Small Flash vs Enfuse/HDR – How Do You Decide?

October 19th, 2014

Questions And AnswersMy post last week got PFRE reader, Felix thinking. He posed the following question:

I’m looking forward to the book on Enfuse but it did raise a question. I know Scott favors using flash and I have read his book and taken his video course.  In your post, you said that Simon uses Enfuse extensively. Is there room for both techniques in one’s repertoire? Or is a person better off picking a single style and sticking to it as much as possible?  Do many photographers use both techniques? I’m currently using flash per Scott’s video and have been happy with the results.
Here is my response to Felix that’s based on talking to a lot of real estate photographers over many years and doing several polls here on the blog over the years:

  • From what I see almost all RE photographers primarily use one approach or the other and do so based on personal preferences. You could say that blending multiple flash layers together by hand, like Mike Kelley teaches, is a cross between the two techniques. Although I would argue that’s a technique that is in general too time intensive for ordinary real estate photography.
  • One of the underlying motivations for using the Enfuse/HDR technique is to reduce the time you spend on-site. But in the end you shift that on-site time to post-processing time. My experience is that once you get the hang of small flash photography it can be very fast on-site. So I think that many experienced small flash photographers would claim that they can spend less total time on a job if they use flash.
  • I hear the “natural light” argument a lot from people that don’t use flash. However, the hybrid technique where you use a single fill flash on bracketed shots and Enfuse/HDR processing is very popular because it gives better results than  shooting brackets with no flash.
  • You may encounter large rooms with bright windows where you can get a good shot easyier by shooting a series of brackets and processing them with Enfuse/HDR than you can with small flashes. I personally had this happen when shooting a Restaurant with a large seating area with huge windows. Had too few flashes with me to use flash so I used Enfuse. It saved my butt!
  • Here is a poll I did last April on what lighting technique people use an how that has changed over the last 3 years.


The bottom line is you can find photographers that get great results with either technique. If you pick a technique and take the time to master it you can get great results either way. You may encounter situations where the Enfuse/HDR approach is the fastest way to get a good shot. So it doesn’t hurt to know how to use both techniques.

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16 Responses to “Small Flash vs Enfuse/HDR – How Do You Decide?”

  • I agree, it does not hurt to master both techniques, you never know when a situation arises that one or the other will “save your butt”.

    That said, I found that my clients were the ones that decided what process I use. When I was flopping back and forth between techniques, I heard many say they prefer that I stick to just the one.

    Which one, doesn’t really manner as both are good, but in the end, my success depends on what my clients want…. and that is what they get

  • @ Jerry
    “I heard many say they prefer that I stick to just the one.”
    In what regards, time spent on site, or the look of the finished images?

  • I agree with Jerry. My real estate clients here all balked after I got good enough with flash to offer that method. They prefer the slightly more ‘rich’ (ugh) look that Photomatix can offer, so I give them that. I’d like to move them more toward the more realistic result, but I also like that my children are fed.

    My post-processing time averages about 15-20 seconds per shot. I’ve worked very hard on my Photomatix presets and matching them to my camera. Basically, all I have to do is a quick tweak of contrast, lens corrections and the occasional white balance fix when the owner insists on mixing CF, LED and incandescent lights in the same fixture.

    On commercial shoots or for print work, I almost always work with flashes.

  • An interesting discussion that seems to be based on what is most effective for the photographer. As a photographer that has been shooting everything from product in the studio to annual reports on site to hotels and restaurants for travel photography and using the large studio flash packs for the last 35 years, my concern all along has been to try to capture the essence and character of my subject be it a person, a product or a house and property. I had no choice in the days of film to use flash when shooting interiors since film could not capture the range of exposure necessary for advertising shots when they all had to be turned into color separations and printed with inks on a variety of papers. You simply had to bring exposures in the shots so the full range could be reproduced on a four color press. And what bothered me were the compromises to character capture that that required. Today with whatever HDR process you use, you can capture the lighting inherent in almost any situation which shows the place, the room, the grounds as they actually look to the eye which has a much greater range than any camera. So coming from my frame of reference, I want my photographs of a home to look exactly like what the potential buyer will see when they arrive at the property and walk in the door. This precludes changing the lighting character of the house with flash whether they are small or studio variety.

    I had a client for many years who made and sold solid hard wood flooring. We shot all the flooring shots after then had been installed in the house. The only way to show the surface texture which had been hand scrapped was to have the light from a window reflecting in the surface. So to get detail in that highlight required an exposure that turned everything else in the room black. To get the rest of the room’s exposure up to that level required 6 2,000k watt second strobe packs and many light heads since I placed my 4×5 camera as close to the floor as possible with a wide angle lense and wanted the wood grain in the foreground as well as the highlight reflection all to render. It could take a full day to shoot one shot and many Polaroids. Today I can do the same thing in an hour by using HDR and no Polaroids. Of course, the stylist can affect shooting time making last minute changes.

    My point being that today with the HDR technology, we do not have to compromise on character. Light tells a story. To me it is far more than just getting an exposure, it communicates. It is the photographer’s paint brush. So while occasionally I am forced to use some additional lighting in truly difficult circumstances, I would reserve my batteries for such times and not make it an approach. Just my take.

  • What are your favorite tools to get the natural HDR? I have been using enfuse for many years and think it works great, but I might miss something really good?

  • Christian, I am not sure who you addressed this to but I will reply from my experience, experience constantly improved by reading this blog nor can I lead you to something that would work for you better than what you have been doing.

    I started using HDR before I had heard of HDR. I simply placed my different exposures on top of each other, each on a separate layer, in Photoshop and erased the under or over exposed areas letting through the correct exposure from the layer below. This allows me to selectively focus visual attention where I want it and let the unimportant or undesirable areas fall back into less obvious and more obscure areas of the shot. Worked well except when you had the lattice work of tree branches.

    Then Photomatix came along and I started using that. But I find each image is different enough that I cannot batch groups of images, nor can I very often use saved settings although they can get me started. I also almost never find the final image is right for use. Instead I usually still have to bring them into Photoshop for additional touches. I sometimes find I use the Fusion set and sometime the Tone Mapped. All depends which seems right for image. None of which makes this a fast and efficient process but one that achieves the results my clients like. So I can shoot about one property a day. Not much help for those whose business plan calls for shooting 2 or more.

  • It seems to me that real estate photographers should master all of these techniques. It is not the comfort of the photographer that is at issue, but rather what method creates the best method for each image you take. Some images are in rooms that do really well with flash and others no matter what you do, you have to put down the flashes, soft boxes and umbrellas and do the HDR. Sometimes, you need to do the layering look. Also it depends on what you are doing and what you are charging. Balance of time and quality is what the aim should be. At the end of the day – whether you have shot 5 homes or 1 home to achieve your daily rate, your images should all represent who you are and make other real estate agents want to choose you as their photographer.
    We use all of the above methodologies so we come prepared with all of our gear just in case. Unless you do a scout trip to the home, you will never know what you will need to do until you get there.

  • I shoot 3 shot brackets, add 1 flash when really necessary. Then send all the shots off for HDR processing. They come back next morning looking very realistic, and not cartoony at all. So I get to enjoy the photography, without the mundane computer work.

  • Not tried Enfuse. I did use Photomatix in the past but found it too grungy. Now using SNS-hdr on the “natural” setting and liking the results better. Starting to experiment adding some fill flash.

  • @Dave, why not just bump the saturation if they want the “rich” look, so you can still shoot with flashes..

  • Two or three months ago I purchased the e-book on small flash use, and bought four Yongnuo YN-560 II Speedlights to go with my Nikon SB-700.
    The problem I’ve come across is the extra time it takes to shoot a listing that way.

    Most homes I shoot have the owners in them at the time, and as charming as I am, they don’t want this “stranger” in their home any longer than I have to be.

    There has been a couple times where the listing was empty and the agent took off leaving “lock up” to me. On those occasions I’ve pulled out my lights to give it a try, but this technique takes more time to master than the two or three times I’ve had. Small rooms are a cinch, but the multiple rooms take extra time to re-position lights, change settings, etc.
    I would love to cut down on post time and get a more natural result at the same time (which is why I bought the set up), so I’ll keep doing it when I can.
    I have a feeling within the next few months I’ll switch over from Enfuse to small light use completely.

  • in answer to Felix’s question I feel there is definitely a place for both flash or at least the small flash plus enfuse hybrid technique and enfuse/hdr in one’s repertoire. there are some situations eg shooting towards a very brigt window where the added bonus of fill flash really helps out in reducing the extreme contrast range of the scene …. but what wise advice from Jerry .. there is no doubt that the two approaches reuslt in different looking images and it is worth sticking to one method, certainly when producing more than one shot of a room or large area if not a complete job. enfuse-only images have a slightly more natural look which of course follows the “logic” of the natural light ( no risk of conflicting shadows or tell tale highlights created by the additional fill flash units) while flash filled shots have a sparkle to them and a crispness which can be effective for commercial and RE assignments. fill flashed shots also tend to “stamp” the image with a usually cool white balance which helps to override colour casts from reflected light from colourful furniture/ warm toned floors on ceilings for example. neither approach in my opinion is either better or somehow incorrect but if you mix techniques the differences will be apparent. i shoot a lot for interior designers and furniture companies whcih means i might supply several views of a room in both landscape and portrait format plus a number of additional images of select details. in these instances i go out of my way not to use flash , not because that approach is in any way inferior, but becasue i can give my clients more images which have a consistent feel and white balance to them in less time ie without having to set up flashes for each and adjust ouput for a consistent fill ratio. when I shoot RE and provide just one key image of each room in landscape format then a little fill flash i find works nicely in conjunction with enfuse. it really boils down to speed and convenience. but there is most certainly a difference between the two which will make matching of images when shooting a sequence quite difficult. Peter …. what a really intereting insight into how we had to operate in the days of film and polaroids. like you i had to make flash light perform all sorts of acrobatics and am grateful now for the natural look conferred by enfuse/ restrained tone mapping methods. when it comes to interiors, flash for me is more of a method by which to reduce contrast rather than a main lighting tool , except when the ambient light is really absent. and now enfuse seems to be able to care of so much of the problem of extreme contrast, allowing us as you say to present spaces very faithfully to occupants’ perception/ experience of them. to retun to jerry’s valid point .. i am not making a case for one over the other here.. i just think it is important that a series of images of the same room or property hangs together a series in terms of technique used.

  • As mentioned above, I think knowing both techniques is important to get a good shot every time in every situation. The more I use multiple off camera flashes, the faster I get. Shooting with flash currently takes me about 2 times as long as shooting with HDR on site, and about half the amount of time in post. So which one is faster? Depends on the photographer.

    I started out shooting HDR (like everyone else) and now I shoot almost entirely with multiple off camera flashes. This decision was solely based on providing higher quality images than my competitors. If you choose to shoot HDR, you may find yourself competing on price, rather than quality.

    Josh Mais – Kansas City Spaces

  • Good point Josh

  • Interesting thread and lot of times asked.

    I use small flash in some scenaries i shoot for light and for HDR i try later on computer and always get the light option as final image, im not feel so comfortable with the HDR, for me and my style looks as quite dark ambiance and colorcast.

    I have few images HDR i spend less time on computer with lighting images , maybe i dont have enought skills in HDR because im comfortable with lights and do this all time ( and more right now with my YN560TX ) ;)).

    I think that a mix HDR/light could be interesting but requires more time.

    I have tried SNS, Enfuse and Photomatrix. I use a Canon 60D and ML for brackets when i do HDR.

  • Hi, Have looked at a lot of sites concerned with HDR in photography of ALL types and also read about the use of flash in real estate photography and the one thing that sticks out (so to speak) is flash is flash when used by those who no how to use it but the software now available for HDR work since L/R Enfuse was first introduced is so abundant and most work very well even in the case of Photomatix including options for real estate.
    L/R Enfuse seems to be very popular in the real estate work flow because it is quick and easy to use for those starting off direct from L/R.
    Agree that all photographers should have more than one egg in there basket for PP but learn one first then worry about the other options available out there.

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