Bright Lights in a Dark Room – HDR Photography in Casinos

If you have ever walked into a casino, you know the feeling. It’s overstimulation. Flashing lights of every color compete for your eyes while machines spin and chime and whoosh all around you. The extra oxygen pumped into the room makes your heart rate increase a few beats and your eyes spread a little wider. Somewhere in the distance a jackpot siren is going off. This slightly unsettling, but also exciting, experience is built into the very blueprints of every gaming facility. The centerpiece of it all, however, is the slot machine, which I was recently tasked with photographing for a client’s new website. In this article, I will discuss the techniques I used to capture these gaming consoles, as well as the atmosphere they are stationed in.

The newest machines have gone way beyond the classic slot machine build. They now can include multiple 4K screens, built-in chair speakers, glowing trim lights, constant animation, and large decorative fixtures on the top. They are created to be the brightest things in the room — way brighter than any of the house lights around the casino. This creates a challenge when trying to photograph because of the vast difference in luminance between the games themselves and the floors, walls, and ceiling of the building. High dynamic range, or HDR, photography techniques are quite useful to solve this issue.

An HDR photo takes multiple images, usually three, of the same subject at different  brightness levels, and combines all of that information in software to render a picture with the most possible detail and range of tones. This is also called bracketing. The HDR process is usually performed on an outdoor image during the day when there is a very bright sky against a darker subject, like a mountain or building. I found it quite useful indoors on this project, where the wide variety of brightness levels were too great for a single exposure. Two or three exposures together can extend the dynamic range just enough to retain detail both in the highlights and shadows.

Dynamic range is essentially the range of luminosity that any viewing device can perceive. Our eyeballs are quite capable of quickly adjusting to extreme light changes that might be inches apart, even though they technically have less static dynamic range than many cameras today. On the other hand, cameras have to be told what to expose for or how much light to let in. If I point my camera at a slot machine and expose for the lights covering the game, that’s effectively all it will see. The room and furniture around the game will be plunged into blackness, leaving just the game without a context. Alternatively, if I bring up the exposure to see the details of the room, the game itself will be so blown out that the camera won’t be able to retain any of the colors or details in the graphics.

To create an HDR photo, I first had to find the composition I liked and lock the camera there on a tripod. It is important for each exposure to have the same exact viewpoint to be able to easily combine the images later. I then set the first exposure to balance the brightest and darkest points in the image to the best of the camera’s ability. This can be thought of as the “middle” exposure. Most of the time this resulted in the casino games being too bright and the shadows underneath the game on the floor being too dark. The next two exposures are meant to compensate. I would take the second image with the exposure shifted toward the darker areas, and the third toward the highlights. It’s important not to shift the exposure too far, or the resulting tones will look unnatural. About one or two stops in each direction is best.

This technique leaves me with three raw pictures of the same subject with varying levels of brightness. Merging the three images is a simple task done in editing software such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. The computer very kindly does most of the work for me in about 15 seconds, and from there I can edit and adjust the newly created HDR file how I like. Without adding too much extra work, I have effectively stretched the amount of detail my camera can capture to handle the extreme differences in light values. This way I can avoid sacrificing any details like the color of the lights or the patterns in the carpet.

These high-tech, quintessential casino games tend to overwhelm our eyeballs just as they do any camera sensor. There are not many products I photograph that require the HDR process. I use a full-frame, mirrorless camera that has very good dynamic range, and I’m usually controlling the lighting in the scene. However, it is a much different conundrum shooting products covered in lights that live in dimly lit rooms. My goal was to show how sophisticated our client’s new games look among a casino full of other games competing for players’ attention. While this objective is largely accomplished through the fundamentals of composition, focus, and maybe adding some accent lighting around the games, I felt the HDR technique would be helpful in accomplishing this, too. If a product is going to stand out, it’s important that you can at least see the environment it’s supposed to stand out in.

Here is an extra blog treat containing some before and after pictures for which I used the HDR technique in editing:

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