Real Estate Photography: Artificial Light versus Natural Light

Real Estate Photography: Artificial Light versus Natural Light

Architecture: Michael Vail Design. Photo: © Sallie Moffatt.

This article is written by Nisha Ramroop and Ron Pepper.

Real estate interior photography can seem simple, but that impression can change when trying to capture a space that has big bright window views, and many areas of light and shadow inside. Often, it’s important to achieve balance amongst the bright and dark areas, whilst also capturing the view outside the window.

In this article, we’ll discuss shooting interiors using various lighting methods. These methods include using single and multiple Speedlight flashes, larger strobe lights, and using bracketed exposures for HDR.

Artificial lighting

Speedlight flash

The term ‘Speedlight’ refers to the kind of flash that can be connected to the camera’s hot shoe. These battery-powered flash units are very versatile and relatively inexpensive (often available used) because they can also be used off-camera. Nikon uses this term for this kind of flash, Canon uses the very similar ‘Speedlite’ and others might say ‘on-camera flash’ or other terms.

Architecture: Michael Vail Design. Photo: © Sallie Moffatt.

Using only a single Speedlight flash with your camera to light a room can be a good way to capture interiors quickly with minimal equipment. This does require some practice and a powerful Speedlight.

Usually, you want to retain detail in the brightest part of your room (either the view through the window or in a light fixture) and build your flash lighting around that.

To achieve this, you need to establish a base shot which exposes for the window view. If the window is the brightest area in the room, the rest of the room gets underexposed. Thus you need to light the underexposed areas of your room with your flash. Experiment with your flash at different power levels to equalize the light in the room. You can also use a light meter to measure the light being thrown in a particular area. This helps you adjust the flash output deliberately.

Lighting equipment enables you to fill areas of shadow to capture details in those dark areas. A powerful technique is to “Bounce” your Speedlight flash off a wall or ceiling to fill your areas of shadow more evenly.

Note: While bouncing flash softens the light before it hits your subject and gives you non-directional light, you can use it to supplement any directional light, so that the shadows from your natural light source make sense.

Keep in mind the following technical details, when finding the perfect balance using flash:

  • Your shutter speed does not affect the flash settings – it only affects the ambient light in your room (ambient light refers to any continuous light sources in the room. For example, sun or lamps). If you slow your shutter speed, it raises all the ambient light levels, which means it also affects the view out of your window.
  • The aperture affects both the flash and ambient light because a smaller aperture reduces the amount of all light that passes through the lens.
  • ISO also affects both flash and ambient light. It does this by altering the camera’s sensitivity to light.

Pros

  • Image almost finished in-camera, very little post-processing
  • Enables you to have creative control over the final image
  • Allows you to choose your best angle/composition early in the process and light for that specifically
  • You don’t need a tripod
  • Less camera equipment needed

Cons

  • Depending on the room, you may need more than one flash/light
  • These smaller flashes produce more “hard” light when fired directly into the scene
  • Some expertise is required. If done incorrectly, you may end up with inconsistent shadows to your natural light source or appear unnatural/fake
  • Your exterior needs to be correctly metered to your camera’s flash sync speed
  • Cost and management of batteries

Note: Using only one speed light can be tricky to achieve balanced light when window sources are large with bright sunlight.

Using multiple Speedlights with a remote trigger

Using multiple Speedlights on stands with a remote trigger can be handy when shooting larger spaces with overbearing natural light sources coming through the window. In some cases, you may need between two and four Speedlights to allow for enough internal light to equalize strong external window light – especially if shooting with direct sun outside the window. Shooting with multiple flashes allows you to get the right shot with a single image, rather than having to use bracketed exposures.

Architecture: Michael Vail Design. Photo: © Sallie Moffatt.

Pros

  • Allows fine control over the interior lighting
  • It allows you to light more dark areas
  • You can set each individual flash unit’s exposure to your needs
  • No need for a tripod

Cons

  • Relatively complex set-up normally requiring an experienced photographer
  • Carrying needed equipment can be challenging
  • Multiple points of (battery) failure
  • Need to set flashes so they are not in the shot
  • While no tripod is needed, multiple light stands are needed

Strobe lights

Here a ‘strobe’ refers to larger, more powerful lights. Modern strobes are powered by batteries. In the past (and lower-end current strobes), strobes needed to be plugged into electrical power or large battery packs.

Architecture: Michael Vail Design. Photo: © Sallie Moffatt.

Strobe Lights can be great to use for interior real estate photography, particularly if there is a large window light source. The greater power brings flexibility. For instance, adding a light modifier makes the light softer, avoiding harsh shadows that happen with smaller flashes.

Set your strobe light/s for the darker areas of the room. Depending on your shooting angle, you could set the strobe behind your camera line and bounce flash off the wall or ceiling above or behind you to fill any shadows in front of you.

Pros

  • A larger light source means softer, more attractive light
  • Full control over lighting
  • Tripod optional
  • Light is white and clean
  • Can solve color cast

Cons

  • Equipment is heavy to carry
  • Expensive compared to Speedlights
  • Can be hard to set up in small spaces
  • May need to be plugged in if not a higher-end battery-powered strobe

Natural or available light

There is an alternative to using artificial lighting to capture a room with bright and dark areas. Perhaps using Speedlights or strobes isn’t possible because the photographer doesn’t have this equipment, doesn’t know how to use it, or simply prefers the technique below.

Architecture: Michael Vail Design. Photo: © Sallie Moffatt.

We face the same challenge that the camera can see either the bright area, or the dark area, but not both. This can be solved, not by adding light, but by adding more exposures from the camera.

High Dynamic Range (HDR)

When using natural light for real estate interiors, there is some level of post-processing involved. One of the most common processing techniques used is High Dynamic Range (HDR) processing. The HDR technique means that you’ll take bracketed exposures using the camera, then they are combined using HDR software.

Architecture: Michael Vail Design. Photo: © Sallie Moffatt.

1. Bracketing exposures

So where do you start to capture the dynamic range of your interior (what your eyes see)? Since you may be working with a scene of high contrast, start with a process called “Exposure Bracketing.”

Exposure Bracketing is where you take (a minimum) of three identically composed images at different exposures. The first image uses the settings recommended by the camera. Then one or more images are intentionally overexposed, and one or more get deliberately underexposed.

One of the challenges with getting that first image (where the camera recommends settings for as properly exposed) is that the camera can choose the shutter speed based on the bright window light. This selection can leave the rest of the image too underexposed. A good solution for this underexposure is to lock your exposure on an area that is neither too bright nor too dark and use that as your baseline shot. When taking bracketed images indoors, use a tripod. Keep your aperture constant, ISO low, and vary your shutter speeds to achieve your different exposures.

Most DSLR cameras now have built-in bracketing called “Automatic Exposure Bracketing” (AEB), making it an easy, one-click process. If you are unfamiliar with this term, your camera manual is an excellent source for learning about this cool feature, and videos showing how to set AEB on many popular cameras are here.

If you are familiar with AEB, go ahead and set the exposure compensation values to plus and minus 2 EV (+/-2EV) or the maximum exposure increment (EV spacing) your camera allows. Your camera display should now show three exposure markers: one underexposed by 2-stops (-2EV), one correctly exposed (0), and one overexposed by 2-stops (+2EV). These represent the three shots that the camera takes.

Important note: The example above is for a three-shot HDR image. If your camera is capable of taking more pictures for HDR merging (some take 5 or 7), you can use the maximum number of shots available to you.

Put your camera into its Continuous Shooting Mode, compose your image and take your shots. Minimizing shake is highly recommended, so use a remote shutter release or timer where possible. Your bracketed images are now ready for the next step.

2. HDR software

As expressed previously, combining these bracketed images ensures you get a properly exposed image. This method is especially useful when you have challenging lighting situations and is a popular processing method for real estate photographers. Photomatix Pro is one of the top software used by professionals for the merging process.

One of the unspoken rules of real estate photography is that the vertical lines must, well, be vertical. Also, the horizon must be level. This is easy to achieve by leveling the camera. However, if you find that the image isn’t quite level, The Finishing Touch Panel in Photomatix Pro allows you to correct perspective issues with ease.

Benefits of using this method:

  • Easy to learn shooting technique
  • Fast shooting with a little practice
  • Minimal equipment needed (camera/lens and tripod,)
  • Natural shadows
  • No heavy equipment to lug around/set up
  • Some flexibility with composition
  • Great for shooting virtually any space
  • Compact gear — photographer can pick up tripod/camera and put it down for next shot

Challenges

  • Shooting angles may be limited, to avoid flare, etc.
  • Color cast happens more compared to using artificial light
  • Post-processing required
  • Memory needed to save the bracketed photos
  • A tripod is required

Architecture: Michael Vail Design. Photo: © Sallie Moffatt.

Conclusion

As noted, there are pros and cons to each lighting method when photographing real estate interiors. When deciding which method is best for you, consider the needs of the shoot you are undertaking.

If you are a beginner, it is also good practice to experiment first with natural light. Doing so helps you understand how light works before you move on to adding artificial light to your room.

If you are comfortable adding light, remember to keep it soft and be aware of your light direction at all times. If you are shooting with available light, master your processing techniques. Use HDR software such as Photomatix Pro to combine your Exposure Bracketed photos and achieve a nice exposure balance.

No matter what technique you use, some key things to remember are: show details, balance your well-lit areas against those in the shadows and show the space in the most flattering way – just as you see it as you walk in the room.

Disclaimer: HDR Soft is a paid partner of DPS.

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Nisha Ramroop is an I.T. chick and Project Manager with a passion for photography, currently living in the beautiful Trinidad & Tobago. She’s a published writer and photographer who spends most of her free time traveling and exploring. See more of her work at Nikophotography.