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Bracketing With Flash For Exposure Fusion and HDR

Published: 27/08/2010

I'm amazed by the number of people I talk to that are mixing flash with the bracketing shots they are shooting for Exposure Fusion (Blending in Photomatix) and HDR. Plus I've gotten a number of questions asking how to to shoot brackets with flash.

I've talked to people recently that seemed offended when I pointed out that adding a single manual flash to their bracket shooting could improve the quality of their results. We've talked about this several times on the blog since the summer of 2010 and in the Flickr discussion group. I think there are some folks that missed out on that discussion. Iran Watson uses a variant of this technique and did a post about the way he uses it in April of 2011.

The first question is why? What's the point of using flash when you are shooting brackets? You thought the reason you shot bracketed exposures was so you didn't have to use flash, right. Well the fact is that when you use HDR or EF for interiors you tend to get low contrast results (more so with HDR than EF). That is, the blacks are not as black as you'd like and the whites are not as bright and crisp as you'd like. The term that comes to mind is muddy colors and dirty whites. You also have issues with white balance. It turns out that if you add a kiss of fill light from a single flash makes these problems much better. If you add a little fill flash to your brackets you don't have to spend as much time and effort in postprocessing to get rid of the muddy colors and dirty whites.

Also, adding a touch of fill flash to bracketed shots can be done without having to "climb to the top of the learning curve" for full blown multi-off camera flash technique. There is a discussion in the PFRE HDR & Blending discussion group on this subject. I've been doing some experimentation with this technique so here's my summary of how to bracket with flash:

  1. Setup your bracketing as normal (on a tripod, aperture priority and exposure bracketing -2,0,+2) except add a manual off camera flash. For the shot above I used a Nikon SB-80DX triggered by a Cactus V2 Wireless flash trigger. The transmitter end of the Cactus trigger was in the hot shoe of my Canon 5D MKII with it's trigger cord plugged into the 5D's PC connector. The SB-80DX had a Cactus receiver connected to it.
  2. Set the drive mode to single shot so that you have to release the shutter for each of the three bracket shots. This is to make sure that the flash has time to recycle between each bracket shot.
  3. Use a remote shutter release so you don't have to touch the camera body. I used the Canon TC-80N3 although you could probably get by just touching the shutter release button if you are careful and your tripod is sturdy.
  4. Aim the flash either towards the ceiling, a blank wall or the joint between the ceiling and the wall so that the light from the flash creates a large, soft fill light. On my example above I had the SB-80DX sitting on the top of a media cabinet, camera right, pointing at the ceiling. The ceiling is diffusing the light out in all directions so their aren't many shadows.
  5. Adjust the power on the flash manually (some where between 1/8 and 1/1 - same power for all three bracketed shots) so that you get a good set of 3 histograms (you want the histograms high but not clipped histograms together to fill up the available histogram space. -2 will be left, 0 will be center and +2 will be right). See Dan Achatz's description in the PFRE HDR & Blending discussion group.

To summarize: this technique adds the same constant level of fill flash with a single flash, to each of the three brackets you shot. This fill flash is improving the quality of the light so that the whites are whiter and the blacks are blacker. This same technique works similarly with either brackets used for HDR processing or brackets processed as Exposure Fusion (EF).

For those that are already shooting brackets with flash I'm sure you'll be able to add refinements or variations to this technique.

Larry Lohrman

32 comments on “Bracketing With Flash For Exposure Fusion and HDR”

  1. Great post, Larry. Using this process (with a few small variations) has allowed me to spend less time on light placement because the blend sort of evens things out, but I still get a crisper, brighter image than I did with straight no-flash blended shots. Going back through eight months of images in an effort to refresh my portfolio I found that nearly every interior shot I chose to include was done with this method. ( temporarily while I'm rebuilding my site this weekend.) I couldn't seem to develop the lighting skills that Scott, Thomas, etc have (at least not to the point of being able to get in and out of a home in a reasonable period of time), so this hybrid technique was my salvation! I'm not as good as Dan and the others who have really mastered this technique (I don't mask in windows or do any hand blending in PS), but I'm getting there!

  2. I thought I'd give this a try and see what happens. But it seems that the AEB is cancelled out as soon as a flash is added. At least that is the case for my 5D I and my 7D. You set AEB to +-2 stops and then you add the flash (via cord or radio transmitters) and it turns off the AEB.

    How do you do it?

  3. I'd like to experiment more with this as it seems to produce some good results.

    I don't understand why the camera makers can't make camera with decent AEB. The Nikons are somewhat better in this department than Canons but they still leave a lot to be desired. Why can't they just make it so that I can set any number of bracketed shots I want at any interval of stops I want. Unless I'm missing something, I can't think of any reason this can't be done, it's all in the software.

    Anyway, I just adjusting the exposure manually from one shot to the next as I rarely find -2,0+2 sufficient. I've never had a problem with the camera being bumped and the images not lining up even on soft carpet.

  4. @Joe- Sounds like you are triggering flash via the hot shoe. If you trigger the flash through the PC connection on the side of the body AEB will still work.

    @Adam- Yes I'm working on creating a set of nice examples that illustrate this technique vs just EF and just HDR. In some situations it's more apparent than others.

  5. Great post, Larry. This is almost exactly the method I now use. I went from using up to 5 strobes to using one or maybe two in a larger room along with EnfuseGUI. Using Enfuse alone, I had the low contrast and color balance problems you spoke of. Using a touch of flash takes care of most of those issues. The only difference between your method and mine is that while using aperture priority, I set my aperture compensation at +2/3 and then bracket 3 shots that are + and - from that setting. I tend to not look at the histogram, but do look at each of the 3 exposures. The strobes are usually set at 1/8, but could go higher for larger or darker rooms. I have bracketed up to 6 shots, but prefer 3. That way I don't have to touch the camera while making the brackets, and processing time using enfuse is reduced....and I'm very satisfied with the results. More importantly, my clients love the results. I'm using a Canon 50D, and I've found that in general, when using aperture priority, exposure compensation of +2/3 seems to give good results. For most of my non-real estate photography, the camera is set on manual and I've learned to trust the histogram.

    I have to thank John Muir from PFRE for getting me using Enfuse, and then Enfuse with flash.

  6. Since adding 1-2 flashes to my HDRs I've cut down on my post processing time by at least 60%! I don't have to worry as much about blown out windows, inconsistent colors, garish color casting issues, etc.

  7. I use Enfuse to process 5 - 12 shot brackets shot with Nikon D700. Recently started adding flash (Nikon SB900 with Gary Fong diffuser) per Larry's recommendation. I couldn't be more pleased! Like other comment, I found that AE bracketing cancelled flash. There are several ways around this. I began by determining normal exposure to set as baseline with camera in manual mode. The camera brackets normally up/down from this baseline with flash firing on every exposure. I use a Quantum Turbo battery to be able to fire flash in rapid succession with no issues.

    I recently acquired a Promote Controller that I prefer using now. It makes extremely wide brackets easy & fast on Canon or Nikon gear. I now shoot 7 shot brackets (with no flash) @ plus/minus 1.7 EV in HDR mode. I then switch controller to one shot mode to add flash (in manual mode, 1/16 through 1/1 as required) to as many separate images as necessary to get proper exposure (as judged by chimping).

    In post I generally delete severely over exposed shots from bracketed series. I have found these give garish colors to dark wood in particular. I have had my post processing time cut 60 - 70% by using these methods. The end result is much better also. My color cast correction work (w/ Nik ColorEfex Pro 3.0) has been reduced 90%. I can do 98% of my post in LR3 now.

    Thank you Larry for your excellent advice & unselfish service to our industry!

  8. I set the program to AE&FLASH under the bracket section on my Nikons and the flash does not cancel bracketing. I will sometimes use the flash to fill and reduce the power on the back of the flash and take the set of brackets in aperture mode at around F8. I works real good when you have large windows to overcome. I normally do 9 brackets at 1 full stop. I can't do it with my Canons!

  9. Thank you John! I was going crazy trying to get my flash to fire in AE bracketing. I was about to try a PC sync cable, but wanted to keep flash in hot shoe for sake of convenience. I love my 9 shot bracketing with Nikon gear also. Promote Controller will get that & more from Canon & Nikon bodies (you are welcome Brad!). I highly recommend every one purchase one of these...

  10. Larry,
    This is a great topic. But your recommendations + the following discussion is way over the top for me and possibly many other followers. Why not start us out slowly?
    For example, most know that cameras don’t like to mix AEB with Flash.
    Why not take a Flash photo before or after the AEBd ones? Then, tell us how to best incorporate it into the workflow.
    Start out VERY simple.

  11. @Mike- I've made an update to the post highlighting that I'm talking about Manual Off Camera flash triggered through the PC connection on your DSLR. Furthermore, the point is that you add a touch of flash EACH ONE of your brackets, not just a flash bracket before and after your other brackets.

  12. Larry,
    Again, most of your readers probably are not privileged with "off camera" flash hardware.
    And I suppose adding flash to EACH bracket is cool. But why is that the "end all" technique?
    Currently, my standard workflow includes 7 brackets from -3 to +3 in one stop increments (no flash).

  13. @ Larry, WOW !! that worked. I did not think to add a cord from the hot shoe Pocket Wizard to the Canon 5D, to get the ABE to work, thanks for the tip.

    Now tell me, as I must be real stupid, HDR is new to me, and I am going to read again all of Dan Achatz's post, learn a little more. BUT where do you start with the aperture, my guess is you meter for the windows, correct, then start the AEB set? How much power, I see others using only two flash units, low power correct. Umbrella pointed into the room, for a even fill, a way to do this? What are you looking for on the historgram. I can see your next book on line now" How to shoot HDR with flash successful" , yea I will buy a copy.

    We carry 4 to 5 flash units with us now, I wish to get a more natural look, some of the HRD look is "not realistic" , a happy balance would be nice.

    Good post, Thanks Rusty

  14. Larry, thanks for post update! It's becoming clearer now! I again say that your technique is a vast improvement over available light EF. I will never shoot EF again w/o using a flash.

    I have only one issue with the PC connection, etc. I shoot 3 -4 homes daily & convenience & speed are very important to me. I don't want to have to hassle with an off camera (off camera meaning out of hot shoe) flash. It's one more thing to have to set up & move between each shot. Time is of the essence to me.

    I want to be able to have my flash attached to my camera in some fashion. I have found that mounting it directly via hot shoe is not possible, as the automatic functions take over & over ride the manual settings I set. I now think a straight flash bracket like the Custom Brackets Mini or Mini RC would be ideal, except that the bracket doesn't have a cold (or dead) shoe to accept flash. You must use a hot sync cord on bracket to receive flash.

    Has anyone found a means to have flash connected to camera w/o hot connection?

    On another note, I recommend using a diffuser (Gary Fong or Stofen) instead of bounce. I often shoot homes with very high ceilings or ceilings not painted white. I have no problem getting complete frame coverage using a 14mm lens on a full frame body.

    If one wants to shoot hi speed brackets with flash simply add an external battery. I use a Quantum Turbo attached to my tripod & can rapid fire 9 shot brackets with flash @ full power if I desire

  15. @Cal- "I don’t want to have to hassle with an off camera (off camera meaning out of hot shoe) flash. It’s one more thing to have to set up & move between each shot." Yea, I understand completely. That's how I felt for a long time... until I met Scott Hargis and Thomas Grubba. The fact is, you owe it to yourself and your customers to get your flash off of your camera! When the flash is on the camera the light is flat and just doesn't look as good. Remember the last time you were at a wedding and the photographer had that little flash bracket that holds the flash off to one side or another? Why do you think wedding photographers do that? Because they all know that on-camera flash looks shitty and getting the flash just a little to the right or left of the lens improves the image.

    The fact, is working with a off-camera flash on a small light stand is not that hard to get used to and the results are well worth the hassle of getting used to working a little differently.

  16. As usual a great post. I am noticing that the PFRE board (Flickr) is leaning in the direction of HDR, Fusion and hand layered images lately. It started off helping people to use speed lights with success and as the genre has evolved so have the techniques and processes. RE imaging is quickly becoming a hybrid of many different methods to achieve solid images in a fraction of the time and with less investment in gear. I made a comment several years ago that Re images needed to be good but not perfect. I still hold to that but think people are getting there with less fuss and less expense.

    It really makes me sit up and re-think my approach to RE-Work for the future.

    M. James

  17. I use exposure fusion w/ multiple flash almost exclusively. It really gives you the best of both worlds. The consistency of flash with the 'naturalness' of ambient. The only thing I would add to your checklist would be to use the 'mirror-up' mode to minimze camera shake. The slightest bit of camera vibration or movement from shot to shot will ruin the HDR/fusion.

    Also, be sure that you, and anyone else standing around, stays perfectly still during the brackets. Anything other a concrete slab (carpet, wood floors, etc) will produce movement in your tripod when people are flopping around.


  18. This hybrid technique has really grown on me and I'm finding that I use it on about 70% of the shots I do for a property. With practice I feel you really can get the best of both worlds with this approach. The great thing about the flash frame (whether you are using one or multiple strobes) is that there is more raw material there than meets the eye. Obviously you can use the flash frame(s) for basic fill light by blending via the opacity slider in 'Normal' mode, but the other layering modes also have a lot to offer. For starters there is the color blend mode. Talk about a quantum leap in the quality of my images, this one technique alone all but solved the exaggerated color casts associated with HDR renders (thanks again Peter Lyons and Michael James for this invaluable tip). I also use the Lighten mode to bring up certain highlights from the flash frame that lets me avoid having to adjust the brightness globally.

    I know some have mentioned that this technique has cut down on the total time to shoot and process, but I have to ask compared to what? Honestly the biggest drawback I see to this approach is that it can be time consuming, especially the post work. I will add that I do not add any flash to the brackets. The brackets are almost always shot 100% ambient and only after I am happy with the frames I captured that were lit with strobes. This might be why it takes me longer...


  19. I might be an amateur in this group of pros but the picture above does not look good to me despite al the technical insanity Larry used to produce the final image. All the shadows and overexposed windows just do not convince me that it is a good product.
    But maybe that is the way it should be. I will be happy to find out I am wrong and earn from it.
    Thank you

  20. How do you do this with Pocketwizards (MiniTT1, transmitter, does not have ability to connect to 5D Mark11's PC connection. FlexTT5 does, but even when connected, will only fire flash once in AEB mode):
    "Setup your bracketing as normal (on a tripod, aperture priority and exposure bracketing -2,0,+2) except add a manual off camera flash. For the shot above I used a Nikon SB-80dx triggered by a Cactus V2 Wireless flash trigger. The transmitter end of the Cactus trigger was in the hot shoe of my Canon 5D MkII with it’s trigger cord plugged into the 5D’s PC connector. The SB-80dx had a Cactus receiver connected to it."

    Thank you.

  21. Hi, I have discovered that if you cover up the 4 little contact points on the hot shoe and leave the larger main one(the trigger), the flash will still work with AEB. Not sure if this will do anything to the camera/flash long term but it works.

  22. Hi Emma (April 23rd 2017 comment), This is the first time in more than 10 years since Ive used online forums to get quick solutions but only you made me write this reply. I must tell that your idea to hide 4 little contact points has word magic for my Canon 5D Mark 4. You must be surprised that even Canon itself did not have a solution when I rang their customer service number. I had learnt that Canon can't and Only Nikon cameras are able to fire flash with AEB.
    Thanking you from my heart and hope your comment would reach to many people like me who must have given up trying to find a solution to fire off camera flash from hot shoe every time on each shot continuously during HDR type effect multiple shots or AEB or bracketing over and under exposed 3, 5, 7 etc shots.
    I have been shooting without that flash and it can still be handled efficiently and looks more natural. However the flash could give that extra POP in the final image which might be just right to sell the property. I guess very important for Real Estate Photography.
    Even I am not sure if this method might affect the camera or flash though believe if that 4 dots are concealed properly should only stop passing the messages through those points to the camera. That message which anyway we do not want the camera to stop the AEB brackets the very moment you turn your flash on. I am happy to pass the message to fire the flash only through that 1 main trigger out of 5.
    If some one could please highlight any potential or establish damage to the gears, that would be much helpful to the community.
    I guess Canon should learn from this biggest challenge and should include in their next software upgrade to fix this asap.
    Thanking you again and hope this reaches you well.

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