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Beginners Guide to Lighting Choices For Real Estate Photographers

Published: 02/05/2008
By: larry

lightingexampleI want talk about lighting choices for real estate photography. Lighting is probably the biggest challenge for those starting out in real estate photography. There isn't any one right way to light interiors. I've seen beautiful images made with each of these techniques. What I see and hear after talking to hundreds of real estate photographers is a gravitation to one technique or another based on where in the photographic process you'd rather spend your time. If you want to minimize the amount of post processing time you end up using 3 or 4 and if you are OK with more post processing you gravitate towards 6. Frequently, beginning real estate photographers will use 1 or 2 and progress to other techniques as the gain experience:

  1. Available light: Just a tripod using the lights coming in the windows and interior lights. Pros: simplicity (not much to learn), excellent results if inside and outside brightness close. Cons: only way to control window brightness is by time of day, frequently dark corners and uneven brightness.
  2. Single on-camera flash in automatic mode: Pros: Works good in small rooms, better than 1, simple (not much to learn). Cons: Reflections, flat look, doesn't work on large rooms where a single flash doesn't have enough power.
  3. Multiple flashes using camera manufacturers automatic mode (e-TTL Canon, CLS- Nikon): Pros: Manufacturer documented, flash power controlled from camera, even lighting possible. Cons: Expensive (need to use all flashes made by camera manufacturer, triggering not reliable in many situations.
  4. Multiple flashes using manual mode: Flashes radio or optically triggered. Pros: A wide variety of inexpensive flashes can be used, even lighting possible, almost total control of window brightness, minimum amount of post processing required. Cons: Takes a while to learn flash setup techniques.
  5. Hot lights: The use of studio style continuous (always-on) lighting. Pros: Always on so you can see what final image will look line in viewfinder. Cons: A lot of gear to carry around, amount of gear reduces speed of shooting.
  6. HDR (High Dynamic Range): Shoot a series of registered images (on a tripod) a few stops apart and combine them with special processing. Pros: Very fast and simple to shoot, inexpensive because lighting equipment not required, Post processing software inexpensive compared to flash equipment, gets good results faster than flash in extreme window light conditions. Cons: Takes some experimentation to learn tone mapping, if tone mapping is a little off, images can look un-real (radio-active or grungy).

How many use each of these techniques? Back in Feb and Mar of this year I did a PFRE reader poll and got the following results:

  • Available light: 11% of readers
  • Single on-camera: 38% of readers
  • Multiple flash: (3 and 4 combined) 39% of readers
  • Hot lights: 2% of readers
  • HDR: 11% of readers

The use of HDR is probably the fastest growing method because it is relatively new and HDR processing software has been improving rapidly.

31 comments on “Beginners Guide to Lighting Choices For Real Estate Photographers”

  1. Of course, this shouldn't be a one-size fits all thing. Some situations are more suited to available light, HDR, or small strobe lighting. I did a little of each on one shoot today.

    I think that shooters should experiment with all sorts of different lighting styles to find what works for them in different situations.

  2. I agree it is not a one size fits all solution. The more I do this, the more I realize it takes several methods to make a good presentation while keeping time to a minimum.

    I have been shooting all my recent listings with the following:

    Exterior - all shots where bracketed +2,0,-2 and enfused together. I used to use Photomatix, but really like the results and simplicity of enfuse.

    Interior, no window visible - all shots where taken with multiple 580ex units in ettl

    Interior, window visible - all shots where taken with multiple 580ex units in ettl. Then I take a shot that properly exposes the windows without flash. These two images are then blended with enfuse, which bring the windows in nicely.

    I still am learning my post processing in Lightroom, but I think this seems to work well. Here is a link to one of my recent listings (that sold in 7 days btw)...

    http://www.tonymeierphotography.com/p138127031/?slideshow=1

  3. @Tony - Nice job! Great examples. This is a great feature of Enfuse, that flash shots can be blended with non-flash shots.

  4. Tony,
    You made several good points. To get good photos you do need to adjust based on the home, the outside lighting, windows, interior material .....

    I will add one more lighting technique - Using a cameria / flash rig. This will place the light source about a foot higher than the on-cameria method. It also allows you to better bounce the light off walls and ceilings.

  5. There's should probably be a 7th technique - using full strobes. This is the technique used in some of my interior lighting books, though I suspect it is more for architectural photography than real estate.

    When using a hot shoe flash the best investment is an off shoe cord. I currently use this method with my 580EX and it offers much more flexibility. If you use a flash on camera you will suffer from blowouts.

    That being said I have already ordered Pocketwizards and another flash so I can use two flashes off camera. I currently only use HDR for outside shots and then only when the lighting demands it - I don't like the effect on interiors.

  6. I've found that you can actually fake an HDR merge with not so bad results. I'm certain its better to take the pictures with multiple exposures and do it the right way, but if you only have one shot I have been able to use my software to darken and then merge to fix bad lighting spots. Ok, not totally fix, but really reduce them.

  7. Thanks Larry for always bringing to our attention tools to further learning. Can enfuse be used without lightroom do you happen to know? Tony, nice shots - no wonder it sold so quickly, good looking house.

  8. @Sister Sassy - Yes, you can... I assume you are talking about what can be done by shooting a RAW image and opening it three times, once as-shot, once as-shot +2 stops and once as-shot - 2 stops and then processing all three with Photomatix or Enfuse. Depending on the image this can be a big improvement but for consistently good results Christian Bloch says in The HDRI Handbook that you should use 5 all 2 stops apart.

    @Anonymous - Yes, there are at least 3 other interfaces to Enfuse that I know of. I give links to them all in the following post:

    http://photographyforrealestate.net/2008/03/24/photomatix-vs-enfuse-two-ways-to-do-hdr/

  9. Assuming the front exterior shot is the most important marketing photo, it most always should include the front entry door. Often, even in the best sun angle, it is in a covered location. Getting this area to show well is difficult. I’d like to brighten the front entry area with my Canon 508EX II sppedlite fired from my Canon XTi held more than 50 feet away. I assume I need some kind of wireless flash trigger. Any suggestions?

  10. Larry,
    I bought two Cactus triggers a while back. I've not been happy with them. They don't fire when out of line of site (next room) and don't fire beyond 50' when in site. I'll look at the Canon ST-E2 next.

  11. Larry,
    I just looked at the Canon ST-E2 available on Amazon.com. I don't like the following specifications:
    Indoor transmission range of approximately 40 to 50 feet.
    Outdoor transmission range of approximately 26 to 33 feet.
    Typically, I take the primary photo from more than 50 feet away from the front door entry.

  12. Larry,
    Besides my general interest, the reason I bring this topic up is because: the front exterior is the primary marketing shot. It is the do or die. If you don’t make it attractive, the rest of the photos/tour won’t be looked at. Entry door areas are difficult because they are often covered and thus have poor light. Being able to activate a hidden strobe seems fundamental/essential. If you agree, I hope you consider this topic for a separate complete post and maybe a photo discussion on Flickr.

  13. Larry,

    I think your 7th option should be exposure blending, like Tony Meier I have recently played with both enfuse and photomatix. I have gone the other way and prefer the photomatix program.

    My stuff is no where near the standard of Tony's, I would like to know how you guys get the sharpness into your photos, it is amazing - is it combination of great lenses, cameras and post processing sharpening?

    Here is an example of a recent shoot done with out flash - due to an onsite failure. The amount of bracketing between shots is something I am working on to improve the amount of post processing required. Each shot was made with three exposures.

    http://www.open2view.com.au/tour/photo/57948/6

    The outside shots were done using photomatix exposure blending, it was late afternoon very dull, but the exposure blending allowed the front door area to have some detail.

  14. @Andrew - In my discussion above I lumped Enfuse and Photomatix type tone mapping together in the HDR. I consider Enfuse a different way of doing HDR. But perhaps the should be separated for clarity.

  15. I am a Realtor and am relative noob to higher end real estate photography. Cost right now is important and I went with HDR so I could spend the bucks on the best wide angle lens for my camera. I just finished the first house with this stuff and you can see the results at

    http://26foxhollowdrive.com

    My results tell me that like everything else in life, you need more than just one approach to get high quality results. Because I am my own customer, I can get away with just HDR for now. It gives what is needed to show the detail in a room, but some photos don't look as real as others. HDR does funny things with moving clouds too! I have to go back to one of the raw images to see if I can get an acceptable result that way.

    I'll agree with Mike that the FOH shot is the most important. If you are fortunate enough to have the house oriented properly, you can get sun on the face in early or late hours and get great sky behind. I would like to know more about flash for this purpose, because we are not always lucky with the positioning of the house.

    Great blog, Larry. Photography is half (or more) of the language of real estate, and I consider yours to be the best real estate blog there is.

  16. "Contrast Masking" is another method of getting "HDR" type results with only one shot. Pretty simple especially if you make a little photoshop macro to run it. Google contrast masking to pick up link for the method

  17. What Photomatix tone mapping settings have people had luck with? I've used Enfuse with some success, but it doesn't quite go as far as I'd like.

    However, I'm having zero luck with Photomatix getting anyhing that is acceptable. Most websites talk about outdoor setting, but what works for indoor home photos?

  18. I use a couple of sb800s. They can be remotely triggered by each other or by popup. So handy. But I found in many situation that two flashes do not cover enough. Anyone ever used a 500W flood light or two for real estate photography?

  19. I would like to add that another alternative is to use the off camera flashes on stands with umbrellas. I have started to use this method. First it is easy, simple, inexpensive and adds lots of diffused light. With my Nikon equipment it is rather simple and easy to adjust the flashes after checking the results. The big problem is that shooting larger rooms or looking down multiple rooms some do end up dark and triggering lights around corners is not very effective some times.

  20. Liam,
    I have. I took pictures of a log home once with 20 ft vaulted ceilings that had a single light source from a full 20ft high wall of windows. 2 flood lights not only gave me enough light to balance the room, they also showed up the log color really well.

  21. Is anyone using flash diffusers with their flashguns? I have a difficult time keeping the flash light even on the walls and was thinking that perhaps using a diffuser like Stofen Omnibounce or similar might help to eliminate/reduce some of the hotspots and shadows. I have three flashes controlled with onboard flash (Sony), but in confined spaces, I found that even with bouncing and the wide angle diffusers (built-in to flashes), there's some uneven light.

  22. I'm fairly new to this so please forgive me for asking but I did read the entire post and responses but still have a question. Can anyone recommend a good Hot Light setup that works well and is fairly cost efficient? Thank you so much!

  23. Myself and a friend are planning to start a real estate photography business. neither one of us have ever done real estate photos before as such, but she is a Realtor with many contacts within the field that will help us get initial shoots to build a portfolio and I have some decent photographic experience.
    I currently have 4 nikon sb-900's a pair of sb-600's and 1 sb-800 as well as 5 studio strobes with softboxes, ect
    it states above that triggering may be problematic in many situations? how do those using the sb series of speedlights get past that?
    My inclination is to use studio strobes for larger spaces and speedlights for smaller or are studio lights simply overkill?

  24. Search the pfre discussion forum on lighting. Plenty of info on lighting for pfre there. Speedlights alone are generally the preferred lighting for pfre, although a few people use monolights. Unless you want to spring for the new Pocket Wizard TTL auto flash system, you will want to use the speedlights on manual, using the optical triggers of the sb-800s and 900s, and standard radio triggers for the sb-600s. I think the optical triggers on all of the Nikon flashes work well indoors, although I have only used the older sb-80s. The optical triggers on monolights may sometimes be problematic with some brands, and you may sometimes need to position a speedlight nearby to help trigger them optically (or use radio triggers).

    If you have monolights, I think it is a good idea to have one or two with you to supplement the speedlights occasionally. However, most people seem to find them too slow and cumbersome for mainstream pfre, for which it is often necessary to work quite quickly on site. If you have a pack strobe system, I think I would suggest using that only for very high-end, high-budget pfre.

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