A Lesson In Grow-Room Photography

How to achieve better grow-room shots with your DSLR in manual mode

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Photographer, Michael Dyrland at Subdued Excitement

If you’re an indoor cannabis grower, you know how hard it is to get good photos of your operation. Your shots can come out overexposed and too orange. Or all purple. Or otherwise wrong because the lights are too intense for your camera’s auto settings.

I asked professional photographer, Michael Dyrland if he would walk me through shooting a couple of different grows, each with their own lighting challenges, and he happily obliged. Local growers, Trail Blazin’ Productions, in Bellingham, and Subdued Excitement, in Ferndale were kind enough to have us use their facilities as models.

To start with, I’m going to assume you have a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera, and have a basic familiarity with how it works. I’m also going to assume you’re—like me—a relative beginner who tends to rely on automatic settings.

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DSLR camera mounted to tripod at Cascadia Gardens. Photographer: Will Kersten.

Auto settings have their place. In most “normal” day to day situations. Auto, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Speed Priority can produce decent shots. But these settings limit your control, and in some situations—like under metal halide or LED grow-lights—they’re useless.

Before we go any further, you might be wondering, why not just fix the colors later in Lightroom or some other photo editing software?

A slight boost in levels or tweak in saturation is okay, but in general, you want to use as little digital editing as possible. The more you have to do to a photo after you’ve taken it, the more the image quality degrades.

Photo editing programs achieve their effects by adding or removing pixels, which becomes obvious as soon as you magnify your photo. What’s more, you can still end up with a monotone shot.

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Unaltered image taken with a smart phone at Cannabis King Gardens
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Here’s the same shot, with the color shifted to show more greens.

 

The best reason to avoid excessive color-correcting is to accurately depict the scene. We’re not trying to eliminate or change those purples and oranges. We’re adjusting the camera to bring out color and detail in a natural, balanced way.

Now, for the details. This is the gear we used for all the photos in this article.

Cameras:

  • Cannon 5D Mark-3
  • Cannon 7D Mark-2
  • Nikon D3100

Lenses:

  • 16–35mm F2.8
  • 70–200mm F2.8 with image stabilization
  • 18–55mm F3.5

The cannons are Michael’s. They’re professional-level cameras that most people don’t have lying around. The Nikon is mine (with the 18–55mm F3.5 lens). It’s an older, entry level model. I mention this to say, the Nikon did just fine as I followed along copying Michael’s camera settings.

Trail Blazin’ Productions

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Photographer, Michael Dyrland prepping for photography at Trail Blazin’ Productions.

We started at Trail Blazin’. Here, everyone dons hospital scrubs and flip-flops, then sprays down their soles with H2O2 solution to protect the grow from unwanted pests.

Also, to prevent contamination, we weren’t permitted to bring any bags along that would normally carry our camera gear. So Michael put each lens he’d planned on using on its own camera.

Why not just bring one camera and switch lenses? Michael says, “When you’re shooting cannabis, you’ll get a sticky film on the insides of your lenses from all the trichomes and oils in the air.” Keeping the lenses mounted protects them.

Here are his setups:

  • Cannon 5D Mark-3. This is Michaels go-to for high-resolution images. It has a full-frame sensor. It’s fitted with a 16–35mm F2.8 lens, which is good for wide-angle shots.
  • Cannon 7D Mark-2. This camera is normally Michael’s back-up. It has a crop sensor. It’s great for video, but also takes good photographs. It’s fitted with a 70–200mm F2.8 lens with image stabilization.

Going in, Michael is planning for an ultra bright-light situation. He’s got his ISO and shutter speed both at 200, and he’s using variable ND filters on his lenses. These let him keep his aperture low, giving good boca effect (blurred background), while not letting in too much light. He also suggests using a sun shade to avoid lens-flare.

Note: Michael typically starts with his ISO and shutter speed both at 200. This gives him room to move, in case he needs to drop his ISO to 100 in extremely bright situations.

1st Grow Room

  • Grow lights used: Advanced LED
  • Crop: Dutch 47 in 2nd week of flower
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Wide-angle shot at Trail Blazin’ Productions. Photographer: Michael Dyrland.

Camera Settings

  • Camera: Canon 5D Mark-3
  • Mode: Manual
  • ISO: 400
  • Shutter Speed: 200
  • White balance: Cloudy
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Michael’s camera settings for room using Advanced LEDs.

When you first enter a room, analyze the lighting and shadows. Think about how you might set up your camera. Then, take a few practice shots and review them on your camera’s screen to check your settings.

This room was less bright than Michael had expected, so he bumped his ISO to 400.

Also, there was the obvious challenge of the saturated purple in the room from the LEDs. The entire room and everything in it was immersed in a purple haze. We want to mitigate that, to bring out the colors and detail of the plants.

We experiment with a few different white balance settings. On the Canon, (in this room) cloudy looks best, but sunlight also looks good.

Michael started out with wide shots, using the 5D with the wide angle lens.

Tip: Wide angle can sometimes look distorted at 16mm, giving a ‘fish-eye’ look. You can fix this with editing after the fact or you can change from 16mm to 20mm to prevent the fish eye effect.

Think about height and angle too. Your shooting angle can dramatically change how the lights affect your shot.

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In this room, a higher angle results in a brighter shot. Location: Trail Blazin’. Photographer: Michael Dyrland.
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The lower angle of this shot changed how the lighting appeared. Location: Trail Blazin’. Photographer: Michael Dyrland

2nd Room

  • Mode: Manual
  • ISO: 200
  • Shutter Speed: 200
  • White Balance: Sunny
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The second room we photographed at Trail Blazin’. Photographer: Michael Dyrland.

In this room, Michael is focusing more on the flower. These can be difficult to shoot in high-light situations, because the tips of the flowers tend to get blown out and overexposed. You’ll have to experiment with adjusting your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to find the right balance. In general, this is how these adjustments affect the brightness of your shots:

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Flower tops at Trail Blazin’ Productions. Photographer: Michael Dyrland
  • Shutter Speed: Higher numbers produce a “darker” image. Lower numbers produce a “brighter” image.
  • Aperture: Higher numbers produce a “darker” image. Lower numbers produce a “brighter” image.
  • ISO: Lower numbers produce a “darker” image. Higher numbers produce a “brighter” image.
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This close-up is a little blown out at the flower top. Location: Trail Blazin’. Photoghrapher: Michael Dyrland
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A slight tweak in angle and exposure brought out more detail in this shot. Location: Trail Blazin’. Photographer: Michael Dyrland

Tip: shoot in “flat” picture style. This means your camera’s sharpness,

contrast, and saturation levels should all be set to zero.

If you don’t use “flat” picture style, your settings will add or subtract pixels from your images before you even get a chance to edit or see them on a large screen.

“Contrast will add blacks,” Michael says, “and you can’t un-add black when it’s been burned into the image.”

3rd Room

Camera Settings

  • Camera: Canon 7D Mark-2
  • Mode: Manual
  • ISO: 1600
  • Shutter Speed: 100
  • White balance: Sunny
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In this dark room, we have obvious lighting challenges, but also new creative possibilities. Location: Trail Blazin’. Photographer: Michael Dyrland.

This room is full of Dutch Grapefruit ready for harvest. The growing is done, so the lights are off. That means we can get a much different look by adjusting our settings and using a flash.

Michael cranks his ISO to 1600, and sets the shutter speed at 100. The higher ISO makes the camera much more sensitive to light, and the slower shutter speed allows more light in to affect the exposure (making it “brighter”).

One thing to watch out for with the slow shutter speed—you’ll have to hold the camera very still, or better yet, use a tripod to avoid camera shake.

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Proper use of flash and settings in a dark grow room. Location: Trail Blazin’. Photographer: Michael Dryland.

Again, we take numerous practice shots and find a white balance of Sunlight looks best. You could also use 5500K, which Michaels explains, is “a temperature of light.”

About the flash, just like experimenting with white balance and other settings when you first enter a room, you’ll want to try different flash settings and review your images before taking your ‘real’ shots.

Notice anything interesting about these plants? Many of them have completely white tips at the ends of their colas. Co-owner and Trail Blazin’ mastermind, Juddy Rosellison, says it’s likely from a magnesium deficiency, but that the buds themselves are fine. They have great flavor and high potency. In fact, Trail Blazin’ is having the white tips tested separately to see what the cannabinoid and terpene content is—the results should be interesting!

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Trail Blazin’ mastermind, Juddy Rosellison points out the white tips on some of his plants. Photographer: Michael Dyrland.

Tip: Oscillating fans can throw off your auto focus by causing the plants to move. It’s best to time your shot when the fan is pointing away from the plant. Even better, turn off the fan or fans until you’re done with the shot.

Subdued Excitement

Subdued Excitement (Sub X) has many rooms with different lighting setups so it was a great opportunity to see some different shooting conditions. They’re also careful about preventing contamination, so once we get signed in, Michael and I put on the required Tyvek suits and get to work.

Mothering room

Grow lights used: Ceramic metal halide & Full-spectrum LED

Camera Settings

  • Camera: Canon 7D Mark-2
  • Mode: Manual
  • ISO: 400
  • Shutter Speed: 200
  • White balance: Indoor
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This mothering space uses multiple types of grow lights. Location: Subdued Excitement. Photographer: Michael Dyrland.

The lights here are are much different in terms of color and visual intensity.  The main challenge here is we have different lights in the same shot: ceramic metal halides and full-spectrum LEDs.

In a situation like this, you could take some practice shots under each type of light, find the best settings for each, and then split the difference. Experiment. Here in the mothering room, Michael sets his exposure to zero to correct for highlights. He sets his ISO to 400 and aperture to 5.

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Photographer, Michael Dyrland, setting up a shot. Location: Subdued Excitement.

Here’s another example of how your angle can affect your shot. Look at the difference in color and brightness in these next two photographs. The only difference between them is the height at which they were taken.

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In this shot, a lower angle captures more light, resulting in a brighter shot. Location: Subdued Excitement. Photographer: Michael Dyrland.
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Here, using a higher angle, aiming down over the tops of the lights results in a slightly darker image with less glare. Location: Subdued Excitement. Photographer: Michael Dyrland.

“It’s Important to review shots in real time to look for exposure,” Michael says. “Zoom into the photo you just took, to make sure what you want is in focus.” Michael likes to set his image review for 8 seconds, meaning after each shot, its image will automatically display on the screen for 8 seconds to allow for decent review time.

Tip: Enable highlight alert. In this setting, the over-exposed areas flash black to show you what’s blown out.

The light from these ceramic metal halides is so bright that a white glow surrounds everything. One solution for this is to shoot from as high as possible, angling your shot down.

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Using a high angle to reduce the glare from ceramic metal halide grow lights. Location: Subdued Excitement. Photographer: Michael Dyrland.

Tip: Spend some time staging the area. It’s easier to move things like garbage cans and ladders out of the way now, than to edit them out later in Photoshop.

2nd Room

  • Grow lights used: E-Papilion 1000W
  • White Balance: Tungsten or Incandescent

Here you have to compromise between the super-bright lights up top and the darker areas below. “It’s better to have the shot a little on the dark side if you have to,” says Michael. “The idea is to avoid overexposed spots or completely blacked out areas. You can’t edit those away later.”

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Subdued Excitement flowering room. Photographer: Michael Dyrland.

In this room they’re using E-Papillion 1000W lights. Here, for white balance, Incandescent, or Tungsten is the way to go. Remember to play around with this and take test shots each time you encounter new lighting. Another important point is that different cameras will behave differently and may even have different options for settings. Canon’s Tungsten might have a different look than Nikon’s.

Michael takes a shot from the corner of the room. “Corners are really good for achieving depth and a wide angle.” he says.

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Shot taken from corner to emphasize and exaggerate depth. Location: Subdued Excitement. Photographer: Michael Dyrland.
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Another example of using a corner to show depth and wide angle. Location: Subdued Excitement. Photographer: Michael Dyrland.

Tip: You can use your hands as a lens hood if you need to cut down on flare coming in from the lights above.

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Photographer, Michael Dyrland using his hand as a shade to block lens-flare. Location: Subdued Excitement.

3rd Room

  • Strain: Hawaiian Dutch
  • Grow lights used: Dimlux 1000W
  • White Balance: Tungsten
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A flowering room full of Hawaiian Dutch. Location: Subdued Excitement. Photographer: Michael Dyrland.

By now, we’ve got our settings pretty well dialed. Michael’s got his ISO at 200 and his shutter speed at 400. The high shutter speed and filter on his lens helps balance the ISO in this very bright room.

I don’t have a filter on the Nikon, so I’ve got ISO at 100, with the shutter speed set at 200. And I’ve compensated for the brightness by adjusting my exposure to -4.

Also worth mentioning: Michael is using a fill flash here to help fill in the shadows with light.

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Photographer, Michael Dyrland using a fill flash in a grow room. Location: Subdued Excitement. Photographer: Will Kersten.

We hope you enjoyed this article and learned enough to experiment with shooting your grow room in manual mode. Play around with it. You’ll soon get better shots and maybe even develop a new obsession!

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