The photo below was taken with a point-and-shoot camera of a cafe area I designed. I plan to return and take a better photo with my Nikon D7000.

Thanks to the skylight, the lighting in the foreground is brighter than the dimmer background, lit only by spotlights above. The materials in the room are wood, wicker, polished concrete, and some curtain.

Can anyone provide suggestions on how they would enhance this picture, in terms of color, detail and professional effects (for example, creating streaking light effect) using just the aforementioned Nikon D7000, a tripod, and a built in flash?

I know it's not much to work with at the moment but I really want to make the best of it.

Cafe Area

  • 3
    It's all about the light. Borrow or rent additional flash units. Preferably wireless obviously. The light is all that will matter.
    – dpollitt
    Apr 30, 2013 at 3:31
  • Can you explain? What is wrong with the amount of light available? Remember - I don't want it to look extremely lit up either. I want it to reflect the ambience. Apr 30, 2013 at 3:34
  • 1
    @dpollitt - Normally I would agree with you, but in this case it is also about composition.
    – Michael C
    Apr 30, 2013 at 4:44
  • Maybe change the position, so that you have the bright area more in the background and the dark in the foreground. This might make the dark foreground stick out more.
    – Unapiedra
    Apr 30, 2013 at 8:35
  • If you want "streaking light effect" of very differential lighting of areas you can try long exposures (possibly with an ND filter) and "washing" of selected areas with a floodlight. Apr 30, 2013 at 8:41

6 Answers 6


The last thing you want to use is the built in flash. It will only wash out the color and the contrast.

The best way to deal with the skylight is to shoot early or late in the day when the illumination from the skylight is not as bright and balances better with the artificial lighting in the room. You are still dealing with several different types of light sources, though. If the spot lights are all the same type of bulb, balance the color temperature about 1/3 of the way between the natural light from the skylight and the bulbs. This will give the artificial lights a warm appearance that looks more natural to our eyes than causing the sunlight to look unnaturally cool. The temperature of the natural light will vary quite a bit depending on the time of day, the weather conditions (sunny, partly cloudy, overcast, etc.), and any materials in the skylight that may be adding a color cast to the light. Likewise, depending on the chemistry of the artificial lights they could vary anywhere from around 2800K to around 4200K. If some of the bulbs are mismatched, swap them out so that all the fixtures have the same temperature bulb in them. You could also use an off camera reflector to direct more light from the skylight into the back of the room.

In terms of framing, you need to compose in a way that none of the main elements, such as a table, chair, skylight, counter top, significant shadow, etc. is chopped up half in and half out of the picture. Choose a camera position to create a line or several lines that draw the eye to a particular spot in the scene. When looking at your test shot, if the eye is drawn to anything at all it is the large, bright, empty table to the left of center. You can seldom get "everything' in a dining room to fit in a single shot effectively. If the aim is to showcase your decorating work to a potential client, you will be better served to use fewer elements in a way that draws the viewer in.

The shot below was done very late afternoon. It was not quite twilight outside, yet there is still plenty of light spilling in from the large windows at the front of the tavern to camera left. A low power strobe is to camera right aimed at the "face" of the decoration on the right support column, and the spill from it is also providing fill light to the chairs and tables in the foreground at 90° to the ambient coming through the windows. The overhead incandescent lights were dimmed almost all the way down and appeared much dimmer to the naked eye than the camera. The second flash was placed on the floor pointed up at the decoration on the left hand support column. Normally I would have used a snoot to restrict the spill light but I liked the spooky feel of the visible glow so I only placed a dark board (hidden behind a table leg) to keep it from lighting up the brick wall. Most of the strong lines converge on the "Bourbon" sign on the wall. From there the eye begins to wander left to right as the unusual elements, such as the glow under the table, the two figures on the poles, and finally the ghostly bartender pouring himself a drink, are noticed. There is also a strong slightly off-center rule of thirds grid going on. I wouldn't normally have left the "clutter" around the periphery (the hands from a decoration on a support column just out of view to camera left, the "pod" hanging from the ceiling, the table to the lower right, the half of the chair in the foreground), but I think it helps to place the viewer in the spooky scene instead of merely observing it.

This was actually two exposures taken at the same settings (ISO100, 0.8sec, f/5.6). The flashes were radio triggered and also set manually for both shots. The one on the floor was at full power (no direct manual adjustment, it is an old cheap Vivitar from the mid 1990s) and the one to camera right was a 430EX II set at (I'm guessing) about 1/4 power. The bartender (actually the owner) was in the frame for only the first exposure and was not aware I was shooting that wide while he rinsed out a glass in the sink. After doing the initial WB, tone curve (brightness was increased about 1 stop), saturation, etc. adjustments I merged the two RAW files using the rudimentary HDR tool in Canon's DPP. I desaturated the color quite a bit as well as enhanced the detail.

Spooky Tavern

Here are the same two exposures merged using the compositing tool in DPP and exported without the tone mapping in the HDR tool. The colors are much more saturated but the scene is darker and the details in the shadows are lost.



The first thing I notice is that you need to find a better angle for the composition. The colors themselves, even from the point and shoot, if shot in raw (and with less noise) could be pretty easily salvaged by color grading. No amount of editing is going to solve composition and artifact issues though and the sample has issues with both.

Try to give things a more even and visually pleasing spread around the frame. You have a counter kind of sticking out from the side, just enough that you can't ignore it, but not enough to give a feel of it. You also have a large grey gap of floor running through the middle of the image. Possibly try to position it so that you have tables more evenly spread throughout the image (but at different depths). Also, pay attention to the angles of how the ceiling and floor are oriented in relation to the walls and any corners that are in the shot to ensure they appear to make natural looking angles. Currently, the camera feels like it is tilted a little clockwise (from the photographer's perspective) and the angle of the corner makes the room feel very narrow and long. I'd probably try a photo a little from the right of where the camera currently is in the sample and maybe down a little, to put the square back table more in-between the other two tables, but I'm not sure that would be the best shot. (The counter would likely still be troublesome.) Unfortunately without a better idea of the layout and scale, it's hard for me to give a better answer towards the sample photo in particular.

Whatever you do, be sure to shoot raw, particularly if you are trying to feature the lights and ceiling in shot. HDR and/or RAW highlight recovery should allow you to pull detail of the ceiling without compromising the rest of the scene. If you don't specifically want to include the ceiling, then don't. The large bright direct lights are going to detract from the intimacy of the scene that you generally want in a cafe/coffee shop atmosphere. The lighting should speak for itself in the way it lights the scene. It will also reduce lens flare issues if you continue to have flaring issues with your DSLR.

Other ideas that are more of a radical departure from your initial approach, try shots that capture the atmosphere as a cafe instead of necessarily just the details of the room. I understand that you are wanting to have an image to showcase your design of the space, but you design a space to give atmosphere, so don't be afraid to capture the atmosphere that it creates even at the expense of some detail. For example, I would probably try for a shot with some people sitting at a table, drinking coffee with a shot that features the product and shows the people enjoying it in the atmosphere. Have some shots of the room too, but if you're trying to sell yourself to a coffee shop owner, they're going to get far more excited by a shot that screams, intimate, classy spot to enjoy a good coffee than a sterile, empty (if colorful) shot of a mostly empty room. I'll see if I can find some examples of shots I took while trying to capture the atmosphere of the dining hall on my first cruise and post them as examples later.

Update: Ok, here are the samples I was thinking of though they aren't quite like I remembered them (these are from almost 5 years ago.) In the first, you can see the general setting clearly in the background, but the shot still has a defined subject.

Get the idea of the setting from the background while showing the atmosphere of the light and the setting.

This one goes in closer to the detail of the setting and is less personal, but gives a nice feel of the background and atmosphere close to the table.

enter image description here

This one is actually a different part of the ship, but focuses more on the layout of the serving area. You can see how it uses the angle between the two lines to make sure there isn't a wide gap in between, but rather makes it have a more intimate feel despite the fact there is actually a distance of probably about 20 feet between the two lines.

enter image description here

This is more of a detail shot that focused on a particular feature of the setting that I found particularly interesting. By altering the angle some, it would be easy for you to do something similar if there are any features that could be a subject of a photo unto themselves, but still show the background. For example, in this photo, if I was trying to show more of the room, I'd pull back and bring more of the room off to the right in to the frame.

enter image description here

This one allowed for a little more background that shows the overall feel of the dining room, though it's actually a sculpture that is outside the dining hall. I'd also go a fair bit wider on this shot if I was trying to feature the dining hall more prominently, though this photo was in particular trying to capture the sculpture.

enter image description here

  • Thanks for the great answer! I hope yout can find those shots, I'm curious to see them. Apr 30, 2013 at 17:58
  • @Imray updated now.
    – AJ Henderson
    May 1, 2013 at 1:25
  1. First, as ivan said, the picture looks like a few tables scattered in a sea of gray - move the camera and tables until you get a more pleasing composition.

  2. The lighting is dominated by the skylight, you will get different light at different times of day, typically early morning or late afternoon will give you much more pleasing light.

  3. There's a lot of reflections and flair in the image, move the camera around until you get all the reflections under control, if you have a protective filter on your lens remove it to reduce flair, if you have a lens hood use it.

  4. Use HDR techniques to get details both in the shadows and the bright areas

  5. Try to play with white balance, warmer WB will typically make the place look more inviting but in a picture that is completely dominated by gray and white I expect WB manipulation will look pretty obvious.


It may not be what you're asking for, but to me, the scene looks quite bland. There's a ton of space between the tables, and it just seems...empty. A sea of gray concrete makes up half of the picture; there's nothing vivid about that!

Maybe push some of the tables closer together and move in closer to them yourself, at a lower angle so we see less of the floor. Make it look like the place could absolutely be packed when it's busy. As it stands it looks like the world's most exclusive speakeasy.

  • 1
    Someday somebody's going to have to explain to me the fascination with crowded, noisy, cheek-by-jowl settings. What you are describing as an "improvement" would be a place I'd make excuses to leave quickly.
    – user2719
    Apr 30, 2013 at 10:33
  • 1
    @StanRogers - how else can they convince you to buy $12 small coffees if it isn't obviously the "in" thing with a packed house?
    – AJ Henderson
    Apr 30, 2013 at 16:29

The equipment that you have simply won't cut it in the current circumstances. The contrast in the scene is just too high to capture with a camera. Looking at the picture, you have very bright spots, and completely dark corners, and I'm pretty sure that's not what it really looks like.

To make the camera see what your eyes are capable of, you have to adjust the scene to bring the contrast down to what a camera is capable of capturing. If you can dim the lights, that would make it possible to bring up some detail in the shadows. Otherwise you would need some flashes or lights to light up all the place.

  • I know, but my question was how I get the best picture for the equipment I have. Apr 30, 2013 at 12:27

Yeah! Go back and shoot a sequence of exposures and merge to HDR!

  • can you expand on why this would be good? It isn't necessarily the right answer here. May 2, 2013 at 13:23
  • Apologies for a seemingly short and abrupt answer. I think the tones in all the areas will get the optimum exposure when shooting the various steps of an HDR. Manipulating the settings afterwards will surely give you the best quality to give the image a "vivid" and detailed look. Hope that clears it up. (The Yeah! was just out of sheer excitement)
    – Theo
    May 3, 2013 at 12:42

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