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What Are the Best Light Diffusers for Shooting Large Rooms?

November 20th, 2018

Lee in San Francisco asks:

What are the best light diffusers for shooting large rooms? I have an immediate question about which umbrella to buy for my speed lights. I am trying to shoot very large rooms. What do you recommend?

Most real estate photographers only use umbrellas to diffuse their flash lighting when the walls and or ceiling is very dark or a strong color. Usually, you can get by just fine with bouncing your flashes off the ceiling, walls, or the ceiling/wall joint. How much diffusion you get when doing wall/ceiling bounces depends upon how far the flash is from the wall.

There are a couple of different approaches to using flash lighting to shoot real estate interiors:

  1. Use multiple flashes to get a well-lit image in the camera: This technique is described in this post by Scott Hargis. Scott’s book and video series go into more detail. The emphasis in this technique is to minimize post-processing time.
  2. Shoot multiple flash and ambient images on-site and blend them in post-processing: The video above by Matthew Stallone explains this technique. With this technique, you will need to spend more time post-processing.

It is useful to have a couple of 43″ satin umbrellas with you to use when the walls/ceiling is dark wood or strange colors.

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5 Responses to “What Are the Best Light Diffusers for Shooting Large Rooms?”

  • I live in the land of beige, white and gray paint, so I’m usually bouncing off of walls and ceilings. If I need to bring light into one section of an open plan space, I have a 42″ umbrella and two 33′ umbrellas that are with me all of the time. All of them are shoot through translucent white and I do plan to add a 42″ white bounce umbrella/brolly that doesn’t allow light to pass through. I also have a 24″ and a larger collapsible reflectors that I can use as a bounce surface that are in the trunk of the car should I need them. Those are also handy we I want to put some light around a kitchen island coupled with a speedlight on a short stand.

    With basic RE images, the above is what I bring. If I’m making images for a designer or builder, I will also bring softboxes and my back drop kit to hang a large white cloth to bounce from or shoot through. I can also use the white cloth to mask windows if I want to minimize direct sunlight and turn it into something much more diffuse. I also bring black drops to subtract light. Since designer jobs can be more money and the finished product is expected to be much better, it’s easy to spend more time fine tuning the light that last 10%. With RE, you have to work very efficiently to earn a decent return and to also keep clients from having to spend the day on the job with you. Agents aren’t as open to that as a designer will be in most cases. A $5 million dollar listing is going to be much like a designer/builder job and agents will be much happier to spend a full day or more to get a finely crafted gallery of images.

    The sun is always your best friend with large rooms, so set appointments for time slots where you won’t be working in the late evening. This way you can use the natural ambient light to do the heavy lifting and your flashes to balance the scene to get the camera to see what your eyes can. If you don’t have much flexibility in the schedule or are working with a very dark interior, the bigger the light source you can bring to the job, the better. DIY is fine. A white plastic shower curtain suspended from a C-stand arm with some strobes being bounced off it can give you a quite large source.

    Umbrellas are subject to getting killed off all of the time, so don’t buy premium models, it’s not worth it for RE. All of mine were purchased cheap mostly off of eBay and they work just fine. For the price of one Westcott, I can buy 8-9 el cheapos. I’ve been happy with the 42″ and 33″ sizes. I also suggest a tri-mount so you can put up to 3 speedlights into one umbrella. Get the all metal ones, never the plastic. I use 2-3 speedlights with an umbrella to create sunlight coming in from outside. Being able to use the flashes at 1/4 to 1/2 power is easier on them than pushing one to full power. It also gives pretty good adjustability. IIRC, the stand mounts and other hardware I use came from DSLRbaby on eBay. They are a good seller and have good prices. Again, make sure that the parts are all metal and not plastic. The mini ballhead mounts are a total waste of money. They don’t hold no matter how hard you crank down on the screw and just lead to heartache and social unrest.

  • While I also live in the world of white, beige and gray…at least that is the way it starts out. Then the owners watch the designer show who could never exist if the advocated white, beige or gray and we end up with these garish concentrated colors that bleed like crazy. I cringe every time I walk past the paint department in Lowes and Home Depot and see the designer line displays and color samples. I carry two 43″ umbrellas plus a couple of DIY “flash bender” cards. Anything larger than 43″ would be unwieldy in a non-studio setting and the constant setup. The biggest problem with smaller and even 43″ is an UWA lens can outshoot the coverage leaving a distinct umbrella shaped outline on the ceiling and walls which I find choking the shaft down to about 50% resolves. My DIY flash bender, in RE use flat instead of bent, was a very inexpensive project from an arts and craft store. Essentially 2 sheets of foam – one white and one black – and wire mesh cut into 4 strips (one across bottom and 3 angled from bottom center) sandwiched between the foam and glued. Velcro straps wrap around flash and cut through lower mesh the width of flash. Need to refine that attachment a little to avoid slippage on flash and/or some offset mounting system. In practice find it useful as not as unwieldy as umbrellas, creates a ‘white’ wall area but design limitation is straight up to ceiling for bounce. The biggest advantage I found was in small rooms backwards so using traditional wall/ceiling bounce but the black foam side facing the subject virtually eliminates reflections.

  • I use a “square” umbrella I found on ebay (seller lightingsaving). It is 24×24 inches and about as deep, so it fits through most doors. The deep shape can diffuse light to the sides as well. I have two speed lights inside (one inverted). So I can get a wider dispersion by angling the speed lights to each side, if needed. Although I find I am usually zooming the speedlights to 80mm setting to get the far end of the room lit and reduce the light on the nearer walls. Also the shape (when turned in the diamond orientation) can nestle in close to the camera to keep shadows down. But ideally wall bouncing is best when you can.

    And they are fairly cheap, at $14 each, and reasonably well built. But after they break from tipping over the whole stand and landing on the umbrella a few too many times, I just get another (yeah, I am a bit clumsy, but getting better ;D ).

  • Thanks guys. Do any of you guys think a 600w flash like a Flashpoint AS600B is even necessary? Or are you just fine using a several speed lights, like Sony HVL-60m, that is about 150W’s, spread around for more even lighting? I am not using flash outside, so I am wondering if tons of power is even needed for large living rooms of 500 square feet and 15′ ceilings.

  • @lee miller, the 600WS portable strobes can be fantastic for certain jobs. I have a 300WS strobe that goes with me and generally stays in the car unless I need it. I would probably use the 600WS more than I use my 300WS since I have to get out extension cords and find a working outlet. I can do so much with one or two Yongnuo speedlights that not bringing in a large strobe every time isn’t holding me back. On a recent property with the power off, I used 3 speedlights on a tri-mount and one handheld to pump light into a tall living room and it worked out very well. It did take a couple of minutes to rig the mount and the flashes where a big strobe wouldn’t have taken as long.

    Check out Nathan Cool’s videos where he’s using his Xplor600. He makes a very good case for having one. The thing I liked the best was being able to flash all of the windows in a scene at one time for a darken mode window pull. With a speedlight, I have to flash each one individually.

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