HDR and Real Estate Photography – Part 3
Part 3 in the series about HDR and Real Estate Photography by Joe Meirose
In part 1, I discussed my opinions regarding real estate photography and reviewed the gear I use.
In part 2, I went into greater detail about my approach upon arrival to a real estate shoot and how I manage the many images that will be required.
In this 3rd installment I’ll discuss my lighting set ups and shooting techniques when photographing real estate properties.
There seems to be a common approach amongst photographers when using the technique of HDR in real estate photography, the use of natural light only. This is the main source of contention, and separation, between strobist and HDR shooters. Strobists prefer using additional off-camera light using flash or strobes, while HDR photographers manipulate the existing ambient light and available interior artificial light while editing in post. The effects of these two approaches are vastly different, while their goal is the same – Make aesthetic imagery of sellable estates for use in marketing. It is essential that real estate images look truthful, yet pleasing. Images that are made to look unnatural, or hyper-real, undoubtedly cast a sense of mistrust. This leads to the perception that, through clever digital photographic manipulation, there is an effort to hide likely imperfections. Not to mention, the prospective buyer may not like the appearance of an estate as portrayed through the images. It is widely feared onlookers might simply move to the next listing, having unpleasant lasting impressions of an otherwise beautiful home. I’ve been told that over 85% of all home sales in the United States originate with buyers browsing the web. The business of real estate photography is not about selling a fine art picture of a space. Instead, it’s about creating photographs of a space useful to entice potential buyers to take a closer look in person.
First I will say that there is absolutely NOTHING wrong or inferior with available light photography. Of course there are many examples of fantastic work created with natural light alone. For me, I was never able to capture a space the way I saw it when solely shooting with bracketed exposures under natural and available room light. Most interior spaces with windows have a dynamic range of light that is so great, that even with using many bracketed exposures, the results of the editing process create an unnatural look. It was simply my lack of control and ability in editing that motivated me to explore off camera light when shooting real estate in HDR. By adding my own light during the shoot, I was able to avoid the big edits required later.
I use 6 500 watt, tungsten, Lowel Omni hot lights. I modify their intensity, color and shape using scrims, gels and barn doors. They are versatile and can be used for key and fill light. The light can be modified as hard or soft. In real estate photography, the room is the subject so the entirety of it must be lit well. I use artificial light as background and accessory light. Mostly, I use artificial light to balance the amount of light inside the room with the light outside a window. Doing it in a natural way is challenging. Too bright and uneven, interior off camera light can make a space look harsh and cluttered by casting dark shadows throughout the room and around pieces of furniture and fixtures. Not enough fill light, and the outside ambient light overpowers the room resulting in dark interiors and blown highlights outside.
I also use off camera light for architectural features such as cabinets, stairs and recesses in walls. Even furniture benefits from some dedicated light attention of its own. I think of this as accent light. Typically I place accent light about a foot higher than the furniture I’m shooting. It gives the appearance of ambient light and avoids the tedious edits of removing or reducing harsh shadows in post. If I have spare Omni lights I’ll use them. If not, I also have 3 florescent Westcott Spiderlite TD6’s and will deploy them as room fill, further allowing me to free up some Omni lights for accent use. Mostly though, Westcott lights are for close up portrait photography and do not illuminate an entire room very well. What I really like about these portrait lights are their thin profile and minimal weight, which make them very versatile. Especially when shooting tight spaces like bathrooms and closets. Granted the bathrooms and closets I photograph are quite large, these gigantic soft boxes are perfect for these spaces. I usually leave the tripods in their hard case when working in cramped quarters. I simply set the lights down on the floor, either propped up on end or even flat on their backs sometimes. The Spiderlites are also my primary tools for backlighting stained glass and front entry door windows during my twilight shooting from outside. Some homes also have fine art hanging on walls and will be considered as personal property that is negotiable for sale. Photographing art well is extremely difficult. An artist has already made their own light and shadows in their painting or photograph. I use the Spiderlites as gentle key light, and because they emit hardly any heat, they are safe around sensitive mediums.
My approach to shooting an interior space is always the same. I start with ambient-only exposure through a window and meter manually. This value will be my 0 or base exposure for my brackets. This means if I want to make the light outside the window appear natural, I may need to increase interior light by many stops on a bright sunny day. Yet another reason I avoid midday shooting. The next step is the use of off-camera lighting to bring the interior up to a similar exposure level as the exterior. Typically I go for 1-2 stops under exterior metering. I chimp a lot and often times tether to a 17” MacBook Pro to see if my approach is working. While it may seem counterintuitive to expose the ambient light first, by doing so, I allow far greater lighting freedom for the room and contents without over exposing the exterior window light. My technique is almost the same as a strobist, but instead of flash, I’m using continuous light. By bracketing the exposures based off that middle metered stop, I now have the versatility of using the additional images in post for blending. I think of it as a safety net for over and under exposed shots.
As far as light placement, I have no set rules or advice that will work for every setting. Learning how to light a room takes practice and is dependent on taste, available light and constraints in the space. I will warn against color cast. If an un-gelled light is bounced off a blue wall, expect your light to be cool and blue. Reflected off a red surface, expect the deflected light to be unnaturally warm. Also, expect to use more light in rooms with dark walls and ceilings, since the light won’t be bounced around as much. I usually prefer to direct light a space and reduce the aforementioned issues with color cast. The resulting shadows are sometimes more pronounced, but I use fairly diffused light. While some images look really clean and artsy with most the shadows removed, I find that some less obvious ones help show the room a bit more naturally. I even purposely leave an obnoxious shadow with the rationale no one will think the images have been overly cleaned up in post. Remember, it’s a balancing act of presenting a space as realistic as possible yet aesthetically pleasing at the same time. Mindful of heightening the suspicion to a potential buyer with a heavy handed manipulation in post. While not the best approach for a personal portfolio piece, I can easily further clean up a separate copy for my own use later.
In regards to sharpness and depth of field (DoF), stopping down too much, say to f/22, you risk diffraction, the bending of light that spills onto the sensor, which can lead to softer images. I suggest finding the sweet spot for both minimum and maximum DoF for each lens you use. A 14mm lens does not have to stop down as much to obtain a workable depth of field than say that of a 50mm lens. If you want an extremely shallow depth of field, good for isolating details and specific subjects, shoot as wide open as your lens sweet spot will allow. Use a medium reach lens, around the range of 85mm, and move close to your subject.
Another thing to keep in mind when shooting real estate is showing off unique features within the frame of an image. Think of it as getting the most bang for your buck. An example, I shot a vineyard estate in the Finger Lakes of upstate NY this past summer. The really cool thing about this estate is the interior support structures. The owner found a barn, over 90 years old, hundreds of miles away in Canada, bought it, disassembled it, numbered the pieces, shipped it, and had local Amish reconstruct it on site. The remainder of the build was then pushed out, leaving the exposed skeleton supports of the antique barn completely exposed inside the home. This effort makes the property very unique. When shooting the home, I focused on incorporating the details of the aged hand cut timber with a few of the room shots. Of course I made tighter, more editorial style, images to really showcase the woods, but though key images that would be used for marketing would benefit from this composition.
Above all else, practice and experiment. What’s really advantageous is that just about everyone can practice shooting this genre right from home. No studio or travel required.