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Why Bother With Photomatix or LR/Enfuse For Real Estate Interior Photos?

Published: 23/09/2013

TonyCompareLet me start by confessing that I shoot brackets very seldom because I like Scott Hargis's small flash technique and I don't like some of the side effects of bracket processing like the soft look, color shifts and being forced to deal with only existing light.

I know from doing polls that some where around 45% of PFRE readers use a bracketing workflow for their real estate photography. The theory behind using Photomatix and similar bracket processing software has always been that you use Exposure Fusion, HDR or a hybrid of bracketing and flash to bring the brightness of the windows and the darker interior closer together. But thanks to an experiment by Tony Colangelo in response to Scott Hargis's comments in the PFRE photographer of the month pool the last few months I've become convinced that, like Scott says, you can get to just as good or better an image if you start with a single RAW file and adjust it in Lightroom 4 or later (equivalent to ACR version 7.o or later which PSE 11 and PS CS6 use). After reading/seeing Tony's experiment I reproduced his experiment myself to verify it. That is, I shot six brackets of my living room that has a huge bright window and processed the brackets with LR/Enfuse and/or Photomatix and compared the results to what I get by just adjusting one of the RAW bracket files with Lightroom 5. I always like the Lightroom 5 result best. This is equivalent to what Tony did because the Adobe Camera RAW engine that is in Lightroom is also used by PSE 11 which Tony used.

So why are so many real estate shooters using Photomatix and similar bracketing programs if you can get to the same place with one RAW file? Probably because not everyone is aware the huge improvement that Adobe made to the Adobe Camera RAW processing engine in LR4 and ACR 7.x that came out in the spring of 2012. It was literally a game changer. Nowadays, with the Highlights/Shadows sliders and the other sliders in the LR Basic panel you can do everything those bracket processing programs can do and get an image without all the side effects inherent in Exposure Fusion or HDR process. Plus, it's faster both shooting and processing.

To be clear, I'm not talking anything about flash here at all. I'm just talking about getting a realistic capture of available light. Of course flash will take your images to a whole new level once you get the hang of it. I'm just saying if you are not ready to use flash for whatever reason, it doesn't mean your only other option is shooting brackets and using Photomatix or other bracket processing software. Try it and see for yourself.

To me this is a huge and important revelation! You can spend a lot of time shooting and processing brackets and even more time trying to control the side effects of shooting and processing brackets. Why bother if it's more effective to just shoot one RAW file.

One more thing, I used the same RAW file in my experiment above in Aperture 3.4.5 and I could not get a final image that looks quite as good as the result I can get with Lightroom 5. I'm not saying it can't be done. I just can't seem to do it. I think the Photomatix Pro Exposure fusion result looks better than the Aperture only result.

Larry Lohrman

18 comments on “Why Bother With Photomatix or LR/Enfuse For Real Estate Interior Photos?”

  1. I agree Larry. LR5 is an amazing piece of software and I'm thrilled to see what can be done with one RAW photo and some LR5 adjustments! However, I'm still trying to work through Scott's lighting books and videos and I understand the techniques he teaches there. I really want to use exclusively flash for lighting interiors because I believe it gives a better overall quality to the photo and more accurate colors. However I still struggle with lighting the larger living spaces with differing light sources and large windows overlooking the Gulf of Mexico and other vistas which the agents believes is what sells the property. There I do a 3-shot HDR with manual blending in Photoshop for the outside window view. I wonder how the new Photomatix version 5 will work with these types of shots?

  2. @Rich- Yes, I'm sure manual blending can get you a better view image than a single RAW file in LR5 but what I'm saying unless you are going for the HDR look, realistic HDR processing is equivalent to LR processing on a RAW file and LR is faster.

  3. I appreciate your comparison and wish I could duplicate it in my own work. I can't. Cranking down the highlights and boosting the shadows in LR5 doesn't yield a result that satisfies me. There is simply more dynamic range in the scene than my Canon 5D Mk. III can capture. Windows and reflections on wood floors and tables just don't render naturally to my eye. Attempting to manually mask these hot spots in PS layers often leaves dark stains on window sills and around the edges of splashes of light on interior surfaces. No matter how I struggle.

    Clearly Scott's flash techniques are the best answer, and I use them more now. But I still find some of the better HDR programs do a good job as a start before the usual finishing work. Yes, HDR programs even used well do produce an oddly flat and dull looking intermediate result. But finished in LR with Clarity and Contrast , I believe most photographers can achieve a result that looks better than any single-exposure process.

    I have started using SNS-HDR Pro to good effect. But no matter which HDR program you use I recommend first applying color correction to the bracketed set in LR to neutralize any color cast. Photomatix is particularly guilty of exaggerating color casts that produce garish images that are hard to eliminate later.

  4. @maki - Yes I have that on my todo list.

    @Wick - I think you'll find that even one small off-camera manual flash bounced off the ceiling or wall behind the camera will make your job in LR much easier. The majority of real estate shooters that I've talked to that shoot brackets have moved to hybrid EF/HDR where you use one flash on one or more of your brackets... just go one step closer to Scott's technique- One flash and one RAW

  5. Is any one using a Quantum Qflash (or equivalent) with a bare flash tube? I have heard this is a good technique to add flash with no need for modifiers or bounce, etc

  6. @Wick - Do not feel bad about your camera not being able to span the entire dynamic range. Tony's could not either; he remembered 'blending in' the windows with a -1 EV image later on.

    @Larry, I will be interested in learning more as well. In a single image capture, if the dynamic range of the camera is exceeded, it is exceeded. That is the crux of the issue HDR/ExpFusion is intended to overcome...and presumably why Tony still needed to use a second exposure to achieve an acceptable result.

  7. @JT- I'm not claiming that a single RAW image captures the whole dynamic range of all rooms. I'm just saying that when I shoot a series of brackets I always end up liking the result I get with one of the brackets processed in LR better than all of the brackets processed in Photomatix.

    And I admit that if you want super crispy, clear views out the windows you need use a flash or be willing to hand-blend the window.

  8. Larry you are 100% right. I have been doing this for years. Each time I would try HDR I liked the LR with single exposure better or considered it equal. I underexpose .75 ev and that normally allow the windows to be captured without being blown out. I now never use flash, don't even bring it in with me. Though I'm sure I'll develop a technique using just a touch of flash.

    I let myself get talked into trying Oloneo for comparison. The funny thing is I would still shoot a single RAW and expose it the same as I had before. After running it through the presets I set up for the way I shoot, the end result was very close to the same as using LR. The advantage to Oloneo was that it treated that single image in a way to squeeze out a better image without have bad color shifts. In LR I could do the same thing but the batch processing in Oloneo let me set and forget it and come back when it was done. Now the resulting images were close to LR results but with more noise and much larger files and no straightening the images out.

    So now I use the Oloneo HDR program with a single image and take the output and feed that through LR where I can straighten/Crop and resize and clean up the noise very fast. On occasion I have to make a slight adjustment but the two step process is faster that doing it all in LR. In other words Oloneo seams to make all the right equivalent LR slider moves and I just have to touch up in LR.

    I see no reason for me to use layers of exposures with the results I already get. I can hand hold the camera, never use a tripod and I'm in and out of a room in 60 seconds. Thanks for confirming what I already knew. While I will experiment with layers I'm always looking to cut time and work out not add time for minimal quality improvement.

  9. I was surprised to see this article posted yesterday. I've been shooting real estate for a couple of years now and I would say 99.9% of my work is done in available light with single exposure RAW shots pulled through Lightroom. I have fiddled with manual and automated HDR, flashes, and enfuse... but at no point have I been tempted to permanently step away from my tried and trusted. The results are consistently satisfying and the technique allows me to work a property quickly, dynamically, and unobtrusively.

    Of course, there are compromises. With all our fancy technology, there is little to be done for a single exposure in a dim room against a Texas summer afternoon. Dramatic adjustments will take a toll on image quality and color accuracy. The thing is - much of my real estate photography is shot with the sole intention of marketing the property rather than creating museum quality archival prints. I find the market often leans towards NASCAR flash rather than F1 finesse. Not that there is anything wrong with NASCAR, nor do I know much about either sport, but I hope you're hip to my jive.

    I don't mean to imply that the quality of my images suffers for my choice of technique. On the contrary, I hold my deliverables to a high standard. Every client, every situation, every property is different. Shoot the methods with which you are most comfortable and adjust as necessary to get the photos your client is looking for. And don't forget to live a little.

  10. Response for Cal on a T2 Bare bulb:

    Yes. You can cut a lot of process if you learn to use a flash meter and manage the shutter speed in many situations. Many photographers of other years know bare bulb is a positive use of style. HDR is a great concept and many time "over processed". But it will always be a photographer that looks at a room situation and leverages the tools in the toolbox (hot lights, strobes, reflectors, diffusers, so forth) that creates a style. And as a side note - continue to learn about what color balance represents and filtration.

    Enjoy... always so much to learn about imaging. honestly. It is always about light, without it you have no

  11. @wick - Yes, if you are going to shoot HDR or EF adding a frame or two with flash will make a big improvement.

  12. Larry:

    I like the idea of using flash in conjunction with HDR. On another site (Linked In Real Estate Photo forum) I remember that one of the poster recommended taking one flash picture in addition to the HDR set. I believe he/she might have added that exposure to the HDR set, or possibly layered it in later in PhotoShop.

    I will try that on my next shoot and report.

  13. I think it depends on the room(s) in question. Let's say for instance, that both the walls and ceilings are painted in a medium to dark beige (very common right now). All the incoming light gets sucked right out of the room. If you open up to see wall color, not only are the windows blown beyond recovery, but you also get a massive amount of flair to deal with. If you close down so that the outside is maybe +1 over exposed, the room is black, especially the dark brown sofas that are so common these days. HDR isn't the best way to go in a large dark room with not enough incoming light. And... the chromatic aberration you have to deal with is immense.

    In short, there is no single solution that covers the variety I'm faced with daily. In the very same house, I may have to employ 3 different techniques, and sometimes it's a hybrid of several of them. IMO, much of the existing natural light provides a map for how the room "feels", but doesn't at all light the room adequately or even interestingly. I will typically take note of both the natural and ambient light available, and then set up my small flash scheme to enhance it, sometimes as fill, and sometimes duplicating the direction, but with a better color balance then the natural light coming in (which can be blue, green, or orange).

    In a large great room in a cabin (30x30x16), with amber colored walls and ceiling, you really can't bounce, and available light doesn't always cut it either. It's not uncommon for me to shoot a bracketed sequence, and then do a flashed exposure from camera position that will serve as a color-blend-mode layer over the top of the rest that I can adjust the opacity to taste.

    That said, 90% of the time I do a 3-bracket sequence (in camera bracketing). A small flash frame followed by 2 unflashed frames. They are all RAW. The flashed frame is almost perfect, and the other two frames are used to paint in the ambiance. Most delivered images require less then 3 minutes in post.

  14. I need to know when a return from a shoot, that I can nail every room and exterior with a result my client likes. I couldn’t do that until I started bracketing shots and blending them in post. My wife was an infection control nurse and I’m a retired Nuclear Engineer. We understand the meaning of “universal precautions”. Every situation/shot doesn’t necessarily need the same safe approach. But, when I get home after a shoot, I’ve got everything I need because I’ve applied the same tried and true technique to all shots. I needed to find a single technique that can render a good interior shot containing great extremes. I think the worst are scenes with dark furniture and stark white kitchens. Using flash is too iffy and cumbersome. I can’t take time for elaborate setups that may or may not render great results. Being able to capture and utilize the full dynamic range better guarantees a great result.

  15. @Wick Smith,

    Your first comment makes me think your problem lies in needing to adjust your Exposure Compensation in-camera. Honestly you should never have to crank DOWN highlights (EVER!): you should be setting your EC to -1 to -3 and then boosting highlights UP in post-processing.

    Seriously??? You have a top-of-the-line $3600 dSLR- there is absolutely NO reason why a 5D3 cannot do what you are wanting it to, it is simply knowing how to operate it.

    The thing of post-processing everyone needs to remember is this: anything that you lose in your shot cannot be recovered in post. The information is either there or it isn't. Get your settings right in the field. You can add in new info in PS, sure, but why make hours of extra work that may not even turn out right?

    You can also try using an ND filter... but honestly, you should never need one of those indoors. They are mostly for landscape shots and wide-angle outdoor work.

    Hope this helps.

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