How to Shoot Real Estate Photos with HDR and Flash, From Start to Finish

Flamingo real estate photography is a combination of flash and ambient lighting to produce beautiful, high-end images. This article will demonstrate how to capture stunning real estate images with flash and high dynamic range (HDR).

Table of Contents

  • Ethical considerations in real estate photography
  • Take photos of the exteriors and do a walkthrough
  • Gear and settings in Real Estate Photography
  • Set up for Interior Real Estate Photography
  • Bracket your exposure for HDR
  • HDR Photography Development
  • HDR Photography combines well with Flash
  • Add Flash to an HDR Photo of Real Estate
  • Add a second flash and adjust settings
  • Combine HDR and Flash Post-Processing

Ethical considerations in real estate photography

Real estate photography is quite different from other types of photography. It requires a different mindset and has different goals. You will need to take pictures of houses as fast and efficiently as possible. Time is money in real-estate photography. We will talk about some of the things that you can do to speed things up without sacrificing quality. First, let’s talk about ethical considerations when shooting real estate.

Our goal is to accurately portray the property for the owner or agent. We cannot alter or misrepresent the subject, much like a photographer. We can’t patch holes in walls or take out high-tension wires from the backyard. We are obliged to do our best to make the property as beautiful as possible. As a result, we often make changes to our images in order to correct color temperature imbalances or temper blown out windows. Edits that enhance the visual appeal of the property without changing its actual properties are acceptable. However, structural changes to the property should be avoided.

There are ethical gray areas. Sky swaps are a common option for photographers who don’t have the best weather. In my opinion, greening a dead yard is a violation of the law. The line is crossed when you remove any permanent attachments from your house or yard. It is up to you to determine the line yourself and not rely on an agent’s help.

Let’s get on with the shooting!

Take photos of the exteriors and do a walkthrough

After I’m on-site, it is my favorite thing to do: walk through the home. This helps me to get a feel for the flow of the home and gives me ideas about how I should arrange each room. I also examine the lighting in the house, noting any areas that need additional light and the function of the existing light in each room. You will learn to judge the light and how it works in each room. Experience will help you deal with it effectively. When you are just starting out, I recommend that you avoid angles that expose to harsher lighting environments. Also, pay attention to rooms with mixed lighting sources.

After I have seen the house, I usually return outside to take exterior shots. I can take this time to get to know the home and check that everything is in order. It also gives me a chance to “warm up” the homeowner and address any remaining details before we move on to the interior. Remember that the homeowner will likely be extremely stressed. Do your best to guide them through the process and try to minimize their stress.

An exterior view of a house

We will need a variety of angles with different focal lengths for exteriors. This includes the front and back. Exteriors should have 6-8 images, unless there’s something extra about the property (e.g. a hot tub).

A drone aerial photo of a house exterior

Use your drone if you have one. You don’t have to take shots from more than 200 feet. You can capture the property from as far as 10-20 feet.

All my gear is needed when I’m ready to move into the interiors. My tripod, flashes, light stands and camera are all essential. I take everything I need. I don’t want to have to go back out to my car. I know exactly what I need and keep my gear in a sturdy flight case.

Equipment set up for a real estate interior shoot

Gear and settings in Real Estate Photography

Any modern DLSR can work as a camera. It doesn’t matter if the mirror is mirrorless or full-frame. Full-frame and ASP-C are not the same. The final images will measure 2000px in width. We don’t need high-megapixel cameras. To keep the file size down and to keep my computer running fast, I downgrade my camera to medium megapixel RAW images.

We will be shooting raw, as I mentioned. RAW is not an image, but a data format. This file contains the raw data from the camera sensor. We can then manipulate the RAW file in Lightroom after the shoot to get the same results as if we made the changes to the camera sensor at the shoot. This is done without losing the quality or fidelity of the image.

We will use the AWB (Auto White Balance) setting on our camera. The modern cameras are excellent at judging white balance. Lightroom can fix any camera issues. We need a moderate ISO. Interiors are often dark so we need to go above the base ISO but not too high that we have image noise. A modern camera can take anywhere from 250 to 600 images. You can also increase this range to get a quick shot in a darkened room or basement.

A consistent f/stop is important. A mid-stop is recommended to get a good depth of field. This means that the front and back are in focus. However, it still allows for us to make images in darker areas. These mid-stops are also where the lens is sharpest, which I consider a bonus. The lens should be set between f/7.1 to f/11.

You should have a wide-angle lens or very wide-angle. A 14-24 for full frame and a 10-24 ASP-C are the best. A 16-30 f/4 is my preferred lens. It’s much more affordable than the very wide F/2.8’s, and it does the job well. This is the only lens that you will need to get started.

We will adjust our shutter speed to suit the lighting conditions in each room. Shooting time will vary from a few seconds to a little over a minute. A steady, good tripod is essential for this reason.

A camera on a tripod in a house

My tripod should be set up so that the base plate is at my beltline. This is something I’ll change for kitchens and rooms with high ceilings. It is best to keep the lens at approximately 1/2 the room’s height. For more stability, extend your longest leg sections first. Do not extend a center column if you have one.

A closer look at a tripod in a home

Set up for Interior Real Estate Photography

A camera and tripod ready to shoot a real estate photo

Now, place the tripod wherever you like it to be and let’s get started with our first image. It is generally agreed that the best place to photograph real estate in a room is in the corners. This is a tedious process. Instead, I suggest you take a look at the room and find what’s interesting. You can set up your camera to show the entire room, but you should also highlight the most important features. You may find yourself in a corner. However, you should try to change your position as much as you can.

A camera view and level feature for a real estate photo

Now, roughen up your shot. Adjust the framing as you wish. For final adjustments, most cameras have a level adjust. Make sure the camera is straight, level, and flat. You can’t expect anything less.

You can also see that I always keep the Rule of Thirds lines. This is for composition. Although it is not necessary, it can help you to place objects of interest on the visual powerpoints. I recommend it.

Bracket your exposure for HDR

In anticipation of you using HDR, I’ll show you how to bracket the exposure. As you can see, Nikon is my preferred camera. The procedure for Sony, Olympus Fuji, Olympus or Canon is the same. Refer to your manual if you have any questions. Exposure bracketing, or some similar process, is what we want to activate. This will automate the process for shooting multiple exposures of the exact same shot.

Autobracketing an exposure in a camera for an HDR real estate photo

This shortcut has been mapped to one of my camera’s function buttons. That button allows me to call up bracketing and then set it up in a matter of seconds. This will save you time when setting up bracketing if you are a full-time employee in this field.

Three frames are taken, with two stops between them. This is how it looks here. Some people shoot seven or more frames at a time (and I do that too when I need to ensure I have the right light). Play, experiment and find the best method for you. You may also discover the benefits of other bracketing methods, such as if you require more options for high-contrast situations. There is no right or wrong. It is all about what is best for this particular situation.

Another piece of advice that I can offer is to set the delay shutter speedr. This will allow you to set the shutter delay timer for a short delay. The shutter will then pop out 2 seconds after your trigger is pressed. This will allow you to get all the shake from pressing on the trigger out of the camera.

Setting the delay shutter timer.

Once you have the exposure and thin set up, press the button. These are the three frames you will receive: The main exposure, two stops below, and two more than.

This is the second setup in the kitchen.

Bracketing is underway, so we take three photos (again, the main exposure, two stops below and two stops above)

The main exposure
The main “correct” exposure.
Underexposed by two stops
Underexposed by two stops.
Overexposed by two stops
Overexposed by two stops.

Here is a second set up in the kitchen:

A camera and tripod set up for a kitchen real estate photo

Bracketing is on, so we take three shots (again, we have the main exposure, two stops under and two stops over:

Continue this process throughout the entire house. Next, it’s time for your final images.

HDR Photography Development

Lightroom will import the images and allow you to start searching for “groups of three”. Make any adjustments to the main image and then copy the adjustments to your over- and under images. Right-click on each of them to highlight. Select “Photo Merge” then “HDR.”

A dialog will appear once the HDR process has started. Auto Align and Auto Settings should be ticked. You don’t need to de-ghost for real estate as nothing moves. Click merge to make magic happen.

Lightroom generates images in a matter of seconds that can be sent back to the client or used on the MLS.

This is the easiest and quickest way to create HDR images for real-estate use. This is an excellent way to start HDR. Even HDR images are not the only way to create better images.

Another option is to use multiple source images. This could mean using five or seven images at a time. You can also use dedicated HDR processing software like Photomatix, Enfuse and Aurora HDR. These programs give you more control and let you create custom recipes to tailor your output to your shooting style. You can also automate the entire process.

HDR is an excellent way to start in real estate photography, and to learn more about light. Next, you need to enhance the light. This is to increase the flash. It’s not as frightening as it sounds.

HDR Photography combines well with Flash

It can be difficult to shoot real estate using HDR techniques, and even more challenging to do so well. This technique is not something that you can learn (and do well) in one week, or even one month. This technique is only for those who have years of experience. They are constantly learning new things.

Learning how to best deal with light is the main challenge. How can you make the front light not appear flat? How do you deal the glare from the backlight? You are constantly confronted with different levels of light. There is no one-size fits all solution.

This is why I love to remind people that you can always have more experience. You should not discount HDR or think flashing is the solution to all your shooting problems. It’s important to be knowledgeable about natural light and how to deal with it. You will not be able to solve flash problems if you don’t have the HDR problems solved.

Let’s not forget about the Dunning-Krueger Effect. You don’t know all the answers if you think you do. Don’t rush. Natural light is part of a natural progression. This may not be the end — there are great photographers who shoot only natural light. This is not me and it’s not what I want to create.

Flash is what I use.

Add Flash to an HDR Photo of Real Estate

Let’s return to the final image in the HDR section.

We have natural colors and a natural feeling to the light, in general. The wide dynamic range is not my favorite. I find the contrast too high for my taste. I need to bring some light into the darkest parts and lower the contrast.

My main room is where I think of a light first. To speed up my site, I usually hold the light by hand (the famous “statue de liberty” pose that is so popular in real estate photography).

Photographer Dave Koch holding a flash for a flambient real estate photo

This is the Godox AD200, which I consider to be the most reliable flash tool. The light output of this beast is three times that of a standard strobe. I need to get a lot of light from the source because of how I use light. To soften the flash, I diffuse and reflect it. This reduces the flash’s effective output.

To diffuse the light, I do two things. The Magmod MagSphere is attached to my AD200. This modifier really improves the quality of my light. I use the main beam of the flash to bounce off white ceilings. This allows me to get some fill from the spheres that go into the scene directly. It is a part of my work style that I enjoy the mix of reflected and direct light from the same source.

The flash then allows me to take a test shot. We take a lot of test shots when we do real estate photography. You just don’t know what the flash can do until you use it. Check the shot and then verify that you have achieved what you wanted.

We want windows that are well-lit. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. We can even get as close as possible to perfect lighting. Fail!

The main room is lit fairly well, as you would expect with a single light at the camera. We get a lot of light from the ceiling bounce, which makes it look very even. The light spreads out. It is exactly what you want, believe it or not!

Add a second flash and adjust settings

If you look closely, the dining room appears dark. To brighten the area, I will add another light — astrobe — to my setup. I don’t use stands. I simply place the flash on the counter, angle it up, and then diffuse and spread the light. As you can see, the flash fills the area that I need lit while remains out of the shot.

We take another test and it looks much better. It’s okay. It is normal to have light hot spots on the ceiling, but that is not what this article is about. We need to have nice, even light across the walls. I judge the walls constantly.

What would you do if it was too hot in the dining room? You can adjust the intensity of light in two ways. You can adjust the intensity of the light by moving it in or out depending on your requirements. Adorama has the Flashpoint system. The same system can also be called Cheetah or Godox by other vendors, although I don’t believe there are any other names. I can remotely adjust the flash level using the controller from any camera position. This allows me to save a lot of time when adjusting lights.

You may have noticed the large “A” on the strobe. The strobe’s power is 1/4 in the image above. If I wanted more light, I would increase it to 1/2 power or even 1. And if it was too hot I would lower it.

Take tests and analyze your results. You can find the problem areas and then fix them on the spot. This is possible with digital cameras. My family was in the film industry, and there was no way to chime.

Combine HDR and Flash Post-Processing

This image is probably what you’re thinking. It looks great, but it’s also flashy. You are right. Editing is the magic of editing. Let’s get to Lightroom to work on this image.

You can either combine the brackets to create one HDR image or correct one ambient layer to make it usable. Next, take your last flash layer and do minor corrections to it. Minor refers to color correction, setting contrast, whites, and other similar items. We will not straighten or clean up the image yet.

Highlight your two images: the ambient final as well as the flash. Right-click and select “Edit in …”” and “Open as layers Photoshop.” This will overlay the images as layers in Photoshop.

After aligning the layers in Photoshop, I place a black mask over the ambient layer (which should also be your top layer), so that your flash layer can be seen.

Pick your Brush tool and adjust the flow to 15-20%. Make sure the brush is a good size and choose white for your color. You are allowing the ambient layer to shine through by painting white. Avoid windows, as they will be more visible in the flash layer. Mixing the ambient and flash layers will help most of the rest of your picture. To remove unnatural flash blooms, pay particular attention to ceilings. You can also look out for shadows that are caused by flashes and clean them up. This will give you a natural look and allow you to apply it slowly.

You can always hit the “X” key and change the brush color to black to make it back to normal. Then, you can paint over any mistakes on the mask with black. We should now have a natural-looking image which combines the best color of the flash and the ambient shadows. This will look the best of both the worlds.

The image can be saved in Photoshop and the final edited image will be saved back to Lightroom. You can now make final adjustments like cropping, contrast and final color. Make sure you set your verticals to ensure that all walls are straight. I usually use the “Vertical”, or the “Guided” option to match vertical components of the image. This will only require minor adjustments in transform if your camera is set up correctly. Remember that walls are not vertical and do not lean in or out. Professional photographers will not send images that are distorted.

This is the final “flambient” photo of real estate, created using a combination HDR and flash.

This tutorial on how to use flash and HDR in real estate photography will be useful for you. My complete guide to real estate photography is a great resource for anyone just getting started in photography.

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