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Flash vs HDR For Interiors And Real Estate Photography

Published: 25/06/2013

FlashVSHDRMike Kelley has a nice article over at comparing HDR vs Flash for shooting interiors.

Mike's discussion of this subject is part of a classic continuing discussion (similar to the meaning of life) that goes on among photographers that shoot interiors. There is no one right answer, it's about the results you produce. Mike's key criticism of HDR results is, "the colors are way off, the window frames are all gross, and it looks like there’s smoke damage throughout the interior due to the program struggling to separate out the lights and darks and Mid-tones are very muddy."

After looking at HDR work of a lot of real estate photographers my observation is that out of hundreds of real estate photographers that use HDR, I've seen only a small handful that are able to finesse HDR so as not get those off colors, dirty looking window frames and smoke damaged interiors that Mike is referring to. It takes a lot of work in post. It's possible to control HDR, but it's hard and very few can do it. This is why I recommend that beginners use Exposure Fusion/flash hybrid  if they are going to do shoot bracketed exposures and then grow into multiple flash technique as they feel comfortable with it.

Mike calls Exposure Fusion "HDR Fusion". That's not really correct. Exposure Fusion is a completely different algorithm (it's an averaging algorithm) than HDR. HDR uses a tone mapping algorithm and Exposure Fusion does not. The only similarity between the two processes is they both use bracketed images as input.

Larry Lohrman

11 comments on “Flash vs HDR For Interiors And Real Estate Photography”

  1. Thanks for the post Larry and, in particular, the much needed clarification of 'Exposure Fusion' vs 'HDR' - so much confusion re this point. I read Mike Kelley's article a couple of days ago and while I also dislike tone-mapping very much and would never use it for RE photography, I would respectfully suggest that Mike's proficiency with HDR may not be of the same caliber as his normal post-work. As such, I don't think his article makes an exact apples-to-apples comparison. It would be very interesting to allow one of the "few that can do it", that you referred to in your post, take a shot at editing the bracketed shots that Mike used as the basis for his f-stoppers article, and then compare to his final result. I'd still put my money on the flash result but I think it'd be fun to see! Thanks again for the interesting post!


  2. I've developed a workflow/system that combines strobe and natural light, but without using any tonemapping or fusion or HDR. It simplifies the whole process, and has the ability to add in the room's ambiance to taste. To me, both strobe and HDR look fairly unnatural applied by themselves. I should write a book about it, I guess, because it's extremely fast and efficient, and it sells houses like hotcakes.

  3. Mike's article was informative about the nature of the problem, but 12-30 minutes is way too long for a single image IMO, and that wasn't even a complex situation like say... a 30x40 great room, with a cross-cross beamed ceiling, 18ft ceilings, two walls of glass, views into the 3-5 other spaces (kitchen, entry, hall, 1/2 bath, dining) all in the same frame (or heaven forbid, a ceiling made of dark wood in a room with very little natural light). The sheer scale and complexity can be immense. To me, any shot has to be solved in 10 minutes or less, not because you can't spend more time, but the economics of business dictate that you don't have all day to shoot a whole house, or spend a whole day editing it later. My shoots are 2 hrs max (up to 7000sq ft), and the editing is 1hr max.

  4. Hey Kelvin, I'd love to hear more about your workflow. Are you using studio strobes or speedlights? Are you combining multiple images in photoshop or getting it all perfect in camera?

  5. @Colley

    Yongnuo 560's, 3 brackets -/0/+ (camera bracketing, not manual exposures), custom Canon profile for camera for each frame style, custom LR processing for each frame style.

    The idea is to shoot the first frame at iso400 f10 1/250 4700k (sunny days with windows in the shot) (adjust for cloudy days f8 1/80, maybe more...) It's sunny as hell here. Shots 2 & 3 are just about collecting ambiance, and reversing the clinical/over-flashed look the strobes do to a house.

    Of course, without the speedlights, the room will look like the bat cave it probably is. For me, I try to use as many speedlights it takes to get any room to at least f8, but hopefully to match my f10 starting point. That's where 20 years experience kicks in. Where to put the speedlights, and what problems are they going to cause that don't exist in the lighting the house already has. But with what I do, if your lights can't deliver f10 in the room, you either have to sacrifice something else (outdoor exposure), or go back to HDR or some other combo. Some rooms are impossible to make it work, but most of them are. You have to know how to move to another plan if the room dictates it. (like a million dollar "lodge style" cabin with brownish/orange walls and ceilings, and multiple views of adjoining rooms + windows)

    In any case, it's a work flow that took years to get right, but only takes minutes to use if you know how. Most of the hard part is the part that's done before you get to the house (understanding what to capture and how to process it).

    You can see a lot of my work here: (only the gray castle looking house is mine on the homepage slideshow, (the rest are outdated "stock" pics bought online) Mine are the actual properties for sale.

  6. O.k., we get it... Flash is the way to go! But I have to agree with Kelvin about economy of time. I shoot a lot of large homes (8,000-12,000 sq ft) and some of these 'great rooms' with all of their little nooks and beams, etc., take a long time to set and test flashes.

    I will eventually be full-time flash, but how did we get from Photomatix/HDR is our salvation to "gross," muddy," and "way-off" in such a short time. We Real Estate Photographers are such a fickle bunch...

  7. People seem to have skimmed over the fact that Mike was shooing this for a designer, not a real estate agent. Sure, 30 mins is too long to spend on a single shot if you're there to shoot the entire home for $99. But, when you're charging a much higher fee, you probably only need to do one job in a day. Mike was demonstrating how, given enough time, you can add light to create the mood both you and your client want. Something that can't be done - and isn't expected when you're shooting for a real estate agent - with only the ambient light you're given.

  8. I'm sorry but this article has zero credibility. Why? Because we're seeing someone use flash the correct way and HDR the incorrect way, with the conclusion that flash is so much better and the only way to go. If you truly want a side by side comparison you'd have one photographer good with flash and another photographer good with HDR.

  9. It would never be an Apples-to-Apples comparison, because "HDR" and "Lighting" don't achieve the same things (despite some people's insistence that it does). The best take-away from Mike's article is that if you want any level of creative control over the look of your image, you're going to have to cultivate some lighting skills. Otherwise, you're stuck working with the (potentially) crappy light that exists in the room. You can use any number of software techniques to massage that existing, crappy light into a smaller dynamic range (with the usual loss of color fidelity and weirdness in the midtones) but you can't introduce texture and depth and feeling that isn't already there. For that, you need to be able to light things.

  10. I agree with you on this Scott. I've been using exposure fusion for several years with great success, most of the time. The problem comes when the given ambient light is poor. I personally feel that EF is the quickest way to deliver a good result 9 times out of 10, but you need to have the skills to pull off that more difficult shot when needed.

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