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Compositing: Is It the Future of Great Real Estate Photography?

Published: 11/06/2018

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Ray in North Carolina says:

I recently viewed a YouTube video where the photographer stated unequivocally that compositing is the now and future for producing great RE photography. I am an avid off-camera lighting shooter and he is right that the process can be cumbersome; not always producing the best possible photo. What are your thoughts on the topic?

I have a quick and simple workflow that usually involves no more than a couple of frames composited together so for me, compositing has been very helpful in building an efficient and profitable business in my small, competitive market. That said, rather than going into detail about my own opinions, I thought it would be valuable to reach out and get a good cross section of input from some of the most talented and respected photographers in the industry. Keep reading, you're not going to want to miss out on this!

Wayne Capili's video above demonstrates how quickly and easily you can shoot and edit a small house using multiple off-camera flashes and compositing.

Tony Colangelo, Victoria, BC

"While I would agree there appears to be a strong trend toward compositing in our field, saying that it's the "now and future" of RE photography is, IMO, a little short-sighted--especially with all the incredible advancements in technology that we've seen in our field just over the past few years. What if, someday soon, Photomatix comes out with an exposure-fusion algorithm that totally corrects its inherent color cast and muddiness issues and produces images that clearly surpass any compositing result? Couldn't an argument be made that that would be the future of RE photography? Who knows?!

While I can't say that compositing is the future or is the best approach for everyone, I can say that it's the best approach for me! Many years ago, I gave up on trying to get it "SOOC" (straight out of camera) because, quite frankly, I wasn't very good at it! I have enormous respect for those photographers who can do so and I still marvel at this capability--especially if it can be done in a time-sensitive RE photography context! For me, however, compositing is a choice. I've always loved the notion of taking the best elements of one image and combining them with the best elements of another image(s). I find it a very compelling/satisfying way to work. The approach actually guides my decision-making at a photoshoot as I try to visualize the final image that I'm after. I've made this choice because it's the best way I know to consistently create the look and feel that I want for my images--regardless of whether they're shot for a real estate agent or another type of client.

I truly believe that RE shooters (and actually all photographers for that matter) would be well-served by experimenting with their photography to find an approach that increases the likelihood of capturing the images they want to create. Making your photos your own, not only increases your enjoyment of the work/craft, it'll tend to produce better results, which makes it easier to distinguish yourself in an increasingly competitive field. So, if compositing allows you to do that best, that’s great! If SOOC gets you better results, then go that route. To quote an old saying: The best way to predict the future, is to create it!"

Scott Hargis, San Franciso, CA

"Compositing isn’t inherently bad, it’s just that a lot of people use it as a shortcut; just like HDR or Photomatix, etc.

The only people I know of who do compositing really well and also totally eschew supplemental lighting are also spending tons of time both in the field and on the back end; and they’re doing a lot of subtractive lighting (which is also something I do a lot of). Scott Frances comes immediately to mind, as well as Marc Gerritsen (and I’m sure there are plenty of others working at a high level in a similar fashion). I’m not about to criticize either of those guys--I’d be very happy if my portfolio looked like theirs! But they’re not doing real estate either. And, the better the projects you’re shooting, the better the ambient light is likely to be because it was well designed in the first place.

With regard to real estate, if you’re not going to bring your own light to a photograph, you have to have some tools available to control the light that’s there, so subtractive lighting is going to be key (classic situation would be a giant window directly behind the camera flooding the scene with crappy flat light--you either pull the blinds, or hang a ginormous piece of cloth up with a few A-clamps, and kill that light. Or it might be as simple as setting a 16”x20” or even smaller card to block light that’s ruining a small part of your photo. This can be a very powerful way to influence the “natural” light in front of your camera, and it has the added benefit of being cheap! But still, it’s very limiting. Removing light is only half the battle--sometimes, and in a real estate environment where the existing lighting is often poor, subtractive lighting is only going to get you a fraction of the way there.

In my opinion, in today’s saturated PFRE market, making photos that look like everyone else’s photos is a terrible idea; it forces you to compete on price. Compositing can be one way to push your photo into another level of “compelling”, even if it’s a very time-consuming way to do it. If the goal is to produce really outstanding work, then I think it’s certainly a good thing to know how to do. But if the goal is to avoid learning the fundamentals of photography and light, then it’s worse than a dead end, it’s counter productive. This is a problem I see more and more—new startups in PFRE who have no background in, and no real interest in photography as a craft. Any time you’re looking for ways to limit your time spent working in the field with your camera, you’re likely doing yourself and your clients a disservice."

Barry MacKenzie, London, Ont

"I one hundred percent agree that compositing creates the best images! Real estate photographers are hired to make a great set of photos as fast as possible with no advanced scouting to prepare for the various curve balls and challenges that will inevitably come up at each shoot.

Unfortunately, when folks are relying solely on the available light in a space, they often find themselves at the mercy of the quality and direction (or lack thereof) of that light. This creates a number of issues from poor white balance and color, to muddy lifeless images, to window bloom, etc. Generally, under these conditions, it’s nearly impossible to create a decent set of photos.

Compositing offers a solution to these problems and once mastered, it provides a bulletproof way of minimizing or eliminating most of the issues that come up when working fast under mixed lighting or less than ideal shooting conditions. Furthermore, being able to place lights literally anywhere means the lighting can be sculpted to make images pop, and the results are repeatable; day after day after day!

Also, it seems like there are a few different tribes out there that shoot real estate who are willing to die (not literally) to prove that their way of shooting is the best. There are also folks out there with an elitist attitude who think that using Photoshop is cheating—"Just get it right in camera," they say. The problem is, there’s a massive difference between rescuing a shitty photo, and shooting with post production in mind.

In the end, what it all boils down to is speed and consistency and I think compositing provides the best solution—hands down!"

Mike Lefebvre, Barrington, RI

"For me, getting into compositing was a game changer. Real estate work, for the most part, is quick and dirty--especially if you're doing several houses each day. Quickly taking multiple exposures on site (with a mix of flash and ambient frames) ensures that you have enough pixels to work with when it comes time to edit. Once in a while, the PFRE gods align and I capture just about everything in-camera with one exposure, but that's definitely the exception to the rule for me. Frankly, if I had more time (and sometimes, I do), I would work harder on-site to get it all in camera with one shot. That makes the edit so much easier later!

Compositing is like conducting a full orchestra vs. jamming with a three-piece band: Both situations are working with exactly the same 12 notes, but the orchestra gives you many, many more dynamic layers to work with for developing texture, tone, and feel. I love how compositing gives me the ability to "paint" the scene. Being able to emphasize (or de-emphasize) aspects of the image that I want the viewer to engage with through compositing is a cornerstone to my approach and style."

Gary Kasl, San Diego, CA

"I agree. Compositing in some form or fashion will probably always yield the best results. Whether it involves using artificial light sources or not, the benefits of blending multiple images are just undeniable. You get so much more leverage and it works across so many different circumstances that it lends itself well to RE and interior photography."

Garey Gomez, Decatur, GA

"I feel there is no one way to get the job done for RE photos. Different techniques suit different people for a lot of different reasons. I have landed on a compositing workflow because that is what works best for me at this stage. I spent the better part of a year focused on getting every photo in-camera, in one exposure (thanks to Scott Hargis for his e-book and video series!). I got pretty decent at it too, and successfully captured almost every image in-camera. I spent about 20-30 minutes editing and delivering photos after a shoot--that was the upside. But it took me about 2.5-3 hours on site to capture 25 photos. Now that I have embraced compositing and have become proficient with the workflow, I feel strongly that the quality of my delivered images has improved and I am spending an hour or less on site and about 45 mins in post. I basically cut my time in half and am delivering better photos. For my personal 'now and future,' compositing is the way."

Julie Mannell, Seattle, WA

"I tend to reside in shades of grey, so for that reason alone, I’m pretty uncomfortable with most assertions of absolute, unequivocal anything. And with regard to compositing being the ‘now and future for producing great RE photography,’ I guess I’ve just seen too much evidence to the contrary: So many great–and seemingly successful–RE photographers are out there making consistently beautiful images via a variety of techniques, compositing being just one of them. RE photography does demand a certain level of speed, so that is necessarily always going to be a part of this conversation. I guess I’d want to hear this statement fleshed-out a bit more, then, because I’m wondering what role speed might be playing in the idea of compositing being the future of RE photography?

As for my own method/techniques for producing photos, it’s a work in progress. I started with multiple off-camera flashes getting the shot in one frame. This was 6-7 years ago, and since then, having spent tons of time reading/learning/watching/absorbing (and yes, emulating) via Larry’s blog and the PFRE Flickr group, my shooting style has gradually changed. Now, more often than not, my images consist of bits and pieces from multiple exposures (both flash and ambient-only, usually 2-3 different frames) hand-blended in Photoshop. I still question whether or not my current technique developed out of some sort of laziness, fear (of not being able to consistently produce a decent-looking photo via just a single frame in the amount of time that I had to do it), curiosity, or…? Probably a mix of many things. It’s been interesting: Sometimes I feel like I’m just cobbling together these sort of ‘Franken-photos’, and in those moments, I really don’t feel like much of a photographer at all. At other times, with all the brushing and blending and the many aesthetic decisions that have to be made in putting together a photo that ‘feels right’ to me and expresses what I want to express about the space, I wonder if the process might somehow share a kinship with painting? (I’ve never really painted, FYI). I have to admit though, that I feel most like a photographer when I get a shot in a single frame. But I am okay with producing images that don’t always leave me feeling like a "photographer." (Am I straying too far from the original topic? :)"


Brandon Cooper

12 comments on “Compositing: Is It the Future of Great Real Estate Photography?”

  1. Compositing levels the playing field for new real estate photographers. It gives them a chance to make a living for their family. They cannot afford high end equipment but are able to take raw brackets with a off camera flash and layer them together with excellent results. As far as the future goes engineers are working now to produce the perfect image before you click the shutter. Google, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft are racing toward that goal. Until then dslr brackets and yes outsourcing or doing your own post production is making many a good living.

  2. More video tutorials about compositing and the post processing would be great. Also, can you composite by hand holding a single flash in different locations in different frames?

  3. I always cringe when those know it all's say "This is the only way".... BS! No where have I seen the die hard's give an honest answer to the one of the key elements in running a successful RE business....Time. How long is it taking from start to finish...Images out the door to the client? Not just one but say 15 to 30. Are there Enough clients out there willing to pay for that kind of service? Sure there are some, but not enough and don't give us the BS about educating our clients....they are running a business too and need to stick to some kind of budget. I am not going into what their compensation was, because that varies a great deal from place to place.

    I can't tell you how many times I have had complaints about photogs dragging in all kinds of gear, spending hours of the clients and home owners time for 15 images... that will have a life span of maybe 90 days. Honestly, if you are in a niche that can do all that and make a decent living....go for it, I just think that is a vary narrow path.

    I used to sit on the judging committee for a professional photography group, part of the PPA. Every month we would have photogs submit their work for judging to get points for different levels in the association. We would have different categories, still life, scenic, weddings, portrait, etc. The images were judged on their own merits and critic with the group in presence. This provided the group with a lot of useful information and learning. But, there was a dispute within the judges (myself included) that some of the wedding entries were skewed and unfairly compared to others in the category for that night. Some of the judges and myself felt it was unfair to judge best of class with those images created in the studio with models and those submitted from their work in the field. It is one thing to have the bells and whistles of gear in your studio, time of no consequence, models to work with and a opportunity to re shoot as much as you like to those in the field that might, if they were lucky, have 30 min at whatever location was available with a couple that just wants to get to the reception. I say this because, this Must Do mantra feels like the same thing. Yes, when time, equipment and money is of no concern, then yes, we can produce stunning images. But for most in the field, there are constraints that prohibit a carte blanche approach, one being what the client will pay.

    Bottom line, I am with the thought that you should be into RE photography and that you should endeavor to increase your skill level....Hell, I find it to be a lot of fun, frustrating at times, but the rewards are hard to knock.

    Ok, I am over my rant...Glass of Cab please

  4. I have to say I'm with Scott all the way here. His last paragraph certainly rings true with me. Then again, I've been at this for a very long time, and have seen some pretty startling changes. It's not all about technology, it is indeed also about craft. It seams to me that many of today's photographers focus entirely on speed and digital manipulation, and less on being an photographers.

    Personally I do not composite, at all. Not because I'm against it, I'm just not good at PS, it's as simple as that . So for me, it's so much easier to just get it right, while on location, and make sure I have it in camera before leaving. I'm not in a hurry when on location, and the client will always have the images in a few hours either way, as post work is pretty minimal. Yes, it requires more time on location, and more equipment, but truth be told, my way of shooting, has really not changed that much from the film days. It works for me.

    As for the future? Who knows, it seems to me that people are very quick to welcome anything "disruptive", yet don't seems to really understand what the goal of that disruption is, or how much that will change, and in some cases destroy, what often didn't need to be changed to begin with. I suspect that very few of us will still be shooting RE in a few years, as that market, and the RE business as we know it, will soon change dramatically, and frankly, we will not be needed.

    Those with talent and passion for photography will continue to grow and create great pictures. Those that can't move through a house fast enough, to get to the next one, will move on to another way to pay their bills. Because to them it was never about the craft of photography, it was about making money operating a camera. Really, no judgement, just 2 different types of people working in the same arena with very different goals.

    I do feel a bit melancholy when I look back at how it used to be being a photographer, but I have no regrets, and am simply grateful for all that it has provided and the lessons learned.

  5. My first goal is always to have an image done or nearly done in camera with no compositing. An all ambient photo is ideal. I hardly ever use HDR techniques as I don't get the results that I want (clean color and 3 dimensionality). Compositing exposures is just another tool to get to a final image my customers will like and can use.

    If one is in the business of photography, it's important to treat it like a business and find a workflow that is fast enough to earn enough per hour to stay in business and meet financial goals. Using a particular workflow because it's fashionable is like a recent discussion about restricting oneself to just one prime lens. It makes no sense to handicap oneself with those restrictions. I started with Photomattix and a HDR workflow and learned how fast shooting with flash can be. I've also learned how fast it can be to use "darken mode window pull" in some cases and where it can make sense to composite several frames in others rather than fiddling for 20 minutes getting several flashes to light the image realistically. I feel that matching the best workflow for a given composition is the most complicated thing to learn along with being decisive about what composition to make in the first place.

    Part of my workflow consideration is time restrictions I might have on-site. If I'm in a vacant house and don't have to be finished at a particular time to get to another appointment, I'll spend more time massaging a lighting set up before I might consider making exposures for a composite later. It's a good time/place to do some experimenting. More time on site generally means less time in post for me and vice versa. If I have a severe time restriction at the location, I know that I'm going to be spending more time in post and make exposures to composite where I can't do a quick one speedlight photo.

  6. I only recently figured out how to jigsaw images together to get a more pleasing result using flash and compositing. I find this time consuming and arduous in post, though, and would prefer to get something that fits the client's needs even if it isn't quite PFRE contest material. I will utilize most any method possible to get through a photo session quickly with the least amount of post-processing when I get home in order to get my client nice, usable photographs for their marketing and the MLS the very next morning. If the property warrants it, I will spend the time to composite and window pull every photo, but most simply do not warrant that amount of work. Most two-bedroom, two bath homes in my area sell so quickly that all the agent needs are good photos that get prospective buyers to the house. While I love creating beautiful images, much of my business hinges on speed - a short time in the home and quick post-processing so the agent can have their images right away. There is a balance the real estate photographer must find, and I don't believe compositing everything is the solution for every job.

  7. When I started RE photography 7 or 8 years ago I was determined to get it SOOC like I'd seen in the Hargis videos. But as I learned more on my own and watched other techniques I found myself just naturally creating my images via compositing. I didn't make a conscious choice; it just evolved.

    I have three large flashes, but 90% of the time I only use one. I use as much window light as I can with a little fill flash if necessary, then do a "Capilli" window pull and whatever additional shots might be necessary for what I envision.

    Remote control of the camera is almost a requirement for this technique and I love my CamRanger.

    It also helps that I'm very comfortable with Photoshop and actually enjoy the process of compositing the images. It's a choice of whether I want to spend the time on-site getting the shot, or spend the time at home in my jammies doing the final creation. I chose the latter.

  8. Why is everybody calling it compositing? Compositing is adding something that wasn't there. Like a chair, or a new sky. Ansel didn't call what he did compositing. His negatives had a long range and he used them to expose the paper multiple times for different parts of the image - how's that different from what we do? We just do the exposures on the front end of the process because our capture range is shorter, he did them at the end because his paper range had limitations.

    But, it's been a thing since the beginning of photography. Home interiors have an extremely long range of EV.

  9. If you were creating a Word Document - there are at least 5 ways to accomplish the same task. The same is true in photography - taking the image and processing the image. The number of choices of how to do this and what to use to do this are unlimited. You need to pick a method and learn at least one or two other methods in order to really be good at what you do. If you are doing a run and gun type photography - i.e. you work for an agency that pays you $50-$100 per house shot, then you need to complete jobs as fast as possible and sometimes this means that quality can suffer, although I believe in excellence in all of our work. If you are shooting a $10 million home, you need to scout the location, decide on equipment, decide which process works best to give the home the love and care it deserves. This could mean several methods of shooting and editing within one home. Compositing is one tool in our toolbox. Unfortunately, a poorly composited picture looks worse than a good HDR image or a lightly processed image that was good in the camera. So, if you choose this method - practice, practice and then practice again. The results are worth the effort. All of the real estate photographers cited in the blog today are all incredible at the processes they use - all offer good advice.

  10. In these discussions, I am often reminded of the old saw "there are many ways to skin a cat" which despite the affront to cats holds true as a thought about any photography. There is not one way to achieve great looking shots. Nor to achieve images that make your clients happy as well as yourself as a photographer. And to beat the old drum, so many photo technique choices are also an integral part of not only how you feel most comfortable shooting but a function of your business model. If you have to shoot 3 houses a day, then you will want to find ways to get as much right in the camera to make your post minimal. Personally, 3 houses a week is my maximum which gives me the luxury of spending time in my digital darkroom to achieve images that make me happy and seem to make my clients happy as well.

    That coupled with the fact that I shoot drone stills as well as drone and surface based video means that I may spend the better part of two or three days in post. With video I have to provide a teaser 45 second video for social media as well as the full length video for the client's web site and/or property site, both branded and unbranded.

    My feeling about where RE photography is going is more about marketing than technique. More and more owners want video and if realtors want to stay out front of their competition are looking for videographers. If they can get both stills and video from the same photographer that solves a lot of problems for them.

    So if "compositing" works for you and your business model, that's great. If shooting with little flashes does the same, go for it. If HDR does the trick, adopt it. Honesty who cares what techniques anyone uses to get to the best image? It is the image that is important, not how you get there. We all are different people with different life demands on us and, hopefully, different "eye"s and ways of seeing. If we are being hired for price, then quality is probably not a high issue. If we are being hired for our results, then however we get there is only important to each of us. What works for one may not work for another.

    It's good to be exposed to all sorts of methodology, I find, since I also find that I am constantly modifying how I work especially as software and equipment keeps improving that allows me to do more in less time. But I have to learn what the new improved tools are and how to use them. A constant learning curve. Especially as I am still working to develop work flow with video. Stills and drone are fairly well established; until DJI comes out with a whole new product. Then I get to start again.

    With adding video to my product and skill set, flash is not really useful. But the new era of LED video lights are. They are also great when I need some fill for my still work. Battery operated the power cord is also cut.

    So again my point is tha each of us will pick the techniques for shooting that best suit our own business model. There is no one approach that fits all.

  11. Great response to my question. Love the approach of getting the thoughts the "Hall of Famers". My long term goal with my business is to grow from Listings to higher end private/commercial properties, and then eventually in retirement, back into Landscapes. As I grow my R.E. business I am always looking to improve my skills as a photographer (deepen my talent in the craft as Scott puts it). Therefore the question about compositing. I feel I have developed a good grasp of instinctual off-camera lighting but have been exploring the next "evolution" of my skills. My takeaway from the conversation is adding compositing to my tool box vs. replacing my lighting only approach will only make me a better photog in the long run. Thanks everyone.

  12. I think that is great Ray.

    I just wanted to address a couple of points/questions above.

    As Julie was asking, the biggest misconception about compositing is that it is slower. It is not slower. It can be slower if you have not refined all the techniques yet. I am sure this is why there exists a misconception.

    I have worked both ways. Look at it like this: I can be on my 4th or 5th photo before another photographer has all his lightstands and umbrellas out. Also, he has got to pack all that stuff up as well, he has to move them around the home, he has got to move them out of the backgrounds of many of his shots, and he has to purchase it all, store it, and carry it all to the job. Not to mention he can't really shoot as wide.

    I would agree, it is dubious to use the word "better" for any one method, but what I am saying in my video is in real estate photography we just need a little light into the scene to clean things up. We aren't trying to be Monet here. Why bring a ton of gear when it is extremely simple to do it all with a single light and some know how?

    Of course everyone is different, and I would agree there is no one size fits all. In the end, and I truly say this with all sincerity, my goal is to help photographers become better and more efficient. For example, if I had to teach my son real estate photography, I do not think it would be bad to learn other techniques, but I would definitely steer him towards a compositing based approach for many of the reasons the photographers outlined above.

    I just found out you sold the blog Larry! Thank you for all the help over the years, and congratulations and good luck to Brandon.

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