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Lighting Alternatives for Real Estate Photography

Published: 02/07/2007
By: larry

In the flicker discussion group Gary Weinheimer gives us a great example of the difference between using a single strobe (the photo above) and using 3 strobes (the photo below).

Pretty dramatic difference!

The point I want to raise is that after you master the basics like straight walls, correcting lens distortion and getting white balance correct, the single most important factor that contributes to the quality of an interior image is what approach you use for lighting.

There seems to be a natural progression in real estate photographers approach to lighting:

  • No lighting equipment - just using a tripod
  • No lighting equipment and use photo-editing and/or HDR techniques
  • A single on camera strobe used in automatic mode
  • A single on camera strobe used in manual mode
  • Multiple strobes

Each one of these lighting approaches give successively better results. An to my eye multiple strobes give the best results. I was satisfied with a single on-camera strobe until I saw the results that Gary, Scott, Aaron and M. James were getting with multiple strobes.

Make no mistake this technique is more difficult to master. There is more equipment to carry but to me carrying a little more equipment and learning these techniques is worth the effort.

I know that some will argue that one can get good results by using HDR techniques via software like Photomatix. But I see very few interior shots processed with Photomatix that do not have strange and noticeable artifacts.

So to summarize, all of these lighting approaches work well in many situations but I believe that being able to take complete control of the interior lighting by using multiple strobes gives the best results in the widest number of situations.

7/6/07 Update: I just noticed that David Hobby over at the Strobist has a better description than I've done of this lighting progression. David calls it "The Lighting Journey" and describes seven levels that photographers pass through as they strive to improve their lighting technique. David describes this phenomena beautifully.

18 comments on “Lighting Alternatives for Real Estate Photography”

  1. Wow! To say I'm honored doesn't quite put it into words. Thank you Larry for using my imagery to demonstrate your point. I would only want to add one very minor point to your entry. You need to be aware which technique works for which situation. I've been known to use all of the techniques you mentioned on a single shoot. As long as you have the tools at your finger tips and know how to use them you can make the choice how you want the image to look in the final outcome. It's like having a full tool box with everything you need to fix that finicky Ferrari transmission at your disposal.
    Thanks again Larry, I really appreciate it.

  2. Just for the purpose of presenting another point of view. As an experiment, I took the image above (hope that was okay)that was shot with a single strobe and processed it in photoshop and came up with an excellent image very close to the three strobe image that any of my clients would have been happy with. The kitchen was not as brightly lit but viewable. To each his own, but I would save considerable time not setting up two more lights. I am integrating more strobes as appropriate and always have at least one extra flash with me. But most rooms simply don't need it. Not for the bulk of real estate photography. I'd be curious to know how long it took to set up this shot with the three strobes.

    And I really like this image.

  3. Mark,

    Maybe 5 minutes... The first thing I do when I walk in the house is set up two light stands. So all I do is place them.

  4. Mark,

    That's funny, because I did exactly the same thing, but decided not to comment. Everyone has to decide what works best for them. I usually have extra flash equipment with me, but seldom use it

  5. I like to think of it in two ways:

    1) from a time & cost/benefit aspect. If you're producing 12 finished images for your client, and you spend an extra 5 minutes on each one, that's an extra hour you spend in the property. But if Gary had gone with the one-flash version, which took him maybe a minute to make, he'd have to spend time in post - 5 minutes? 10 minutes? Even starting with a well-lit shot, I already spend about 5 minutes per image in post. So the questions for me are: Where do I want to spend my time, and how good can I make it look? Which leads me to Point Two:

    2) Assuming the time & effort are equal between "front-end" lighting (on-site) or "back-end" lighting (post-production), then which will produce the better results? For myself, my skills with the camera far outweigh my skills with Photoshop. Likewise, my interest in the camera far outweighs my interest in Photoshop.

    In a nutshell, that's why I do it the way I do it.

  6. Thanks Scott, you explained my thoughts perfectly. One other little thing to consider is the fact that in a perfect world you've already collected the money for this job, if you spend more time in post in means that you can't be out making money on another job.

    Now I realize that this assumes that you have enough work to keep you busy 100% of the time but the it does seem to be a better use of time to get as much done on the front end of the job as you can and then go out and do or get the next job instead of sitting in the office doing post work.

    It also means I'm not up half the night doing post work to get the work out for my clients... My photoshop skill are fair to midland but I'm a photographer first and post edit guy second...

  7. This issue is a stylistic one for me. I simply don't care for the look of strobe lighting as ambient (whether it be single or multiple flashes). Thus, I have decided to spend more of my time in post than set up numerous lights.

  8. A timely topic!
    I was only this morning playing around with my second SB-800 speedlight (I'm a Nikon man) and the various wireless remote options. The second flash to light up the "next" room always gives a great result... I'm even considering a third SB-800.

  9. I should add, if you're shooting interiors during the day and the curtains are open, then the colour temp of the flash will be the same as daylight (5500K), so there will be no hideous mixture of white balance. The warm glow of an incandescent is all very well, but it's often overdone.

  10. Not entirely. The natural light coming from the windows is rarely direct sunlight, but more often come from the sky, not the sun. So the approriate WB is either cloudy 6500°K (cloudy wheather), shade-8000°K (blue sky) or sunlight 5000°K (direct sun). Not counting sunsets, or two sided rooms, one facing 8000°K north and the other the 5000°K sun.

  11. I always shoot with two strobes, one on camera and one off usually, and am definitely planing to purchase at least two more. The extra minutes it takes to set them up is worth it in much less computer time later. Often I don't have to do anything other than resize them.

  12. great comments. I get decent results with one 580EX on-camera, often (but not always) bounce flash. I sometimes shoot large vaulted living areas (and some even have dark or wooden ceilings), so one flash (even with FEC +3) isn't always enough power. I would also like to use a 2nd flash to help even out hot spots and glare and such. I don't yet have a stand. The few times I've used 2 flashes I've just handheld the 2nd strobe. Can any of you get me started with some basic tips for using a 2nd flash off camera? Is the 2nd flash usually direct or bounce? I know every situation is different. Do I absolutely need a stand, or can I start by experimenting with handholding the 2nd. My 2nd flash is a 420EX, so I don't think it allows me FEC, I think it's always full power.

  13. Jeff,

    I've been integrating the second flash and have yet to use a stand because I usually find something to set it on. But, a stand is with me in my vehicle and today, after all this discussion, I actually brought it into the house. With a stand you'll have more versatility and options. If you have your camera on a tripod, I guess there's no reason you can't handhold it. I don't think you have to worry about flash shake. 🙂 I hate shooting with a tripod so I don't use one.

  14. Jeff,

    You might try this site

    I personally carry 6 SB (nikon strobes) lights because they have a built in pc plug. There are a few other lights that have this feature but you can generally find SB's on E Bay at a decent price. In my lighting kit I carry 2 Bogen 3373 compact stands and a Bogen 682B Monopod that I often call into action as a light stand. I also have two wescott double fold umbrellas. I have all kinds of light modifiers but generally I have everything I need to light something like a GRAND ballroom if I should need to. It's better to walk in over prepared than under, think the boy scout motto "be prepared".

    My whole set up fits in two Pelican 1510 cases (airline carry on size) and a long stand bag so it's not huge. I am rarely at a loss for equipment if I need it. I've only ever used all six light once, but you know, I sure was glad I had all six at that time. Anyway, thats my 2 bits on a lighting set up.

    If you want to know more drop me a line


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