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Bracketing With Flash For Exposure Fusion and HDR

December 8th, 2016

efplusflashI’m amazed by the number of people I talk to that are shooting brackets for Exposure Fusion and HDR that don’t use flash. If you shot brackets a single flash simplifies your post-processing! Over the years I’ve gotten a number of questions asking how to shoot brackets with flash. Below is my approach.

The first question is: Why? What’s the point of using flash when you are shooting brackets? You thought the reason you shot bracketed exposures was so you didn’t have to use flash, right? Well, the fact is that when you use HDR or Enfuse for interiors you tend to get low contrast results. That is, the blacks are not as black as you’d like and the whites are not as bright and crisp as you’d like. The term that comes to mind is muddy colors and dirty whites. You also have issues with white balance. It turns out that if you add a kiss of fill light from a single flash, it solves these problems. If you add a little flash to your brackets you don’t have to spend as much time and effort in post-processing getting rid of muddy colors and dirty whites.

Also, adding a touch of flash to bracketed shots can be done without having to “climb to the top of the learning curve” for full blown multi-off camera flash technique. There is a discussion in the PFRE HDR & Blending discussion group on this subject. Here’s my summary of how to bracket with flash:

  1. Setup your bracketing as normal (on a tripod, aperture priority and exposure bracketing -2,0,+2) except add a manual off camera flash. For the shot above I used a Nikon SB-80dx triggered by a Cactus V2 Wireless flash trigger. The transmitter end of the Cactus trigger was in the hot shoe of my Canon 5D MkII with it’s trigger cord plugged into the 5D’s PC connector. The SB-80dx had a Cactus receiver connected to it.
  2. Set the drive mode to single shot so that you have to release the shutter for each of the three bracket shots. This is to make sure that the flash has time to recycle between each bracket shot.
  3. Use a remote shutter release so you don’t have to touch the camera body. I used the Canon TC-80N3 although you could probably get by just touching the shutter release button if you are careful and your tripod is sturdy.
  4. Aim the flash either towards the ceiling, a blank wall or the joint between the ceiling and the wall so that the light from the flash creates a large, soft fill light. On my example above I had the SB-80dx sitting on the top of a media cabinet, camera right, pointing at the ceiling. The ceiling is diffusing the light out in all directions so there aren’t many shadows.
  5. Adjust the power on the flash manually (somewhere between 1/8 and 1/1 – same power for all three bracketed shots) so that you get a good set of 3 histograms (you want the histograms high but not clipped histograms together to fill up the available histogram space. -2 will be left, 0 will be center, and +2 will be right).

To summarize: This technique adds the same constant level of flash with a single flash to each of the three brackets you shot. This fill flash is improving the quality of the light so that the whites are whiter and the blacks are blacker. This same technique works similarly with either brackets used for HDR processing or brackets processed as Enfuse.

For those that are already shooting brackets with flash, I’m sure you’ll be able to add refinements or variations to this technique.

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12 Responses to “Bracketing With Flash For Exposure Fusion and HDR”

  • Hello,

    with this technique, at the end you would not have a ambient layer right? Unless you shoot 2 series of brackets (3 ambient & 3 flash) and then combine them?

  • I see how this would be great for a bedroom. But what about if you are shooting a den and see the kitchen in the background. Do you add a light in the kitchen for the brackets?

  • I’ve been adding flash to my brackets for awhile now, but haven’t quite figured out the amount of flash I should be adding … across the entire bracket of exposures, the flash doesn’t contribute much at the shadow end (long exposure), but at mid-bracket and the highlight end (short exposure), it’s “presence” is obvious and helps “bring up the shadows” in these exposures where without the flash, the shadows would go black. Where I’m struggling is to figure out just how much helps versus hinders, i.e. too much flash. What should I be looking for?

    Beth Johnson brings up a great point that comes up with open floor plans. I’ve been adding additional flashes to light up these other areas too, but sometimes i seem to be doing more harm than good. This comes back to my question above…

    Last point/question I have is related to the final “brightness” of the delivered image. Enfuse does a great job of delivering an image that captures a broader exposure range than a single exposure can deliver and the images seem very true to the room as-it-is. The challenge is then to brighten the room to the level that realtors want. Regardless of approaches, braketed-with-flash or Hargis-flash, I don’t seem to be able to get a look that doesn’t show the tell-tail signs of flash …

  • Brady,
    I have been watching a lot of Rich Baum’s video’s on Youtube and he uses an ambient layer with a 3-5% opacity brush in Photoshop to tone down the “flashy” look.

  • Do you set the white balance to “flash”?

  • I bracket all my real estate shoots, mainly to clean up the color and add contrast. Three brackets one stop apart, bounce flash, auto WB, exp fusion. Manual exp settings, manual flash power. Separate bracket for ambient to mask in post… might have to adjust WB on the ambient shot to make it look right. This works great for light colored ceilings, have to flash differently for dark or wood ceilings. https://scottdphotos.smugmug.com/Other-2/Jay-Los-Altos-proofs/n-6QrrGk/

  • Oh the other reason I shoot this way is to get good window pulls. Faster shutter speed + bounce flash + masked ambient to remove flash hotspot and shadows.

  • Beth – Ironic, I have been reviewing Rich Baum’s videos lately too! Layering in an ambient shot is something I have been experimenting with on the last couple of shoots, but I haven’t got my technique down sufficiently that I can completely abandon the bracketing necessary for Enfuse. As I introduce more and more flashes into my shooting, I’m hoping to move away from the intense post-processing that I end up doing with Enfuse (adjusting the highlights before Enfuse and then brightening the room after Enfuse.) Don’t get me wrong, Enfuse has enabled me to deliver better quality than a lot of my competition, but at a big cost in processing time.

    All of my training on Enfuse has been through Simon’s eBook and I’ve found it quite informative, but I do have a question for everyone regarding the span and step size of their bracketing. I believe Simon suggests a single stop as a step size and the number of exposures within the bracket being driven by your histogram — being sure you have a range of shots that assure you a shot without clipped shadows up to a shot that has no highlights clipped. For me this means for shots with exterior windows, I might need brackets of between 5 and 7 shots (occasionally 9 on a really bright day). At 1 stop per image, a 5 image bracket would have the equivalent exposure range of a 3 image bracket where the step is 2 stops each.

    This is a gross simplifications, but it the simple answer “add flash until the longest exposure (exposing for the shadows) is within 5 stops of your shortest exposure (exposing for the hightlights)?”

  • @Scott
    Your final bracketed shots look great. How do you process the brackets – Enfuse, Photomatix, LR? And do you always blend in an ambient in PS?

  • Thanks Robert… Photomatix batch, exp fusion. Always working in PS…

  • Hi @scott.

    Do you export the edited raw files to photomatix, or do you process the raw filled first and then import the jpg files to photomatix? The reason why I’m asking is the speed time, batching and I think the results look quite different sometimes?

  • Nick I shoot only JPEG for standard RE shoots, then batch the entire folder in PM. Since I’m not working with RAW files that means I have to set WB manually for shots where AutoWB is off. So that means I don’t do lens correction in LR, I do it in the batch process with a relatively unknown PC utility called ShiftN. And I know that all sounds so old fashioned and untrendy… but all the batching happens on my laptop in my car… as I’m driving to the next shoot. I get home and just do final masking and other PS work. And btw I wouldn’t recommend doing it the way I do it… only because once you develop an efficient way to shoot and process single RAWs, you will be way ahead of the game.

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