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Lighting: When Not to Light a Room

Author: Garey Gomez

2 ambient exposures one stop apart, blended in PS.

A big part of real estate photography is becoming comfortable and proficient with a workflow that gets results you want, without taking too much time. Efficiency is the name of the game. Many photographers, myself included, use small strobes to light the interior to overcome the dynamic range and augment the available light, and if you have a solid workflow that is repeatable in most rooms you shoot, you might find yourself simply defaulting to that workflow without giving any thought as to whether it would help the photo you are making.

While most of the time it makes sense to bring out the flash, there are times when it is just not needed. At a shoot last week I was in such a situation, and it served as a good reminder to me:

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

2 ambient exposures one stop apart, blended in PS.

The light in this home was fantastic, and because the architect was thoughtful about the design of the house and its windows (and painted the walls white), I did not have to contend with much dynamic range shooting the interior, and color casts were minimal and easily taken care of with my Lightroom preset. With low dynamic range, and with really sexy natural light, I decided to leave my lighting equipment in my bag. In this modern home, I think it works great.

It's great to know how to use your tools, but it takes a little restraint--something I am always working on--to know when to use them, and sometimes more importantly, when NOT to use them.

Are there any situations in which you change up your typical workflow? I'd love to hear about it.

Garey Gomez is an architectural photographer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a three-time PFRE Photographer of the Month, and the creator of the Mastering Real Estate Photography tutorial series.

6 comments on “Lighting: When Not to Light a Room”

  1. Thanks for your comment, Gary,

    I’ve been guilty of just following the brackets followed by flash workflow for every room in the past. But as I’ve come to understand light more, I agree with you that in certain interiors, like the type you describe, bright rooms with overcast sky or indirect sun or even baths with little to no ambient light, I don’t use flash. I’ve come a long way from 5 bracket fusing with LR/Enfuse to hand blending and it does speed things up when I can truly “see the light!”

  2. Garey,

    I too have been going into a shoot with my two flash units and ambient lighting exposures, and thinking what the heck do I need to use my flash, when some of the natural lighting looks beautiful.

    I am trying to look more closely at the scene, room and lighting and as one of our fellow PFRE blog RE photographers said, let the ambient lighting do the heavy lifting. I see many rooms where I wasted time lighting when i could have shot it with available light. unfortunately, I get into reflex motion of doing my regular lighting.
    @Garey when you are exposing 2 ambient exposures, one stop apart, are you exposing 1/2 stop over the meter, and 1/2 stop under the meter for the dynamic range?

  3. At first I thought I was not qualified to comment on this because I gave up my flash units about 8 years ago. Then I thought "What the heck"

    I am a very bigly proponent of fast mussel memory workflow. I have not been in many homes that have lighting or layouts I have not seen before. As I shoot with all natural light I instinctively know what effort it will take in PP to get it right. I can say lately that better than 90% of the shots require no great effort in PP without the use of a flash. That is contrary to "sometimes" not using a flash. I guess it's just what you become accustom to.

    I also have changed the way I shoot over the pas few years. That came after the realization that LR built in HDR (exposure blending) workflow has some amazing side benefits. The biggest is the amazing noise reduction that comes with it on top of the expanded natural light dynamic range.

    With a three shot +- 3 stop raw set the chances of the same pixels firing wrong with luminance noise disappear. The same goes for color noise and color shift in the 3 image set. Then comes those "strange color casts" on the walls. I just stop and look at the wall before I shoot. Just stopping for a few seconds and looking for those casts before the shot reveals the color casts are not strange at all. They are there. True some will need tweaking later on but rarely would the use of a flash be worth the time to me.

    That leaves us to that "other room" in the same frame with the different base color lighting. I just look at both rooms as major and minor while I am shooting. One will be right and the other wrong. I meter and make sure WB is right for the room of focus and the Magic Brush with masking in LR takes care of the other with a few swipes shifting the WB just enough to get it close.

    Mind you this is still RE not Arch photography. I'm not making the argument to dump the flash. There is no question you can come up with superior results using blended flash all the time. I'm saying that the improvements in equipment and LR have taken away the necessity to use flash not on the exceptional room but on 90% of the situations I have encountered. It wasn't always that way but it is today and in today's rising competitive business environment we should evaluate everything that impacts the time we spend in our workflow. Of course composition is the king and always will be. It is quickly turning into the only differentiation that counts as the advances in equipment and SW become attainable for everyone even those with phones in their pockets (oh the horror).

    Those that produce quality with the least amount time involved will tend to have a better chance to "out profit" those that produce the highest quality images (that the untrained eye can't appreciate) while taking twice as long on and off site. Please note I'm not arguing against "Quality" or for "Good Enough." I am saying in most cases, not occasional cases, you can achieve higher quality than you think if you open your mind and get out of "this is the best and it's my way and I'm the best and it's the only way" mentality.

  4. @Larry, yes, the key is as you said, understanding light! With some practice and getting to know how your equipment handles certain lighting conditions, you can really focus on just what you need without overshooting or without unnecessarily fighting with light.

    @Eric, "let the ambient do the heavy lifting" is a big part of my workflow for sure. It has been my experience that looking for the good ambient light (and sometimes forcing it with a longer exposure) is usually easier and, subjectively, better looking than manipulating it with supplemental lighting. I still use a flash to balance the window exposure in most shots, because in my workflow that is what's fastest and easiest. But I don't use much of that flash frame... mostly it's for the windows and rarely much else. Quick and easy.

    I actually don't look at my meter anymore. It's been a few years since I have. I find the live exposure preview using Live View is really accurate, so instead of watching the meter or histogram, I just look at the picture on the back of my camera as I adjust my shutter speed. In other words, I turn the SS dial until I see a pretty photo (nice natural light throughout the frame). Almost always, the windows are blown out to some degree. Just one ambient frame in my normal workflow. Then I repair the blown windows with a single, crudely bounced flash frame (a single speedlight bounced above the camera, handheld). No need to look at the meter - just going by looks and familiarity with my camera. Hope that helps.

    @Frank. Your last sentence is exactly why I wrote this. Get out of your standard approach if the conditions don't require your standard approach. Normally a window might be many stops brighter than the interior, but in this case that I shared, the windows were only a stop brighter than what I though my camera could recover. These were REALLY close to being pulled off with one single RAW file! No need for flash, or in your case, a wide +- 3 stop bracket!

  5. Hi Garey!

    I feel so lucky that I finally found some real estate photographers. It's been just one and a half year since I started working as a real estate photographer. So, you can imagine that I'm not that perfect like highly professional ones. Usually, I carry 2 flash units, sometimes even 3 because I'm not that sure about the effectiveness of the interior design of the house. If the design is good, the photo was always good. Yet, there were some times when it didn't. Unlike your case, I wasn't lucky always. Sometimes, the interiors were good, sometimes, worse. Though, the effect of sexy natural light is quite convincing when people saw the images, still, there were issues with color & light clarity. My camera, strobes of lights, flash & even the natural light were good, but the clicked image was still less than 80% of what I was always expecting.

    Besides all the problems, there was another, too many client leads. Being a beginner real estate photographer with so many problems, I was thinking that maybe, it's not my cup of tea. Still, with a leap of faith, I looked out for some people who can edit my photos in such a way that I can get what I really want. There were some people called 'ImagesRetouch', not sure about the nomenclature but yeah, it's same. They helped me a lot. What they did is they edited my image via HDR image blending technique to remove the imperfections, light correction & many small issues. Though, photo privacy is a big issue, yet they are best at maintaining it. For a single photo, they almost took 2-3 minutes to remove the imperfections. Now, neither I have to carry the strobes of lights & flash units nor I have to worry about natural light or interior design. I was quite impressed & relaxed. So, I thought of sharing my personal experience with you.

  6. Except for the reports that would fall into the ultra-fast category, I always carry an NG54 and an NG27. Whether or not to use them depends on the style my client prefers and the scene.

    I try to respect the light of the scene if it is attractive, but if it is not or I need to compensate then I illuminate with flash. However, once I have decided to use flash I continue with it for the whole group of photographs of that particular room in order to avoid extra work with the white balance...

    The visual style that clients prefer also influences the use of the flash or not. Some prefer overexposed exteriors and that allows me to raise the exposure to values that match the dynamic range of the interior. Some want color and texture to be seen in the shadows, then it's useful to use the flash.

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