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How To Shoot Brackets So You Capture The Whole Brightness Range Of A Room

Published: 08/06/2015

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Yesterday HEV asked the following question:

How do you deal with lamps that are just too bright? Especially if you do hdr and/or flashless photography?

There are a bunch of ways to shoot brackets but my favorite is the way Simon Maxwell describes in his Enfuse For Real Estate Photography e-book and video series. Simon's approach to shooting brackets ensures that you capture the entire range of brightness in the room you are shooting. Bright lights to dark corners.

Generally, it works as follows: You use the histogram on your DSLR LCD to do this. Most modern DSLRs have this. The images to the right are from my LCD. The top one is the starting point (first bracket) and the bottom is from the last bracket. You can shoot as many as you want in between. I'm using a 5DMKII with the brightness histogram on and in LiveView. Here are the steps:

  1. Lock the body down on a sturdy tripod.
  2. Set the camera in manual mode and set the aperture. I'm using f/5.6.
  3. Use the lowest ISO you have. I'm using ISO 100.
  4. As you move the little wheel (on Canon bodies this is the wheel just behind the shutter release that speeds up the shutter speed the histogram will move to the left. Keep moving it left until the histogram just barely touches the top of the histogram scale. Take the first bracket.
  5. Move the wheel that controls shutter speed so the histogram starts to move to the right. On every DSLR, I've seen each click on the thumb wheel is 1/3 of a stop. So go three clicks for every stop you want to have between brackets.
  6. Keep going shooting a bracket every stop until the histogram crawls up the right side and just starts to touch the top. Take the last bracket. Now you've captured the entire dynamic range of the scene exactly.

When you process the brackets for each shoot, you don't have to use them all and if you've shot in RAW you can do adjustments before you process the brackets to deal with bright lights. Simon describes how to decide which brackets to use to get good results. While this may take a little more time than using the Auto Exposure Bracketing feature, it makes sure you have the whole brightness range of the room,

Larry Lohrman

19 comments on “How To Shoot Brackets So You Capture The Whole Brightness Range Of A Room”

  1. In my experience with that method I have found that if I toss out the top and very bottom brackets i get better exposure of the windows and the bright lights, such as the hanging lamps over so many counters in kitchens, etc. Now I just shoot -2 to +2 (well, sometimes I feel the need to stretch a bracket depending upon the amount of light in a room or the direction of the light) in five exposures. I tried adjusting every bracket for highlights - also explained by Simon in his e-book, but it was just too time consuming. I also use a higher ISO in order to avoid any camera movement at all and to be ready for a flash exposure after the bracket. I use a Nikon D800 so I'm not concerned about noise from a higher ISO - 400 on that camera is as good as 100 on my D300 or D7000.

    I bought a D750 for backup (the D800 has to go in the shop) so I am hoping for similar results from that camera - I should have it tomorrow!

    Another thing I found to allow for better Enfuse results is to set the sliders on the Enfuse tab for Exposure, Saturation and Contrast weights to 100, 75 and 75, respectively. I'd like to know if any other Enfuse adjustments make for better results.

  2. @Reed, what I do for highlights is to adjust the the image that is to the right of the middle exposure, then sync the rest of the images. You may still have to adjust a bit once the enfused image has been created, but its faster then adjusting individually.

    @Kevin, yes you can use more then 3 bracketed images, I have used as many as 7 with no issues.

  3. Are you also adding some flash exposures? I am still trying to figure how to get the best HDR or Enfuse images, but still looks fair at best.

    if you add any flash, do you use multiple flash, or just one bouncing backwards behind the camera at -1 stop?

    would like to be able to master this for my interior window exposures

  4. Hi Guys,
    This ain't Rocket Science, once you have a camera that can shoot 5 brackets, D7100 etc.

    1st - set camera for 5 brackets, -/+ 2 stops, results will be = -4 /-2 /0 /+2 /+4

    next - Indoors compensation (-) 1.3 Outdoors compensation (+) .3

    next - Exposure Fusion or just Fusion - Process the 5 brackets per image.

    next - Fusion is a "Glutton" for Memory = bare minimum 8, recommended 16

    "Results" = 90% + will be stunning, talk a walk on the easy, not techie side.


  5. @ Reed : it sounds like you have an efficient system in place but for others perhaps viewing this post: one way to speed up workflow is to add the negative highlights adjustment explained in the book to the general development preset which can be applied on import to all files . (Take a sample image, apply the "Enfuse import" preset to it, then slide the highlight slider to negative 100 : then CTRL click on the preset itself in the presets tab and choose "Update with current settings" : then apply that revised preset whenever importing new RAW files. This is actually my standard import : all the darker brackets will be under exposed further, revealing better highlight detail, and as you go more and more over-exposed, the brackets actually have no retrievable highlight detail anyway so the fact that the slider is all the way to the left has no bearing. You don't need to go though each bracketed set assessing highlight detail, though as Larry says, you might find, especially with this method, that your very underexposed/ highlight-retrieved brackets (on average scenes at least) can be excluded from the stack/ blend. In answer to HEV's original question it really does help with capturing extreme scenes containing lamps etc. We illustrate how in the book and video. Re: adjusting the actual Enfuse Saturation and Contrast sliders to greater amounts than the preset levels for exposure fusion (which advise giving maximum priority to the Exposure slider) , I am interested to hear you have generated good results, though having experimented with different settings in both extreme interiors and more manageable exterior shots myself, I have not noticed an appreciable difference. Possibly an increase in saturation priority may be helpful for some scenes. I have found that all enfused files need some sort of post-processing (a slight increase in contrast mainly) and it is easier to use the very precise controls afforded by the develop module in Lightroom on the enfused tiff file rather than trying to second guess what settings might suit certain shooting conditions pre-blend. But there are no hard and fast rules of course. It's good to hear that you have evolved a method which clearly delivers.

  6. I stopped by Simon's website, and I love your work Simon.

    Myself, I have played with these techniques, and one thing I do not like about them is I feel like I am shooting based on how my software will handle the images. It almost feels backwards in a way to me, as if my shooting decisions are made by trying to interpret how a computer algorithm with handle the scene. Maybe that only bugs me, I don't know. And then again, maybe my own process is just as backwards, but I am just more accustomed to it. This is probably just a hangup I have with the technique. I notice Simon's images are much clearer and more natural looking than anything I have ever gotten, so I obviously have a lot to learn when it comes to this whole process.

    Thanks for the info Larry and all. I look forward to playing with these techniques more in the future.

  7. To get a wider bracket with my Canon camera, I set AEB to 2 stops between each image and shoot in Aperture Priority mode. I set the exposure compensation all the way down, shooting mode to 2 sec timer and let it rip. In timer mode, the camera will take all three images in succession. I then adjust the exposure compensation all of the way up and take another 3 images. I will have a duplicate image in the center of the sequence when it's done which just gets thrown out. This technique is a work around to touch the camera the fewest times. In the future I plan to get a Camranger which will allow me to produce wider brackets than the camera's built in 3 exposures.

    Mostly, I'm using flash these days. I might have a home this week where I will be shooting by myself and can take as much time as I like and experiment a little with adding flash frames to brackets. I typically shoot a three shot bracket regardless as a safety measure both with room lights on and off. I find that many times it's possible to manipulate a single image to a deliverable quality in LR and PS given a good starting point. Too much window pull can look artificial. A little bit of exposure difference and some subtle reflections in the glass are normal and expected. Also, if the lighting is too flat, the character of a room can be lost.

  8. Is anyone doing flashless hdr/bracketing? I have no problem getting bright enough brackets but flash helps with bright lamps, no? I want to perfect a way of doing interiors without flash so I can eliminate some of the issues flash causes. Like flash spots on surfaces and color issues.

  9. @Eric - I am using a flash exposure, oftentimes more than one, depending upon follow-on rooms / spaces as I find it helps with keeping the colors more true. I only bounce one flash, sometimes with an umbrella, sometimes I shoot through, other times I balance the flash on doors and bounce off the corners. I shoot a lot of lofts in downtown St. Louis, so I try to travel light and don't want to hump several light stands and other stuff all over creation. I've gotten really quick about it because I know now almost instinctually (is that even a word?) what power to use and where to place the flash in most situations to get the result I want. I learn something every day, though, and today is no different.

    @Simon - thank you for helping me to kick my RE photography business to the next level since reading your e-book. Once again you have taught me something - I see the effect of the preset you apply to your imports in your photos. While I really like your results and your overall style, I prefer to have a little lighter and more "airy" result. I think I will test a little softer touch on the highlight slider to see if I can get some improvements in mine, too. Thanks again!

    @Andrew - I think it is normal to feel that you are shooting for the for the software. I have felt like that ever since I started shooting real estate four or five years ago. Then I was just layering with Photoshop, but I would shoot one frame that exposed the windows perfectly, one that exposed the interior as closely as possible and maybe one for a side room and kind of cut them up and put them all together in Photoshop. Then I discovered HDR and screwed around with dozens of HDR programs before settling on Google Nik HDR Efx, shooting the brackets that I knew would best suit my results for that application and then doing the same for LR / Enfuse. Perhaps someday there will be a way to get it right out of the camera.

    I think even Ansel Adams shot in a similar manner for his zone system.

    @HEV - get Scott Hargis e-book "Lighting Interiors" and you will learn techniques and positioning of your flash to avoid unwanted reflections and other issues.

    Great conversation!

  10. I have never, in 7 years of shooting Pro RE, used a flash when shooting exposure fusion. We demand "Every Light in the house be "On" prior to shooting.

  11. I frequently use a properly exposed room shot with a bounce reflected nice foto flash exposure, I get truer colors and more detail when fused with a flash exposure.

  12. I am currently doing my first shot to expose for the windows (may need to mask later) 3 shot 2 stop bracket and then a flash shot. When I look at room detail, woodwork and moulding etc it just seems to pull out more detail.

  13. @Tom - in step 2 you say "next Indoors compensation (-) 1.3 Outdoors compensation (+) .3". Does this mean your indoor brackets are effectively -5.3/-3.3/-1.3/+0.7/+2.7?

  14. Yes Robert, over the years this is our best combo to minimize window "blow out' and still catch into the dark shadows of the room. We lock U1 for outodoor and U2 for indoor, this way we can adjust for special occasions and click back to preferred base settings.

    Please remember, We "Demand" every light in the house to be on when we arrive, No burnt out bulbs.

    Ask questions any time, Tom Everitt

  15. Yes Robert, over the years this is our best combo to minimize window "blow out' and still catch into the dark shadows of the room. We lock U1 for outodoor and U2 for indoor, this way we can adjust for special occasions and click back to preferred base settings.

    Please remember, We "Demand" every light in the house to be on when we arrive, No burnt out bulbs

    Tom Everitt

  16. @Tom - thanks for the confirmation.I've been hesitant to use such a dark ambient, even at the expense of blown out windows. I will try this technique on my next shoot and see if I can achieve your caliber of results.

    Many thanks!

  17. @Simon - I have been experimenting with Enfuse, but recently switched to Photomatix as they seem to have really improved their product for real estate photographers. I'm wondering if you have compared the two recently and have any thoughts. Your images are gorgeous. I live on an island and deal with bright view shots all the time ...they are my biggest challenge.

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