.13 - 11:09 AM

    What an awesome tutorial! Thank you!ReplyCancel

  • Marlene @ Jade and Fern7.30.13 - 9:32 PM

    This is really helpful! Kim, do you use a handheld light meter for your shots? I’m trying to figure out how I would expose first for one area, and then another, using the in-camera meter without moving the camera itself.ReplyCancel

  • Kim7.31.13 - 9:08 AM

    Hi Marlene, I don’t use a handheld meter, but if you set your focus in the camera on the darkest part of the photo, the internal light meter will read this. If you set your focus to the brightest part of the photo, the internal meter will read that! Let me know if you have any other questions :)ReplyCancel

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