Can HDR Processing Eliminate The Need For Lighting Equipment?

December 16th, 2007

Some say yes, some say no. Reader David Palermo sent me some of his recent work testing HDR processing for interiors. David showed me the following images:

David said:

“I have been thinking a lot about HDR images and how 99% of them just
don’t look realistic. Well, I have really worked on this and have
found that it is possible to make them look very very realistic.”

“Both were photographed with only available light and no fill in flash
or flash of any kind was used. These images look pretty much as my
eyes saw them. I am very encouraged by this. Also, HDR when
processed properly reduces noise in the shadows. At least that is
what I am finding out.”

David has been using both Photoshop CS3 and Photomatix for his header processing and getting very similar results from both.

I have to agree with David, these interior shots are very realistic. I’m encouraged to see people doing such realistic HDR images. I motivates me to try working with HDR more myself.

All the realistic interiors done with HDR processing recently slightly lower in contrast than the artificially lit interiors. I want to get them into Lightroom and work on the tonal cure so the images have more punch and contrast. Although I admit a “punchy” higher contrast image is not as realistic; it just works better as a marketing image.

As I mentioned to David, I find it interesting how photographers seem to be in two camps, those that abhor the amount of post processing that HDR images require and those that are passionate about the usage and prospects of HDR. Where are you?

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23 Responses to “Can HDR Processing Eliminate The Need For Lighting Equipment?”

  • It works well to sell foggy interiors. (please don’t mind my stupidity 🙂 )

    It’s indeed not really punchy : the problem is to fit a too large dynamic range in a pleasant one, not to record all the brightness values of a scene.

  • I shoot all my real estate with just HDR. Everyone loves the shots I get. I can shoot a place much quicker and don’t have the shadow problems that strobes and flashes often create. I know you can use multiples to reduce them, but that is a lot of setup time and I often don’t have that much time.

    My results tend to be much closer to these than the ones you often see that look fake. I tend to punch up the saturation and contrast a bit, as that is what the client is usually after.

  • I’ve done a couple really nice HDR shots, and a bunch of disappointing ones. I’m doing exactly the same thing each time but results seem to vary greatly.

    Anyone have an HDR walkthrough guide?

  • […] Source and Read More: Photography for Real Estate […]

  • No, HDR can’t replace the same effects one can get with lighting equipment, but it is a good substitute. I’m actually already working on a “guide” of sorts for this & other stuff specific to real estate photography. It’ll go live within the upcoming couple months.

    @Athol: results will vary b/c you’ll never see the exact same ambient lighting in real estate shoots. If you’re in a room with a window facing south in the middle of a clear, sunny day, you’ll likely have well over 10 stops of exposure difference between inside/outside. Move to the other side of the house w/ north-facing windows & you’ll have a different scenario b/c all the light coming in the windows will be reflected.

  • Joe makes a good point about the time involved. We’ve been shooting straight ambient light over the past couple years, ignoring HDR or strobed lighting. Yes, windows get blown out, but the emphasis has been on the interior scenes. It has worked so far.

    Why? We cover so much of a property (25-50 stills on average, excluding panoramas) that it would take ALL day to use strobes to shoot a property, whereas HDR requires more time on the production side, not to mention the added storage/processing requirements. We’re transitioning to HDR beginning in 2008, at least as a normal option, but careful considerations are being made to ensure our time doesn’t get sucked away providing a service agents desire but aren’t willing to pay for.

  • Hi all.

    Just a few notes. The images Larry posted here are not at all meant to be marketing images unless of course your client wants to show “realism”.

    This test was to see if I could do HDR images and make them look as closest to what my eyes saw when I was there. I am excited about this because I have succeeded. Though I often get excited and think I can photograph anything – I often run into problems later because I have said often – no two HDR scenes are alike and sometimes creating a realistic looking image is very difficult! I think I am getting better as these latest tests are proving but it’s still some hard work to get it just right.

    I actually use 3 HDR processing programs. The ones Larry mentioned and a program called FDRTools – (That’s not Franklin Delano Rosevelt by the way!). It’s Macintosh only and can produce some stunning results but I have a ways to go with it yet because I have not been able to produce as realistic images with it as I have CS3 and Photomatix.

    Another thing I mentioned to Larry and have read it here is that no two scenes are alike – unless of course you shot two scenes under the exact same lighting. Then you can use saved settings for both scenes.

    Here is one I did yesterday – I totally started from scratch and shot with HDR in mind. (I usually don’t shoot like that but from now on I will be adding this way of shooting to my tool chest!).

    And for comparison here is the best I could do with one single shot of the very same scene:

    Now, without a lot of expensive fill lighting I could not achieve what I did with HDR software. If you zoom in you can even see the oil rigs out on the horizon. (I live in Santa Barbara and we have about 9 of those ugly things directly south).

    The goal was to capture a high dynamic scene and create an image that was as close to what my eyes saw. Once I can achieve that I can always punch up contrast (to clear away those “foggy” interiors as Marc Lacoste mentioned.). to make it a more “marketable” image. Though that is so subjective!

    NOTE: These images are not meant to be “glamour” images! They are meant as tests to get as close to “reality” as possible!

    As you all know it’s easy to do those weird looking HDR images that you see all over the Web. It’s not as easy to make an image that looks like “reality” but once you do you can enhance from there and give your client what they want.

    I have tried to lived by the philosophy that when photographing a room, “Light it to make it look like you have not lit it!” It seems to work for me. With HDR you literally can do that!

    Now don’t get me wrong I love the look you can get by using external lighting sometimes but I don’t do a lot of real estate photography. I shoot a lot of hotels and ballrooms etc… and they usually want those rooms to look like they were intended to look. They spend a lot of money designing those rooms sometimes and their lighting is a big part of that. It’s important to give the client what they want and expect. And, once in awhile I will give them something they may not have expected and often they like that too!

    By the way if any of you are interested in learning more about HDR get this book for yourselves for Christmas. It’s a fantastic book!

    The book also has a great companion Web site:

    (And no I am not getting paid for that plug! Not even a free book!).


  • I have the book David mentioned & can second that recommendation.

  • David, you know I’m just too lazy to really try it myself so the only thing I can do is bashing people who have more enthusiasm than me 🙂

    To get to the point: adding more contrast on a 12-stop HDR is like compressing it down in a 8-stop image. So why not starting with a 8-stop image like the camera’s output? I’m exagerating, but I’m not too far away. (figures are for the discussion, they aren’t realistic)

    That’s the real challenge with interior photo: the dynamic range is larger than our own perception, even if our eye can . Say, your ceiling is painted white, so you understand it white. Then the blue sky outside can’t be more luminous? But it is. So you have to get your ceiling darker. But nobody wants a grey (understand: dirty) ceiling.

    The best examples should be paintings.

  • Mark,
    I think you raise an excellent point. I like the look I get with a masking approach (better than a HDR approach) so I can render the darker parts of the image bright and mask in a separate exposure of the very bright parts of the image that are rendered well exposed as well. The results are not realistic by any means but I like the look better than HDR.

    that shows examples of what I mean.

  • David,
    I notice that some of your examples were done with more than 3 frames. How important is this? Some cameras will automatically do a max of 3. Other will do more. I’m currently looking for the best camera for HDR photography.

  • PS on that last post. I’m also looking for the best workflow combination of panorama software and HDR. I want to do both seamlessly. Your comments please.

  • i’m impressed, very interesting post!

  • Mike: “I notice that some of your examples were done with more than 3 frames. How important is this? ” Well, as far as I know it’s important to pad each end of the dynamic range to eliminate noise. Typically, according to what I have read, you need to have 2 middle frames that have all (or most) of the pixels exposed properly. The samples you see that Larry posted were not shot properly for HDR… well not properly ENOUGH that is. They worked ok but I think I could have made one more at over-exposed end of things. The example here I shot specifically for HDR the “right” way. Meaning I went 4EV over. (There is a good technique for shooting any HDR scene in the book I mentioned earlier.). This example was my first attempt at this:

    I will post the 5 shots that went into making this file later today.

    Marc: Do my examples look “foggy”? They don’t here on my monitor. Maybe I need to re-calibrate my monitor. Hmmm… let me know…

    Also, Marc this beach scene ( just could not have been done with one shot. See here:

    Shot with a Canon 5D.

    If I expose for the background sky/water the foreground would be too dark. Sure I could use LightRoom’s “Fill Light” slider but it’d produce a lot of noise in the shadows which is unacceptable to me. I could also have lit it with a ton of lights but I don’t have that kind of lighting and it’d be very hard to make it look as realistic as I did with HDR techniques. What else could I do in a scene like this? I guess I could have done it like what Larry mentioned earlier – manually with the masking approach (and for years I have been doing that with good results). But if you look at the trees and the sky through the trees you just can’t get it to look as real without making most of the branches go too dark… that’s just too tedious for me. Right now since I am able to make these scenes look “real” I am excited (like a new toy!). so I am learning as much as I can with this and will apply it to a “real” job in January in Florida at a resort… that will be a real test for me. I am confident I can get MUCH better results using the HDR approach than I have ever been able to. We’ll see! Keep your fingers crossed!




  • As promised here are the shots for the HDR image:

    The yellow circles are where I metered. In the light image I wanted detail in the shadows – see yellow circle. In the dark image I wanted detail in the highlights so I metered on the brightest white cloud. I set my exposure on the light image and counted -2EV until I reached the setting in the dark image. I then used Photomatix to process the RAW images. I could have used Photoshop but like I mentioned earlier for some reason Photomatix worked better for me especially in the thin needly area on the pine trees. I then adjust contrast etc.. in Photoshop.

    I’d upload the Radiant file for you to play with but it’s 40MB.


  • Thanks for your follow-up David. My main point on HDR is my results weren’t as good as I hoped at first, and my disapointment leads to bitter. You’re more talented than me.

    It is a bit too much time for me, see from your first example; at down is your HDR result, on top is your second shot, with gamma and saturation adjusted to look similar:

    Your HDR is great to retain highlights, wahed out in the original photo, but it lacks a bit of the directionality of the light, and the adjusted version looks good enough for me.

    (Please don’t be offended by my lack of application, and poor usage of the english language subtilities.)

  • Marc – I was not offended at all! I prefer the bottom image because, except for the blue caused by white balance for tungsten, my eyes saw what you see there – well, very close anyway!

    HDR should preserve washed out whites as well as detail in the dark areas. AND as a bonus noise is eliminated. The combination of HDR processing with Photoshop should produce an image that is exactly what you see in a room. Using strobes produces a different look that is not “natural” at all. There are situations where strobes are “better” and situations were a more natural look is “better”.


  • Merry Christmas,

    I was following this discussion for a while in the forum, and to be honest, I find the use of HDR in professional real estate photography quite exciting. As an outsider, I have never heard about flashes, but it sounds like a cheat to me.

    In CG imagery we used to cheat the scene contrast all the time, simply because it is so easy to do. You have much more trouble with hardware and you can’t just disable the shadows of a light, so I imagine setting up flashes must be a big pain… But even for us CG artists, HDR is an enormous tool to “save an image in post”, which means to react to a client’s notes without much fuzz. Because we have the flexibility to do tune everything without a rerender (or reshoot).

    Christian Bloch

  • Hi Christian,
    I just purchased your book (The HDRI Handbook) about a week ago based on David’s recommendation above and I’m enjoying it very much! I’m hoping to learn how to consistently create HDR images that don’t have that strange “I’m a HDR image” look to them.

  • I’ve posted a sample of what I’m getting from HDR at, including a little bit of tech data.

    On realistic images – My early attempts years ago yielded just that, but refiement in my workflow (read as *patience and experimentation*) have gotten me to the point I use HDR whenever the subject will hold still enough for a bracketed burst.

    On time to produce the final image – My experience is that it’s a trade-off between lighting and post-production; your option. I might be a die hard lighting fan if I had the time to become really proficient. My HDRs helped a client win several custom builder awards in the high-end Washington, DC – MD – VA region, so I have no personal doubt about HDR being a viable way to deliver stunning images.

    Thanks for pushing the envelope on the art form with your discussion!


    Posting this revised URL because the comma I put after it in the last post gets picked up as part of the URL.

  • […] Cole recently left a comment on a HDR post that I did last December where he left a link to a tutorial that describes his technique for doing […]

  • […] Photography for Real State […]

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