Use Manual Flash And Manual Exposure For Real Estate Photography

October 8th, 2013

ManualExposureManualFlashI get questions from people getting started in real estate photography about flash equipment that indicate that one of the things not very well understood is that the best way to use flash for real estate is to use flashes in manual mode. As usual, refer to the Interior Lighting With Multiple Strobes post for a summary of the whole manual flash process and how to do it.

Here is a list of implications of using manual flash for real estate photography:

  1. Using what you have: You may already have some flashes like Canon 580 EXs, or Nikon SB-600s etc. These can be used in manual mode, and SB-700, SB-800, SB-900 and SB910’s can even be triggered  optically. The SB-600 cannot.
  2. No E-TTL or CLS: When I say use flashes in manual mode, I mean don’t put them in E-TTL mode (Canon) or CLS mode (Nikon). As Scott Hargis says, you want to NOT let your camera and flashes do any “thinking”. You want to do ALL the thinking.
  3. Expanding your gear: If you are expanding the number of flashes you have ( you can get by with 1 or 2 but you ultimately you need 3 or 4 or more to shoot all situations) you’ll want to purchase inexpensive manual flashes like Yn-560-II or -III rather than 580 Ex’s or SB-600s because they cost so much less.
  4. Use DSLR in Manual: Probably the biggest implication of using manual flashes is you need to put your DSLR in manual exposure mode and learn how to do the exposure thinking. The big advantage is using manual exposure lets you be in complete control over how bright the windows or other bright objects are in the finished photo with out masking or blending.

This may all sound technical and involved, but it’s not! The huge payoff of learning to use manual off-camera flash is your time! You almost eliminate your post processing time. I have tried no lighting, HDR, Exposure Fusion, Canon E-TTL but trust me, Manual off-camera flash is the fastest and most effective technique I seen.

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13 Responses to “Use Manual Flash And Manual Exposure For Real Estate Photography”

  • Learning to use flashes in manual mode after reading Scott Hargis’ book “The Essential Guide to Lighting Interiors”, is one of the best investment in both time and money within photography I have done since I went full time. I remember being afraid of using flashes before I spent time to really learn the stuff. Once learnt, operating manual flashes is a powerful tool that can be used within other areas of photography as well as real estate photography.

  • I shoot manual mode 80% of the time with a few shutter priority on occasion; however, I have found that TTL gives me what I want if I just adjust using the in-camera flash commander option (Nikon). I can adjust each flash group up or down by tenths. Works for me and super easy.

  • Consider expanding knowledge on how to use a Flash meter. The older Minolta IV series does a great job. I have two triggers; one on camera and one in hand. I walk an area and read the ambient outside light coming in. Decide on an exposure, then set the meter to a strobe setting and briefly calibrate the main strobe to hit at the best f-stop or power reading. Then just balance the shutter speed for the affect I wish.

    Not rocket science, but a normal practice in the industry for ….years. I only use a manual approach. No challenging technology to learn – except to learn to use a flash meter. I use a mix of 750wps strobes with light controls & several standard Canon strobes for various needs. But many times you just need a single strobe & match the exposure. You need to design the signature look you want. Me, I am all about the light – without it you don’t have a marketing image.

  • For me using manual flashes is not all that difficult. Pick an f/stop (say 7.1 per SH) and then meter for the window to get a good exp and that gives me the shutter speed. From there set up the flash(s) and have at it. What I find most difficult is getting the power of each flash in balance and avoiding the hot spotting, especially if I have one hidden in the scene (say to light a dark fireplace or the view into another room where there is a flash set up).

    That’s the one glaring omission in the SH videos. He never discusses this so I’ve been on my own to figure it all out. Gets very tricky with 4 or 5 as each one does contribute some to the overall light in the scene hence changing the f/stop. Trial and error is very slow process.

    I do not use a flash meter but have been thinking maybe that would be a good answer to getting this balance a bit quicker. Anyone have any thoughts on this? Sometimes I’m just amazed at the photos on PFRE where the balance is so perfect and not a single hot spot.

  • Quick follow up: I see Matt posted right as I was writing my post above. So the flash meter is perhaps the answer.

  • Using a meter is a huge waste of time – just snap a shot and look at the back of the camera. As always, expose for the brightest thing in the room that you want to retain detail in and start lighting… It’s no rocket science.

  • Dear Larry,
    You’ve mentioned, that SB-600’s capable of being optical triggered. Have you actually checked that in real life? I have SB-600, but my DSLR is Canon, but it doesn’t actually matter when you are triggering that optically, right? Why I ask, because I didn’t find the way how to do this Canon – SB-600 off camera model. Would you be so kind to clarify this please? It will help me a lot…Thanks.

  • @Georgy : Optical triggering works when the sensor inside the flash detects light – it will fire sympathetically when that happens. A passing ambulance, a pop-up flash, or any other intense pop of light will trigger the flash when it’s in slave mode. That said, I don’t think the SB-600 has optical triggering built-in.

  • @Georgy – My comment about the SB-600 is in error… I just found an answer… “The Nikon SB-700, SB-800, SB-900 and SB-910 speedlights have exceptionally fine optical slave triggers built in, selected in SU-4 mode. The Nikon SB-26, SB-50DX, and SB-80DX flashes also have slave triggers built in. However most speedlight flashes do not, and the SB-600 does not.”

  • @Barry : Exactly. That’s why I asked, maybe this feature is hidden or there is another way of getting it. But i think it’s just a mistake.

  • For Chet:
    Your shooting style is fine. Use of a flash meter has many benefits especially when you begin to leverage more than 1 light source or multiple strobes. Even clients that care about quality like to see that you are not shooting from the hip (so to speak). The inverse square law is real; or so I believe.

    Non architectural situation: I just shot an environmental portrait of an author for a publisher as a book cover, do you think I did not have my Minolta IVF with me with a harsh sun as backlight and a Q-T2 and Canon strobe? ah, yes.

    Looking at your camera LCD panel for validation is like flying in a light fog without a radar backup when you only have a 2.25″ window. We all have choices. We all use the tools we have to create. Overall, stay with your instinct to create since it will dictate your style.

  • @Matt…
    Like the flying analogy 🙂 My flash meter came today (one day after a two day shoot, but better late than never). I do have to say that this is going to make things really easy and save me a great deal of time. I know how to use a meter, I guess I just got hung up on the idea of not using one. I can do a perfect window pull with 2 simple readings and 1 exposure. Multiple flashes in one scene; balanced perfectly (well mostly..haha) the first exposure – no problem. Why I’ve been struggling is beyond me. So, to those who can do it by chimping, great…for guys like me this flash meter is just the thing I needed and look forward to cutting my time greatly shooting complicated interiors and getting nice window pulls (easily).

  • It’s really s shame that the particularly useful practice of “chimping” got such a shameful simian name. As if there’s something wrong with stepping back from your work and studying your latest move. Painters and sculptors have done this for ages! The desire not to be seen chimping, I believe, is partially behind the appeal of EVF cameras, which allow you to chimp while not appearing to. I’ll take chimping on my 3″ screen over the tedium of flash meter readings. That’s what I had to do in the rugged old days of film…

    After 3000 homes, manual flash and exposure remains my mainstay. Manual WB, too. The last thing I want is a camera and flash that react in complicated, interactive ways to different rooms. How can AWB or AE cope with a bedroom painted deep blue, or bloody scarlet? How would it know the difference between a home theater, which ought to be rendered darker, and a sunny master bath? Understanding the basics of shutter and aperture is a simpler task than fathoming the myriad options of a modern camera system. And I want consistency and repeatability in my interiors, especially for VT panoramas. Ever use full auto on a sunny backyard pano? When the camera comes to face a dark evergreen tree, the camera compensates to make it brighter than it should appear. I wind up spending time correcting the exposure downward again.

    Like Barry says, it ain’t rocket science. You just ask: 1) what available shutter sync speed will tame the highlights and capture any desired window views? 2) How much flash is needed to balance that by filling the shadows? 3) How do I aim or place or modify the flash to avoid unwanted hot spots, reflections and shadows? Best of all, a RE photog faces the same situations over and over, so you have every opportunity to get it right eventually.

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