Photographing Kitchens Professionally

Recommendations on creating high-quality shots of your work. April 2, 2004

Earlier this year I read a thread here about photographing your own work versus hiring a professional photographer. While the gist of most of the posts was "it's definitely worth it to hire a pro," one of the letters had a list of fairly concise instructions on doing it yourself. I meant to save this post but didn't. Help?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor B:
Don't know about that post, but with a decent digital camera, I find two more things are needed - a wide-angle (fisheye) lens and a tripod. The wide angle lens is essential where you usually can not get back far enough from the subject, and the tripod steadies the camera and makes a world of difference in the photo's sharpness and detail.

From contributor S:
A friend of mine has a piece of software called Photostick (not sure of spelling). It enables you to very easily combine digital pictures to create a panorama view without the fisheye distortion - an excellent tool for photographing rooms when selling a house, or cabinets.

From contributor D:
The basic difference between professional and amateur on-location photos (of which an installed cabinet job would be an example) can be summed up mostly in these three things: lighting, lighting, and lighting. You get the point!

In order to best display your work, you must give as balanced lighting as possible in nearly every corner of the picture of, in our case, cabinetry. If you don't, you will have the typical amateur photo with a bright spot in the center and dark, deep shadows in all corners. The reason for this is simple - one small flash bulb or tiny electronic flash right next to the lens blasting straight ahead - the worst type of lighting imaginable.

We need to give lots of soft, balanced lighting to as much of the subject as possible. Single flash units blasting straight ahead is direct lighting, which produces lots of problems - red eye, harsh shadows, unflattering color and shape, etc. So, for our main lighting, we want indirect lighting. Soft, indirect lights that lightly touch most areas of the cabinetry with nice natural lighting - the kind you see if you are outside on a cloudy but bright day - no harsh shadows and true colors.

The professional way to do this is simply to use umbrella lighting. Use 3-4' wide reflective, bright white umbrellas that you can mount the lighting units right in the center of. Direct the lights at the center of the umbrella, not the subject cabs. The light then reflects off the umbrellas and onto the subject in nice soft waves with no harsh shadows. Major difference already! Suddenly your photos will take on a wonderful glow.

There are two basic kinds of light that we can use in photography - incandescent and electronic flash. The incandescent comes in a bewildering array of kinds - quartz, xenon, regular house bulbs, fluorescent, etc.

The electronic flash is always the most expensive lighting available, especially because we need much more power from them than comes out of a tiny electronic flash unit on most of your cameras.

That tiny flash unit on your camera will not give proper lighting any more than about 10-15' from the subject - longer and you will get black holes. Electronic flash is measured in "watt-seconds." That little unit on your camera might have 50ws of power. For good, professional photos of our work we need 500-2000ws of electronic flash power.

Most incandescent is unusable for photography for two main reasons - either they are the wrong color temperature or they are too hot and difficult to use. Fluorescent is almost always the wrong color temperature.

Color temperature is measured in degrees Kelvin. Daylight is the most natural light (of course) and is around 5600 Kelvin. Fluorescent is way too low at around 3500 degrees Kelvin for regular warm white bulbs - hence the terrible green cast you get in your photos taken under fluorescent lights.

They do make so-called "daylight" fluorescent bulbs that have a color temperature of around 5-6000 degrees Kelvin, but fluorescent just does not put out enough volume of light to be of any use to us for good photography.

Quartz is in the correct temperature range and is your most inexpensive lighting available. I have used quartz in the dark past but never really liked them as they were really hot, plus it stayed hot as long as you were trying to set up the shot. I still have made a lot of money using them in past.

One advantage to quartz is you are able to use the existing lighting (which we call "ambient" lighting) to give fill-in and nice natural highlighting effects to the kitchen, for example. The camera will register the ambient lighting as well as the quartz and give a nice natural look to things.

Lastly, for the best in lighting - electronic flash. It is very fast (1/50,000 of a second), very cool and powerful (if you get professional units), and comes in a bewildering array of types/accessories, etc.

You can take advantage of ambient lighting with electronic flash by varying the shutter speed to allow for more exposure - you just need to practice a bit more.

If you decide to go with really good lighting, you can expect to pay around $1000 for an entry level professional setup. I am right now looking at pricing for one of the other guys and will let you know exactly some units you could buy and the prices. You could spend $2000 for more lights and higher quality and power easily.

If you do go with professional electronic flash units, you need to have at minimum two main units with 3-4' reflective umbrellas and they must have modeling lights built-in. These are extra small lights, usually quartz, that are built-in to the center of the flash unit. You turn them on as you are setting up the shot and they will put out a small amount of light so you can see what shadow effects you need to eliminate and work around.

If you can't justify $1000 or more, go with quartz and buy umbrellas on stands that come with mounting brackets for quartz lighting and you might get by for under $500.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience. I think it was your post I was remembering... (A fair amount of instructions followed by the caveat: "then compare your results with a professional - and you'll see how that money is well spent...")

From contributor U:
That was probably the most clearly delineated, readable, and downright knowledge-packed post Ive come across on this web site. About halfway through, I became determined to get a more professional lighting setup, but was terrified at the prospect of entering the lion's den of my local photo store. I'd be interested to read your recommendations on a setup, and will certainly act on them.

From contributor L:
I'm not disagreeing with contributor D's cogent answer, but I couldn't afford a professional grade lighting system.

Photography offers tradeoffs just as does cabinetmaking. Cabinet saws and contractor saws can both do much of what you need. But some tasks are a great deal easier with the cabinet saw's greater power and accuracy. Similarly, commercial lighting equipment gives you more power and accuracy, but it's expensive.

If you're experimenting or trying to set up a low cost system, consider a pair of amateur flashes such as the Vivitar 283. (I've not done photography for 20 years, so I don't know if that specific model is still available.) Combine the 283 with its varipower module (which lets you dial in the power that the flash provides), set one with a slave trigger, and the system price would come down significantly compared to commercial units. Going to smaller umbrellas would allow lighter, less expensive stands and both would further reduce cost. This system will cost less, and it will give you less power and (with the smaller umbrellas) less uniformity. But you'd have enough to properly light a fair sized area of a kitchen. If you need to cover more area, you could add a third flash and umbrella.

I worry about how much voltage flash units could apply from their trigger circuits. If I were using a digital camera (or even a modern, electronic, 35mm camera) and any flashes other than that specific manufacturer's flash, I'd use a slave on both main flashes and use the camera's built-in flash to trigger them.

From contributor D:
In the past, all photography was with film, of course, and it took a long time to get from picture to results - even though I processed my own film and made all my own prints, including color.

Color printing was especially difficult and expensive! I set up some great photo labs for an electronics manufacturing company in Redmond, WA. We spent probably $25,000 in equipment alone. There were drum processors for quick color prints and nitrogen burst agitation stainless steel chemical tanks, etc.

But fast forward to today - wow! We can take beautiful pix and see instant results on the backs of our little digital cameras. I have switched completely to digital for my portfolio pix - it's just too simple.

I do not take professional pix of my work anymore... so far, that is. When you make a living at it for some years, you lose the interest in pursuing it in the fast-paced world of a cabinet shop. Yep, that's right, I point the little camera with the tiny flash unit at my finished installation and pop a few lousy pictures. I might also say we are a successful shop with lots of work, so you don't absolutely have to have professional photos to succeed - it does help when working with upper-end clientele, though.

Because of our discussion, I have decided to get back in the swing of things and work toward upgrading my photos.

From contributor O:
One more word of thanks to contributor D for providing this info. I'll second the recommendations for digital and give you another reason for making the switch from film.

If you use a digital camera that provides raw files you can use one of the new software converters and easily change or fine tune your color temperature to accommodate nearly any lighting condition. So its possible to shoot with tungsten lights, for example, and get color balanced results without the use of matched films or filters. One of the best reasons for going digital in my opinion.

From contributor D:
Here are the results from my search on a professional lighting site for the best I can recommend on lighting. Go to and type in "Hensel kits" in their search in upper left corner. Go to Hensel Integra 1000w/s Monolight kit.

This is a great deal for all of us for these reasons:
- It is quite inexpensive, yet very professional.
- It does not involve heavy/expensive power packs that can require 20-25 amps and could blow a typical home circuit we would plug into. Each flash is self-contained - i.e. all the power/electronics are contained w/i head.
- These two flash units have a 5-F stop power range - i.e. they are completely adjustable in power output from full to 1/16th power.
- Both lights have integral 300 watt quartz modeling lights - i.e. the modeling lights are built-in to the flash head.
- Both units have built-in slaves - i.e. they have an electronic sensing unit that fires the flash without any cords being connected when it senses another flash going off. Also, you only have to plug the first flash unit into the camera - all other units you use will automatically fire at the correct time.
- You get a soft travel case included.
- You can add additional flash units with no problem.

They said they have no problems with this kit and it is their fastest seller - I can see why.

You might have to check with your digital camera to see if it has an electronic flash connection plug-in, as some of the cheaper cameras do not.

Let me just give a few words on the use of digital cameras. The lighting required for good digital pix is much less than some film cameras (depending, of course, on the speed of the film used). As a result, it is important to have adjustable flash units so you can tone down the flash if necessary.

I will probably be getting these same units as soon as I can spend the extra money. I do have to put in a disclaimer here, as I have never used this equipment and am just relying on the advice of a knowledgeable store clerk.

From contributor T:
Couple of thoughts:

1. Wide angle lens. Perhaps contributor D can make a recommendation on the lens number that will give a good wide view without too much distortion.

2. Look very carefully at everything that is in the shot before pulling the trigger. A sponge or dishrag on the counter or a cordless drill on the floor has messed up a few otherwise good shots for me.

3. If you are forced to shoot in natural light (in my opinion, better than a single flash), try an overcast day. Those bright spots where the sun is shining on the floor or the cabinets looks a lot brighter on film.

4. Play around. If shooting with film, you might as well shoot the whole roll anyway so you can get it developed before the kitchen becomes an antique. So try shooting from low angles, or from the top of a stepladder. You will blow plenty of shots, but sometimes get "the shot" that actually shows the kitchen almost as well in a photo as in person.

5. Use a tripod and slower film for clearer photos and better color in natural light.

I am an amateur, but some of this has worked for me. But the best shot I ever saw of my work was taken by a pro hired by the designer.

From contributor M:
Thanks, contributor D. I like those guys. I bought my wide angle lens from them. Now the hard part - convincing 8 years worth of customers to let me camp out and take photos.

From contributor C:
That's right. It is very hard to get a residential client to let you camp out in their living room for a day. I have been on a lot of shoots with pros and I'm amazed how they start to set up at 8 in the morning and the shoot may not happen for 6 to 8 hours. I know some good amateurs, too, but there is nothing like a pro. They spend endless hours on working the visual setup until it is just right. You can't just be a good photographer. You have to be good at visual coordinating, also. That's why the magazine shots are so great looking. Just not as easy as it looks. Spend the money on a pro and do what you know how to do best. Build cabinets. You will get better results with less headache.

From contributor D:
Interesting thoughts, contributor T... I agree that natural light is better than that little flash on the camera.

Now that you brought up lenses, let's talk a bit about them. Of course, I have had probably dozens of them in past. I found my original camera case the other day and inside was one of my first Nikon F lenses and some accessories. The leather on the case was disintegrating - shows you how many years ago.

Each format of camera has many lenses available, from wide angle to telephoto. The major formats are 35mm, 2-1/4" square (Hasselblad being the best), perfect rectangle formats (not as popular, but many great cameras - usually 2-1/4" by 3" or so), 4 by 5 - the famous Speed Graphics and Linhofs, 5 x 7 and 8 x 10 (only found in view studio cameras).

Most of you are using the 35mm format, so let's talk about them. The normal focal length for 35mm is 50mm lens. The focal length is the distance from the center of the lens to the film plane (if I remember correctly).

By using a 50mm lens on your 35mm, you will not get any distortion at all. I recommend using this most of the time. This is a normal lens for 35mm format.

You can occasionally get away with a slight wide angle lens and look fairly normal - I would suggest no more than a 35mm lens. You will be able to get more in the shot but it will take more lighting, etc. and there will be some distortion, but it may not be unsightly.

The longer focal length lenses are telephotos and are for other kinds of photography. My favorite one was my 150mm variable zoom lens (that's the one in the camera case I found). I could zoom from normal 50mm to 150mm and use any length that worked.

Contributor T also brought up taking pix from different angles. It is important to usually take photos of your cabinetry keeping the camera level and straight - this will give the most natural look to your photos with no distortions (the most often seen one is what we call "keystoning" where the cabinets look kind of like a pyramid - wider at bottom than the top). If you tilt your camera up or down, you will get keystoning, which is not professional.

The only cameras that can eliminate keystoning but can still be tilted up or down are studio view cameras, which are expensive and usually used by pros in studios, although I have had friends who love to use large format cameras outside for landscape photography. The reason a view camera can eliminate keystoning is because the front lens plane and back film plane of the camera can be tilted very precisely to be made parallel. They are kind of neat and I used to use them all the time especially in product illustration photography - i.e. illustrating products for sales brochures, etc.

Now, you can go up a stepladder or crouch down, but still keep your camera level and your pix will turn out fine.

From the Staff at WOODWEB:
The earlier thread on photography has been processed, and is now available at our Knowledge Base. Click here to view Photographing Your Work.

From contributor I:
As a past professional photographer, current computer professional and wannabe woodworker, I can offer a different slant on things.

I still have all the 35mm and 2+1/4 film equipment I used then but now more than ever, I shoot digital. Hopefully most of you have a website to display your work to get more jobs. Printed media/brochures are expensive and get thrown away. Pictures on a web site are available worldwide 24/7. You can get a great web site hosted inexpensively, assuming you can do the work yourself.

If you shoot a digital photo, it is available to review right away, without waiting till you get the prints back. Second, by being creative and turning on a few lights, even bouncing a work light off a white board will bring up the lighting. Many times I have shot something that came out much lighter than it appeared in person (soft lighting, not hard headlight looking stuff).

Wide angles are really nice, but a new way around that is getting a digital camera that allows you to shoot panorama photos. Also with digital, you don't need to scan it. It is all ready to work with on your PC.

I just bought my wife a Canon A70 for $300. Within minutes of taking it out of the box, she sat in our office, panned left to right taking photos and then used the included software to join the 5 photos she had taken in our bed room to make one wide panorama.

You already have a computer or you wouldn't be reading this. The camera could be used with available light (and/or shop lights bounced for indirect lighting) so you don't have to worry about the small flash on the camera. The color temp can be adjusted by the camera to "auto white balance" or you can adjust the picture with other included software later. As for the quality, the A70 is a three megapixel camera, which is 20 to 30 times the quality you would need for pictures on your web page. (Shoot highest quality, keep the ones you like and then reduce the gems that you shoot to a decent size so that people do not need 10 minutes for the web page to load.)

I never went over to the Nikon digital bodies, as I found the Nikon model 5700 to be all that I need. In any case, these are some ideas for people who are not real photographers but can recognize a decent photo of their work when they see it.