My Interpretation of the Real Estate Photography Lighting Poll

September 18th, 2018

Since the way real estate photographers approach lighting interior spaces is such a key aspect of real estate photography, I thought it would be useful to talk more about the recent lighting poll. Here are some points I think are significant:

  1. The 4 techniques in this poll have always been the most popular in past polls over the years.
  2. Bracketing with either HDR or Enfuse processing is popular because it is fast and post-processing can be easily outsourced. This is a natural starting place for beginners and in many markets, it is “good enough” for most clients.
  3. Adding a flash to your bracketing process can raise the quality of results significantly with little to no effort.
  4. Multiple manual off-camera flashes can give you great quality but learning this technique takes some practice and until you get good at it, it can take more time on site.
  5. The compositing of flash and ambient frames has become popular because it’s a way to significantly increase the quality of your work if you take the time to learn blending techniques in Photoshop.

I thought it was informative in yesterdays post, in Rich and Brian’s interview with Scott DuBose, it was pointed out that Scott described how he progressed through most of these 4 techniques over the years and currently uses compositing of flash and ambient because it gives him the best quality in the shortest amount of time. So as usual, there is no one right way; it’s a matter of finding the technique that works the best for your workload and market.

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11 Responses to “My Interpretation of the Real Estate Photography Lighting Poll”

  • And I’d love to see how Scott does his post processing.

  • I started shooting the compositing of flash and ambient frames after my Atlanta workshop with Tony and Brandon and my results look more natural than my Flambiant HDR in Photomatix.

    But, in some of my more challenging rooms where there are mirrors (like some bathrooms and perhaps some kitchens where I cant get my lighting to work,) I will do a custom white balance and shoot a three exposure HDR, as long as the available lighting is sufficient.

  • I still find myself taking offense at your statement that HDR is good enough for beginners and good enough for some clients. It ignores the fact that to do this right, you don’t stop at the image that comes out of Photomatix or AurorPro, that is just where you do a lot of the work. You then have to finish the work in Photoshop, bump the blacks, tweet the whites and highlights, deal with lens distortions and verticals/horizontals etc. Is it a solution for all situations? No of course not. But then neither is flash or continuous light sources. Does it make post processing take longer? Well yes, of course.

    The speed of a shoot on the location is certainly an issue, the speed of processing whether you do it yourself or outsource it is as well, if you hate post processing as Scott has said he does or whether, like myself, I love, is also an issue. What your business model (if you have to shoot 3 houses a day or 3 a week for example) is also a factor. But please, don’t pretend that using HDR which should be followed with Photoshop, offers anything less in quality if done well than using flash either fully or partially is preposterous.

    And we have all seen flash photogaphy done badly in inexperienced or incapable hands. Scott is a master of it, not everyone is and it takes time to get to that point. When faced with mirrors even glass covered furniture and art work not to mention windows that can reflect the light heads, the burned out ceiling/walls for bounch flash or umbrellas, can cause serious problems that HDR does not.

    I work for many of the top realtors in my area and they have been clients since I first started shooting real estate years ago shooting the majority of properties in the multi million dollar price tag. I think if my results were second rate, they would quickly move over to other photographers in the area who do use flash and so they should. But they like the look and feel of my work better than that of my competition and are willing to pay more to get it.

    So let’s just accept that there are many ways to shoot real estate, especially interiors since that is what we are talking about, exteriors would not work well with flash. It is not the equipment or lighting you use, it is how you use it. And yes, all the approaches you mention take time to learn how to do well. So I think we should separate valuation into two aspects: 1. Quality and 2. Speed. As far as I have seen, excellent quality can be achieved with all of the options you ID. Speed is a factor or how good a photographer you are, how experienced with the techniques, and in what area you want to exercise speed – at the time of the shoot or at the time of the post, or a combination of both. And a lot of that will depend on a photographer’s personal preferences and the business model chosen to follow. So to demean HDR is ill conceived in my opinion and can cut new photographer’s out of a good path to explore. New photographers should try all of the above and then figure out what will work best for them.

  • @Peter – No reason to take offense, I’m simply summarizing what comments on the poll post said. Read the comments! Some people shoot brackets because it is fast and efficient and their clients like the results.

  • Hi Larry. I would agree that some people shoot brackets because it is fast and efficient and their clients like the results. But other’s don’t shoot brackets for that reason. I don’t for one. In fact while the shoot may go faster for some, I shoot so much that Scott Hargis probably would be out the door before I am half way done. We have two Scotts in play here. Perhaps more.

    No it is the statement “This is a natural starting place for beginners and in many markets, it is “good enough” for most clients.” That I have a problem with since it leaves the impression that HDR is only for beginners or those for whom doing images that are “good enough” from which it follows naturally that the results may be good enough but not very good. My contention is that while that may indeed be the case for some photographers, for others it is not. I am hardly a beginner with 40 years of professional photography under my belt, which is sagging in my old age, but my results are anything but “good enough” and I spend a long time making sure they are fantastic for my clients. Which is why I still have half the top realtors in my market using me. And this is a small but high end market catering to those from Hollywood.

    So I feel from your introduction above, that if you are aiming any part of this poll to beginning RE photographers (experienced photographers have either already settled on their work flow preferences or are well set to add in new methods to their existing work flow) should not be put off by a tepid qualification of HDR. Heck I was using HDR before it was called HDR and before there was software to do the heavy lifting for you. I worked with bracketed 4×5 transparencies, had them scanned by a color separator, layered them in Photoshop and used the eraser tool to let the good bits come up. Very time consuming indeed but it worked for my advertising clients when they had something like a car shot at twilight with black tires and wheel wells and brilliant sunset sky reflected on the roof. We encounter the same exposure/contrast range in RE work with shiny kitchen counters and dark stair wells. So HDR should not be presented as the poor relation to Flash or Flash mixed with Ambient light (both of which I have used during those 40 years for everything from annual reports to food photography), but as another solution to lighting problems especially when we RE photographers don’t have all day to set up lights. Or even can’t set up lights. So being able to work well with HDR takes time and practice which no beginning photographer will get if they think it will only produce “good enough” results. It should be one of the many tools in the photographer’s skill set tool bag.

    I think I am motivated by sticking up for what is all too often referred to as the “poor cousin” of flash photography.

  • Well said Peter Daprix.

  • I think Larry is pretty accurate in the way he talks about HDR. You only have to look at typical listing photos with HDR to know that in general they are done badly. It doesn’t mean you can’t get good results but I think Larry’s generalisation is fair.

  • I have agree with Peter; there is definitely an air of superiority. I started off with HDR, then moved to multi flash briefly until I realized that, while the images were bright, attractive and crisp, it just didn’t properly represent the feel of the spaces, so I started blending flash images with HDR… then our MLS went to 40 images and every agent wanted to max it out, so using flash with satisfactory results within 30 minutes to an hour on site became impossible (and my time in post would have nearly tripled). It was also around this time that I began shooting large commercial spaces that I couldn’t light without big strobes, and I just didn’t want to go there… so now I have come full-circle back to HDR for most of my work (albeit with very different techniques and process than 10 years ago, and it is about to change again). Now I shoot more architectural work than real estate, my work is frequently in publication, and I frequently get new clients who come to me after using some of the more well-known local “lighters”… I don’t think it’s because it’s “good enough”, and while my fees are reasonable, I’m not cheap, at least by today’s standards. I’ll also say, I see just as much atrocious “lit” spaces as I do bad HDR; they both get overcooked.

  • Swimming is a sport where results can be quantified because the better athletes do things, the better their times are and the more these effective techniques they use are taught to new crops of competitive swimmers.

    People think we can’t compare a sport like swimming to photography because photographs are subjective. But, if you open a magazine and look at the highest paying interiors commercial images, they are probably going to have been shot a certain way. You could also look at the techniques used in the winning photos right here in the group. So, like swimming and other sports, the effectiveness of photographs can be quantified.

    It simply would not be as effective if you taught all photographers techniques that weren’t being used at the highest levels. Just like it would not be effective if you taught newly competitive swimmers techniques that were not used at the highest levels. It is not about superiority, it is about what has actually been proven to work. What are the percentages of the highest paid interiors jobs shot with hdr and composites?

    The point gets muddled here because it is real estate photography and sure, you can probably “use whatever works best for you”. But that probably is not going to be the case the higher you progress. The fact is, if you want to go after a “gold medal” in photography, you are most likely going to have to be using certain techniques to remain viable and competitive at those levels.

  • @Adrian “…And I’d love to see how Scott [DuBose] does his post processing.”
    Me too. In that podcast, he claims to be able to shoot a 2000 SF home in 20 minutes and then do the flash/ambient post-processing in another 20 minutes. Personally I’m a little dubious about both claims, but I’d be curious to see how he achieves post-processing in 20 minutes. How about a follow-up podcast regarding this?

  • Thank you Peter D’Aprix. The beauty of photography is that there are always multiple creative and innovative approaches to solving a problem. Each one of us has an idea of which is best and which is “best for beginners”, and I doubt that we are all in agreement. The critical factor in the beauty of the result, seems to be a lot less about technique and a lot more about a nuanced and thoughtful approach to aesthetics.

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