NYC in PC – Port Charlotte, Florida

If you’re wondering about the title of this post, it stands for New York City in Port Charlotte. One of our magazine clients called and asked us to photograph a restaurant for a dining review. We have done this many times for them and it’s getting automatic by now. However, this time was different. When we gear up for these types of shoots, I’m always thinking about what kind of food will they be serving, will it be presented nicely, how many dishes and so on. I knew of the restaurant that we were going to and I had heard all kinds of things, so I wasn’t sure how it was going to go until we got there. We arrived a little early so we waited in the parking lot for a few minutes and going over what we were going to do. Finally, it was time. We gathered our camera bags, lighting stands, and studio gear and headed in. From the outside it looked like any of the other businesses in the shopping plaza. When I walked through the door that is when the fun started. I couldn’t believe this place.

We were greeted by one of their staff and we were shown where we could put our stuff. We got the quick nickel tour of the restaurant and it just kept getting more and more interesting. After our initial meeting, we got to work. I bet right now you are thinking to yourself, ugh…photos would be nice here! Here we go.

Before I start with the explanation of everything you have to understand one thing, this place was dark. I mean like before Edison invented the light bulb dark! The editor of the magazine said that one of the reasons why she picked this place was do to its “very unique” décor. Now I see what she meant. As usual in this type of environment, everything is fast paced and we need to get the décor and food photographed before they reopened for dinner. Looking at what we had to work with, this was going to have to be HDR all the way for the décor. We brought strobes for the food and that was a non-issue. I had never used the HDR technique with anything this dark before. This was going to be a first.

 Lobby/Waiting Area

As soon as you walk into the door you are greeted with the hostess in the “newsstand” booth. At first I thought we were in the wrong place. This is a themed Italian restaurant here in little ole’ Port Charlotte. I had eaten at many of these places in Orlando, but never here, land of the white walls and boring. I fitted my Nikon with a 12mm-24mm ultra wide angle lens. With the crop factor I’m really at 18mm, but that was as wide as I needed. When I shoot interiors I try and shoot from a corner as to get as much of the room as possible. Some people say this is taboo, but magazines love this as it shows the vast openness of the space. I set the camera to Aperture Priority to f/8. I used ISO 400 and engaged the continuous function. I also fitted the camera with a electronic release as not to touch the camera during the exposures. As always, I used my trusty Bogen tripod. I set up the shot, pressed the release halfway down to get the camera to focus and I disengaged the auto focus so the camera wouldn’t attempt to grow a brain in the middle of the sequence and change focus. I pressed the button all the way down and with the auto bracketing function running it took nine shots.

Those of you who are still following along at home might be wondering why such a high ISO and middle of the road f stop. Here’s the thing, I have been tinkering with a new plug in for Lightroom where it doesn’t amplify the noise in the sequence like say Photomatix. The second reason for the mid range f stop was that my auto bracketing function has a limit of 30 seconds. In the lobby where there is outside light coming in, this is not a problem. So I was setting myself up for the darker rooms. Being on a limited time frame, you do what you have to do sometimes. When I have extra time, I will switch the camera to Manual and take additional photos to ensure that I have ALL of the dynamic range.

 Taking The Subway To Dinner

As I started working my way around, this was the space that connected the lobby to the dining rooms and bar. There was even sound coming from the space that sounded like being in the subway! As you can see from the photo, the dynamic range is all over the place. There is light coming from outside through the blinds in the lower left to the bar lights at the other end of the restaurant. I knew this was going to be ok as well. There was enough light at both ends to make this work. I turned the camera to portrait orientation and followed the same sequence as above. Up next, the bar area.

  Play It Again, Sam

This was a neat space. The bar area was lit with Tiffany lamps and the room had a nice warm glow to it. Having shot HDR for real estate before, I knew that those Tiffany lamps were going to be a challenge. I moved some of the tables and chairs around to bury myself in the corner and made sure that I was out of the way of the huge wall mirror directly behind the bottles. I shot my nine exposures and then I reviewed them. I made sure that my -4 exposure was especially dark enough to hold all of the detail of the lampshades.

This is where you better know your Photoshop. Here is one of the big HDR secrets that a lot of people don’t know; making the HDR image is just the BEGINNING! Now, you have to do your clean up and any other editing that you might need to do. The new software tool that I’m using kicks out high res TIFF files. I load these into Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) and do some white balance changes and maybe some Fill Light or what ever else it might need. Then I take it into Photoshop (PS) and start doing the heavy lifting. Usually, with something like this, it’s the actual light source of the image that will give you trouble. I know some of you who love Photomtix, will say that you can wrestle this in with tone mapping. It has been my experience that this makes it look fake. That is why I love this new piece of software as it’s designed to make everything look realistic. Since this is going into a magazine, this has to look realistic, not cartoonish. Now that I have the HDR loaded into PS, I start mixing in some of the original photos that I took. In this case, I want to make sure that the glass in the lamps will be there. Granted, I’m not trying to make these ultra dark either as that would look fake. Using layers and masks, I blend the two together with the touch of the brush tool. This takes awhile, but once you get the hang of it, masking isn’t that hard. The other key that makes this work is the tripod itself. This allows you to pin register the other photos to the finished HDR image. Now we are moving on to the over flow dining room.

 Dining Over Flow Area

I was told that this was just completed about three months ago. I was in awe when I first saw this during the initial walk through. The cool part was that they did all of this themselves! I was impressed! There was a LOT of detail that needed to be captured. As before, I buried myself in the corner and fired away. This is where I was getting unsure of how this was going to turn out, as I had not tried this technique in such a dark space. I took the photos and checked the histogram and all looked ok. During the PS editing, as I was masking back in the glass for the theater entrance, some of the wording has been erased during the HDR process. When I remixed back in one of the originals, the words came to life again. That was a total surprise.

 Main Dining Area

After photographing the smaller of the two dining areas, this was amazing. As I walked around, there was detail after detail, right down to the cat sleeping on the railing and the wash that is out to dry. I put myself against the cash register in the corner and I was able to grab most of the room. The camera and PS technique was the same as above.

 This Is Like, DARK

Above you will see what the camera saw with its single exposure in Aperture Priority. Here’s the interesting part, lighting wise, this is correct. It’s dark in there! Kind of like dining under the stars outside in a nice clear night in NYC. There is blue LED lights in the ceiling for stars and most of the light in the room comes from the lamp posts that are either on the wall or freestanding. There are candles on the table, but I always chuckle at this. When you are learning how to light, any light coming from the bottom illuminating the face is known as horror lighting. I don’t make this stuff up. Do you remember taking a flashlight under your face and scaring the crap out of your sleepover friends. Maybe that’s something that just boys do. Anyway, a candle on the table gives your face the same effect. So, the next time you are having dinner with your significant other, just keep that in mind. I have to keep from cracking up as my wife reminds me that she isn’t Frankenstein (I guess that makes me Igor)! Ok, funs over on to the last one.

 Accent Areas

I know that the magazine is only going to use one of these, but I couldn’t help myself. There are these little shop fronts as well as a complete fruit and vegetable market that have been built into the décor. After I photographed this, I had to get to the food as time was running out.

We photographed the food and we were off. If you are wondering how the food is, I honestly can’t say. We didn’t eat any of it. However, it all looked really good. I have heard good things about this place around town. The name of the restaurant is Donato’s and is located in the Carousel Mall in Port Charlotte. I plan to go back for lunch someday when I have time to sit and look all around. If you like Italian food, give it a try.

As photographers, no matter what level you might be at in your hobby/career carry a small pocket camera. When you come across a place like this, even using the cameras built in timer with no flash will give you an acceptable photo. As I have always said, “A photo is better than no photo.” For those of you who are trying your hand at HDR, try this next time your out, you never know when someone may want to buy your photo because it is better than what the establishment can take.

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


  1. Spencer,

    These are great. They really make me want to run right over and have lunch. I am going to look them up right now!



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