HDR and Real Estate Photography

Part one in a series about HDR and real estate photography by Joseph T. Meirose IV.

Boy, has anyone noticed that HDR has a bad rap? It seems every article I read about HDR includes disclosures and opening statements defending its use or discrediting its use.  It’s so bad, some photographers won’t even openly admit to using the technique in the first place, similarly to secretly singing along with a favorite song in the privacy of their car.

HDR is so ill-received in real estate photography that the good old boy club insists if you’re not using multiple strobes and one exposure you’re cheating, you’re afraid of off-camera flash, and/or you’re making some half-assed attempt at art. No matter the HDR results, which admittedly can look just as bad as poorly executed flash photography; if someone uses HDR their images aren’t good photography and certainly can’t be considered art, period. Instead it is like a child’s toy or novelty that will, and should, fade away like last year’s Gawd-awful fashion trends.

Unbeknownst to those who are so critical, HDR images have been featured on the front pages of the real estate sections of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal (twice each) in the past 6 months.  They were my images and I’m told it was the first time ‘HDR photographs’ have been featured in these publications. If that stat is even true, which I doubt, I’m honored but also perplexed. What an odd statistic to follow in the first place. How do they know when an image began as HDR? Other than reading the metadata, how can someone tell?

We all know; it’s the hyper-real, super-saturated, grungy, blasted and overcooked images that are so easily recognizable even a postage stamp thumbnail peek easily gives it away. Not to mention the dreaded halo effect around hard lines we all have come to love, I mean, despise. But why are ‘bad’ images blamed on the technique of HDR? Why not the individual artist and the way they use it? Why is one method defining, and degrading, an entire segment of artist who chose to use it? I personally think the technique has a solid place in a camera bag. Like all things, moderation is key.

While the technique and post-shooting workflow of my bracketed exposures is constantly evolving, I’ve been asked to share my experiences with HDR One thus far in my career. I do not consider myself an expert at anything. I don’t hide my usage of, or liking for, HDR. Sometimes I purposely exaggerate the effect if I think an image warrants it. Other times I discard all but one exposure. Like many artists, I’m full of self-doubt, finding fault with every single image I post. I have no illusion that I am better than I really am, but somehow I was able to find a niche and I’m just trying so very hard to cultivate it.

I am a New York based contract photographer for one of the most recognizable names in international luxury real estate. I shoot over 24 major properties a year. While that may not sound like a lot of work, I hardly have time for other gigs. It pays well enough that I don’t really care. Almost every single published image I shoot starts as a series of bracketed exposures. Except for action shots and pre-dawn and post-sunset long exposures, I’m bracketing my exposures, always. In future articles I will share some of the techniques and methods I’ve found helpful in avoiding HDR side effects, but first thought I would talk about the process of the shoots themselves, which to me, is just as important as to which slider I yank left or right in post. There seems to be plenty of tutorials and go-by’s for editing anyway.

There are two categories of shooting I do for real estate projects.

1. The estate itself. Including interiors and exteriors. Editorial and whole room shots. Including any real property that may be considered with the sale. Also the landscape, acreage, vista views and so on.

2. Lifestyle shots. Accent shots and images conveying a certain atmosphere to help ‘paint a picture’ for a property location. Horses actually jumping at an equestrian farm (way cool btw!), boats sailing on a lake, people shopping and dining at the nearby retail district.

My gear for shooting real estate: (note: I sometimes shoot extended stay/2 days or more at remote and very small island vacation properties/estates. A great deal of planning is required because I can’t simply run to my vehicle or down the street if I forget something.)

Camera bodies, lenses, and mounts:

I use all Nikon products only because, by chance, that’s what I started with. I find the high mp D800 perfect for this application. I also use a D4 for action and lifestyle captures. I have a D700 as my backup workhorse. My main go-to lenses are the Nikkor 14-24 2.8G and the Nikkor PC-E 24mm f/3.5D. I also bring a few other lenses for lifestyle images and any opportunistic shots: a Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8G, Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8G, a Nikkor prime 85mm 1.4G (bokeh heaven!), and a Nikkor 300mm prime f/2.8G (just to look cool!). Almost every shot is tripod mounted and I prefer the size of the Really Right Stuff TVC-34L Versa Series 3 tripod and the versatility of the Gitzo Basalt Center Ball Head with Quick Release. The new Wimberley II is smooth as butter.

Lights:

3 Nikon SB-900 Speedlights and tripods

4 Westcott Spiderlite TD6’s and tripods

3 500watt, 120v lamp, Lowel Omni hot lights with assorted gels, barn doors and scrims.

Misc:

My ‘handy-dandy’ kit: An assortment of common light bulbs, gaffers tape, string, fishing line, invisible scotch tape, a couple small door stops, 4 20ft extension cords, and many 2-3 prong socket adapters. It’s amazing how some doors open or close on their own and there ALWAYS seems to be a bulb out and sometimes not enough can be ‘borrowed’ from other rooms. I have a collapsible 3 rung step stool and a collapsible ladder that folds into all sorts of geometric shapes as well. This stuff is as essential as the camera itself! Perspective editing in post can only do so much.

*A zillion other items but I will try to keep this from turning into a gear article.

When I book a real estate shoot these are my considerations:

1. How many sq ft? In other words, how long of a day (or 2-3) am I going to have? Most the estates I shoot are greater than 5,000 sq ft. A couple homes have been 15,000 sq ft and one was 35,000 sq ft! It was a private residence/castle that was also a B&B, crazy!

2. What’s the location and accessibility? Waterfront, urban, suburb, rural, island, mountainous, dense timber. One property, without electricity, had me walking in a mile at 5 am because an access road w/ small bridge had washed out. Of course it also snowed.

3. Does it have modern electricity? (the historic mansions on tiny islands, and remote cabins deep in the Adirondack Mountains I mentioned earlier) Those 2-to-3 prong converters are a must and if there’s no electricity a ton (no, really!) of battery packs for all the lights and camera bodies.

4. Is it occupied? If not is it staged or empty? Most are second homes and staged.

5. What is the property orientation in relation to sunrise and sunset? I get the physical address of the property and do a detailed map study.

6. Are there also unique island properties and yachts being photographed? Requires transportation coordination to and from the island and the use of shooting from chase boats. Handheld transceivers w/ ear buds are so very helpful in communicating positioning efforts. Ear buds w/ mics (I have a set of three) because while standing on the bow of a boat shooting I can’t use a free hand to talk on a walkie-talkie. Shouting directions to my boat captain and in turn him relaying that information to the subject boat takes time and results in miscommunication. Trust me, it gets crazy trying to maneuver two boats at the same time, all the while grabbing shots.

Below are listed suggestions for the clients.

1. Clean up, de-clutter, and remove almost everything. The theory widely believed is that a potential buyer needs to envision themselves in the space.

2. Lights – ON. While I may not use them, make sure every single light works. Inside, outside, appliance, lamps, accent lights and so on.

3. Window screens: I’ll use my own light diffusers, thanks. If they can remove window screens ahead of time from every possible window and hide them in the garage or utility room, that helps save time. If there is a trick in removing a screen and if I cannot do it myself, the end result will be affected.

4. Talk to me: While I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring a property out, no one knows it like the owner. If there is a special time of day or angle they like from a certain room or location on the property, I want to know about it. Let me know about that antique built-in paining in the foyer that’s work $100K. I’ll probably make a few extra images showcasing it.

5. Early to rise, late to bed: I will arrive well before sunrise, typically 2 hours or so before. I ask that all interior and exterior lights be on. I will stay well beyond actual sunset as well. I ask that all lights stay on till I am done. If the owner will be at the property while I am shooting, I ask that they refrain from turning off any lights during the day. It’s so much easier during that magic hour if I know every room is ready for my lights and me. Typically I have but 1 or 2 sunrises and sunsets to capture all the money shots for an estate. While not a problem for a small apartment or even an average size home, the properties I shoot are immense.

Last but certainly not least: the weather. Every photographer chases light or tries to make good light. Real estate photography is certainly no different. That is part of the reason every shoot takes me at least a day, if not 2 or 3. I shoot exteriors and window views at sunrise and sunset, saving deep interior shots that don’t necessarily need good ambient light for midday shooting. Sometimes blasted out highlights in windows can be a clever way to hide unsightly views. The goal w/ real estate photography is to entice a potential buyer to the door. I also use harsh midday light for uploading images from CF cards to external hard drives using a 17” MacBook Pro for review. I don’t like the umbilical cord restraint of tethered shooting, and the wifi bugs are just now getting worked out w/ the new D800.

Over the next few writings I’ll go into detail about other topics such as: my approach upon arriving at a site, how I decide where to start shooting, dealing with unplanned wrenches in the works, light set-ups, my shooting techniques, data management, post editing, and cataloging many gigs.

~Cheers, Joe

Joseph T. Meirose IV

“Full Frame Works’ Photography

Sackets Harbor, New York

www.fullframeworksphotography.com

www.facebook.com/FullFrameWorks

https://plus.google.com/106327532985588821638/about

  • Carl

    Wow, lucky guy. I’d love to do that job

    • Guest

      Lucky indeed, Carl. Shooting proferssionally has turned a fun hoby into a stressful career.

    • Joe Meirose

      Lucky indeed, Carl. Shooting professionally has turned a fun hobby into a stressful career.

  • Aaron JP

    Great advice. How do you go about getting clients?

    • Joe Meirose

      Thanks! I’m a contract photographer for a company, so their clients are brought to me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mr.Adrian.J.Evans Adrian Evans

    Excellent, looking forward to the follow ups :)

    • Joe Meirose

      Thanks for the encouragement, Adrian.

  • http://twitter.com/PatriciaCMurphy Patricia C Murphy

    Really wonderful pictures Joe. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

    • Joe Meirose

      Thanks a lot! I really appreciate all your help. ;)

  • Abishek

    Excellent, practical article. Bring on number 2

    • Joe Meirose

      Cool, Thanks. That’s motivating. ;)

  • Gregg

    That second shot. The bbq at sunset is amazing

    • Joe Meirose

      Hi Gregg. Thank you! No post magic tricks or adding of a fire or replacing of the sky here. It was 3 bracketed exposures, a few fill lights, a very lucky sunset, an owner of the property who happens to be a lifelong fire department chief willing to wad up newspaper, lit it, and jump out of the frame…about a dozen times. lol Newspaper burns very quickly, but is also very intense and makes big flame and bright light. Creates the ‘fire’ of every fireplace/firepit shot I’ve ever done. Cheers!

  • http://twitter.com/Pixamundo Pixamundo

    Great info. Thanks for sharing.

    • Joe Meirose

      Hi there, Pixamundo. Thanks for commenting.

  • Clarence

    Terrific article! I appreciated the insight into real estate photography. Sounds like a dream job!

    • Joe Meirose

      Hello, Clarence. I feel really lucky to have steady income and work in such a competitive and saturated genre of the arts. Photography is a much different business in the digital age now. Thanks for your comments.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gmattock Graham C W Mattock

    I also hate all the negative things said about HDR – I started out my real-estate portfolio working for a well known (global) vacation rentals company who strictly prohibit HDR photography in their terms. I’ve done countless jobs for them this past year……all in HDR….they either can’t tell it’s HDR or they love the pictures i guess!!

    • Joe Meirose

      Must be some really awesome locations for you to shoot. How exciting! Fooling them is kinda fun, eh? Lets you know you’re doing it right! ;)

      • http://www.facebook.com/gmattock Graham C W Mattock

        The company is global, but i’m only shooting local, but still some amazing condos I get to snoop around!

        Thanks also for this series, i’m really looking forward to part 3 – i’m a long way off getting my HDR the way I want them, but it’s nice to know that i’m on the right path and there are high-end pro’s using HDR for real-estate!

        • Joe Meirose

          It’s all just a matter of cultivating a niche for yourself and then exploiting it as strongly as possible. One person’s art is another person’s trash, or something like that. Best to you. Cheers!

  • Robsshots

    What an organized guy! Excellent write-up, terrific detail, and well-couched opinions. Thanks for the good read and learning.

    • Joe Meirose

      Ha! JUST this morning I was frantically looking for a case of cf cards I misplaced. ;) I really appreciate your reply about the article. It was a lot of fun, and feedback like yours is why. Cheers!