Lighting Challenge: Hotel Room

The finished picture- twenty images combined into one

We’ve all seen them. Pictures of hotel rooms that look so appealing we want to spend a night in one of those comfy beds. We usually don’t give a thought to how the picture was made… or created. But a lot of work goes into lighting rooms to make them so enticing. Photographers have tricks like placing small but powerful little flash units in the lamp bulb sockets, or using high dynamic range (HDR) photography to bring out more detail in the shadows and highlights. I do it a little differently though, and the technique works to great effect.

Last summer I spent several days shooting a couple hotels in Bar Harbor, Maine to advertise them on the web, in brochures and in print. We shot the restaurants, the lobbies, the pools, the beautiful views, the spa and of course, there were several rooms to shoot. Typically, I’d prefer to bring in my portable studio lighting and place several lights around the room and really light it well. But by the end of the week, we were running out of time to do it that way. I had to leave town and the client wanted to get a couple more rooms in before we wrapped up the week’s shooting. There was just no time to unpack the lights and set them up. So I was forced to improvise.

First, I began by choosing the best place to set up my camera and tripod, a spot that would show off the best features of the room- the beds, the balcony and sliding glass doors, not to mention the nice color scheme inspired by the ocean view out the window. In short, it had to look appealing for guests to want to book a few nights.

Then I got out my portable flash, attached it to a small light stand and wired the flash to a radio slave unit that would fire the flash from the camera, from anywhere in the room. I got my client to stand by the camera and take pictures as I moved about the room, using the small flash to light different areas of the room– the dresser, the head boards, the end of the bed, the top of the bedspread, the pillows, etc. I took twenty photos in all. We were done in under seven minutes.

Back in my office, I loaded all twenty images into my computer, made some adjustments in Lightroom, then exported them as one big, layered TIFF file in Photoshop. That’s when the work really began. Each picture showcased a different part of the room that was lit by my flash– the pillows, the carpet, etc. By brushing out everything but the nicely lit areas of each photo, I eventually ended up with a beautifully lit picture of the room. What looks like a single picture of the room is really the best parts of all twenty combined into one.

Would I prefer to shoot rooms this way, in minimal time with lots of post processing afterwards? No, but in this case the situation called for it and I really wanted to get the images done for my client before I had to leave town.

I’d highly recommend staying at the Atlantic Oceanside Hotel in Bar Harbor, Maine. Great people and a beautiful place to stay.

Overall shot (no additional lighting). Too many dark areas, bland lighting, view out the window washed out.

Exposed for the window view

Lamps lit

Lighting far bed and headboard

Lighting for corners of beds and carpet

Lighting dark edge of bed, as well as dresser

Lighting edge of far bed

Lighting chair and edge of far bed

Lighting curtains, top of bed and dresser

Lighting front edge of dresser- note slaved flash on stand

Lighting up top of bed

Lighting top of bed

Lighting is Everything

[This post was originally written about five years ago for my first photo blog]

I was asked by a new commercial client today if it’ll be necessary to set up lights for a shoot we’re doing. I know the location will be bright enough to shoot without any additional lights, but I responded that we may use them anyway. Here’s why…


Photography literally means ‘drawing with light’. Think about it– without light, whatever you’re taking a picture of won’t be visible. As a photographer, I’m always faced with decisions about how to photograph a particular subject. Should I use available light, or light with my portable strobes (variable power flashes)? How will the light fall on my subject? Will they be backlit? How will I light up the background so it doesn’t go dark? If I’m using available light, will the color be weird due to mixed sources (all lighting emits different colors- tungsten light bulbs are yellow, fluorescents can be green or light yellow, and halogens defy normal colors)? Will the available light complement my subject, or should I use supplemental lighting to define my subject?

A while ago I did a shoot for a client that went on the cover of a magazine. This was an important shot, probably seen by 100,000- 150,000 people, and the cover sets the tone of the magazine. Put a bland picture on the cover and people may not even open the magazine. Put a quality picture on the front and readers will associate that quality with the organization producing the magazine. I wanted it to look really sharp and draw attention to the woman who was the cover model. Bland lighting wasn’t going to cut it. In the end I used three lights– two on the woman and one bounced off the ceiling, lighting up the colorful background. It took more time to set up and shoot the picture, but the effort was justified by the final result.

Morris Hospital HealthSource Magazine Cover Shoot- Dawn Dike (Stroke Patient), Lisbon, Illinois

And that brings me to my point. The magazine client and I have been working together for many years and we almost always use additional lighting. Another client of mine has a tight budget (ok, all my clients do…) and wants to squeeze the most out of my time while we’re shooting together. We rarely use my lights, often moving quickly from shot to shot without time to think about making things look any better. Basically, we’re shooting snapshots with little thought about lighting. There are times this works ok, but most times, unfortunately, the pictures don’t look like anything special. Image is everything, and for better or worse, people will judge your business by the image you portray. If the images of your business are classy, well executed and eye catching, your customers will look at your business that way too. There are times when I won’t want to use additional lighting and natural light can sometimes be perfect for the job, but for the best quality, take the time to create your images, don’t just let them appear.

The first picture was used for placement, to see where the subject would stand and how the background would appear; the second shows the effects of additional lighting. BTW, extra space above her head and around the edges was purposefully planned for the magazine masthead and additional copy.

© Michael Hudson, All Rights Reserved

The final magazine cover


The Adventures of Mike’s Camera is the blog of freelance photographer, Mike Hudson. He is available for commercial photography assignments– marketing, corporate, editorial, annual reports, lifestyle, web page photography, and events. His clients have included many regional and national magazines and newspapers, several healthcare providers, colleges, hotels, architectural firms, small businesses and more. Visit to check out his portfolio or contact him via email.