September 22nd, 2013
Let me start by confessing that I shoot brackets very seldom because I like Scott Hargis’s small flash technique and I don’t like some of the side effects of bracket processing like the soft look, color shifts and being forced to deal with only existing light.
I know from doing polls that some where around 45% of PFRE readers use a bracketing workflow for their real estate photography. The theory behind using Photomatix and similar bracket processing software has always been that you use Exposure Fusion, HDR or a hybrid of bracketing and flash to bring the brightness of the windows and the darker interior closer together. But thanks to an experiment by Tony Colangelo in response to Scott Hargis’s comments in the PFRE photographer of the month pool the last few months I’ve become convinced that, like Scott says, you can get to just as good or better an image if you start with a single RAW file and adjust it in Lightroom 4 or later (equivalent to ACR version 7.o or later which PSE 11 and PS CS6 use). After reading/seeing Tony’s experiment I reproduced his experiment myself to verify it. That is, I shot six brackets of my living room that has a huge bright window and processed the brackets with LR/Enfuse and/or Photomatix and compared the results to what I get by just adjusting one of the RAW bracket files with Lightroom 5. I always like the Lightroom 5 result best. This is equivalent to what Tony did because the Adobe Camera RAW engine that is in Lightroom is also used by PSE 11 which Tony used.
So why are so many real estate shooters using Photomatix and similar bracketing programs if you can get to the same place with one RAW file? Probably because not everyone is aware the huge improvement that Adobe made to the Adobe Camera RAW processing engine in LR4 and ACR 7.x that came out in the spring of 2012. It was literally a game changer. Nowadays, with the Highlights/Shadows sliders and the other sliders in the LR Basic panel you can do everything those bracket processing programs can do and get an image without all the side effects inherent in Exposure Fusion or HDR process. Plus, it’s faster both shooting and processing.
To be clear, I’m not talking anything about flash here at all. I’m just talking about getting a realistic capture of available light. Of course flash will take your images to a whole new level once you get the hang of it. I’m just saying if you are not ready to use flash for whatever reason, it doesn’t mean your only other option is shooting brackets and using Photomatix or other bracket processing software. Try it and see for yourself.
To me this is a huge and important revelation! You can spend a lot of time shooting and processing brackets and even more time trying to control the side effects of shooting and processing brackets. Why bother if it’s more effective to just shoot one RAW file.
One more thing, I used the same RAW file in my experiment above in Aperture 3.4.5 and I could not get a final image that looks quite as good as the result I can get with Lightroom 5. I’m not saying it can’t be done. I just can’t seem to do it. I think the Photomatix Pro Exposure fusion result looks better than the Aperture only result.