One of the scariest things that many aspiring professional photographers face is lighting. From portraits and wedding photography, to product and real estate photography, the thought of adding a fleeting burst of flash to the equation seems like a very steep, almost impossible learning curve.
Well, it certainly doesn’t have to be so intimidating! In fact, adding flash to real estate photos in particular is very simple and easy, because of the nature of your subject: mostly static scenes and rooms that you can work with at your leisure.
A big thank-you to HDRsoft for sponsoring this content! We’re proud to be sharing our own professional advice with you on this subject, and the advice given (from gear/software used to shooting techniques) is our own real-world experience.
In this tutorial, we’ll teach you how to work quickly and effectively with flash to get beautiful results that a real estate agent with a cell phone can’t capture by themselves!
Real Estate Photography | Shooting Technique Overview
Before we conclude this 5-part series, let’s introduce this final (and yes, most complex) shooting technique by going over all of the ways you could possibly photograph a real estate interior or exterior:
Single Exposure (Nice when it’s possible, but often simply not going to happen!)
HDR Bracketed Exposures (A very common way to photograph many interiors and exteriors)
Single Exposure With Flash (A quick, basic, easy way to add light to a room)
Multiple Exposures With Flash (Good for when you need to Illuminate multiple subjects, or place the flash within the image composition)
HDR Bracketed Exposures With Flash (The ultimate way to control all light and contrast in any environment!)
In our previous tutorial, we discussed the advantages and disadvantages of both HDR and flash photography for real estate work. To sum up from that tutorial, both methods play an important role in being a good professional real estate photographer, so you should definitely learn both! Sometimes an HDR is absolutely essential to capture your scene, while other times using flash is the perfect way to photograph an interior or exterior.
Yes, that’s an 11-EV Bracket! 1-EV increments were used to create this HDR)
Merging the images together in Photomatix Pro using the “Fusion/Interior” setting
In this article, of course, we’ll focus on using flash, aka strobe lighting, in real estate photography. That is, until we use both flash and HDR at the same time! Don’t worry, though, it’s not as complicated as it sounds. So, let’s jump right in!
How To Photograph Real Estate With Flash
Okay, let’s talk about how to use flash in real estate photography!
The quickest, most affordable, and least intimidating way to add light to a room or property is to get a single flash in your kit, and hand-hold it wirelessly or use a simple light stand.
Real Estate Lighting | Quick Gear Guide
Hotshoe Flash Recommendations: Nikon SB series, Canon EX series, Yongnuo, Godox, or Neewer flashes (All have built-in radio triggering)
Strobe Flash Recommendations: Profoto, Godox, or Flashpoint strobes (All have built-in radio triggering)
Light Stand Recommendations: Manfrotto “Nano” 5001B Light Stand, Cheetah Stand C8
A hotshoe strobe may be enough for some people, who are willing to shoot with a slightly higher ISO and/or a wider/brighter aperture, however you may want to add a slightly more powerful strobe if you’d rather always be able to shoot at your lowest ISO and a relatively small aperture.
Having a more powerful flash will also help with bouncing off extremely high ceilings, or illuminating large portions of a property exterior at sunset.
Method 1.) Single Exposures with Flash/Strobe
Single exposure, f/4, 1/50 sec, ISO 100, 2x hotshoe flashes fired at the left-hand ceiling/wall
If the ambient light just isn’t very flattering to certain shadowy subjects, even when exposed brightly with bracketing, then you may need to add some of your own light to the scene and illuminate that subject.
Adding light to a scene allows you to control the direction and quality of light on key subjects in any scene. For example, if a particular table or chair falls into deep shadow, then adding some light directly to that subject will help emphasize it correctly and create a well-balanced image.
So, how do you control the direction and quality of the light? Before you start wildly blasting your flash at things and getting all kinds of blown-out or harsh shadowed images, let’s consider the possible methods:
A. Direct Flash
Note how the shadow is harder or softer depending on where it is positioned and aimed
Direct, bare-bulb flash/strobe can work, but it will usually cause very harsh shadows and bright spots that make an image look even worse than natural light.
Don’t be discouraged, though; you might not need to go out and buy lots of fancy light modifiers or other equipment! Just practice finding the best angle possible to minimize hard shadows, or, even better, try bouncing the flash off the ceiling…
B. Bare Flash Bounced Off The Ceiling
Bouncing the flash off the ceiling of a room is a great way to quickly fill a large portion of the room with soft, even light. That is, of course, only as long as the ceiling itself isn’t in the frame of your shot! Then you’ll wind up with a blown-out white spot on the ceiling in your image.
Also, this only works if the ceiling is a relatively neutral color. Bouncing just won’t work very well if you have dark wood ceilings or any painted color different from neutral grey/white. So, always look for white or near-white ceilings and/or walls.
You might even get in the habit of asking your clients if they know what color (and how high) the ceilings are in the properties they’re about to hire you to photograph.
Generally, I start by bouncing my flash off the ceiling just above and to the right or left of my camera position, to see how the lighting looks like on my main subject.
Then, I either brighten or darken the flash to get the illumination perfect, and if the direction itself was a bit off, I move the flash to the right or left and keep testing until I like how the light and shadows play on the subject.
If you feel you’ve nailed the perfect lighting, feel free to delete some of the “dud” test exposures, and/or “star” the image with the best lighting for each scene in-camera if possible. However, don’t delete ALL the exposures except one, because you might want to combine one or two flashed images later for truly perfect lighting.
Flash Exposure Settings Guidelines
The brightness of a flash or strobe is known as its power, and this is measured in stops just the same as your camera settings. These stops count down from “full power”, or 1/1 power. 1/2 power is 1 EV darker, and 1/4 power is 2 EVs darker. Flash power usually ranges from 1/1 at its brightest, to 1/128 at its darkest for hotshoe strobes, or 1/16 or 1/32 for larger studio strobes.
The only slightly confusing thing to remember is that 1/1 power is not the same on all flashes. Different flashes can be brighter at 1/1 power, which is why large studio strobes are useful when you need a lot of light.
On your camera, start at a basic exposure of a low ISO, an aperture that allows you to get everything in the scene relatively sharp, and whatever shutter speed gives you a balanced ambient exposure.
Let’s say, ISO 100, f/5.6, and 1/20 sec for an average interior. Add your flash at ½ or ¼ power, and see how it looks. If the ambient exposure is too bright or too dark, change your shutter speed but avoid changing your aperture or ISO because those will affect the flash brightness too.
If your flash is too bright or too dark, you can easily dial it up or down a stop, or if your flash is at full power and still not bright enough, you can try a higher ISO and a faster shutter speed, because that will effectively give the same ambient exposure but a brighter flash exposure.
(Flash does not get brighter or darker with your shutter speed, asl long as you’re below your sync speed which is usually 1/200 sec.)
C. Modified Flash (Umbrella, Softbox, Sphere, etc)
If you need to illuminate a specific subject without putting a blown-out white spot on the ceiling, then you can use direct flash but with a light modifier.
This sounds advanced, but it’s easier than you think to add a simple umbrella, softbox, or dome/sphere to your existing lighting setup. We’ll continue to demonstrate direct flash techniques in the next section…
Method 2.) Flash, Multiple & Composite Exposures
Just like with bounced flash, start by testing your flash in different positions and angles, and adjust the brightness (power) and angle so that the lighting and any shadows in your scene look good.
Sometimes, your interior or exterior composition is complex enough that you need to light a subject from multiple angles, or illuminate different subjects one at a time, …or actually stand in your shot to get the lighting right!
When this happens, it can still be accomplished relatively quickly when you’re on location, but will of course require quite a bit of work in post-production.
Post-Production: Layer Masking For Real Estate Photography
Whenever merging becomes necessary in post-production, whether manually in Photoshop or with an HDR application such as Photomatix, make sure to post-process all of your exposures identically, with “auto-sync” turned on in Lightroom, or synchronize the edits later with Capture One or other software.
If you’re going to be merging images manually in Photoshop, then be extra careful to process them identically, especially noting that things like the lens distortion/vignetting correction profile are applied to all images. Process the raw images to your liking, and then open them as smart objects if possible, to retain raw editing, or just as layers if you’d prefer the quickest possible trip from Lightroom to Photoshop and back again, and don’t plan to do anything more serious than a quick layer mask to “erase” something from the main image or images that are illuminated with flash.
In Photoshop, create a layer mask on any layers that contain something you wish to erase, and mask it out with a black brush on a white mask. Or if a layer contains a small part that you wish to add to the overall scene, brush it in using a white brush on a black mask, making sure that your layer is at the very top of the stack.
In case you’re new to layer masking, you “erase” or “reveal” parts of an image, without actually destroying the image itself, by brushing in black or white (respectively) on the layer mask.
The final image should hide any lighting equipment that was present in the composition, erase any harsh shadows, and/or combine different lighting schemes for a perfect, well-lit result.
Method 3.) Merge Both Flash and HDR Techniques
7-EV bracket, flash added to each exposure to clean up shadows
For the ultimate level of control over the light in your image, accept this challenge: combine both HDR bracketing and the use of flash!
There are two ways to combine HDR and flash. Some photographers might want to keep it simple and just add a flash to each exposure in the HDR bracket, while other photographers might prefer to create a bracketed HDR sequence, then separately capture a few exposures using flash, and work in post-production to selectively merge the flash exposures with the HDR as necessary.
If either method sounds overly complicated, don’t worry! Start with the latter- just shoot an HDR sequence as you normally would, and shoot a few flash-illuminated interior shots as you normally would, and don’t worry about combining them in post-production unless either individual method fails. (We’ll get to the post-production next!)
One last tip: if you decide to add flash to every exposure of your HDR, just make sure your flash has enough time to recycle and be ready to “pop” again at the correct power. You might want to turn your camera’s drive speed (FPS, frames-per-second) down to “Continuous Low” speed, and/or use exposure delay mode if your camera is capable of doing both at once.
Nikon’s Self-timer has options to set up to 3 sec intervals between (up to 9) shots.
Setting up exposure bracketing on Nikon (mirrorless, Z7) cameras
A cable release or wireless camera control is very useful in accomplishing the final result, and other cameras (such as Nikon, pictured above) now have options for setting up to a 3 second delay between each shot when using self-timer shooting to capture a bracketed sequence.
Post-Production: Flash Plus HDR For Real Estate Photography
Many photographers prefer to start in Lightroom with their raw images, and then go into Photoshop or an HDR application with TIF or JPG converted files as needed. Photomatix offers a Lightroom plugin, as well as direct raw image conversion if desired. Like Lightroom, Photomatix offers automated lens correction profiles for distortion and vignetting, if necessary.
Set the HDR blending preferences to your taste, such as the alignment and cropping options, raw conversion options, and deghosting options.
In most cases, we’re shooting interiors from a tripod, so turn on any available lens correction profile, turn off “Crop aligned images” and leave deghosting off as well.
When you reach the final HDR interface, start by choosing a preset that gets close to your desired look, and then adding slight changes to the key sliders such as Strength, Saturation, White/Black Clipping, and other sliders for different methods of tonal control.
Generally speaking, the goal for most images is to process them brightly, yet still with enough overall contrast so as to look natural and realistic.
Consider saving your customized slider options as a preset, if you have similar images from that same shoot (or future shoots) to process.
Final Image – Balance of HDR Bracketing and Flash
The final HDR image can be added to your traditional Lightroom workflow as a TIF or JPG image, for any final subtle tweaks to color or contrast, before delivery to your client.
Conclusion | Real Estate Photography Lighting Made Simple
With this knowledge, and with just a small investment in equipment and practice, you should feel totally prepared and confident in your ability to add lighting to your real estate photography, and tackle any tough shooting environment!
If you have any questions about lighting for real estate photography, or any tips or tricks of your own, please leave a comment below!
Read our complete guide to Real Estate Photography:
SLR Lounge And Photomatix
We’d like to thank the folks at HDRsoft one more time for sponsoring this content and allowing us to provide this extensive guide to real estate photography.
Here at our studio we have actually been using Photomatix Software for about ten years now, for not just landscape and real estate photography, but also portrait photography and venue detail shots.
The advice given in these articles is our own, based on years of professional experience and actual use of the equipment, techniques, post-production workflows, and business skills that are outlined. Thank you for reading, and good luck in your creative and business endeavors!