What is Exposure Fusion?

July 8th, 2011

As a result of the post I did yesterday taking a poll on the lighting techniques that real estate photographers use, a couple of readers asked, “what is Exposure Fusion?

The short answer is: Exposure Fusion (EF) is a slightly different way to process bracketed images just like you would shoot for HDR. Exposure Fusion results in more realistic looking images that is usually possible with HDR.

Photomatix (the most popular software used for processing HDR) has an option built-in to use Exposure Fusion instead of HDR.

Kevin McNeal has a good long answer over at his blog

Because in real estate photography, you want your interiors to look as realistic as possible, most real estate photographers are using EF for interiors instead of HDR. HDR makes more sense for landscape photography or gendre’s where you want images to look less realistic. As you can see from yesterday’s poll compared to the similar poll that I did in 2008 there has been a noticeable shift away from HDR in real estate photography because HDR takes a lot of work in post to deal with the results you get when there are multiple light sources. If you are shooting many properties a day, HDR will force you to spend all your evenings doing post processing. Combining EF and flash reduces your time spent in post. Multiple off-camera manual flash reduces post even more.

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17 Responses to “What is Exposure Fusion?”

  • Holy cow, I am a convert! I avoided EF because I thought the images looked too simple, which was just a way of saying more real than the post-processing look I have come to expect from HDR. Maybe the right balance is HDR processing for the outdoor shots and EF for interiors. I will be trying that approach on my next shoot.

  • @RL: You’re correct, that is the right balance if one uses AEB. The results for the interior will be much cleaner with EF. But the trade off is this; sometimes you’ll notice that with EF, the interior shots lack that “snap” and can look a little mottled. My recommendation is to figure how to tweak the blacks, contrast, clarity, and curves so that you can add the “snap” back into the image.

    One other thing about exterior shots. Always make an effort to capture the exterior of the house when there are cloud formations in the sky that precede a blue sky. The cloud formations bring the image to a whole new level. Actually, that would make for a good theme one month on PFRE…”Exterior shots with stunning cloud formations”

  • Do people use raw files NEF or CR2 or JPG when they process their exposure fusions?

  • That comment makes me sound horribly uneducated with regards to file formats, but you can rest assured that I am aware both of my horrible punctuation use and the difference between raw and jpeg formats! 😉

  • @Mike- JPGs work just fine but CR2s and NEFs give you some latitude for making mistakes and still being able to recover.

  • @TFJr — Thanks for the advice. I agree on the cloud formations in the sky. I am sometimes disappointed by the sky in the shots when there aren’t clouds in the sky to add the right element, but I can usually work if there is enough of a blue sky to play with.

    Any thoughts on whether real estate agents, who are now used to the HDR look, will feel that EF shots are missing the HDR look they have come to identify as the look for listing photos?

  • I struggle as well with my images not having that “snap”

    Yesterday I was editing a shoot and after making initial tweaks in Bridge and then batch capturing with Photomatix it seemed as if almost all of my shots needed to come up a solid full stop in exposure (after the EF process)

    For those of you using photomatix and EF, is there a setting to help compensate for this .. to provide some additional snap to the images?

    have a great day all!

  • I made the shift to Exposure Fusion last year and I do find it to provide a more photorealistic result. I still use HDR from time to time but only if I want a more creative look. What has really been liberating is not using either and doing the blends manually using layer masks, especially for exteriors. I’ve found that I was rendering an HDR/EF blend when all I really needed was to pull the sky back in or bring some detail back into a shadowy area. By doing some quick tweaks in ACR and then blending two or three exposures from a bracket manually you can all but avoid the ghosting, misalignment and fringing you get with the HDR/EF processing. Most of the the time the image is all but done afterwards. Maybe a quick curve or level adjustment, but it doesn’t take much.

  • @RL: Just make sure that the Real Estate Agent understands that everything you do is in their best interest. They will trust you…

    @Dave: The one setting I can think of to be very judicious with is the “Shadows” slider. If cranked up too high, it can give the image an abstract look. What the “Midtones” slider, as well. I’ll throw one other nugget out there, too. Use the AEB+1 artifice. When the situation arises, I’ll duplicate the first exposure of the brackets. Drop that duplicate into PS, correct the white balance -if needed- and apply a medium contrast curve to it. After the curves adjustment, sharpen. Save the adjustments and blend all four (the original AEB’s plus the adjustment bracket) using EF.

    Finally, I’ll say that another reason why EF can lack the snap is not the EF process itself but, incorrect white balance.

  • Exposure fusion is great. Yes, an enfused image looks boring and flat straight out of enfuse, but that’s the way I want it. It acts as a perfect, neutral, blank canvas from which to start post work. There are no funky colors, no weird HDR artifacts or lighting and the image is a pure representation of what came out of the camera throughout the exposure range.

    The problem with HDR, IMO, is that you lock yourself into a certain look or style before you even begin working on the image. You can put a dramatic dynamic range style on an enfused image in PS if you want, but you can’t take the drama out of a base HDR image.

    Generally when I want a more tonemapped feel for a photo, I will create both an enfused file and an tonemapped file, layer them together and blend the spots that I want to stand out.

  • “The HDR look” is often the result of poor visual or photographic technique, or the misapplication of HDR to a subject for which it is not well suited. While, for many, exposure fusion may be much easier to control than HDR, it cannot bridge nearly as wide a brightness range as HDR/tonemapping. And simply adding a wider range of exposures to achieve the merged image does not necessarily compensate for this limitation, since the the lightest exposures will exhibit substantial sensor overload (bloom), resulting in a hazy,flat, veiled look that looks somewhat like lens flare. I am not advocating one process over the other, just trying to point out some of the limitations of each. I advocate trying to master both processes, so that one has available the widest selection of tools to handle any situation, even if one uses those tools only very occasionally.

    What I really advocate for real estate photography, however, is learning to use multiple supplementary light sources, for which the judicious use of exposure fusion and HDR can then be supplementary techniques.

  • Can anyone post a link to a tutorial on manually blending images in Photoshop? I’m using PSE version 8 and would like to learn this technique.

    Also, Tim mentioned white balance above.. do most of you set a custom white balance in each room as you shoot or set the white balance in post?

  • Hi All,
    This is my process: 1) run between 6 to 10 expousure’s through exposure Fusion in Photomatix; 2) put them through CS3 to add Sky’s, window cut, fix walls etc; then last 3) auto colour and auto tone each image through Lightroom….. sounds long but its my process and Im happy with the results…
    Not a great deal of quality loss but there is some.
    Over all I have very happy customers.

  • light rooms auto colour and autotone I have found them to be 10x better then the auto options in photoshop…

  • Simply boosting contrast & saturation of a ‘flat-looking’ EF image will improve it markedly.

  • One thing nobody is mentioning: when figuring out the exposures to take, does anyone actually take a shot to determine the EV range first? I have a D300 and I can take up to a 9 frame bracket, but why would I do that if the range only demands 3 to 5 shots? I’m now checking the histogram religiously to determine the proper exposure settings. Once I’ve determined that, then [if I need to] I will take the multiple exposures.

    I agree with RL above…I rely on HDR processing for exteriors (using/tweaking realistic presets) and [if I need to] multiple exposures and EF for the interiors (usually, lighting does the trick).

    BTW, adding “pop” can be accomplished easily enough with Topaz Labs Adjust 5…just be careful not to over-tweak.

    One more thing: I mostly shoot in Aperture Priority, but sometimes use Shutter Priority and (on occasion) good ‘ol Manual to compose and frame the shot. AP for HDR and EF…SP/M for other shots (with lighting).

    I’d like to hear how other photographers approach this subject. Great topic. I’ve also looked at Iran Watson’s work…it is very good (imho).

  • @Frank- On the number of exposures:
    1) One good way do it is to look at the histogram start where it’s clipped on the left side then start increasing the shutter speed and take a shot each stop (3 clicks) until the histogram is clipped on the right. This way you are sure you have everything you need. It could be more brackets than you need but better to have more than not enough.

    2) One reason to always shoot the same number of brackets is if you are using the batch feature of Photomatix you need the same # of frames for each shot.

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