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Shooting Brackets For Exposure Fusion and HDR

Published: 16/04/2010

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There are many real estate photographers that have realized that shooting a series of bracketed exposures and using the Exposure Fusion (EF) feature in Photomatix or one of the many other EF applications is a quick and easy way to getting good quality interior shots. Not as high a quality as multiple off camera flashes but good quality.

To say it in a little different way, using EF is many times faster than using HDR (tone mapping) and then doing post processing in Photoshop, Lightroom or Aperture to get the images to look "natural". With EF you usually get closer to "natural" without extensive postprocessing.

We Canon shooters are limited to only being able to shoot 3 frames when shooting brackets. This raises the question, are 3 bracketed shots enough? Of course, the answer is it depends on the situation. Some times 3 bracketed frames 2 stops apart are enough. But then there is always those bright summer days and large south facing windows where 3 brackets 2 stops apart won't do the job. But how do you know if 3 brackets are enough?

As a demonstration that 3 shots aren't always enough and what the final image looks when the brackets don't capture the whole range of contrast, I did some test shots in a room with a large window in a moderately (not extreme) bright situation. I've put the processed images in a slide show that will go fullscreen so the differences can be seen easily. These are all shot with my Canon 5D MK II with a 24-70mm f/2.8, processed in EF in Photomatix.  All the shots were done within a few minutes so there is not a significant change in outside lighting and there is no inside lighting. No adjustments were done in Lightroom except the ones mentioned in #3. The tests are as follows:

  1. 3 JPGs shot 2 stops apart: I did this because I wanted to see if it was possible to tell the difference between shooting JPG and shooting RAW and exporting TIFF to Photomatix.
  2. 3 RAWs shot 2 stops apart then exported to TIFFs and processed in Photomatix.
  3. 3 RAWs shot 2 stops apart and expanded to 7 shots 1 stop apart in Lightroom... this is a Canon shooters way of getting 7 shots with a body that only shoots 3 auto exposure brackets. I know you Nikon guys are laughing. Note: the original post and the post says I expanded 3 to 9 frames. That was an error, I expanded 3 to 7 frames in Lightroom.

When shooting only 3 brackets the tendency is to not recognize when you aren't capturing enough highlights and enough shadows. Here are some observations about the results:

  1. There is a slight but noticeable difference between processing JPGs and TIFFs in Photomatix. There is a slight color difference which is to be expected since the JPG processor in the 5D is baking in some color rendition choices in the JPGs.
  2. There is a big difference between the image created with 9 shots and the two created with 3 shots. Probably the difference is more to do with the wider dynamic range given to Photomatix than the fact that the frames are one stop apart.

How do you make sure you are capturing a wide enough dynamic range when you are shooting brackets? Do you just bracket like crazy or is there a way to easily figure out what the dynamic range in a scene is?

There are several methods:

  1. Shoot more brackets than you need: With this method, you just always shoot 7 brackets two stops apart so you always capture more than enough dynamic range. The problem with this approach is that while most Nikon DSLRs shoot 7 brackets with the auto exposure bracket (AEB) function Canon DSLRs will only shoot 3. For Canon shooters the Promote external controller ($299) will allow you to shoot any number of brackets with any number of stops without touching the camera. This approach allows you to just do the same thing on every shot without having to think about metering the scene. The Promote works on Nikon bodies too. You can always do this manually with out a Promote but there is a high risk that you will move the camera body slightly while working the controls.
  2. Measure the actual dynamic range: Michael Freeman has a great technique in his book, Mastering HDR Photography. In summary works like this:
    • Guess the shortest exposure needed to preserver highlights and shoot.
    • Check the highlight clipping warning and histogram. Correct exposure is the longest at which there is no highlight clipping.
    • Once the shortest exposure has been captured, set the shutter speed 2 stops slower and shoot the second frame.
    • Continue changing the shutter speed by 2 stops until the darkest shadows are mid-tones. Check this on the     histogram, the left edge of which should be in the middle of the graph.

It is worth noting that many real estate photographers doing HDR or Exposure Fusion are just shooting 3 brackets 2 stops apart and getting good results 90% of the time. What I'm talking about here is improving your work 5 or 10% of the time. It's not huge but it's significant.

The last subject in bracketing I want to mention is combining Flash with Exposure Fusion. I talk to more an more real estate photographers all the time that are adding a single Flash with Exposure Fusion. The reason is that combining one or more Flash brackets in a sequence of brackets has a positive effect on colors, white balance and make white woodwork crisper than it appears without Flash frames. The over all goal of adding Flash is to minimize post processing (adjustments needed after Photomatix processing). I'll be covering this subject in more depth in the future.

Larry Lohrman

13 comments on “Shooting Brackets For Exposure Fusion and HDR”

  1. Larry:
    My Pentax K-7 will automatically shoot a range of five without fumbling. I use the Pentax shutter release cord, and either shoot a series of 3 at 0, -2, +2, or 5 at various clicks. The range goes up to five stops in both directions, and can be set at 1/3 or 1/2 EV. The possible combinations are many and I have found a handheld light meter to be useful in figuring which method is best.

  2. I bought a Promote Control for my Nikon D700. I love this thing!!! I don't know why I didn't purchase it the first day it was released honestly. It has made life so much easier when working from a tripod. The prosumer and professional Nikons can do 9 frames of exposure bracketing (D300, D700, D3, three digit and one digit models), while the consumer models are limited to 3 frames (D90, D5000, two digit and four digit models). The irritating thing is that while the lower end models can shoot 3 frames of ±2EV, the higher end models are limited to a max of ±1EV per frame, meaning I need to shoot 5 frames of ±1EV on the D700 to get the exposure latitude of 3 of ±2EV frames from my D70. Hello Nikon, what were you thinking?! Still, holding down the bracketing button and shutter at the same time on the D700, I can take 9 exposures of ±1EV at 8fps and it will automatically stop at the last frame. This works exceptionally well without a tripod if there is enough light at higher ISOs; the frames line up quite nicely with very little movement if you are careful. For long shutter speeds however, and on a tripod, the Promote Control makes life really simple. No more limit of 9 exposures or ±1EV, no need to touch the camera or hold down a button to take the entire sequence. Just one click on the Promote and you can sit back while 15 exposures of ±2EV click away (if your crazy, that high a range would likely exceed 1/8000 shutter speed). Especially nice is that any exposures over 30 seconds will automatically be taken in bulb mode by the Promote, also without needing to touch the camera. Night HDR panoramics have become far easier for me to shoot with less mistakes and more consistent skies (since I can shoot my brackets far faster and pan to my next sequence quicker when light is rapidly changing). I'm still waiting for HDR and timelapse modes at the same time on the Promote, they say soon. Although I can do it via menus in the D700, I'm back to my limits of ±1EV when I'd rather take fewer shots at ±2EV, and no shots longer than 30 secs without bulb mode at night (star trails).

    Thanks for the link to a Canon shooter's review and thoughts.

  3. I've been adding flash to my exposure fusion lately... at least for the darkest bracketed image. It helps a lot, especially in dark rooms. I've developed a new hatred for ceiling fans, though. Adding flash without adding a ceiling-fan shadow can be an ordeal. heh.

  4. I agree with Andy on flash. I shoot the room with flash at normal exposure and then a second exposure for the windows with the flash on. I find the enfused results to be much better when flash is introduced to the second image. All the window shots (expect dining room which turned out to be OOF) on this home where taken that way...

  5. I would have thought that with all cameras having sensors these days, the sensor could be used as a reader for the light in a given room.

    MY thoughts are that on a future Camera we would have a HDR setting.
    The camera would do a reading of the room using the sensor .
    Then an automatic bracket to cover the range required would trigger.Mirror lock up , click click click.
    It might even create a separate folder for each HDR shot .
    Even combine it within the camera.I would prefer that it was done in later, so it could be tweaked by the shooter.
    Just a thought.

  6. Can't find the Promote external controller anywhere even directly through the Company. Anyone know where to get one?

  7. I have a 5D Mark II and for a room I allways shoot 9 exposures (3 exposures in 3 brackets, moving the wheel between each bracket) and this works fine with me. My problem is when I want to add a normal exposure with flash, I have to touch the camera and turn on the flash manually. This often leads to small movements of the the camera, so that flash-exposure becomes out of frame and messing up the blending in Photomatix. The Remote Controller is on my wish-list, but will it help me concerning the flash-exposure? Can I for instance program the flash through the TR-Controller? What do you guys do when you want to add a flash-exposure?

  8. Sounds like you need a better tripod rather than a remote. I dial in up to 7 images in a bracket on the dial and have no problems blending in Photomatix.

  9. Using PROMOTE CONTROLLER sounds good and I was thinking to get one, my only question is that if we use it in combination with flash for continuously shooting the HDR sequence, does it allow for the time required between frames for the flash(es) to recover?

    As I googled the web I found that using the option: "USB shutter release frame delay" a maximum delay of 5000ms (5 seconds) could be applied but it might not be sufficient for full recovery of flash(es).

    Have you guys had an issue with this? I really prefer to let the device do the shooting automatically for a complete sequence instead of triggering for each frame manually (if it is an option at all?)

    Please advise

  10. While I haven't had the Promote controller too long to be an expert, I did discover that if the timer is set, each exposure is delayed by how much time you've set the timer for. In other words, on my Canon 40D, if the timer is set for 2 sec's, that is the delay between exposures in the set. I suppose you should have fully charged batteries in your flash so that the recycle time is as short as possible.

  11. I'm a real estate agent and use an 2-year old Olymlpus E-520, a wide angle lens, and a very good tripod. I don't use flashes--I use 1-3 light lamps with either 250 or 500 watt blue bulbs. Once I set up the shot and get the lighting that I want I take shot in AUTO mode and then adjust the exposures down from -0.5 to - and then up from +0.5 to +2.5. I don't use any HDR of EF software--I only have Photoshop ELements. I look at all 11 exposures and pick one that is the best BASE shot. I typically use Photoshop tools and some plugins to lighten or pop the entire picture or selected parts of it. If there is a dark corner, dark rug, dark other room, etc. I take one of the lighter that shows that part of the picture they way I want and then layer it into the picture. For windows I find a darker exposure with the right woodwork, layer that in and then find the best exposure picture for what's outside the windows and layer those into the picture. The results seem pretty good, seem more lifelike than HDR pictures. Probably much too slow a process for pro photographers. But this is all I know how to do so far. Next camera will have multiple auto exposures and I'll have to buy and learn how to use better tools. Keep your comments comming, I have learned a lot from them.

  12. For Canon users you can get 9 exposure bracketing by using Exposure Compensation in junction with AEB. Set your camera to AEB & the EC will now go from -4 to +4. I start out at -4. For that sequence I get -4, -2 & 0. Then adjust my EC's left indicator to -3, then -2, then -1 and finally at 0. Ofcource you will get duplicate exposures at -2, -1, 0, +1 & +2. I simply delete the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th & 8th exposures. I am left with 9 exposures from -4 to +4.

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