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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.
"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!"
"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."
"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!"
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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? :)"