HDR Images For Real Estate Photography

November 27th, 2007

Some discussions I’ve had in the last week about HDR processing of real estate photos and some articles I’ve run across have got me thinking about how HDR fits into real estate photography.

Anyone that has shot 360 panoramas will immediately appreciate the importance of HDR as a technique to control brightness in a situation where you must lock your exposure for all shots yet in one of the shots you have to shoot into the sun and another you have to shoot away from the sun. HDR is an clearly and important technique for panographers. As shown by the recent addition of HDR processing into PTgui PRO, the grand old 360 stitching application.

There seem to be a number of photographers also using HDR to shoot interiors to eliminate carrying lighting equipment or to avoid having to learn to use lighting equipment. The thing that has bothered me in the past about HDR is it seems you can always instantly spot a HDR image. The HDR typical look is either “grungy” (the walls look like they need scrubbing) or “radioactive” (the space looks like it will be another 1,000 years before its safe to go in). I think either of these looks may be appropriate for creative photography where you are trying for an unusual look. But not for real estate photography.

There is a middle ground though. The image above, by Joe Noel, from the PFRE photo discussion group last week is a great example that shows it possible to use HDR that doesn’t have the typical HDR look. In the discussion of this photo people thought that Joel use flash until he pointed out that he didn’t. I’ve noticed that these “normal” looking images produced with HDR processing have a soft look to them with not an abundance of crisp whites or an abundance of deep blacks but plenty of mid-tones. Another way of characterizing the look is that they have a wide-full histogram. This is the histogram for the image above:

I guess this makes sense since that’s what HDR is about; taking a wide range of tones and mapping them into a smaller histogram. It’s not surprising then, that there are an abundance of mid-tones. This same “soft” look that comes from an abundance of mid-tones is present in Kevin’s HDR processed 360 images from eSiteTour that I showed a few posts ago.

So my main point of all this is that for real estate photography it is important to shoot for “normal” looking images that don’t have the “grunge” or the “radioactive” look because either of these “looks” will distract the viewer from the the main purpose of the photo: the property.

A secondary point is that if you don’t like the characteristic soft, full histogram, look of normal HDR image you can give them more punch by using Lightroom or Photoshop to move the tone curve of the final image to look the way you want.

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13 Responses to “HDR Images For Real Estate Photography”

  • I went looking for the HDR functionality in PTGUI (I have a registered version, and it’s the latest v7.3)… but couldn’t find it.

    After referring to the help, it says that HDR is only available in PTGUI Pro.
    Larry, you may want to edit your blog and add the word ‘Pro’, as these are two different PTGUI products.

  • Adam,
    Thanks. Yes, I meant PTgui Pro.

  • I like many others have fallen into the deep hole of HDR its almost like an addiction making me see in HDR most of the time. this technique is especially useful for exteriors. once i figured it out and got some decent software it is the only way to shoot especially pairing it with raw files converted to .dng in lightroom. i have used it inside many times but do not always get great results. but shooting for a decent exposure and then processing it as a single file HDR is always helpful too.

  • I have been using Photomatix Pro and think it it great for external shots. I have not been able to combine it well with panoramas for external or internal shots. I’d like opinions about the virtues of PTgui Pro. Will it really do HDR of panos? By this I mean: I want to take three shots of each frame at different exposures. Then I want PTgui Pro (without much help) to do the stitching and HDR tone mapping and give me a great result.

  • Mike,
    I can tell you more after I upgrade my 3 year old version of PTgui to PTgui Pro (probably this weekend). Kevin at that I did a post on a few days ago uses the HDR features in PTgui PRO to do his tours (for example: as well as all the other examples on his site is done with PTgui PRO). Kevin says he likes it but it doesn’t have as many option slides as Photomatix.

    I believe you can get a trial version of PTgui Pro.

  • We did quite a few direct comparisons between HDR and RAW when working on the tour at and found that we wound up getting the best results with the RAW files. We just weren’t able to tweak the color and lighting enough in Photomatix to get realistic enough coloration. The main exceptions would be for exterior tours at twilight where you capture the interior lights through the windows or rooms with large windows that could be potentially washed out in sunlight. In the future, we will most likely be using RAW for 90% our 360s. You can always adjust the exposure in a raw converter and throw them into Photomatix after the fact. We find, however that lowering the exposure and bumping up the fill light in the raw converter typically will create a similar, more accurate look.

  • Larry,
    Using RAW files currently isn’t an option for me. I’m very interested in your review/opinions about PTgui PRO. I’m confused about whether its OK to shoot everyting as jpg files. Or is it really necessary to start with TIFF.

  • Mike,
    No, you don’t have to use RAW file with PTgui. Matt was just saying that you get better results if you shoot RAW because you are able to adjust things like white-balance, exposure before you start stitching.

    PTgui will take jpg as input.

    Also, you don’t need PTgui PRO to do HDR panoramas. All you need to do is to do 3 stitches of your images: one on each of -2 set, normal set and +2 set resulting in 3 panos then use Photomatix on the 3 panos. I’ve done that a lot with blending and masking but it will work with Photomatix too.

  • Larry,
    Understand. But the process is laborious. For example, after doing three stitches (one for each exposure), I’m still not ready for HDR processing. The resulting images aren’t exactly the same size. Photomatix doesn’t like that. I have to resize them to exactly match. After that I can combine them in Photomatix. I’d like to have one program that combines the best of pano stitching and HDR development. I’m hoping its PTgui PRO.

  • Mike,
    When I stitch 3 different panos with identical images (except for exposure) and identical control points with PTgui I get 3 identical panos.

  • Larry,
    I have experimented with interior HDR and panoramas of same. I have no acceptable results. Anything you can offer or refer me to would be appreciated. At the same time, I feel I’m getting great results for exterior shots. So how do I create more “dymamic range” for interior photos?

  • @Mike,
    See my post from back in March of this year on how to do HDR panoramas with Photomatix:

    This post gives two examples done with Photomatix:
    as I recall each of the 3 shots had -2EV, 0, +2EV
    And one stitched with one just the 0 EV images

    I’m not sure what the Photomatix parameters were because Kevin created the HDR pano and I created the non-HDR pano.

    On this use of HDR I like the non-header version better because the HDR version had the “grungy” look.

  • The problem is that I’m seeing far too many RE photographers going overkill on the HDR. The whole point of HDR is to bring out important details where they would otherwise be lost in shadows or highlights.

    But when you completely eliminate the shadows and highlights, you lose other important information, like texture and a sense of depth/space. You end up in a flat, semi-neon, cartoon world.

    I think this listing perfectly illustrates what I think is really shabby and amateurish use of HDR — for a multimillion dollar listing!

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