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Pondering the Deep Questions: Natural Light or Strobe?

Published: 02/02/2008
By: larry

There is a wonderful discussion that has been going on for a couple days in the PFRE flickr discussion group. dtruax pointed out that there are several different styles or approaches to interior photography on display in the flickr photo discussion group. One approach uses mostly natural light and the other uses multiple strobes to light a room. There are practitioners of both these techniques that create outstanding images. dtruax asks, "which is more often wanted by the agent in the groups opinion. Both relate the space but communicate it in different ways? Is it a style point more than a practical one?" This subject gets at the essence everyones approach to interior photography. The discussion provides some great of points of view from by practitioners that use these two approaches. To me one of the most significant aspects of this discussion is that it revels and illustrates these two approaches and acknowledges that beautiful interior images can be created with either approach. dtruax's question about which approach agents want for real estate is important and whatever you believe the answer is should drive your approach to interior photography. However, there are some underlying assumptions in dtruax's question that should be examined:

  1. Agents are visually sophisticated enough to appropriately choose an effective style for marketing.
  2. Agents choose photography based on it's style

I think both of these assumptions are false. Some of my best friends are agents and over the last 9 years I've gotten to know the 80 or so agents in our office quite well. There's only a handful of those 80 agents that are visually sophisticated enough to use professional photography for their listings. Those agents that do use professional photographers don't have a wide variety of styles to choose from and in fact they don't choose a photographer by style they choose by price or availability; mostly price. Agents in some locations may have access to a big enough variety of photographers that they choose by style but in the 80 agent office I'm familiar with, agents only know about a few real estate photographers. Mainly the two that are in the family of agents in the office.

The remarkable thing to me is that in 9 years of being an agent in this office there has never been a photographer that came to one of the office meetings to promote photographic services. An this is one of the larger real estate offices on Seattle's eastside. Just yesterday a real estate photographer told me he visited a office meeting of the biggest office in Bellevue, WA (Seattle's eastside) and the broker told him he was the first photographer that had come to a office meeting to talk about photography. And this office is about 5 or 6 miles from Bill Gates Lake Washington water front pad. Homes in this area start around $1,000,000. Nothing under $500,000 is even livable.

I think eventually there will be enough real estate photographers to provide style choice and agents will become visually sophisticated enough to be able to choose based on style but I think that state is several years away. For now, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. All you have to do is show up and you'll get business.

6 comments on “Pondering the Deep Questions: Natural Light or Strobe?”

  1. there won't be an end on this issue. my oppinion is that there is no issue actually. because it's not a q of how is better in general, but how is better for certain conditions.

    it's like asking... how's better, walking or biking? well... it depends... right?

  2. Strobe is the best way to "bring the outside in." I have never done a shoot that did not require lots of strobe lighting to make the scene look good. In only a few cases have I found natural light to be enough to really make the interiors "pop." In some cases I have used more natural light - the sun pouring in the windows to create interesting shadows, along with additional strobe light, to create some interesting shots, but mostly I find strobe lighting (and lots of it) make the interiors appear better.

    As for agents being sophisticated about photography - my experience has shown they are not. They think their point-and-shoot photographs are just fine. However, I see a trend with higher priced properties (and their owners that are demanding professional photography) that means we will all have more work. Just today I did two shoots - one of a small condo and another of a 12,000 sq. ft. home. Whew! it was quite a day.

    Style choice? I don't know. I think the really good photographer has an eye for shooting properties that make the images very appealing, hence, drawing the prospective buyer to call, or email the agent for more information. I guess we all have our style and it is all very good - just different.
    Style probably includes using snoots to highlight a feature that is interesting, maybe a barn door to highlight something and maybe a scrim to get you out of the photo. Light is almost everything - but not quite.

    I love my job!

    I always think of my photography as a tool for the agent - a tool to get prospective buyers excited enough to call or email the agent for more information.

    For whatever that's worth!

  3. I'm on staff at a major real estate office in my city, so all my (current) business comes from the agents in that office. I shoot everything from low-dollar "investment" properties to the nicest houses in the market. And while I believe that multiple flash is usually the way to go, there's still a place for available light.

    We're trying to represent the environment realistically. In some cases, there's no substitute for available light. But in the majority of cases I've found that in order to realistically portray the environment, well thought out lighting is a necessity.

    When you boil it down, we're documentary photographers. We have to create a faithful representation of the houses we shoot. Sometimes available light is perfect for creating that representation; more often we need to supply extra light so our cameras can record what we see.

    A non-flash example: last week I shot a house that has a real live million-dollar view. Mountains in the foreground (about 8 miles away) framing mountains further off in the distance. The view is to the south, which spells trouble at this time of year. But it was an overcast day, with dramatic clouds in the sky. This actually made the view better.

    But.... if I exposed for the sky, the ground was way too dark. If I exposed for the ground, the sky was blown out. You already know where I'm going with this... I put the camera on a tripod and took two shots to get good exposures for sky and ground, and composited them in Photoshop.

    Ethics? Please - I did this to create a faithful representation of what I saw, something that was beyond the capabilities of my camera (without a neutral density filter to knock down the sky a couple of stops).

    This is a perfect analog to the argument of available/supplemental light - we use whatever we have to in order to get a good representation of the subject. We're not removing things that we don't want buyers to see, and we're not adding things that aren't there. We're presenting what actually exists, in the best light (for lack of a better term).

    So, in summary.... it's not about a "philosophy" of using only available light or only multiple flashes. It's about using whatever approach produces the best results. Agents (and, just as importantly, sellers) don't give a rat's ass what you do to get the shot, as long as it looks good. Those who argue that only one approach or the other is correct, are missing the point entirely.

  4. Oh, by the way... call me cynical, but I don't think it's a question of "visual sophistication." I've seen some of the pictures these agents put on MLS and in their marketing - they're perfectly willing to put crappy pictures out in front of the public.

    While it's clear that some of them are tragically clueless, I think that most can recognize the difference between crap and quality. For the most part, agents who refuse to pay us for good photography are just too cheap to spring for our services.

    There's still one agent I'm trying to figure out. (He's in my office, so he's fair game.) I don't know if he takes his own pictures or has a member of his "team" (three other family members) take them. But they're godawful. They actually use a fisheye lens for interiors, complete with vignetting that puts wide swaths of black in the corners. They sometimes (mercifully) crop out those corners, but it still leaves horrible chromatic aberrations no more than *one half* of the way out to the corners. (I'd include a link, but I don't want to be responsible for making you sick.)

    So - clueless, or cheap? Like I said, I'm still trying to figure that out. I'm leaning toward clueless.

    Here's the kicker - this guy is a top producer. I have to tread very lightly when I approach this guy about photography, for fear of offending him. If I were responsible for making him walk... let's just say I'd be starting my (independent) photography business pretty soon.

    A top producer with uniformly crappy photography? This can't possibly call into question our value to agents and sellers, can it? (shudder)

  5. Aloha,

    Regarding this subject I usually shoot existing light when there is nothing to see outside through the windows or the client is on a tight budget. I find that using the light filtering in through the windows softens the room and makes it inviting. If I use additional light it's only to fill in the dark areas.

    I also use existing light if my client just wants some quick shots to put on the MLS while the home is still under construction or being staged. I would say it's almost impossible not to use some fill light unless you have sunlight filtering in on two sides. In short I use as little additional day light as possible for day shots.

    I always try to preview the home first before I shoot to decide when to shoot. Most often I shoot day shots to show the interior and the outside views. When I do shoot day shots my goal is to make the interior look bright, clean and airy. If the home has sufficient lighting on tables and recessed lighting in the the ceiling then I shoot a sunset and work into the evening to capture the existing house lighting and add my higlights and floorlights. I shoot through a gobo which works very nice to splash light over the entire room if that room doesn't have enough lights and then add a few highlights as well.

    I prefer sunset and evening over day shots for impact and atmosphere. This is the time when most enjoy their home and this to me is the most beautiful lighting that make a home inviting. Don't let the client tell you when to shoot just beacuse it's convenient for them besides all day shots are boring. If your good and your comfortable shooting sunsets and interior evening shots suggest it strongly if the home is attractive from the outside and get creative.
    I guarantee if your shots come out the way you want you'll hear WOWs like you never heard before.

    PS If you have a chance to preview the home be sure to look at the bulbs being used in the lamps and the ceiling. I ran into a home owner who decided to change all the bulbs to flourecents and didn't catch it until I starting shooting and noticed everything was going a little to green for my taste.
    Thank you Photo Shop!

    Oh I have a question for all those photographers who shoot sunset or night shots and the lights turn out YELLOW ORANGE!

    Are you going for that look for some reason, is it because your outside and you think you have to use your daylight setting. Remember your shooting the home and the sky is your backdrop. Using your tungsten setting will render the lights natural white and not turn everything in the shot orange. It also has a big advantage in that it turns dark grey clouds royal blue when you shoot just after sunset until the sky goes black.

    This is off the subject but I thought you guys might enjoy it..

    I received this e-mail from a client the other day and thought I had lost her for sure as a client because she lost the listing because of me.....

    Dear Ed,

    The last property you photographed and staged for me you did an amazing job and was a raving success. With all the owner’s friends oohing and aahing over the photos and saying, "why in the world would you want to sell such a beautiful house, they took it off the market!

    Are you saying the owners took their home off the market because they fell in love with their home all over again because of the photos? Unfortunately that's a yes. It was the staging and the photos both.

    Now there's a double edged sword for ya.

    Ed Medeiros Honolulu

  6. Wow, I am so glad to see these comments and that I am not alone in the world. First of all, as to whether agents are sophisticated enough, sadly, most aren't. They are definitely more interested in price than quality, but only at first. My return clients get the fact that they will never be able to duplicate my efforts on their own and they don't want to either. When they get the ultra positive feedback from their sellers, then they get it and their hooked. Plus the fact that I baby them all from agent to seller and offer to help ready each room as we play the game of "shuffle", shuffling stuff out of one room and into the next.
    As far as lighting, gosh, each and every room is different and what with 5-15 rooms and scenes per house you gotta be ready for anything. Even though sometimes adding flash to a room will make it look dramatically different than to the naked eye, you have to use it is some cases. I had one agent tell another agent that the photos are MUCH better than the actual house! So, yes, our job is to get them in the door, the rest is up to the agent.
    I've been doing this for five years, so many crazy stories, so little time.
    Marcie Heitzmann, Orange County, CA

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