HDR Vs. Flash For Interiors And Real Estate Photography

HDR Vs. Flash For Interiors And Real Estate Photography

I know that many of our readers are real estate photographers or have at least tried their hand at real estate photography. The most common method used to create 'good enough' real estate photos is HDR: whether it is tonemapping or exposure fusion, HDR is definitely the most-used method for real estate and beginner interior photographers. In this post, I'll do a comparison between tonemapping, exposure fusion, single on-camera flash, and multiple off-camera flash, and show you the benefits (or disadvantages, rather) of each.

I've been shooting and writing about architecture, interiors, real estate, and generally everything that needs to look pretty but cannot be moved for awhile now, and it seems every time I post an article related to my field(s), there are plenty of comments debating the use of HDR and the use of flash in the comments. Flash users insult HDR users, HDR users insult flash users, everyone cuts a knee open, and everyone goes home disappointed. It is as dependable as the sun rising and setting - I honestly cannot remember any time when it hasn't happened.

So on a recent shoot, I was presented with a perfect scene to demonstrate the differences between methods, and (here's the important part) remembered to shoot it with this article in mind. I bracketed for HDR, shot for the highlights, the shadows, shot with flashes, shot with flashes again, and then moved the flashes around and shot again, just because I wanted to leave no stone unturned.

So let's get to it, shall we? I know this is real edge-of-your-seat entertainment, so hold on tight.

The Scene

Let's get a feel for what we'll be working with. I was recently contacted to shoot this neat apartment in Westwood, Los Angeles, CA for a client of mine. Now here's the fun part: I had an hour to create 10 images. That hour included unloading a huge Pelican case, scouting it, chit-chatting with the client to exchange ideas, and shooting it. I managed to finish early which allowed me to set up my little test and spend ten or so minutes on just this scene.

Here is a single exposure of the scene as my camera sees it. I dropped it on a tripod, spun the dials until the exposure meter was centered, and clicked off a frame. This is what resulted:

interior-photography-mike-kelley-  01 Single exposure.

It's about 2pm and sunlight is streaming in those floor-to-ceiling windows like crazy. No camera would be able to capture the deepest darks of that couch and the brightest brights of the exterior in one image in these shooting conditions. I'd bet my business on it.

If you're familiar with the LA, or any other high-end real estate market, you're well aware that the view here probably cost multiple millions of dollars, and letting it blow out isn't going to make anyone very pleased with the photos. So we'll need to make sure that we expose both the darkest darks and the brightest brights properly. Sure, we can just expose for the windows, but we'll get something that looks like this:

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And for obvious reasons, we can't deliver that, either. We can expose for the interior:

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Which might be deliverable depending on the circumstances, but really, it's quite far from anything that I would even consider delivering. This would at least be useful as a scouting photo, but it still fails to accomplish what we're being paid to do: to show off the interior and exterior views of this gorgeous apartment.

So in order to show off this space in the best possible way, we've got a couple options. Let's start off with...

Tonemapped HDR

Loved by many, vocally hated by just as many, and used by everyone at least once in their careers, Tonemapped HDR is certainly one way to go about things. Tonemapping is what most people think of when the phrase 'HDR' is mentioned: those radioactive landscape scenes and, um, "artistic" renderings of city scenes are some popular applications for tonemapping:

Apologies to all Tomcat lovers around the world for that one. Usually, tonemapped HDRs are created by shooting three or five exposures spaced one or two stops apart, which are then merged together using a program like Photomatix. Using tonemapping can create some passable results, but the images quickly fall apart under scrutiny or enlargement. Here are the three images I used to create my tonemapped interior shot. One is, according to the camera, two stops underexposed, one is properly exposed, and one is two stops overexposed. In other words, a typical, run-of-the-mill application of HDR.

interior-photography-mike-kelley- 02

interior-photography-mike-kelley- 03

And after loading the three images into the Photomatix engine and playing with the result, this is what I was able to come up with:

interior-photography-mike-kelley-  07

At first glance, it's not the worst thing in the world. We've got details out the window, details in the interior, and we can tell what's going on. I guess if you were being paid $100 and the client expected you to shoot with a potato, you'd be in the clear. But upon further inspection, things really start to fall apart. The sky is a muddy mess with clipping everywhere, and there's no real saturation or crispness due to the overexposed frame being entirely blown out in that area. The colors in the interior are incorrect (especially from the lights - tonemapping loves to oversaturate warm colors) and the transition between the interior and exterior around the windows is a bit rough. The shadow noise is also a bit unruly at 100%, but like I said, it's not the absolute worst real estate marketing photo ever. I also spent way too much time massaging it in post to get it to look like this, and I can imagine that it's very easy to screw something like this up if you aren't very familiar with Photomatix's controls.

Exposure Fusion HDR

Another popular method for photographing interiors is to use Photomatix's Exposure Fusion program. This (in very unscientific terms) uses a different blending algorithm to create a more natural result, but at the expense of creative control, which may actually be a good thing. Exposure fusion averages the exposure across the scenes and takes bits and pieces from each exposure to create a more life-like image. Using the same base exposures, I was able to come up with this:

interior-photography-mike-kelley-  10

Which is a decent improvement from our tonemapped shot. Still, there are a number of issues with this shot. Try as I might, I wasn't able to pull out the window view to get it to look the way it really should (well-exposed, good visibility) for a property like this. I could split a few more hairs, as well: the contrast in the scene isn't really what I'd call ideal, and it's kind of muddy overall. It doesn't really scream "this is a high-quality, sharp, snappy marketing image that I'd want to print out for a magazine article to sell my expensive piece of real estate."

Again, I spent some time in Photomatix pulling and pushing the sliders to get this to look as best as I could. If you were really devoted, you could bring this into photoshop and replace the exterior scene with a properly exposed one. But unless you're getting paid a significant amount, it's just not worth the time to mask out all of those details or pull out your hair dragging the pen tool around the screen for thirty minutes to do so. As Sweet Brown would say, "nobody has enough time for that."

A deliverable shot, to be sure, given the right budget and client. But as I said, there is a lot of room for improvement. So let's try another method: the flash.

On-Camera Flash

The single on-camera flash is another approach to this type of photography that I frequently see being used, oftentimes with utterly disastrous results. There are times where it can be perfect, however: in small rooms with white walls and big windows, a little kiss of light from an on-camera flash can really help to fill things in and add some sparkle to run-n-gun real estate photography. But in a challenging situation like the one we are faced with in this post, well, I'll let you be the judge:

interior-photography-mike-kelley-  11

Okay. So it's a Xerox, essentially. All of the information is there, presented in a very ugly format. But it's there. There's some light on the scene, you can see what's going on, but...dang! That window is still long gone. My flash is already at full power, ISO 320, f8, 1/80th, bounced right into the ceiling. I'm letting some of the ambient light from outside fill in the scene to add some natural light and fill. But I really want to see that view, so what do I do? I bump up my shutter speed, which effectively puts me right at the edge of my sync speed and also kills all of the ambient light's filling effect. Which gives us this:

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So there's our view, but we have completely destroyed any sense of ambience in the interior. Gorgeous, eh? Keep in mind that the flash is on full power here. That is one dark interior, and I can't go any higher on my shutter speed or I'd cross the sync speed and lose a significant amount of flash power. I could bump my ISO or open up my aperture to increase my flash power, but again, I can't make my shutter speed any faster because of the sync speed limits, and that would negate all of the gains granted to me by bumping the ISO and changing the aperture.

That light, though...is just...so...ugly. Yuck! How can we improve it? By using...

Multiple Off-Camera Flashes

Keep in mind that I had an hour to create ten images (plus details and vignettes, which I shoot with a prime lens, hand-held usually) for a client that called me at the last minute of the eleventh hour. This was a great client, so I wasn't going to say no, and I was compensated fairly for my time and expertise. Yet I still wanted to create the best results possible given the time constraints, without resorting to HDR or shooting single exposures.

On my usual and ideal gigs, I usually shoot eight to ten images per day using multiple off-camera lights, and, often enough, I have an assistant helping out to speed things up. As you can imagine, I wasn't able to spend that much time on each image here (2-3 minutes at most). But I think that the results speak for themselves: the window view is crystal clear, the interior looks relatively natural, the colors are all correct, and the shadows and transitions are natural and smooth, unlike all of the other methods I've touched on. I will admit that I cheated a bit here: I had to crop out the edges of a pair of umbrellas and crop down from the top of the frame to conceal a minor hotspot. I pulled some shadows and pushed some highlights in Aperture, and of course added the usual contrast and saturation. In reality, I spent no more time in Photoshop/Aperture caressing this image than I did on the HDR images. All things considered, however, the minor cropping and 'cheating' here produces a much better result:


Of course, it's going to take time to be able to effectively light a dark interior in a way that captures every necessary piece of information in order to entice potential buyers. It's not an overnight solution, and there is always room for improvement. I'm not 100% happy with the quality of light that I created in my final image here, but I spent all of ten minutes on this scene for results that, to me, appear to be the clear winner in the quality and deliverability categories. If I had more time I'd love to play with the composition, different lighting setups, using scrims and cookies, and all of that fun stuff to make a really killer image. I might even kick around for a few hours until the sun started to set to get an amazing twilight shot, but alas, I did not have that liberty on this shoot.


Four methods, all of them producing unique results. Do I believe that HDR and on-camera flash have their place? Absolutely. If you are just starting out, it might help to ease into interiors and real estate photography by using HDR to learn how to compose, get comfortable with the dynamic range and limitations of your camera, and realize how they can be improved. From there, slap a single flash in the hotshoe and master that. It might be ugly for awhile, but it will only get better in time. From there, I'd suggest making the jump to off-camera lighting. Can you create great images using HDR and exposure fusion or other methods that I haven't mentioned here (for example, manual blending in Photoshop)? Yes, and people do. I may or may not think that those people might be insane due to the amount of time they end up spending in post, but they do. I also enjoy the fine control I can have over a scene when I am the one who is creating the light and mood, rather than being the one who is trying to work within a set of boundaries imposed on me by the scene. The more control I have, the better, but that is another article for another time.

If you're on a time limit and don't feel comfortable juggling five or more speedlights, then by all means get familiar with HDR and its Exposure Fusion engine. You'll need to know the limitations of the program and what kind of scenes it will struggle with, such as the one in this post. But don't let me mislead you: there are many situations in which HDR can be applied and used to great effect, it's just that there are some situations where it definitely would not be my first choice.

Everyone has their preferences, and I've tried to lay out each method in an unbiased format so you can make your own decisions about how you shoot your interiors or real estate photography. But for me, when it comes to quality, my time, and pleasing my clients, it's off-camera flash every time. Do note that architectural and commercial photography differs greatly from real estate photography, and a bit beyond the scope of this article.

Here's a side by side comparison of HDR and Flash, to wrap things up. Note the snappy contrast, which was only bumped the slightest bit in Aperture. The lack of bloom around the windows, the smooth transitions, controlled dynamics and life-like colors of the flashed version when compared to the HDR version.

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If you would like to see more of my work using off-camera lighting techniques for real estate, architecture and interiors, head on over to my website at mpkelley.com or check out the strobist article detailing some more of my techniques and work. Those should give you a good idea of just what is possible with lights when it comes to shooting this genre of photography.
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They bought my picture after comparing the two.
I guess I did the right thing - since I got paid for the picture.

it doesnt look as if its the same room at all !!

And you have made the room look much smaller.....

Im think they must have bought the picture out of pity.....

Your perspective is very bad Im sorry to say

People pay for bad photography all the time. Just because something has a price tag doesn't mean it's good.

you are clearly just a troll or have a horrible eye. Thomas's image is MUCH better

Yeah, my eyes are pretty horrible. I think I was blinded by the overuse of flash in Thom's photo. 

John MacLean's picture

Damn, you guys (assuming you could be the same person?) are just sour grapes. Grow up! Instead of bashing T.E.'s results, why don't you show your website(s) so we can see what wonderful things you do? And show your solutions to this situation. So instead of shooting with a 16mm, he used a longer focal length and shot high and shifted down. Although I probably would have been somewhere in between the two views, there's no need to bash him for getting paid by a client that approved his work! 

Nobody is bashing him cause he got paid. He's getting bashed for trying to show off, and being delusional about his ability.

John MacLean's picture

Well here's your opportunity to put your money where your mouth is and show us all how it's done! Otherwise, like my grandmother used to say, "If you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all"!

Here's something good to say. The original photographer did a great job on his shot. Showcased the room in a well executed and professional manner. 

John MacLean's picture

Personally, I would've suggested to the client to shoot it at dusk to have less contrast from outside to inside. I know there are time constraints, but if the client wants the best end results sometimes they're willing to bend and take the advice of the professional they hired to get the best possible results. That said, I'd still like to see a bit more "info" on the interior. I realize this is an extreme contrast case, but I think more strategically placed lighting would bring out the detail a bit better in this scenario. IOW, I don't envy Mike for having to pull off this shoot under these conditions, but just maybe he could have gotten his client to stretch if he asked. However, shooting it the easier way wouldn't have made for such good controversy, ha!

  Hey Bill. Lets see your portfolio. You talk a lot of game but I haven't
seen one single picture. You are entitled to your own opinion but
realize that everyone has different taste.

yeah, was this room remodeled? the painting is gone, the lamps are different, even the shelf along the left was is different.

The pictures were taken before the hotel was finished. This was the model room that they changed during construction. Therefor the changes of lamps and painting.

Living in Prague (Czech Republic) and I just got a request from a hotel to shoot their rooms at the same style as Thomas'. Google KNA Design and see for yourself -it's the style they are aiming-. Wide angle and light 'as it is' is history, I believe.

KNA Design actually knows what they are doing. There is a huge difference between what they do, and what Thomas has shown here. If your client is expecting KNA calibre, you better not deliver Engstrom as an equivalent. 

Oliver Oettli's picture

 I agree with you 100%. Way better and more interesting shot. The outside is a bit took dark for me - looks maybe a bit too much fake. But all in all, i really like it.

My 2 cents:

While your photo is much more artistic and nice looking, it fails to do the job. The job is: show the room! We aren't trying to show our 3D renderings but the size, structure, theme, design and feel of the room.

The hotel's photo, unlike yours, doesn't break some fundamental photography rules too.

So far it's 50-50 between both photos.

The hotel rooms photo, taken from the same angle, with open curtains, bracketing, off camera lighting would have had the same elements you had in your shot to make it artistic + do its job of showing off the room.

More often than not, photography is a personal taste. So in this business we MUST do what appeals to the larger percentage of the Macdonalds eaters.

Hi Бублик,
As a commercial photographer you are sometimes in the hands of the client.
They saw the shot I took. Bought it and published it at the time. I might have done it a little bit different if I would have used it for myself.

Today - 6 years later - I hope they would go for something different when it comes to lighting.

I photographed a "back packer's hotel room" for TUI ( Europe's leading travel group) a few years back. They couldn't use my pictures. It didn't show the room, they said.
It showed a "Three star hotel room". So sometimes adding light to a room can make it look much nicer than it is. My bad.

Come on! Just stady how to work with flash and buy radio slaves!

Ken Yee's picture

I'll take a guess at where the off-cam flashes are...one in the chandelier over the dining room table...one bounced against the wall on the left side, one behind the chair on the right aimed above the window.
What puzzles me is the natural light highlights still stayed the same...usually, with off-cam flash, you'll have different lighting edges from where you placed the flashes...

what i think about this very great topic is that interior photography need alot of knowledge about photography, light and reflexion... for this kind of picture same this appartment i would try to have a result by mixing 2 technics...
First one is using bounce flashes underexpose photography with 1 flash used as bounce for express the light in there. then and good exposed photo without flash for preserve the color and the next shoot with an overexposed photo with multiple bounce for make out the geometric of the room and express the view from the window. after this 3 shots i'll mix them on HDR. and see what happen...

I think the biggest difference is not in how dynamic range is handled, but rather how the interior is has more depth because of the strategic side-lighting. Look at the pillows on the black couch, or the shadow under the table. There's more detail, not because of the brightness levels, but because of the local contrast.

A proper exposure fusion will capture the exterior without any problems, but it will never create the local contrast in the interior out of thin air.

As an aside: could we get the -2/0/+2 shots in large-scale jpg? I want to try for myself to see just how much is possible with only ambient light.

I've already emailed Mike (the OP) requesting release of his HDR bracket (-2/0/+2) in reasonable resolution. I think most HDR photographers would shoot a broader bracket, but using my usual HDR methods and just the low-res posted images I got better results than were shown in MIke's post.

Given the interest in this topic, I suggest that fstoppers sponsor a contest. Arrange for an experienced HDR photographer and an off-camera flash photographer such as Mike to shoot the same home. Let each have the same time constraints for onsite production and offsite post-production. Say, 5 minutes onsite and 10 minutes in post-production, per setup? It's been a while since we had an fstoppers contest. At the least, we could have a go at a bracket taken by one photographer and see how our different techniques produce different results. How about it, guys?

 "5 minutes onsite and 10 minutes in post-production, per setup?"

That'd be setting the rules to benefit the HDR shooter.  How about 13 minutes on location and 2 minutes in post-production, per setup?  See my point?

I like the idea of a challenge between a multi-flash shooter and an HDR shooter, but the time constraints would need to be neutral to avoid benefiting a specific technique, and even then, they might not be realistic.  If a potential client told me I'd have five minutes to light and shoot a great room with a view, taking the job would be a disservice to the client (and my portfolio).  Then again, so would hiring an HDR guy.  Kidding!

Typically a budget-minded home shoot for my Realtor clients involves 20-30 images in an hour, giving an average of 2-3 minutes per shot including walking-around time. My proposal to double that time to 5 minutes for a friendly shoot-off challenge is already a significant concession to the greater on-site complexity of the multi-flash setup. Mike says he used 10 minutes; I say I need 2 minutes. I was proposing a compromise between the time limit that I have to shoot in and the 10-minute time limit that Mike used for his shot. Five minutes per shot on a 30-shot house is 150 total minutes, or 2.5 hours. That's much more than is allowed by my clients. You're rigging the contest to give an advantage to the multi-flash competitor. And Mike spends more than 2 minutes in post per setup, according to his own writing. 

John MacLean's picture

I don't know how anyone can expect quality results for their portfolios with such run-n-gun approaches? Problem with realtors is they "think" they need 30+ views of a house to sell it, when 5-10 would actually be better, in terms of quality and quantity. Who the hell needs to see that many photos? The buyer just needs an idea, then they're going to want to see it in person anyway.

James Tarry's picture

So true John. Although some agents want "lifestyle" shots, mulitple angles of every room especially when its rentals as quite alot (where i am) are rented out purely from online viewing for companies. Personally i try to take as much as i can but often only send over what i consider "useful" shots

John MacLean's picture

I had my share of real estate photography when I lived in Santa Fe, but I was pre-digital before 2001, on 35mm Fuji 64T chrome film. I used to setup a dusk shot (one view per night) for the indoor/outdoor balance. I usually scouted the location (imagine that) a day or so early, brought Smith Victor PL lights and had to have them all up on stands and ready to go. When the sun set, I'd quickly place them, swap incandescent household bulbs (have a kit of 15w ~ 300w), adjust homemade barndoors, and bracket during that 5 minute sweet spot before the exterior got too dark! It was get it right on film, or go home empty handed. I never had to do a reshoot!

My main client said multiple times that they had sold the house the day after the photos appeared in the local Homes and Land magazine. My images were different and unique, and that's what got the buyer's attention, not the fact that there were a dizzying amount of mediocre photos to look thru, but maybe 3-5 images in the ad.

But in the digital age, the polar opposite is occurring. It's all about how many images they can get for how little money. It's really sad, and I don't really want to shoot fast and furious for very little financial payback.

James Tarry's picture

I cant possibly imagine doing this in Film, not these days. I do floor plans as well and agents (some/most) expect the plans and images back before next morning at the very least.... thankfully i feel alot are wising up to the fact that good photography doesnt mean 30+ images-personally whenever ive been looking for a flat i only really ever look at 5-6 shots. 

Sadly your right companies are looking to spend less for more and the sad thing is theres lots of photographers out there doing it for ridiculous prices, well, over here they are anyway. Its finding a balance i guess... RE is a decent day job for me even if it is a bit rush rush sometimes..it enables me to pick and choose the lovely  private work

Why not just make it "10 minutes, make an image from this angle, go!"?

Yes, you're pushed for time, but you're supposed to be professionals. You have 10 minutes, so apply them in the best way you can.

Then do the same thing from multiple angles and find out what situations HDR/flash excel in, and what situations they don't tackle. Maybe we'll find out that - gasp - they both have their merits.