Flash For Beginners – Why You Eventually Really Do Need To Use Flash

June 9th, 2013

FlashVarious polls that I’ve done indicate that roughly half of real estate photographers use small flashes in their shoots. I feel particularly qualified to talk about how people try to avoid using flash because even though I purchased my first flash (an SB-26) for real estate photography work in about 1995 I managed to avoid learning how to use it effectively until early 2008 when I met Scott Hargis at a workshop we did together in Seattle.

Everything I know about flash I learned from Scott. I was so impressed with Scott’s system for Lighting Interiors with small flashes that I convinced him to write it down. That eventually became his Lighting Interiors e-book and later evolved into his Lighting For Real Estate Photography Video Series. And now as I’m going over the upcoming second edition word by word in the processing editing I’m appreciating the power, elegance and importance of Scott’s approach to lighting even more! It’s not accidental that the little post that Scott and I put together back in July of 2007 has become one of the most read posts on this blog. This post distills Scott’s system down into 890 words. This is fundamental information and eventually if you want to do the highest quality work possible in interiors photography you need to use some or all of Scott’s system.

What about the other half of real estate photographers who aren’t using Scott’s system? They are shooting brackets and processing them with Exposure Fusion or HDR tone mapping software. However, the polls I’ve none in the past indicate that even the majority of real estate photographer shooting brackets also use at least one small flash as the shoot brackets. Why? Because it helps control some of the wacky side effects of processing brackets that only use ambient light. For example, one benefit of using a flash when shooting brackets is that the flash will make white woodwork looks white and crisp and other colors more accurate.

I’ve come to realize that most real estate photographers lighting technique evolves over time. Many start using no flash, shooting brackets because it seems like a short cut. Learning Scott’s system has a learning curve to climb. There’s more stuff you got to carry. People seem to have a natural fear of flash. I know, for several years, I would only shoot our listings at twilight just so I didn’t have to use flash! One listing client was having a dinner party that I had to work around as I was shooting their home. Lucky for me they were good sports about me shooting during their dinner party! As you become more aware of the results the different techniques  you will be naturally motivated to want your images to look more like Scott’s.

There are some fundamental techniques that will get you started moving towards using small flash. You can do all of these while still shooting brackets:

  1. Learn to use manual flash: It’s tempting to think oh, “I’ll just use Nikon CLS or Canon ETTL” (auto exposure) and the camera will just do everything automatically for me. Nope! Been, there, done that. It works in some simple situations but falls apart in more complex situations when you need it the most. People think because auto flash works for a wedding or studio situation it will also work for interiors.
  2. Get your flash off your camera: I know, you are looking for speed, but if you put the flash on a light stand and trigger it with a radio trigger (YG560-III and RF602/603 are a perfect choice for this) you can still move pretty fast.
  3. Learn to bounce the off-camera flash off a wall or ceiling wall joint: This creates a big soft lights that reduce or eliminate shadows.
  4. As you become more comfortable with this technique add optically triggered flashes: That is the light from the YG560-III will trigger any number of other YG560-IIIs, YG560-IIs or SB-80Dxs at the same instant.

So using a single off-camera flash to shoot brackets is a great way to ease into becoming more comfortable with flash. Try it, I think you are going to like it!

13 Responses to “Flash For Beginners – Why You Eventually Really Do Need To Use Flash”

  • A great article Larry and a good reminder for those even using flash. Scott’s book is an upcoming purchase for me and I’m glad he wrote it as there is an artist in every one of us; but it takes an artist to show us that.

  • Tried other ways, but from day one I had better results with flashes. The results are better than about 90% of members of the real estate board.
    And my system is very simple. On the camera, often bounce, sits the 550EX as a master and on a stand a 430EXII as a slave.
    I believe that the tools you and Scott are using will outshine all others.

  • Shooting with Nikon SB600, (2)NikonSb80′s and a YN560-II. I would love to get all the flashes off the camera and improve my lighting setups. Will the RF603N3 trigger the YN560-II? Or will it only trigger the YN560-III?

  • @Judy- The only difference between the YN560-II and the YN560-III has an RF603N3 radio trigger built into it. So the YN560-II can be triggered with an attached RF603N3 or with the light from other flashes.

  • Thanks Larry for your helpful insights! The YN 560-II is super and very reliable. Triggering off camera flashes with Nikon600 which works well most of the time, except, as you said when it doesn’t. Love the look of Scott’s work and would like to reduce post processing time :-).

  • I’m really looking forward to a more in depth discussion about using flash with bracketing.

  • I’m newer to real estate photography and do not have much experience with off camera flash. I chose to shoot HDR for its speed and with the right post processing it can have great results. I know using flash turns out better quality results, but is the extra time setting up each shot, lugging around more equipment, and purchasing more equipment justified? Because the best quality product does not always make you the most money… Also, with some great post processing services out there, the post with HDR could be brought down to nothing.

    Which technique allows you to make more money? Shooting HDR, which is quicker and still can produce great images, or shooting flash, which takes more time but produces a better quality image? And of course there is the option to shoot a combination of the two.

    Does the real estate agent see the advantage between the quality of flash vs HDR? Because a lot of agents don’t even see the point of a professional photographer in general.

    Just a couple of my thoughts.

  • @Josh – Try looking at it a different way. Just like for Realtors it’s really not how much they spend on photography for this listing….it’s investing in the next and future listings and thus their “brand”. Same way with us. It’s not how much time you have to spend on this shoot and how much money you make from it. It’s more about consistently producing the best product you can which will help build your “brand” and gain a reputation as the photographer to contact to photograph exceptional properties. Just last Saturday I shot a 1700 SF home that was listed at $195K, I treated it the same as the $1.15M home that I shot a couple of weeks ago. I would have never gotten the call to photograph the $1.15M home if it wasn’t for my commitment to provide the best I can on each and every home I photograph. Building your “brand” is a never ending process.

  • @Kerry- Well said!

  • @Josh–I can tell you that the more experience you get with multiple flashes, the more efficient you become. Post processing time was my big fear when starting this, but now it’s a joke. I can PP a shot in under 90 seconds most of the time. Some minor editing in ACR, correct verticals, done.

    As far as equipment goes, I used to have 2 550EXs, so I sold one and bought two YN-560IIs. I also bought a couple more receivers, another 560II, and I was pretty much set. After making some decent money, I then bought a 17-40. It was a rather small investment.

  • Any recommendations for a good starter flash for a Sony A-57? I was like many other beginners and have been trying not to use a flash, but the more I shoot and the more I read, I realize that I need one. Any suggestions?