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HDR Versus Flash In Real Estate Photography

By Matthew Saville on June 18th 2019

This is the fourth article in our complete series about real estate photography, how to shoot the photos, process them, and how to be successful in business. In this article, we will discuss the differences between using HDR techniques and using flash.

Thank you to HDRsoft for sponsoring this tutorial series and making it possible. The tips given in this tutorial are based on professional experience by our full-time photographer staff, and are our own opinions and advice.

Real Estate Photography Challenge: Difficult Lighting

Real estate photographers often find themselves working in very challenging conditions. Despite the relatively static nature of a property exterior or interior, it can be difficult to figure out what lighting looks best in a scene, and what exposure settings should be used to capture it correctly.

Many times, an image simply has far more dynamic range (contrast) than even the best digital cameras can capture in a single exposure. Or, maybe the way the ambient light falls on the furniture just isn’t very flattering. Either way, you’ll have to learn how to work around such obstacles.

Clearly, a single exposure will not be able to capture this interior and exterior scene!
Canon 5D Mk3, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L | 1/25 sec, f/13, ISO 100

Sometimes, the quickest and easiest thing to do is to simply use bracketing to capture multiple exposures, to recover detail in highlights or shadows that would have been pure white or pure black in a single exposure.

Other times, you may need to add your own light to the scene, usually strobe/flash, even if it requires a little extra time and equipment.

In this article, we’ll break down the advantages and disadvantages of each method, as well as how to shoot and post-process them.

Real Estate Photography | What is HDR?

For those who still haven’t heard of HDR photography yet, the concept is simple: As you’re shooting, you capture multiple images and change your exposure (but nothing else, such as composition, etc.) in between each click of the shutter.

This process, known as bracketing, allows you to get detail in both highlights and shadows by combining all of the bracketed images into one final image during post-production, using an HDR application such as Photomatix.

Advantages to Using HDR For Real Estate Photography

There are a few advantages to using HDR techniques in real estate photography, namely the fact that you don’t need additional equipment, and you can work faster on-location and in post-production.

Simplicity of Shooting

With HDR bracketing for real estate photography, all you have to do is set up like you normally would, and then vary your shutter speed to capture bracketed images. Of course using a tripod is useful for interiors, if your shutter speed is very long, however if you bracket exterior images hand-held with steady technique, good HDR merging software can auto-align your images for you! Either way, you just don’t need any special gear.

This allows a working photographer to get a job done very quickly, including both interior and exterior images of a property, with a minimal amount of equipment and setup/break-down time while on-location. For a professional, working quickly can make a huge difference in the amount of money you make! (Especially if you have to photograph multiple properties in one day!)

[Check out our article on the business side of real estate photography here!]

Simplicity of Processing

With HDR images, in post-production all you have to do is let automated software do its thing with your bracketed images, and then dial in the tones to your liking.

The Photomatix interface | Often a single preset is perfect for your scene, but fine-tuning the highlights and shadows is also quick and easy.

You don’t need to spend extra minutes or hours doing complicated Photoshop editing, to combine different images manually, like you might have to do if you use flash to illuminate individual parts of your scene one at a time.

Adobe Lightroom does have a basic HDR merging feature which creates a single DNG file, which is convenient for quick and simple raw edits. However, Photomatix offers many additional tools, and its features like deghosting usually work more reliably. Either way, for advanced control over your tones and fine details in an image, having an external, dedicated HDR application such as Photomatix (with seamless integration into Lightroom, of course) does help to give you the extra capabilities that a working professional can require.

Disadvantages of Using HDR For Real Estate Photography

Of course, with HDR bracketing and processing, you are at the mercy of the ambient light. You can control this existing light a little bit by turning the lights in a room on or off.

However, sometimes certain shadow areas just don’t look good, no matter how brightly you expose them with natural light. Instead, maybe they ought to be well-lit with additional lighting so that they receive the subject emphasis needed to create a professional result. For this, you’ll have to supplement your workflow with your own lighting, usually strobe or hotshoe flashes.

HDR versus Flash – which image do you prefer?

How To Shoot And Post-Produce HDR Images Of Real Estate Property

First, frame your scene as you normally would, and pay attention to all ambient light, indoors and outdoors. Turn on/off lights as necessary, to avoid any distracting shadows or specular highlights.

Next, it’s time to bracket multiple exposures. You want to capture enough bracketed images to clearly reveal detail in both the brightest highlights and darkest shadows of any scene.

You can either do this bracketing process manually, or by using your camera’s automated bracketing feature (called ‘Auto Exposure Bracketing’ or ‘AEB). If you adjust your exposure manually between each shot, don’t worry, the auto-align function in your HDR software will take care of any faint movement of the camera. Just don’t bump your tripod during a long exposure!

Seven bracketed exposures from dark to light reveal detail in both highlights and shadows.
Checking your histogram will quickly help you make sure that you’ve bracketed enough shots!

Most cameras these days have a bracketing function that offers 5, 7, or even 9-image bracketing, in at least 1EV increments. 1EV increments are a good starting point, but either way, the goal is to always keep an eye on your histogram and capture as many images as you need. (See the example above, and watch the histogram move from left to right!)

If you’re ever having trouble figuring out how many shots you need to bracket for a particular scene, HDRsoft has a useful exposure bracketing calculator HERE that you can use, by plugging in your brightest and darkest shutter speeds, as well as your camera’s bracketing range.

This process can be extremely quick once you get the hang of it, allowing you to photograph many rooms/interiors very quickly. With automated bracketing and faster shutter speeds, you can even capture HDR images of exteriors hand-held!

Canon bracketing function example: 7 images, 1 EV increments

Sony bracketing function example: 5 images, 1 EV increments

One more set of tips: You’ll want to shoot in RAW, of course. Also, don’t be confused by some cameras’ built-in HDR feature, which usually creates a JPG file. Some photographers get mixed up because in-camera bracketing is not the same as in-camera HDR. Although some cameras (Canons, for example, see below) can also save the raw frames when using the in-camera HDR feature, the simplest way to operate in the field is to just use basic exposure bracketing.

Canon in-camera HDR feature – this is NOT the same as the camera’s bracketing feature!

Real Estate HDR Post-Production Workflow

To start off with your (raw) workflow, process each of your bracketed images rather neutrally, with low contrast and little sharpening applied. This is very easy with a preset, and all you need to finalize is your white balance.

It is also important to make sure that your raw processing software has recognized any lens correction profile that may be available, to correct image quality problems such as distortion or vignetting.

Next, export the raw-edited images as either JPG or TIF, and then open those images in your HDR application such as Photomatix. Usually, I like to pre-process my raw files in Adobe with a bit of negative contrast as well as some highlight and shadow recovery, and of course the lens correction profile to keep straight lines straight.

You can also just open raw images directly in Photomatix, of course, however if you do the raw images will be firstly processed by Photomatix, and won’t recognize the Adobe editing which can be useful. Note that Photomatix does now offer lens profiles to correct distortion and vignetting, as well as tools for removing chromatic aberration.

Once in the HDR editing software, select a processing preset that suits your images. If it is a type of scene you often photograph, we highly recommend creating a preset for those settings!

By the way, clients (usually real estate agents) often prefer brightly lit/processed rooms, because they appear more warm and inviting! Just a quick tip for your overall editing style…

Finally, bring the image back into Photoshop or Lightroom, if necessary, to apply the final levels of contrast and “pop”, to your (or your clients’) taste.

Using Flash For Real Estate Photography

If the natural light in a room or scene simply needs a little more help, then it may be time to add your own light to the scene. Adding flash to your real estate photography workflow can seem like a hassle, however it is actually quite easy, if time allows for it.

Advantages to Flash For Real Estate Photography

Adding flash to your images will allow you to change the light in a room entirely, and illuminate areas that should be accentuated even if they are naturally in shadow.

Single exposure, 1 flash, bounced off the wall/ceiling to the left of the camera at ½ power
1/80 sec, f/6.3, ISO 100

Potentially, you could add enough flash to an interior or other scene so as to capture it all in a single exposure! In theory this is entirely possible with enough light, however in practice it may be more complex. Often times if a room has mirrors or other reflective surfaces, you may find that the perfect lighting for most of the image results in a reflection or “hot spot” in another part of the image.

The way to work around this is to capture 2-3 different exposures/layers, and then combine them using layer masks in Photoshop. Again, it’s a relatively simple process, though it can still be time-consuming if you have a high volume of total images to deliver.

Disadvantages to Flash For Real Estate Photography

There are two main disadvantages to using flash, or any other sort of supplemental light on-location. First, of course, is the cost of the additional equipment. Especially if you get more than just a single flash. (Light stands, brackets, all kinds of light modifiers, larger strobes, etc.)

Second, there is a lot of extra setup time. Unfortunately, you don’t always have enough time to set up, move around, and break down flashes for lighting every single room of a property. Depending on how quickly you work and how simple or complex your setup is, it might take double or triple the time to shoot with flash instead of just bracketing exposures.

There is also the strong likelihood of lots of additional processing- Unless you can perfectly light an entire room with multiple flashes, and also have none of the flashes appear in the captured image, you’ll probably have to layer mask 2-3 or more different images to combine different areas of a scene that are perfectly lit.

In fact, in a room with a lot of mirrors or reflective surfaces, and/or low ceilings or odd-shaped rooms in general, capturing an entire scene in a single exposure may be impossible with flash.

How To Shoot And Post-Produce Real Estate Images Using Flash

As always, frame your shot, and determine which areas or subjects in the image need to be illuminated. Main subjects like tables, chairs/couches, or beds often are the primary subject in the types of scenes that will benefit from using flash.

Next, determine what angle the subject(s) should be illuminated from. For example, often times it makes sense to illuminate a subject from a similar direction as the ambient (window) light, allowing certain parts of the image to still have a bit of shadow. This makes the image well-balanced, yet still interesting to look at, and not too flat-toned.

Sometimes, all an image needs is a little bit of brightening overall- bouncing a flash off the ceiling (behind the camera) can help fill a room with light, giving very natural looking results.

Also, consider this: is it better to bounce the flash off the ceiling, (if the ceiling isn’t included in your composition) or is it better to direct-flash the subject, either with a bare flash or a diffused light source such as an umbrella or softbox? Bare flash will of course create harsh light on a subject, while using a lighting modifier or bounced flash will create a softer light.

Unfortunately, using direct flash may often require the flash setup itself to be in the image. This will require you to shoot multiple images: one frame with the flash illuminating the key subject, and another frame with the flash removed from the image entirely, or illuminating a different part of the image.

Post-Production

As always, process all of your images as identically as possible, especially if you have to combine multiple images as layers in Photoshop.

Using simple layer masks to remove unwanted shadows when using multiple flash angles

If necessary, open images as layers in Photoshop, and mask the parts of the different layers that you want to hide/reveal in order to achieve the perfect lighting throughout the entire image.

(In our next article, we will dig even deeper into lighting and post-producing for real estate photography, so stay tuned!)

Conclusion | HDR versus Flash For Real Estate Photography

Let us summarize by saying, first and foremost, that there is never just one right way to accomplish a photographic goal or job. However, to be honest there are indeed plenty of scenarios in which a certain technique is in fact preferable to another, due to which constraints that may be placed on the photographer, or the desired final result.

What is the absolute best thing you can do, whether you’re a responsible working professional, or just an aspiring pro? Master multiple techniques! Become an expert at rapidly recognizing the light in a scene, and identifying which method of shooting is best.

In other words, you never want to find yourself in a work environment where you have to use a less than ideal technique for the task, just because you haven’t mastered the optimal technique yet, nor do you want to have to try and stumble your way through the optimal technique.

Sony a9, Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 GM, 2-image HDR | 20 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100 | 10 sec, f/11, ISO 100
Photomatix Processing: “Tone Balancer: Realistic” preset, no additional adjustments

Thankfully, it’s easy enough to practice and master both techniques. In fact, if you’re up for a real challenge, you may even want to combine both techniques into one- shooting bracketed exposures while also adding flash to some of the shots!

HDR real estate photography doesn’t require any special equipment, as long as you already own a tripod and your camera offers bracketing. Simply give an HDR merging software a try, and start practicing right away with a relatively friendly learning curve.

As for lighting, you can get started with a very affordable, simple setup that still offers all the professional functionality you need. And, believe it or not, it doesn’t even have to be that expensive or complicated/intimidating! One of the cheapest, most user-friendly options is a Yongnuo 560 III flash and 560TX radio controller. The YN560 system is no-frills, (no TTL, no HSS) and it allows you to wirelessly control your flashes’ power and even zoom head setting, and sets you back just about $60 for the flash and $40 for the controller.

As mentioned above, we’ll get more in-depth with lighting for real estate photography in our next article, including complete gear recommendations plus how to shoot and post-process single exposures, composite images, and bracketed HDR images using flash. In the meantime, leave a comment below if you have any questions or tips!

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Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

Follow his personal wilderness adventures: Astro-Landscapes.com

See some of his latest wedding photography featured on: LinandJirsa.com

Q&A Discussions

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  1. David Sanden

    Good article! As a Real Estate Photographer I have learned how to make HDR images look like they were not HDR.   There are so many great photographers out there that “destroy” their images by over-processing them.  

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