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HDR vs Masking For Exterior Real Estate Photography

Published: 23/10/2007
By: larry

Back in April I did a post on a technique for making composite images with masking in Photoshop. The photo above is from that post and is the result of combining one exposure of the sky with another exposure of the house, foreground and trees. Of coarse the trick with this technique is creating a mask that just masks the sky and has a complicated edge with all the tree branches. Back in the original post I explain how I created the mask in this case.

Another way to solve this same problem is to use Photomatix by MultimediaPhoto. I've played with Photomatix in the past but never got excited about using it for my work. This has changed recently after taking some time to learn how to use the software and seeing some good looking work done by David Palermo and Uwe Steinmueller. Much of what I've seen done with Photomatix appears too wild and crazy for my taste and many Photomatixed photos have a "dirty" look in many of the shadow areas. David and Uwe's Photomatix work shows that quality images with out this "dirty shadows" look is possible with Photomatix.

I decided to go back and use the same images I used for the masking image and create a HDR version with Photomatix 2.3. I'll have to admit it took me a while to get past the frustration of all the sliders in Photomatix. My main frustration is that the preview image in Photomatix tone-mapping doesn't always show what the final image will look like. I created the version below with Photomatix.

The first thing I noticed about the Photomatix version is that the lighting is more realistic. This it the yellow upper story of the home doesn't look like it had the sun on the front. In the masked version I like the punch that the upper part of the house has but I must admit the clouds are a bit too ominous for a real estate image. I'm not practiced enough with Photomatix so I have all the control I want of what the final image looks like. But overall I think the Photomatix version is very usable. I end up fine tuning the output of Photomatix in Lightroom.

I will have to say it was much faster and easier creating the Photomatix image than creating the mask for the Photoshop image. Right now for me the trade off is between learning how to control the look of the image with the sliders in Photomatix and my skill at quickly creating a Photoshop mask. There is no question that for the price ($99) Photomatix can be a very useful tool.

I'm not sure I'm ready to start using Photomatix for interior shots yet. I still like the idea of being in control of the light inside.

5 comments on “HDR vs Masking For Exterior Real Estate Photography”

  1. Often, the Shadows/Highlights feature in Photoshop CS2 and CS3 can do the trick for outdoor shots. Also, in Lightroom you can adjust the Recovery slider to recover some of the highlight area - such as in the clouds. But you should shoot Raw for that. For jpgs I'd use the Shadow/Highlights feature in Photoshop.

    I don't usually use HDR for outdoor shoots. For a few years I have been searching for the "holy grail" of combining multiple images and HDR seems to be pretty good although very unpredictable from scene to scene so I don't like using it unless I have to. It tends to make brighter areas look "dirty" and full of noise.

    Right now I use an action that I made that will combine 2 images (one image exposed for the outside window and another exposed for the interior). It does a pretty good job but not perfect. If you have more than 2 images you combine 2 and a time, flatten, then go to the 3rd image and so on. If any of you are interested I can make this available to you. The challenge I most often run into are when objects such as plants or shutters are in front of the brightly lit windows. They tend to go dark after the blending process. I don't like that!

    Perhaps if we all share ideas we can create a method that works really really well! I am studying a method that is mentioned in a very expensive book by Katrin Eastman(sp?). I don't want to buy the book just for one procedure!


  2. Even for interior shots, Photomatix can produce some awesome results - especially if you have bright light blown-out from windows in the background. Creating the mask can be time consuming, especially with clouds. Photomatix is often quicker for me.

    Oh, and Photomatix is only $85 ($15 cheaper) if you use code VPG15 during checkout.

  3. Markus,
    Thanks for the discount code. Hopefully there are some readers that can use it. Shortly after this post I paid full price for Photomatix. I'm liking it more and more as I find that with restraint you can create HDR images that are not as wild and crazy and radioactive looking like the majority of HDR images seen around the net.

  4. I think that most people struggle with blending interior and exterior exposures. Photomatix seems to work best with blending a foreground and an interesting sky. With interiors you really need to spend time learning what the adjustments do and reducing many controls such as color saturation.

    A start in photoshop CS3 is to pick a bracketed RAW file that best reveals your midtones and adjust it and open it in photoshop. Then take the underexposed RAW file with a good window exposure and adjust the exposure and open it in photoshop. If you had to use the +2 EV exposure for the midtones then you can also adjust the +0 EV and adjust the exposure midway between the interior and exterior. (If you used the -2 EV and the 0 EV you will only use two images unless you take two exposure from one of the RAW files for the window frame or other items in the room)

    2. Now create a new file using each of these exposures as different layers. File->Scripts->Load files onto stack (don't check the align images) If you shot on a tripod with a wireless release and the mirror flipped up the aligment should be very good and you will only make it worse by trying to align the different exposures.
    3. Order the layers so that the most exposed image is on the bottom layer and the top most layer is the least exposed image.
    4. Use the 'quick selection tool' noting the +add to selection, and -subtract from selection to select windows and doors to other rooms with different lighting. Use the Select->refine edge too to modify how the selection blends with the layer below.
    5. At the bottom of the layers window click on the rectangle with a circle to create a mask on the appropriate layer. The selections should be the largest on the layer above the bottom layer and get smaller as you proceed to the top layer.
    6 Use the history window to go back until you get it right. Hover over the refine selection controls to learn what they do.
    7. Use the stamp and healing tools to clean up the burn from the lesser exposed images that is left on venetian blinds or the window frame.

    Don't promise this result to a customer until you have tried it or a while. You have to keep working at learning the photoshop tools (If you cannot afford photoshop download Gimp 8 bit depth from cine gimp higher bit depth, open source )

  5. I started using HDR only for exterior shots and then used it more and more for interior. Today every interior real estate photo I do is done in HDR with the exception of some bathrooms that always come out in this strange yellow color. I use a flash for those rooms. I have only good experiences with photomatix, tried many of the other programs but figured they all couldn't get to acceptable results. Don't get me wrong, if you want the photo to look great photomatrix is only your helper to the HDR composition. There is still a lot of work to be done in photoshop. People that think just importing a batch of bracket shot will do the trick have no idea how much work is waiting for them in photoshop. Speaking from my experience photomatrix does 30% of the job, but that is all that is needed anyway.

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