Rolf Nachbar: Interior Photography in Small Spaces – Staging Motorhomes Expertly
Sep 2012 25

One of my team’s specialties is the staging of beautiful interiors in small spaces. We have been photographing for the leading manufacturers of sailing and motorboats as well as motorhomes for many years now. Be it on wheels or or on the ocean, we try to tell the story of great freedom with luxurious living space with our images.

A few weeks ago we were shooting this year’s new products for the European market leader in motorhome construction, Hymer AG. In this production report I want to go into some of the peculiarities and solutions of interior photography.

Apart from the perspective and the camera angle, light plays an important role in particular in interior photography – there is rarely ever enough of it and what is there is hardly ever where you want it. Never ever does it have the color you would like it to have to tell the desired story.

We therefore have to manipulate all image defining cornerstones to achieve an optimal outcome.

Let’s begin with the camera equipment:

For an optimal depiction of the room we need the widest possible picture angle, so an ultrashort focal length in combination with an as big as possible chip (in terms of surface, not necessarily resolution) is indispensable.

Currently the widest picture angle can be achieved with a 35mm full-frame digital SLR and a wide-angle lens of about 14mm or less. Because of the distortion, fisheye lenses are not recommendable. Wether it should be a Canon, a Nikon or even a Sony is up to personal taste and the resolution requirements. I currently prefer Nikon and Canon. Nikon (D800/D800E) in terms of the resolution of about 36 million pixels, Canon because of the legendary 17mm tilt-shift lens, despite of the restricted resolution of “only” 22 million pixels of the EOS 5D Mark3.

Higher-resolution medium format systems can currently offer “only” about 18mm focal length, translating to 35mm full-frame.

All this tech alone with all its components will however not yet make a photographer happy, since all these parts must be attuned to each other for optimal results.

Tolerances within body and lens manufacturing are reflected in the image – a good result is not to be expected right out of the box.

Luckily you do not have look far for help and a solution, given you know, or better yet, own the Datacolor product range.

We always carry a Datacolor SpyderLENSCAL in our camera bag. With it we can measure any body / lens combination for its optimum within minutes – even rented equipment, which we sometimes have to use for productions abroad.

These settings remain stored on the camera body and are always easily accessible from there. That way, it is always the object that you are aiming to focus on that actually is in full focus.

Even when the camera is stationary, the image is not good yet. Why is that?
Maybe because of lighting.

Photographs are images made of light. Especially with interiors we therefore have to create the light; most of the time artificially. A flash light on the camera is certainly the worst solution here. It lights up the foreground while the background remains dark. Maybe we can vaguely remember from physics class in school: “light intensity decreases inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source”.

Following this guiding principle strictly you should never ever again put a flash light on a camera, and yet so called dedicated flashes are still being sold as the ultimate solution today.

Well, some are happy with the foreground lit up, but we want to light up an interior to tell a story here.

So the light has to go where it is meant to shine, not the where the camera happens to be positioned. Personally I always prefer the existing light to capture the basic ambiance when it comes to interiors. Often our eyes see that ambiance entirely differently than the camera though, especially when there are high dynamic ranges and varying light sources and colors.

So the goal-oriented photographer is left with no choice but to use additional lights to adjust the existing dynamic range to what the camera is able record. In other words: We have to carefully begin setting up additional lighting to minimize the dynamic range of the motive while at the same time keeping in mind not to destroy the ambience. Today’s 35mm full-frame digital SLRs, depending on ISO numbers, can master a dynamic range of about 10-14 f-stops, our eyes can easily achieve 30-40 f-stops even when they are tired.

I prefer using a portable flash system with all kinds of lights to do this. Everything gets used, from the Fresnel spot for sun-like light to the brightening, diffusing Soft box. For a big motorhome, up to 25 flash units with different reflectors and color gels are in use.

For the interiors of vehicles with tinted windows it can easily all add up to 50,000 Joule of flash capacity. My Hensel flash system starts in the capacity class of 250 Joule and goes up to 8,000 Joule per flash with the most powerful generator.

The question arises quickly then, how to achieve perfect depiction of materials, given that I am mixing day light, ambient light and flash lights from so many different sources, especially since every studio flash unit, even every reflector has its individual “color dialect”.

The conventional path is a lot of work and pain: Collect as many material samples as possible and equalize them back at the studio, using an excessively expensive screen plus a calibrated proofer and countless settings layers and masks, causing a lot of work.

The new way, based on the Datacolor SpyderCHECKR is smart, fast and elegant:

We photograph the handy board that has the reference color patches within our subject, drag and drop it into the complementary software for analysis and get a perfect presetting for our RAW converter – regardless of whether it is Lightroom, ACR or even Hasselblad Phocus. Using the SpyderCHECKR, measuring colors becomes as natural as measuring lighting.

Of course the shoot alone is not all that is to it. Often smaller glitches have to be taken care of after the fact, or to emphasize something a certain look needs to be created. In a word, despite all the perfection and technical aids, we cannot avoid a good post production process.

Precision is what matters here as well. Current software versions, well-chosen hardware and a knowledge of color profiles are the standard. But the investment in good products alone does not guarantee a good result. What has ultimately been captured with the camera can only become visible and printable by synchronizing them.

Spyder4 and SpyderPRINT are what completes the range of optimization products for me in this regard. With a 26% increase of color and contrast precision in monitor calibration, Spyder4 gets the most out of my screens. It provides me and my post production team the with certainty for judging the images that my clients rely on to sell their products with, securing the future of their businesses.

Apart from all these technical things, the aspects “fun to use”, expert knowledge of the industry and an understanding of the customer’s needs obviously play a major role.

The most important thing of all though, when you are looking through the viewfinder, with your finger on the shutter button, is and always will be : Never forget the story you are trying to tell with this image!

Behind the scenes images: Rolf Nachbar

Product images motorhomes: available at request

Video for the production: Klaus Bjarner Pedersen, Gaffa Media for Datacolor

At its core, photography is of course about visual communication. There is probably no one who would agree more readily with this viewpoint than Rolf Nachbar, who sees himself first and foremost not as a photographer, but as a messenger of visual communication.