Why Bother With Lighting Equipment?

January 23rd, 2007

Recently I was having a discussion with a local RE photographer friend about the pros and cons of using an external flash as opposed to using natural light. The discussion arose because of the images my friend had seen of the Sam Hill Mansion (an old Historic Seattle land mark) that is currently for sale. My friend claims that all the images on the listing (click on the photo above to browse through all the images) are done with natural light only. I’m not sure who the photographer is.

After looking through the images carefully I think my friend is right. On some of the windows you can see evidence that the windows are a separate PS layer because the edges of the windows are not perfect. That is, if you don’t use lighting equipment to raise the light level inside the room to near the light level outside you have to combine two images, one exposed for the windows and one exposed for the interior.

I’ll have to say, the style of the Sam Hill images is distinctive and have a certain elegance. They have a desaturated, soft look. This soft, desaturated look is I think, a result of not adding any artificial light. I can see where many people would like this understated, elegant look for marketing photos. I think it is interesting to compare these images to the Thomas Bliss image I featured a few months ago. Two very different styles and a whole different level of work making each style of image.

One needs to understand the amount of Photoshop work that is involved with this technique when there are windows in the scene. For example, to get shadow detail on the near side of the bathtub (darkest part of image) and highlight detail in the distant clouds (brightest part of image) you have to use photo-editing gymnastics.

The main point I wanted to get across is that for real estate photography, there is a trade off you have to make between carrying lighting equipment and spending time in Photoshop. The less lighting equipment you carry the more time you’ll have to spend in Photoshop to get a use-able image. My guess is that Thomas travels with a pick-up truck load of lighting gear! An the photographer that shot the Sam Hill Mansion spends a huge amount of time in PS to get good looking windows.

What I advocate for Realtors and RE photographers that have to shoot a home in 1 to 2 hours is to carry an external flash unit and a tripod. Use the external flash unit most of the time to minimize the amount of Photoshop work you have to do when you get back to the office and use the tripod for that kitchen full of stainless steel appliances that want to cause reflections no matter what you do.

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31 Responses to “Why Bother With Lighting Equipment?”

  • Well, I’m a big proponent of using several off-camera lights. The photos in the ‘Castle’ look pretty bad to me…. lots of contrast, and it looks like the photographer did a LOT of dodging and burning, and not very subtly, either… Not to mention the time spent pasting in new windows and such.

    For me, I’d rather be behind my camera, not in front of my computer. Another point is that these photos would look even worse on MLS, which is where most RE photos end up – I find that MLS tends to increase the contrast in an image.

  • I’m with Scott (Strobists will rule!) for the “more camera, less computer” approach: it’s fast and adapted to homes selling. But the bath with a view is appealing :). It should have been hard to make the same with strobes: it’s possible to overpower daylight with fast synch speed -the D70/50/40 are winners here- but getting a natural look hard.

  • Marc, what is it about the D70/50/40 that makes it good for synch?

  • I’ll go the other way on this one and say that I am not a big fan of using flashes (on or off camera) as the MAIN lighting source in real estate photos taken in daylight. Maybe as a little fill, but not to nuke the room to compete with the afternoon light coming through the windows. I’d rather photoshop.

    As for synch speed – I think that the D50/70/40 have virtually unlimited synch speed because their shutters are electronic above 1/250. That is, the actual shutter curtain is not capable of higher speeds, so it’s just the sensor turning on and off. I can only do 1/250 with my D200 before the shutter coming down shows up in the image, but I can do 1/1,000 with my D50 because the shutter is still up when the sensor turns off.

  • Thanks, Aaron!

  • I’ve seen fabulous interior photography using artificial light and fabulous interior photography using ambient light with perhaps a lot of photoshop work. It’s comes down to personal preference and what you think works best for you. I started with ambient light but I couldn’t get my photos to look as good as with the use of flash. Personally, I love the freedom of moving around a house without a tripod. It is much faster and offers more flexibility. But I do keep a tripod with me and occasionally will use it where I think ambient light may work better. If I were shooting more serious interior photography (more time, more money), I’d still be using artificial light if only very subtly. One drawback to using flash is that my flash malfunctioned (went to TTL from ETTL) on me yesterday and I had only done it once before with the same realtor a couple months ago. I know she has a magnetic personally but she’s screwing up my flash! Somehow it got back into ETTL and I had to use manual mode, but I decided to order another flash today to have as a back up.

  • Scott, Aaron –

    Well, I did my first ‘free’ shoot a couple days ago. I used the SB600 on camera with a diffuser. I think I’ll need the 800 🙂 The living room was really dark, didn’t have much of anything as far as interior lights, and huge windows looking outside. I shoot everything in manual mode, f5.6, varied shutter speed, with the flash on TTL, usualy cranked up to about +1.7 or +2.

    I’ve posted some pics here – – if someone wouldn’t mind looking them over, and offer suggestions…? that would be great. Thanks again for all the advice here.

  • Aaron,
    I was looking at the 6th image your Porfolio page on, the sun room image. This looks like a challenge to do without artifical lighting. Would you mind commenting on how you produced this image? How much time in Photoshop do you spend on an image like this?

  • Karl,
    In the images that include windows, for my taste, the windows dominate attention too much. This is the classic problem (bright, distracting windows). To drop the windows down in brightness you could go higher on the flash or shoot a couple of exposures from a tripod, register as layers in Photoshop and then blend lower intensity windows with the interior exposure. Or if you have control of the schedule you could shoot at twlight when the light level outside is very near that inside.

    There would also be the benifit of being able to see more of the patio situation that is outside since the patio is an an important architectual feature of the home.

    The images without windows look good.

  • Karl – When I am using flashes, everything is on manual. I believe this is how Scott does it as well. Mark (is that you Mark Reibman?) is the man to ask about on-camera TTL. He is one of the few people who takes great pictures with on-camera flash IMHO. I can’t even tell that you have a flash going in the pictures. Where is it pointed? I would put the flash on manual (I didn’t think that TTL even worked unless the flash was pointed straight ahead?), set it to the highest output possible and then tweak the camera settings to get the exposure right.

    You NEED to have your e-mail and a PHONE NUMBER on your site! Not once has an agent ever made first contact with me via e-mail. Real estate agents do their business over the phone. If you had an e-mail address, I would send you a little “makeover” that I did of one of your images. Do you have Photoshop? It is an absolute must.

  • Larry – The “sunroom image” is a single exposure using natural light. At the time, I was shooting jpeg (I shoot in raw now) so I took about 5 shots at different shutter speeds with the plan of either a)merging two together or b)getting one shot where I could bring up the shadows and not have it look too crappy. I went with option “b.” Besides the usual Photoshop adjustments, I masked the ceiling so when I adjusted the color cast (WB) of the light, I wouldn’t mess with the blue sky of the ceiling.

    This shot was taken when I didn’t have the option of lighting. If I shot it again I would try popping a flash in there…NOT to get more detail from outside the windows (I like partially blown out windows), but to brighten the room a little and preserve detail in the shadows.

  • Hi Karl,

    First, great work on scoring the test shoot! That said, I’d echo what Aaron said — I think that relying on ttl meant that your camera was seeing the bright windows and trying to average out the exposure between the highlights (windows) and shadows (furniture, usually). Thus, the flash was firing at a very low output because the camera was seeing all that light in the windows. Better to run everything on manual and chimp like crazy. And shoot raw – you’ll have the option of adjusting your exposures later if need be.

    Your compositions are good, I think your lens is wide enough, and if you can get that second flash running, you’ll be in really good shape! Some of these shots can be brightened in CS2 using the Shadow/Highlight and Levels. But even just the on-camera flash should be able to illuminate those rooms more.

  • Karl,

    I worked over a few images in CS2, using Shadow/Highlight & Levels (and color balance in a couple instances) and posted the results here:

    Bringing things up this far makes them a little harsh, but you get the idea.

    If it helps, I usually shoot at ISO 200, f/5.6 or so, and between 1/200 and 1/30 depending on whether I’m blowing out the windows or keeping them.

  • OK! I added in my email and phone # 🙂

    I did shoot in RAW, and used Shadow/Highlight as much as I could without adding shadow noise. I’ll shoot manual in flash next time, see if that helps. Sometimes, I had the flash straight up, othertimes, had it pointing into the room. I have the LightSphere dome on it. I wish I could have spent a little more time in the guy’s house – he needed to get back, and besides, I was a bit nervous acting like I knew everything I was doing! Much different in a strangers home than your own…

  • I think the lightsphere will do really well.

    In some rooms you may get better results aiming the flash bare-bulb at the ceiling and bouncing down on the room. Bathrooms and kitchens especially, since everything in there is so shiny and reflective.

  • This sure is a lively discussion and I might as well give my two cents worth.

    I classify myself as a real estate photographer and have no desire to compete with the architectural photographer and what he does. I shoot everything with a single flash, mounted on the camera. Most of my images are a result of a direct flash and a few of kitchens, baths, and smaller bedrooms are a bounce flash. I have seen excellent results from photographers who shoot natural light, but most of it is bad. There is no excuse for a Professional Photographer to deliver an image of a room with blown out white blobs where the windows should be, dingy shadows, and bad color balance. I try to make the rooms look bright with as much detail as possible, for the same reason the Realtor turns on all the lights when he/she shows the home. I think the sync speed might be over rated, but not by much. I shoot most of the real estate with a Nikon D-100, Sigma 12-24mm, and a Vivitar 285 flash. I think the top sync speed with the D-100 is 1/180 sec. I also have a D-200, but use it mainly for other projects. Digital gives me options I could never have with film and if I were shooting with film, I probably wouldn’t do it this way.

    I rarely spend more than thirty minutes photographing a home, with exceptions for large expensive properties with lots of amenities. I don’t use a tripod very often, but I do have it with me and will drag it out if the situation demands.

    I agree with Scott about not spending too much time with the post processing. I have PhotoShop actions to automate most of the post processing, but I take the time to straighten vertical lines on everything but balcony shots. The Shadow/Highlight feature in CS2 is my magic button and really saves a lot of time.

    I have examples on my website,, and I don’t present them as works of art, but as photographs that will help market a home.

  • Yes Aaron,

    I am Mark Reibman. I did start shooting natural light on a tripod initially but Larry encouraged me to try flash and I’ve been happier with the results. I point the flash head up or straight ahead depending upon the circumstances. So many people are painting the ceilings darker colors these days (and with sheen!) That I have to shoot straight ahead or work things out in photoshop. Sometimes I am surprised by how well the flash works but much of it is helped along in Photoshop.

    In some ways, the larger and more expensive homes are easier to shoot. The challenge is getting nice shots of the humble abodes. And I shoot many of those.

    Aaron, I think you are doing fabulous work. Kris Dirk also shoots without a flash and his work is really good as well. I still do vacillate about flash, no flash. The real estate photographer in Seattle who got going a few years ago and someone dominates the local with his son and assistants shoots without a flash. Sometimes it works well, sometimes it doesn’t.

    Karl, Congrats on finally putting your contact info on your home page. I’d make it even bigger if you can.

  • Some examples of what’s possible with one on-camera flash, and 3 or 4 off-camera flashes can be seen here:

    Nearly all of these images get a Shadow/Highlight, a Color Balance, and Levels in CS2. I shoot with the Canon 14mm rectilinear, so if I’m diligent about leveling the camera, I don’t have to do much perspective correction. None of these shots required a tripod. None are HDR, none have layers or cut-and-paste windows.

  • Scott,
    Very nice work! I assume that your setup is to slave the off-camera units to the on-camera flash and use ETTL mode? Do you use all 580ex’s?

    Do you sit the off camera units around the room on existing objects or do you carry extra lighting stands?

  • Thanks, Larry

    Close. I use cheap radio triggers, and cheap flashes, mostly old Nikon units. Anything with manual control will do. I do have a 430EX for on-camera. I cut off the bottoms of rubbing alcohol bottles and make my own diffuser caps. I’m a cheapskate!
    Everything is done in manual mode, and the flashes are on Slik SVD-20 stands (cheap, lightweight, quick release plate, small footprint so they’re easy to hide). I carry one flash in my hip pocket to put on the floor behind a piece of furniture when necessary.

  • Scott,

    Wow! I just love those shots. You’ve got some beautiful homes to shoot and you do a fantastic job of lighting. In a few of your photos you’re ceilings are blasted pretty bright. I think I like it but I might tone it down to see how it works. But that’s very subjective. Some photographers seem to like a dark look as it creates a certain mood. Realtors tend to like thinks bright and they’re not usually interested in creative mood lighting. If you’re shooting these for realtors, I hope they are paying you well!

    Now you’ve got me hot to try some set ups like you’re doing. And all with flash!

    Where do you get your cheap radio triggers?

  • Hi Mark,

    Yeah, I’m working on the hot ceiling issue… it comes up mostly in places that have curved plaster cove ceilings. They’re really great because it’s like having a giant white satin umbrella overhead, but they definately show up hot. I have a couple of ideas about this, I’ll see how they work next time it comes up.

    The radio triggers I use are sold on eBay under the name Magic Trigger. Also popular are ones made by GadgetInfinity. Tons of information (more than you’ll want, actually) is on the Strobist Flicker site.

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  • Shooting raw won’t solve anything : it’s the outside/inside light ratio, not the exposure which needs tweaking.

    The Nikon i-TTL works pretty well. In most cases, it chooses the same settings as me in manual in 1/100 the time and hassle. The Canon e-TTL is less reputed. I have to try the Nikon CLS wireless to see if it does well in full auto.

    Too bright ceilings are distracting, even more because shooting levelled to get vertical verticals brings a lot of ceiling in the frame. Plus with an ultra-wide angle, you can see the walls (I often shot from the outside, with a remote) so there isn’t any place to put the light reflectors. So the only place left to put a flash is on the camera. And then I see the shadow of the chandelier each time.

    But on camera lighting, with its characteristic look of fading with the distance doesn’t satisfy me. Reducing the field of view to put some lights isn’t satisfying neither because I need to sell a big place :). Vicious circle.

    As for the D70/50/40, they have an unlimited X-sync (but it’s useless after 1/500 because the duration of the flash burst itself is nearly that) because below 1/90s the shutter is entirely electronic. Here is a demonstration of its usefulness :
    The point isn’t to nuke everything, but to have extended choices. Note that I was 4 meters away from the wall, one would need that power for bigger rooms.

  • Not to get in to a raw vs. jpeg argument again… but: “Shooting raw won’t solve anything.” I disagree. Shooting raw allows one to preserve more shadow and highlight information, thus allowing one greater flexibility to adjust shadow and highlight levels, thus allowing one to tweak the outside (highlights)/inside (shadows) light ratio.

    The issue of flash synch is pretty much an academic discussion when it comes to shooting interiors with small speedlights. I can shoot directly in to the morning sun at 1/250 and f16 and still get decent fill with an on-camera SB-24 at full power. If I planned on doing this often (which I don’t) I’d just buy another/stronger strobe.

    That said, I don’t even know why a digital camera even needs a physical shutter. I’m sure that in 10 years (or less) there will be some new, better way to protect/expose the sensor to light than a little door made of black fabric.

  • You get 3% more overhead with raw for such a thing. The corrections will be marginal. If it starts to matter, it’s because there was an error shooting the actual picture and it’s beyond the recoverable.

    The sync speed isn’t only an academic discussion. Camera manufacturers wrestle to gain a few hundreds of seconds. Having two or three times the external/internal light ratio liberty matters more than the 3% gain from raw. Since I’m willing to assert what I say, I will shoot an example of shadow recovery tomorrow.

    Getting a stronger strobe isn’t a very good solution, because stronger means wired, and it’s not the good KIS way for our work. But adding another strobe is good, it solves the range problem and diffuses more the added light.

    I’m not sure about the future made of electronic shutters : new cameras are using mechanical shutters while older DSLRs like the 6Mpix Nikons, the Canon EOS 1D or the Nikon D1 were electronic. I regret that.

  • Marc – I will concede the raw vs jpeg debate to you. Shooting raw does not make that big a difference. However, considering that it costs me almost nothing in the way of time or money to shoot in raw, I see no reason to let the camera degrade the original image in to a jpeg when I can do it myself later if and when I want. Every so often, a client needs a .tiff as well.

    My point with synch speed is that it’s not that important (like raw vs jpeg) when discussed in the context of real estate photography. It ranks low on my personal hierarchy of needs of things that help me take better images. This is what I mean by “academic.” I just have not encountered any instances where setting my camera beyond 1/250 and f18 or so and using a single on-camera flash has produced acceptable results when shooting real estate. Even in broad daylight, those settings underexpose the sky in my opinion. Above these settings, the ability of the flash comes in to play more than the synch limits of the camera. I’d rather hold a second flash in my other hand than up the shutter speed. This would still be keeping with KIS way of working.

    You use on camera flash more than me so maybe you have some anecdotes to share of when you needed higher synch. Maybe if I were shooting indoor sports or something where I had to open up and increase shutter speed to freeze action. Or maybe if I were getting paid to shoot something like !

    The fact that most pro cameras can’t synch above 1/250 suggests that it’s a fairly low priority to most as well (I am, of course, speculating on this). Perhaps the durability and reliability of mechanical shutters outweigh the cost of a reduced flash synch.

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