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

December 7th, 2016

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. The reason 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 is that it distills the small manual flash 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 small manual flashes? They are shooting brackets and processing them with Exposure Fusion or HDR tone mapping software. However, the polls I’ve done in the past indicate that even the majority of real estate photographers that shoot brackets also use at least one small flash. Why? Because it helps control some of the color 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 look white and crisp and other colors more accurate.

Many start out using no flash, shooting brackets because it seems like a shortcut. Learning Scott’s system has a learning curve to climb. There’s more stuff you have 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!

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 technique creates a big soft light that minimizes 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 the results!

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

  • Been a long time flash user in my shootings, have used them in Manual for a long time. However, recently (last 2 years) I became a fan of the TTL shooting. Big timesaver, once you get it right!

  • I completely agree with this article. It was a game changer when I started to use off camera flashes. I still use lightroom’s HDR sometimes ( especially when there are mirrors) but there is nothing that matches the look of flash done correctly.

  • I have become a big fan of umbrellas and other modifiers in large rooms, and occasionally small rooms, in lieu of bouncing off walls. Many times the walls are either a dark color and absorb more light than reflect, rich paint where flash picks up the color, or the optimal flash angle doesn’t have a supporting wall to bounce off. You do have to choke down the umbrella to about half stem or the UWA will outshoot the flash coverage with the umbrella shadow projected on walls and ceiling. TTL is good for fast moving events but manual is far more precise for RE, and actually easier – as both TTL and manual you are adjusting power ratios with multiple flashes. Personally, I consider optical triggering “a backup system”. If using a set of the inexpensive $63 (repair = disposable) YN560III noted above which have an internal receiver, definitely get the $38 YN560-TX trigger as on-camera adjustment of light levels will spoil you. However will it will trigger the RF602/603 receivers to fire other flash models, it requires going to each flash location and manually adjusting levels. With multiple flashes and on-camera adjustment a technique I use is matching colored tape on both the flash and stand (umbrella hides flash) differing color for each channel so can tell at a glance from the camera which channel to adjust the power output. The big problem with umbrellas, other than bulkiness, is reflections where otherwise would be a simple hotspot to remove rather than a monster umbrella reflection. I have found it easier to move the lighting to a different position for a second shot, then mask out the original reflection which is actually cleaner than trying to clone out a hotspot. Doesn’t take that long in post as so few – perhaps 2 or 3 per shoot and with coding in Lightroom (three stars) can sort and do them first, recoding the output (five stars) for the primary set to deliver.

  • While I understand the intent behind this article I’m going have to disagree. I’ve been shooting RE for 5 years now and have never, and I stress NEVER, used a flash on a single shot I’ve ever taken inside a home. Do I think I am providing the 100% absolute best quality image to my client? No. Do I think I’m proving an image they couldn’t dream of producing themselves at an affordable cost? Yes. I do run into color cast problems but 5 yrs of shooting and merging images has taught me ways to work out these kinks onsite and in PP rather than dragging flash systems around. Definitely not the popular opinion around here but that’s mine.

  • I’d take a look at the newer Yongnuo YN685 flash. It has the wireless trigger built in.

  • Daniel, your work without flash is superb. Can I ask, do you basically just use Enfuse?

  • Hi Olly, thank you for your comment! That is correct. I shoot a 5 bracket sequence and merge through Enfuse.

  • Dan, those are great pics without flash. Just starting out and I’m trying to keep it simple, but I’m not getting the quality out of lr/enfuse that you are. Can you suggest steps to raise my quality?

  • I have to agree with Daniel for myself. With the caveat that everyone needs to use the techniques that best address what they want to achieve and how they feel most comfortable in achieving it. And it cannot be forgotten that technique often has as much to do with your business model and how you find you work best after the shoot in your post processing. These are only questions each photographer can answer for themselves.

    If you have to shoot 3 houses a day, say, and process at night, then you need to shoot in a way that allows you to cut down your processing to a minimum. Or outsource so you can get some sleep for tomorrow’s shoot. I suppose I am lucky in that I only shoot about 3 houses a week or less and still am able to manage to make the business model work for me and I do all my own post and take time with each and every exposure. I shoot for bracketing and use HDR and layers for each image employing a combination of PS, Photomatix and AuroraPro 2.

    So some may need to shoot for volume which has its own demands win photo processing from the shoot through post while others, such as myself, go for higher prices on higher priced properties and can devote much more time to massaging each image to be the way I want it to be. So I almost never use flash but sometimes use quartz lights since I often am shooting video and stills at the same time. Sometimes I use CC filters on the lights and sometimes not depending on the prevailing color of the available lighting.

    But this is the exception not the rule for me.

    I spent 30 years shooting film almost always with flash even when shooting annual reports on location in factories where we had to use filters to make the flash balance with the color of the artificial lighting which was often a mix. So I am not a stranger to flash. But I find with RE with my personal methodology I seldom need additional lighting, helped since most of the high end properties which make up my market have had excellent lighting installed by the architects or 3rd party enterprises.

    So to finish, finally, these are personal choices. Cameras, software and lighting are just tools, not religions. So you choose the ones that work best for you and how you work.

  • @ Peter Daprix

    I couldn’t agree more. I hope my original comment didn’t come off as snarky but you said it best. Don’t get me wrong, I DROOL over the images produced by some of the photographers here on this site but it’s just not what my business model calls for. Will I one day upgrade to a flash system? Who knows. But for right now, I get by just fine and I can get through 95% of any situation with brackets.

  • @ James Noud

    I don’t want to clog up the forum here. Please email me and I would be more than happy to assist if I can.

  • @ Dan Bigley

    If my Enfused photos looked as good as yours, I wouldn’t have picked up a flash either! But I couldn’t get happy with the outcome so I started using off camera flash. I will still sometimes Enfuse one flash frame and one ambient, which can quickly give me the best of both without having to blend in PS. I’m interested in your methodology too because it might be a big time saver for me.

  • @ Dan Bigley.

    Agree with the other comments about your work, it is really good. I use Enfuse in LR for my basic shoots and then my premium shoots (2 price levels) I have an excellent processor who works his magic on them in PS. Both price levels are shot 5 or 7 frame HDR with no flash but I know my basic shoots quick workflow isn’t anyway as good as yours. Interior shots on my website are all premium shoots through my processor.

    I think you’re going to get a lot of requests for workflow tips 🙂

  • I think if you want clean results with HDR/Enfuse, you have to be willing to sacrifice the window view. Looking at Dan’s work, none of the pictures are featuring a strong window view, in fact a lot of them have blinds/sheers cracked or closed. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you try and include darker exposures for the window in the HDR/enfuse process, you will start to get the muddy/smoky look… in my experience. It is also going to vary wildly from house to house. A bright and airy house with fairly neutral walls will do great… but some of the houses I shoot are tuscan themed, brown/beige walls, dark cabinets, and they have important window views.

    Next year I’m planning to offer an express service utilizing an enfuse method too. I don’t think lighting is really necessary on the average RE track home shoot. Who needs to see through the windows anyways when it’s just your neighbor 10 feet away?

  • @ Matt R

    You are 100% correct. There are certainly sacrifices when it comes to using Enfuse and window pulls is a big one. This is why your process should heavily depend on what type of work you are shooting and what types of areas you are working in. I live/work in the suburbs of NJ where views with required window pulls are few and far between so this really doesn’t ever present a problem for me. Also, the muddy window frames/sills are a problem and there are always a few images in a set that need to be worked on. A usually solve this by using a brush with a little boost in exposure and up the blacks. A quick brush around the window fixes 80% of this issue.

  • That’s a very good point about your typical home or area you are working dictating your style and workflow Dan.

    I don’t have an extreme amount of experience with an enfused based workflow, but reading your comment about how some images need to be massaged, I can’t help but think using a flash would not even necessarily slow you down in these cases. In fact it could even help speed things up in the end, while looking better. All you’d need is a small speedlight in your back pocket too, if used properly.

    Anyway, I’m not trying to change your mind but just thought a sort of hybrid approach is an interesting concept. Maybe on an average image you could handle with enfuse, and for those images that you know will need work in post you’d have to pull out the flash and put a little light on the window. You’d need to integrate Photoshop into the process to do this of course.

  • Yongnuo has a RF605 now that can be set to work with flash groups. I plan on picking up one or two in the near future. I might shoehorn a stripped down RF603 into my big battery powered strobe so I don’t have it dangling on the end of a cord. I can turn it on and off with the modeling light switch since I don’t use the modeling light.

    The YN560TX can also be used off camera. Put a RF603 or RF605 in the hot shoe with a remote trigger cable to the camera and you can keep the YN560TX remote in hand. This is a great set up if you use a CamRanger or other tablet/remote system.

    The RF602 protocol is not as well supported as the RF603. It’s probably better to stay away from the 602 when buying new gear and not trying to match up with components that you already have.

  • What is driving your real estate market HDR/enfuse or Flash images? Do you want your work to be better than your competitors? In my market most of the properties are shot in some form bracketing. So for three years I shot seven bracket HDRs’ just to stay competitive in my market. I never enjoyed the outcome of the images and the time for processing was crazy long even on two computers. So, for 2016 We switched to multiple off camera flashes. It takes me longer on site but my processing time is crazy short 15-30 minutes for each property with at least 36 images. The best part about switching was I shoot 40% more of the high end properties now. Quality of the flash images most likely the reason.

  • You can certainly ignore the light (or just “go with what’s there”) as a photographer, just as you could ignore issues around lenses, composition, or color. If you’re content to simply “take pictures” then all you really need to do is point the camera and shoot; this is what our clients do when they shoot their own listings.

    If, on the other hand, you want to MAKE your pictures, and have some level of control over what the end result will look like, then you’re going to have to find some way to be in control over the light. Subtractive lighting can get you part way there, but even that, combined with digitally massaging the remaining light, is not going to get the job done. Once in a while the existing light is going to be absolutely perfect just the way it is, and on those occasions you’re going to do very well. The question is, what excuse will you use when the existing light is crap, and your client is expecting greatness?

    The reason we use lights has less to do with exposure than it does with creating an intentional photo:
    http://blog.scotthargisphoto.com/why-we-light-things/

    It’s the difference between taking a picture, and making a photograph.

  • Oh my goodness Scott. A bad day? You may not have intended to be arrogant, but how you say what you are saying is certainly so and rather insulting to those of us with many decades of experience in all types of photography who are not “point and shooters” but make every exposure just the way we want it whether we use photographer added light or are simply experienced, trained and talented enough to work with what we have. I have worked in everything from photojournalism to elaborate set ups in large studio conditions using either flash or hot lights so have a long and varied past to draw on for real estate photography both inside and out. Try shooting a huge factory floor with half a dozen battery flashes – doesn’t work. Or worse, lighting a stadium with hundreds of flash bulb flashes. and 10 ASA 8×10″ sheet film. You have to draw on a much wider range of tools.

    I am saying that photographers should use whatever tools they feel will both get the job done in the best way they know how both for the best end result but also in respect to their market, their clients, the final use and last but not least their business model. And if that requires one or more little flashes, that’s just fine. Some like to have some mono lights, something I started using back in the early 1970’s when they first came out. I, for one, simply find that for my work flow and my end results, there are very few rooms that require me to add lighting. Now in your practice you obviously find the opposite is true and it is works for you, heck stick with it. But as I said above, equipment and particular technique is not a religion but a set of tools and everyone has to create the tool box that best suits their needs. And in doing so, just because you don’t add light does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that you are “ignoring the light”. You might be but you can also be experienced and knowledgeable enough to know how to work with the existing light and indeed on some occasions that professionalism lets you know that you will need to add light – as a last resort.

    And the same goes for the esthetic that says you need to have exterior exposures the same as the interior exposures so you can see the view. Personally, I don’t subscribe to that either since it looks like a poster was plastered on the outside of the windows and looks fake in the same way poorly flash lit interiors can look fake. When I was studying photography at the L.A. Art Center College of Design eons ago, the first thing we learned was to allow the exteriors to be 1.5-2 stops brighter than the interiors so that it was clear that the outside was, well, outside.

    And whoever said whites have to be pure white? Some take it as gospel. But what is pure white? But I would suggest that white is never pure white but always a tone down from pure white, which is the absence of color, but a form of grey with hints of other colors as well. Often more than just hints. Flash is supposed to clear up whites. Why? In my view, and it is just my view, I want to capture the ambience of a room as created by the designer and/or home owner with their choice of colors, woods, furniture, furnishing, flooring and lights. That is what I am trying to achieve. And if they have created a warm ambience, then I will let the room go slightly amber and let the whites follow suit. On the other hand, if the interior is ultra modern in the current tones of grey with black, silver, chrome etc. they I will cool off the color balance to match that ambience. I try to capture a feeling not a Kodak 18% neutral grey card.

    Lastly, as my mentor back in the early 1970’s explained to me as I was struggling to understand artificial lighting “to the photographer, light is his/her paint brush; some are fine like spot lights, others are middle wide while others are soft and caress like the sky on a cloudy day.” So I would agree with you that all professional photographs should be “intentional” but there are many ways to achieve that and not just with added flash. And no one needs to be chastised for not doing it in a certain fixed manner. Each finds their own way. That’s what makes us different with differing styles to offer our clients.

  • Great information here – I shoot for RE agents, but like many of us also Builders, Developers etc that require the best quality images and pay well for a longer more complicated shoot/more editing vs RE. I’m working towards more of that/less of RE. Like everyone I want to give the RE agents the best possible work in the shortest amount of time shooting/editing – really too much time because I don’t want subpar work out there for everyone to see.

    I’m currently redoing my website and looking through possible images to ad there and I’ve been studying my work – I switched from Enfuse to Lightroom HDR last year and find it better, but still don’t like the ‘muddy’ look or detail quality if you look closely or blow it up vs when I used to only use lighting and no HDR. For RE I’ve been using LR HDR for 3-7 ambient exposures and then in photoshop layering a flash layer (1/60th or higher shutter speed) on top of the finished HDR and in Layers turning that flash layer to color blend mode for color correction. A professional architectural retoucher that used to do my editing taught me his method for editing RE photographers work. For none RE work he used other methods depending on the shooting style of the photographer.

    Lately i’ve been shooting the same strong flash exposure to tame light flares and for the color correction layer/blend, but also using bounce fill flash for all the other exposures – better but one flash doesn’t cover well so i’m going to get a few more for bigger rooms – I don’t want average RE shoots to take longer than 1- ½ hrs (20 shots max). When shooting video I do both at each angle so I don’t need to go around twice.

    Do most of you agree that multiple speed lights is the best way to go and how long are you spending to deliver about 20 shots? What Yongnuos are the best to use for power output

  • Peter, I’m having a great day, thanks. But maybe you woke up with the urge to feel some righteous indignation, or something? I don’t recall directing any comments to you, but you sure heard your name. You’ve responded to a lot of things I didn’t address (and which no one else did, either), so I’ll assume that most of your post is about something else entirely, and directed at someone else, entirely.

    That said, if you’re making “…every exposure just the way [you] want it…” then you’re not really ignoring the light, are you? So a comment from me about photographers who simply “go with it” and blame the conditions when photos are poorly lit (which is different from poorly exposed) wouldn’t really apply to you, would it? Yet here you are…

    You can certainly make a business case for doing exclusively HDR/blending/etc. and never trying to introduce light. I think it’s actually a rather weak argument but lots of people operate that way. But regardless, it in-arguable that that leaves the photographer utterly at the mercy of existing conditions. Rather than pre-visualizing a result and then creating it, they’re only able to compress the dynamic range into something the camera can record. There’s a blinding patch of direct sun on the white bathtub? Too bad. The light is coming from behind the camera and flattening out the texture on the expensive wallpaper? Too bad. The sconce lights are so bright that the detail is lost? Too bad. You can certainly do some digital cooking and get a deliverable photo for which today’s client will pay you, and for some, that’s the ultimate goal. But it shouldn’t be confused with “Making” an image, with mindful intent. That’s all I’m saying.

    Photographers in other genres, including Architecture and Interiors, who use exclusively “available” light, (and there are many, many many who are unbelievably good at what they do), are masters at choosing the exactly the right time, even the right moment to shoot. They can guarantee a specific look, specific lighting conditions, and deliver them, every time. That doesn’t really fit in with the world of mainstream real estate photography, which is what this blog is about. I don’t think that Larry’s post, or the reader’s question he is trying to address, is really related to lighting huge factories (and why would you do that with “a half dozen battery flashes” – I really don’t understand your point there, at all. Did someone suggest that it should be done that way? Why are we even talking about lighting factories?!), or photojournalism, or huge stadiums with 8×10 film. I think those things are completely off-topic, actually. You can try to read my comments as if they are aimed at all sorts of things that they aren’t, but I’m still very confident that this is a blog about real estate photography, so when I comment, it’s with that in mind.

    So it’s good to remember that not everything is about me, or you. Sometimes things have nothing to do with us, at all.

  • The one thing I don’t understand coming from the stacking/hdr people is while they willingly choose their workflow, they keep complaining about “muddy look” and sacrificing windows. Why? Seriously, I don’t get it. So, you rather use time in postprocessing and pray so it “comes out” right, instead of making it there, on spot, with intent, in camera, using lights + minimal post time. Time-wise is pretty much the same, while outcome is significantly different. Why bother then?

  • Scott Hargis is a gift to my business. I love photographers in my area using HDR/blending! Flash stands outs in the muddy waters of bracketing. Windows? Never an issue. The only difference between HDR and flash is making the investment and learning how to use the flash (yes it was painful). Real estate photography is about getting the job done: In-Out-Deliver

    Scott Hargis you rock – Thank you for the contribution to my Photography!

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