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Summary of Using HDR for Real Estate Phototography

Published: 19/05/2008
By: larry

Larry LohrmanI'd like to synthesize and distill the information and discussions about how to approach using HDR for real estate photography.

First of all it is important to look a lot of real estate images and refine your ability to see subtle differences styles and lighting.

Next I think you must always be working to prevent committing the deadly sin of allowing the real estate photo to look unreal. The two ways this usually appears is what I call the "grunge" (walls look like they need to be washed) or "radioactive" look. In real estate work there is an expectation of reality so the more dramatically creative looks frequently see in HDR work is not appropriate for real estate work.

As an benchmark of realistic results that are possible with HDR look at the real estate images of David Palermo and Dan Achatz. David and Dan use HDR extensively and their work illustrates what is possible with HDR.

How do you approach getting realistic results with HDR for real estate work? Here is my summary:

  1. Shooting bracketed images: Use shutter speed to bracket. Many use 3 bracketed shots -2 EV, 0EV, +2 EV most DSLRs will do this with auto-bracket feature. Christian Bloch, in The HDRI Handbook, recommends spot metering on darkest part of image and lightest part of image and bracket all the way between light and dark in 1 EVor 2 EV intervals.
  2. Most popular software: Photomatix, Enfuse ( LR/Enfuse PC/Mac , Bracketeer for Mac, Enfuse Gui for PC, xFuse for Mac) Photoshop CS3 and Photomatix used together.
  3. Photomatix settings (starting point): Dan Achatz recommends (some place in the PFRE discussion group) starting values: Strength=20, Saturation=35, White Point=10, Black Point=10, Gamma=1.
  4. HDR books: Two good books on the HDR process are - The HDRI Handbook, by Christian Bloch and Mastering HDR Photography by Michael Freeman.
  5. Detail discussions: There have been some good detail discussions on using HDR for real estate photography in the PFRE flickr discussion group. here, here and here.

I'm sure there is something I've missed. Anyone care to add to the summary?

39 comments on “Summary of Using HDR for Real Estate Phototography”

  1. >>the deadly sin of allowing the real estate photo to look unreal.

    Agree, but curious if the Architectual Digest look we seem to strive for counts as unreal. Perfect yes, but also vaguely unreal as well. Maybe good for ultra high end, but in the $300,000 range?

  2. Hi Larry, I've started using Photomatix and love it, although I admit I sometimes am a bit heavy handed with the strength. My question is: on your recommended starting point settings for Photomatix what do you recommend for the "Light Smoothing" setting?

  3. theres hdr books? cant possibly imagine it being more than say 10 pages.

    "take 5 pictures of the same thing with 5 different exposures go in software"

    the end

  4. @Athol - Excellent point! AD is about as unreal as you can get!

    @David - I use Light Smoothing on one of the highest 2 settings and Luminosity up towards the max. The other recommendations are Dan Achatz's... I don't know what Dan recommendations are for Luminosity and Light Smoothing. Dan has much more experience in this area than I do. Maybe he will weigh in here.

    @Zigler - Yes, The HDRI Handbook is 344 pgs. This is a weighty subject:)

  5. M Zigler -- yeah, I was shocked to discover that there are general photography books that are longer than 10 pages, too. I mean, really; set the camera to "Auto", point it at something, push the button.......right?

  6. While these techniques are fine and sometimes produce stunning results, albeit a trifle unreal at times, there are other techniques that produce results that many times look just as good and indeed better than HDR and better than using the shadow/highlight sliders.

    A favourite technique that I use sometimes is contrast masking - all you need is one shot, not 5. A good link for learning contrast masking is found in the luminous landscape site -

    Did I mention using a Fuji S3 or S5?

  7. Enfuse works great for real estate HDR, however it does not align images so your photos have to be exactly in the same place. Anyone have any ideas how to align images that aren't perfectly aligned?

  8. @Kelly - it depends on which implementation of Enfuse you are using. The latest version of Enfuse/LR 2.0 does image alignment. See:

    This image alignment "align_image_stack" is from Hugin. You may be able to used it before running other Enfuse interfaces but Enfuse/LR runs it automatically for you.

  9. Zac,
    That was great tip. Just tried the Contrast Masking on an outside HDR shot and it give it more punch without darkening the image. I liked the layer at around 40% opacity. I've used the multiply option on some, but at only around 20% due the darkening effect. I'd use it as an extra processing step with Photoshop action on the HDR image, rather than as a replacement

  10. M.Zigler I am with you 10 pages max, how hard is it?
    Most Shooters these days have little experience just buy a camera make a website learn on the road.
    Within two years they are Rock stars.
    Digital is brilliant but how many of the new shooters could use film?
    So what we have is more and more average shooters and good software to fix the images.
    oh and a lot of Rock Stars

  11. In the original post by larry:
    3. Photomatix settings (starting point): Dan Achatz recommends (some place in the PFRE discussion group) starting values: Strength=20, Saturation=35, White Point=10, Black Point=10, Gamma=1.

    Where can I find Dan Achatz article recommending this settings? In my opinion, 20 (Strength) is too strong in Photomatix for real estate photography. But the samples in his website look very natural to me. I wonder the samples in his website are set at 20.

  12. Are HDR scripts protected under copyright law---if I have a employee using HDR to make photos and they take it with them do I have legal protection...IP??

  13. Hey everyone!

    I must say I've become obsessed with trying to gain as much knowledge as possible on HDR, but I am such a newbie. I've only done a few experiments here and there without using any external lighting and have been really disappointed with the results- even setting the tone mapping settings at recommended levels to avoid the cartoony look. I'm really wanting to create the dramatic high def look that I've seen possible in these forums, but I am worlds away from getting there I'm afraid. I've only tried photographing my dining room which is the size of a guest bedroom in a 1400 sq ft home- if you can imagine that. It has three bay windows and a standard dining room fixture- if you can imagine that too 🙂 Since this image is coming out quite distasteful in Photomatix after exposure bracketing (mid tones are pretty awful) it because small spaces are harder to expose with HDR or do I need to adjust something I'm not thinking of? It seems like the majority of people who post in these forums are avid photographers. I LOVE photography and know how to work a SLR quite well, but as far as a profession, I'm trying to get there. Still life/architecture is my passion, so I'm really putting my nose to the grind stone to really learn this and make it a full time career. I know lighting is everything, so any tips/advice would be GREATLY appreciated. I'm two seconds away from flying to a professional and getting a one on one lesson! 🙂

    Motivated and Determined!


  14. I've been shooting HDR for about a year now and really have a good time with it. Some HDR photos, to me, look radioactive and is distracting for most applications. When done well, it can really add a lot to the subject. It doesn't work for every photo, but when it does, it's great.

  15. I can't seem to get the hang of tonemapping. Everytime I have attempted HDR I haved walked away with a bad result. I prefer Enfuse, I feel it is much more user friendly and it creates a much more realistic effect which i prefer.

  16. We camera bracket our HDR real estate photos and I edit the exposures in Photomatix w/PS Elements for secondary editing. When you camera bracket interior views you are not using any flash attachments so your processed HDR photo will appear a little dark which can be remedied by applying levels, contrast, hue/sat adjustments, spot sharpening, etc to get the desired end result. The processing/editing actually takes longer than the photography. For exterior shots we do pole aerials and I process these as single-image HDRs.

  17. I'm looking for a little help here.

    I have been using image blending with very good results for several months now. I shoot with a Nikon D700 and a Nikon 14-24mm lens primarily. I am using the ProMote remote control configured to give me 7 exposures at 2 EV intervals. that covers a total of 13 EV. The measured value plus 2,4 and 6 EV each side of the measured value. A lot of thought went into this choice of exposures and I will gladly share those thoughts with anyone who is interested in why I chose the values that I did. I use Photomatix and blending with highlight and shadows adjust. My default settings are Accentuation 9.1, Blending Point 0.0, Shadows 5.6, Color Saturation 0.0, White Clip 8.8, Black Clip 9.4 and midtone 0.0. The results are generally quite good. The one issue that I am strugling with is ghosting or flaring around the windows. Does anyone have any suggestions that might help to eliminate that issue?

  18. Doug Huffines,

    I'm trying to locate you re some brilliant photos you took of my house in Mexico. Could you please contact me on Many thanks, Francine

  19. I have just started shooting some HDR with the latest version photomatix which is still a learning curve (indoors I bracket about -2, 0, +2 stops) My Nikon D-300 and D-700 only bracket at 1 stop, so I manually set my brackets.

    Normally, I shoot with fill flash or flash as a main light. Since I live in FL and shoot many homes on the beach, the high contrast between the inside lighting and the bright windows are quite severe. I use to bring in extra lighting, but since learning about HDR, I am finding this saves my butt many times. I would just like to learn more about it from others in my field. Does anyone use the pre-set settings or should I use these as a start? I'd appreciate all feed back,


  20. I've been using HDR techniques for sometime now, and have to say that real estate agents, once they use it, love it. Here's why:

    You will read and listen to long term realtors/photographers rail against the use of HDR. Same can be said of lots of 'art' photographers. I liken it to 80 year olds railing against all these new-fangled celly phones! Of course there is awful HDR photography, there is awful photography of all types, so it only stand to reason that some HDR will be bad. Here's the helps sell the house. A good external shot of a home in HDR tend s to be more brilliant, more interesting and more 'clickable' than the thousands of other thumbnails of similar homes on MLS. Your job as the photographer isn't to create a picture that makes other photographers respect you, it's to produce an image that gets people to click on the listing and schedule a showing. End of story.

    If that picture is HDR, black and white, soft focus, neon green quad-tone, it doesn't matter. What matters is clicks and showings. I have found HDR, even very heavy handed HDR, doesn't turn off buyers, it intrigues them. I've shot 15 houses in the last two months with prices from 180k to 1.6 million and used HDR techniques with all of them. To a realtor, each has found they have gotten much more interest in those homes then any they listed with traditional photography. Their sell times bear that out as well. Most gave me feedback that the photography is what drew the buyers to the house in the first place.

    HDR gets a bad rap because it adds an element we normally don't expect to see in a photo. Traditionalists don't like this for the sake of disliking change. 'Unreal' is a term tossed out quite often. Yet those same photographers don't seem to see an issue with pictures that are cropped at 4x6 inches representing reality. Or bumping contrast levels, or shooting it through a high-pass filter for sharpness, or any number of other techniques that alter the shot. I guess those are just more 'real'. are being paid to get butts in the door, not to satisfy the whims of photographers who want to tie one hand behind your back. Take photos the way you want to. If HDR works for your business, use it.

  21. Since discovering HDR I feel that I have discovered a whole new exciting world within the art I have loved for over 30 years....But I have a number of problems in some of my end results, some of which have perhaps been solved in previous replies... Thanks Guys ! However one I am struggling with is GRAINY pictures and in some cases very ugly speckled colour break up on the processed photo... Can anybody help me to overcome this as I have obtained a full time contract with a large estate agent who love HDR apart from this very evident problem... Another one is colour change and breakdown
    I eagerly away your replies... From sunny rural Shropshire in England

  22. I have the latest version of Photomatix, but still finding it non-intuitive for my real estate photography. I started shooting multiple lighting again using my Nikon D-300, and two Nikon speed lights. mostly shoot in manual to control the lights, and fire with pocket wizards. I either use auto bracket at 1 stop (d-3 only does 1 stop brackets) and take 5 exposures, or manually try to shoot windows blown out and bracket 3 stops, -2, 0, +2 (I also use my D-lighting at high, but don't know if anyone else uses that on their Nikon) once I bring the images into photomatix, I am lost. I tried all the presets, but don't see a blending mode.
    Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.


  23. I've been experimenting with HDR for my listings...primarily for my primary front shot for my local MLS....and my results are dismal. I seem to do pretty well with HDR for landscape work, but with only 1 exception, my real estate HDR work is really frustrating and very disappointing. I use a Canon T3i. I edit with HDR Photo Pro. I typically bracket for -2, 0, +2. Sometimes I use my 18m lens, and sometimes I use my 10m wide-angle. My biggest problem is the "texture" of the results. They seem to come out very grainy, very flat and dull, and very unrealistic. Arghh! I'm not a professional photographer..I'm a broker. Photography is my hobby and I spend tons of time with it....and overall happy with my results.....but good HDR on my houses is evading me. Is there anywhere I can go to learn better techniques?

  24. As a local Rea Estate photgrapher i try to keep low key and go about my business. I also like to give credit where it is due and to not badmouth anyone in my business. The following is from another local high end photograhers blog. Comments and opinions welcome .

  25. Dave,

    You should consider shooting with the ISO range between 100-400, absolute max. And also perhaps try shooting with the image quality in RAW mode as well as I've gotten better results doing that sometime as well.

  26. Hi Larry I appreciate what your trying to do with this post because I totally agree that it's very important for real estate photography to look natural and not have the grundgy look it's quite terrible and too many photographers think they can get away with it at the detrement of the vendors they are shooting for to sell their house. In my experience I just dont think it's recommended to use HDR at all to achieve a natural look.

    I believe a natural look must include a nice ambience (and i'm not talking washed out) from the window light hitting the walls and this just cant be achieved from HDR software. I say this all over the internet. If you are starting out in this business you absolutely must do your editing as manual as possible cutting out your windows etc manually so you learn how to achieve a nice ambient look for your photography. Its vital if you are to win your clients over to be your clients for a lifetime.

    cheers Grant

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