Flash Vs. HDR For Interiors And Real Estate Photography, Part II: Mood And Color Case Study

Flash Vs. HDR For Interiors And Real Estate Photography, Part II: Mood And Color Case Study

About six months ago, I wrote a piece comparing flash techniques to HDR and ambient-only techniques when shooting for architecture and interiors clients. There was some great discussion involved and many valid points raised, and I'd like to take a few minutes to bring up another scenario that really shows the benefits of using flash whenever possible when dealing with interior or architectural situations. We'll be looking at how flash can add mood and control color, something we didn't touch on in too much depth in the last iteration of this article.

Every week, I get a ton of questions from photographers looking to get into architecture and interiors photography, something I've been working hard on for years now (here's my portfolio, if you don't trust me), and one of the more common questions is how to deal with color casts and how to use light when shooting interiors. While there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of ways to shoot any space, today we're going to focus on the benefits granted by using off-camera lighting when faced with a very tricky lighting situation, one that HDR simply could not realistically handle on its own.

I was recently commissioned to shoot this fantastic interior space for one of my clients, and upon meeting with the client, we discussed possible options for shooting this space. She really wanted to show the relation of the design to the large windows and how the design played off of the large amounts of natural light afforded by them. The couch was situated to take advantage of the natural light, and show views to the attached guesthouse and pool, which were not seen in this shot. Her biggest insistence was that we show how the room feels on a summer afternoon when everything is basking in natural light and there was a real 'lemonade and a good book' vibe to the whole thing. Challenge accepted!

The first and most obvious problem was that we were shooting this at the total wrong time of year and due to scheduling, we had to shoot it at a less than optimal time of day, and the sun hadn't quite been able to get in the exact position that the client had in mind. Not a problem, I say. The second problem that immediately popped up as soon as I took a test shot was the incredible green cast that washed over everything. Even though those giant windows are really awesome and we want to show them in all their glory, we have got to do something about that green cast. Because there was a lot of shrubbery right outside of the window, the sunlight was hitting those shrubs and picking up the green color from them, and then it was bouncing inside and coating the floors, ceilings, and everything in between with a sickly green cast. So after taking our initial test shot, seen here:

Test shot
HDR_vs_flash (1)

I had to figure out just how I wanted to tame that green cast and start to show this room in the mood that the designer intended.

So, first things first. I'm going to increase my shutter speed to kill most of the ambient light, which is mostly that green vomit light coming in from those windows. And that leaves us with this:

Test shot without ambient, faster shutter speedHDR_vs_flash (2)

Which is admittedly pretty terrible. We managed to get rid of most of the green light coming in the window (there's still a bit left, but not to worry) and reign in those blown out windowsills. The next thing we have to do is of course add some light to the interior to properly expose it. Remember, our client was insistent that we showcase the mood of this space as if were a sunny morning or afternoon with light streaming in the windows. We want it to look like you could walk in here and relax with a book and lemonade (or adult beverage of your choice) so the first thing I KNOW I am going to want to do is fake some sunlight by putting a light out the window. I also know that I'm going to have to add some more light to the interior from the other direction to balance out the dark interior - we're definitely going to need more than one light here. So the first thing I did was head outside and start getting my 'fake' sunlight set up, and after that I threw some lights inside. My initial test setup was one light out the windows, a light through an umbrella camera right, and a couple bounced lights in the kitchen. I then started firing off some test frames:

More ambient, little bit of flash in window, check the shadows on the couch from that light outside starting to form:
HDR_vs_flash_tests 1

More flash in window:
HDR_vs_flash_tests 7

Even less ambient:
HDR_vs_flash_tests 2

EVEN LESS ambient because why not, let's test it out:
HDR_vs_flash_tests 3

More ambient for a more natural feel:
HDR_vs_flash_tests 4

Starting to find some semblance of a balance, but the dark kitchen...yeck!
HDR_vs_flash_tests 5

First attempt at light in kitchen windows...not really working for me...I'll have to adjust...
HDR_vs_flash_tests 7

These test shots are also pretty weak in every way, because they are, well, test shots. I'm trying to find the right balance between interior light and exterior light, softness of light, amount of light, and the relation between ambient and flash. I don't really have a set system here - it's very much a 'wing it until it looks good' seat of the pants type of thing. You'll notice as you look at the shots that I'm playing with my shutter speed and lighting setup - as I decide to remove more color cast or ambient light, I'll increase the shutter speed and add more flash accordingly. I also play with the positioning of the lights. Sometimes it works and I keep it, and sometimes it looks awful and I'll toss it. It's all a game of trial and error. You'll also notice that the designer is moving through the room and playing with objects slightly. We're both sort of taking our time getting everything perfect, my lighting and her design relative to the camera. This is one of those times where it's so critical to be able to shoot tethered and be able to show the client what is going on so you can collaborate and bounce ideas off of one another. For this shoot and most of my shoots I'm using a CamRanger, which if you'd like to learn more about, you can check out my review here.

Anyway, you can see our shot sort of coming together. After I confer with the client that she likes the direction we're heading in, I go back to adding some more light to the kitchen to bring it up to speed with the rest of the image. Here are a few more attempts at that - I'm just going around back there with my iPad and trying out different modifiers until I was happy with what I was getting. Umbrellas, grids, bare lights, in the windows, bounced, I'm just kind of throwing some light around until I'm satisfied with what I'm getting. Total time? One or two minutes. Don't need to overthink it, as it isn't the focal point of the shot, but we do need to have some light back there so we can tell what's going on.

Kitchen test shots...
HDR_vs_flash_tests2 1 (1)

Note the changing lighting in the kitchen in each shot...
HDR_vs_flash_tests2 2 (1)

Hotspot on ceiling
HDR_vs_flash_tests2 3 (1)

Too bright...
HDR_vs_flash_tests2 4 (1)

Hotspot on left...
HDR_vs_flash_tests2 5

As you can see, I'm just kind of improvising: Too much, too little, different modifiers, different angles, existing lights on, existing lights off.

At this point, I think you guys understand what's going on here. I'm just trying to add and remove light until I'm happy with the result. You can see me playing with lights and adding light that wasn't there - something you can't (realistically) do in Photoshop. At this point I've added a light coming in the window to simulate sunlight, and I've added some soft light from camera right for the foreground and also in the kitchen to fill it up. It's about now that I'm getting pretty close to where I want the picture to be, and I again go back and confer with the designer to make sure that we're on the same page. We go over any last minute edits to the design, and sign off on each other's work. It's very much a collaborative effort, so we're constantly cross-checking and working together to make sure that I don't add some funky light where it shouldn't be or that she doesn't accidentally put an enormous potted plant in the way of the entire composition.

Before I show you the finished shot, I want to show you how this scene would look as shot without flash. I'm going to try my hardest here to make it look pretty good without using ANY flash frames. In order to give my non-flashed images as much dog in this fight as possible, I've even gone as far as to turn off the existing lighting in the scene (sconces, lamps, chandeliers etc) to mitigate any additional color casts that we'd have to contend with.

So first up to the plate - we've got an HDR Tonemapped image created with Photomatix, which is pretty well known across the industry and by far the most used HDR application. This was run through the program with pretty basic edits, again, I tried to get it to look as good as possible. Here's what I came up with:

Tonemapped HDR
HDR tonemap

I don't really know what needs to be said here other than the fact that I regret that this image ever existed. The colors are way off, the window frames are all gross, and it looks like there's smoke damage throughout the interior due to the program struggling to separate out the lights and darks. Midtones are very muddy, as well. I highly recommend you steer far clear of HDR Tonemapping for all interiors work for this reason. HDR Fusion provides a much better engine, and comes bundled with Photomatix HDR software. Here's what the fusion version looks like:

Fusion HDR
HDR fusion only

It's quite a bit better, but still falls short in my eyes. I actually took this into Photoshop and locally adjusted color and saturation in an effort to tame that green cast, which has been slightly mitigated. The problem is that there is no real way to just 'fix' a cast like this. You could select the greens with a hue/saturation adjustment layer or the eyedropper tool and pull them down (either in Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture) but what happens is that you not only kill the greens and yellows that we want to kill, but we also kill those that we want to keep, such as in the potted plants and the exterior. For this image, I did a quick job of masking out the exterior but lets get realistic for a moment. Nobody wants to sit around masking out individual leaves of a potted plant to ensure that the greens there are true to life, but that the greens on the wall are gone. By using the ambient frames to make an HDR blend, we basically guarantee that we are going to have an ugly color cast in the room in a situation like this. No amount of white balance or levels can fix it, because as I said, you're going to have a hell of a time masking around all the objects that should be green when you try to clean up the objects that shouldn't. Catch my drift?

Again, let's revisit the ambient only frame to see how this looks. I did the same thing here - ran it through Photoshop for a bit of color correction, but the same problem are evident. Blown out windows, highlights way gone, and color casts throughout. But, to be frank, I honestly prefer this to either HDR version.
Single exposure with slight edits
single exposure corrected

Now I want to show you the final image that I delivered to my client. This is more or less straight out of camera - the only adjustments were some selective dodging and burning, and shadow/highlight adjustments. I didn't spend any time correcting color casts because I didn't have to. My shutter speed was fast enough to kill the green ambient light that was bouncing in the window from the shrubs, and it still properly exposed the interior.

Final flashed imagefinal

As you can see, the colors are true to life and the interior is properly exposed with shadows and highlights just where I want them to create mood. The window view is crystal clear and there's no smoke damage. Cool. Let's check out a straight out of camera ambient exposure so we can compare the difference again:

Ambient straight out of camerasingle exposure sooc

To further hammer this point home, I've made a comparison image for you that's split down the middle showing the straight-out-of-camera exposure and the final flashed image. The difference is REALLY clear here! Look at the color cast, it's completely gone, and the furniture, wall colors, paints, and decor are the true colors that the designer had in mind when she put all of this together. For obvious reasons, we want to represent the designer's work as true-to-life as we can in terms of colors and feel, because they get paid a hell of a lot to make sure it all looks good and color is such an important part of that.


But really...let's just disregard all of that for a second. Forget the color casts, forget the proper exposure, forget my technical mumbo jumbo up top about balance interior light and exterior light and flash levels and blah blah blah. What does the final flashed image have that NONE of the others have?

Mood. Yep, it's got mood. By using flash, we are able to convey a feeling. We're able to CONTROL the scene in front of us. What good is it going to be to take photos where you're completely out of control? You wouldn't want to shoot a portrait without being able to move your subject or add and control light, would you? By having control, we're able to make a scene that says "Hey you, yeah you, viewer! Check this out. I'm a living room that's washed in early morning or afternoon sunlight, and I know you want to grab your iPad and coffee and come sit over here while the golden retriever curls up at your feet." By using flash, we are able to control so much more than if we were to just shoot it as is. I could take this in SO many directions. I could add a softbox to my light outside, and create a cloudy, filtered sunlight mood. I could gel that light and create a sunset mood. I could get rid of the light outside altogether and just shoot a bright, clean, properly exposed interior with no color casts if that's what the client wanted.

So if you want to take your inteiors photography to the next level, start using lights in your workflow. If a client comes to you and says "I designed this space with this mood in mind" you'll be able to deliver exactly what they want. I don't make Xeroxes of rooms, and I don't want you to, either. I want you to be able to create a mood that the client had in mind when they designed the space, and I want you to make photos so good that the client will be thrilled with them for years to come.

So to wrap it up, here are a few facts:

Time spent adding light outside: 5 minutes, one light (bare on a tall stand)
Time spent lighting foreground: 2 minutes, one light (through large umbrella camera right)
Time spent lighting kitchen: 5 minutes, 2 lights (one bounced from the right, one shot through window from the left)
Time spent in post: 3 minutes at most

Total time lighting; 12-15 minutes. Add some chimping and re-arranging. Another ten minutes. Total time? 30 minutes. That doesn't count what the designer did on her own time, but I want to show you that this can be done quickly and efficiently with practice.

I hope you learn something from these tutorials, and that you're able to put this stuff into practice in your own photography. I've teamed up with the Fstoppers crew to create something big that's going to come out in the next few months, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled for that, as I'll be giving away tons of tips and insights.

-Mike Kelley

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Previous comments
Graham Marley's picture

Awesome. You're seriously going to love that book. I'd send that PSD but I don't have it anymore just because it was kind of a one-off quicky to try an experiment. Cheers!

Excellent article. I have found a piece of software Oloneo Photoengine that allows tweaking the lights to different levels . Might be worth a look.

Interesting article, and I appreciate that it was very difficult to light. So I wonder why you put the very directional flash outside, because it created so many unnatural shadows and hard edges on the inside (in your final image), e.g. the wall on the right, the wall in the middle behind the plant, on the sofa and on the pillows. I guess I would have started with a big softbox on camera-left to balance out the ambient. Just saying. :)

Mike Kelley's picture

It is, of course, a matter of taste. The light outside was carefully positioned to highlight certain things in the scene, for example the potted plant, throw on the couch, and the green wicker chair and throw on the right. I wouldn't quite call them 'unnatural' but rather quite natural, as I tried to mimic the sun, which would have given us a sharp, hard light, much like the bare flash outside.

I'm a firm believer in working with natural light and preserving it whenever possible. But in the real world when things are out of our control you just have to work with what you have. I think the author did an amazing job with so many things working against him. I particularly like the strong rectangular highlights along that back wall and in the kitchen. The only thing I would have done differently is created a little brighter scene out that window (it's too perfectly exposed for me) Thats miner and totally subjective.

I can't believe I learned so much from the comments. I just purchased Oloneo Photoengine and I never thought to use the LAB color space as a masking tool. Thank you so much for that post!

Mike Kelley's picture

Agreed on all counts, and thanks for the kind words, Jeff. I agree that natural light is a great thing in many cases, but sometimes, what the client wants, the natural light just can't provide! It's great to have both tools in your bag when the time or need arises.

Mike - I just discovered this site and your articles. They are very detailed and thoughtfully written. You're helping a lot of people including myself. Thanks so much.

An article that gives detailed process WITH photo progress. More stuff like this :)

Hans Klett's picture

Fantastic work Mike. I've been watching your technique for a while now and have learned so much. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

Did you try gelling the inside lights with a green tint to get the color closer together?

I'd be curious to see if you could have used the sun as a main and geled speedlights as accent lights.

Thanks for sharing Mike, it gave a lot of insight!

Suppose I took a PhaseOne P65+ mounted on a nice ArTec body, and crafted an amazing architectural interior image. And let’s say that I then took a DSLR in Program mode with the wrong white balance, backfocusing, a crooked tripod, and one hotshoe-mounted flash in Auto mode, and took a crappy shot. And let’s say I then posted on fstoppers how that crappy shot proves that DSLRs just aren’t any good for architectural interiors. You’d probably shake
your head and think I was foolish to say that. But that’s exactly what you’re doing with HDR.

You got terrible results with HDR. Understandable—the HDR shots you’ve shown have glaring, obnoxious, burn-my-eyeballs technical errors. I wish you’d listen to your respondents like Chris Johnson and Anders Peterson and myself when we tell you you’re doing it wrong. It’s not supposed to look like that. Stop it. Now.

Your multistrobe shot is strong. You were ferret-on-caffeine quick. Your result surely pleased your client. Posting about just that part would have made a nice post. But…if done properly, that HDR shot could easily have been a solid 8/10 accomplished in 3 minutes, not the horrid example you show next to your 9/10 multistrobe shot that took 30 minutes and $2500 more equipment. There’s a place in the market for a technique that is finished in one tenth the time using far less equipment and giving almost-as-good results. It’s quite inaccurate to say
HDR can’t show mood or control color. You’re just not giving it a fair shake.

michael andrew's picture

As much as I enjoy Mikes work, and learned more than one thing on his post, I have to agree with everything you just said (sans the 2500$ remark thats irrelevant and not necessarily true).

Hello Mike,

I just read your great article! It was really helpful for me to understand difference between HDR and flash light shooting.

Do you use any filters on your camera? I mean UV/polarising filter?

Thanks in advance for answer!

Pretty amazing. You did all that in less time than it took me to take it all in. Fantastic work and a great lesson when considering HDR over lighting. Very cool thanks!!

michael andrew's picture

Great read. I really enjoy your work. It is superb, that said I am baffled at your output of "color corrected" HDR or Fusion images. I took a screen shot of your HDR into photoshop and spent about 90 seconds on it to get this (attached). I am not an expert in HDR, I don't really know how to use it, but that image you put up was pretty poor rendition of color and I felt that some basic adjustments made it usable. Looking at your work I see you have an experts grasp on color correction, pretty curious what you did to "finish" off with what was displayed as the HDR image.


Hello Mike, Great Article. For someone who is a bit new at interiors I found that step by step images showing how you make you desisions really helpful. For me I cannot afford all the Lights and PocketWizards, so would you recommend using a speed light with different modifiers and then use masks in post to create a similar effect?

Have you got any more interior tutorials coming out, I'd be interested to view more too.

The best thing to avoid when when searching realism is hdri with photomatix.
Please try with LR enfuse! There's no sign of hdr look at all

Do you mind sharing the 2 raw shots with no flashes? I can combine them in LR/enfuse and show up the result?

Hi Mike,

As a hobbyist photographer for the past decade and a half, I was recently approached by a company about being their principal photographer for residential interiors. I've never shot professionally, but I have a lot of professional equipment that I've acquired over the years.

I thought residential interiors would be easier than portrait photography so I said I would take on this new opportunity. Boy was I wrong! Balancing natural light with ambient light, especially on sunny days where the owner wants to capture their incredible Chicago views, is considerably challenging. As many articles as I've read, as many youtube videos as I've watched, and as much experience I have with how ISO, aperture and shutter speed play together, your article brought far more clarity to balancing these types of shots.

I never would have thought to add a monolight outside to imitate the natural sunlight that the room would normally get, and what our eyes would be able to perceive. Your final image is exactly what I would expect the naked eye to view in such a space. I also appreciated that, as a professional photographer, still have the challenges of the space and light. And you do what you think will make the shot better, even when it doesn't in the test shot. You portrayed in this article that it's ok to not know exactly what to do every single time and that the perfect shot doesn't come with the first click of the shutter. It takes thought, tests shots, rethinking and revising the plan, taking more test shots, and adjusting as you fine tune what works and what isn't.

To me, as a hobby photographer who loves the artistic outlet turning paid photographer, your approach and explanation of the process was comforting and inspiring. You understood how to adjust the lighting composition because of your experience, but you also were very understanding that you don't always get the perfect shot in the first try. And that portrayal of trial and error gave me confidence! I felt like I needed to know how to capture the perfect shot every time and I wasn't able to do so. I would go through 3-4 shots from one angle, and another 2-3 shots at another before I felt I had gotten a good one for the client.

You are also SO right about the ability to add light in photoshop. It's nearly impossible! Unless you spend hours masking an area and adding light post production. It's always far better to spend more time to get the optical shot than try to make a mediocre look ideal in post.

Thank you for sharing your experience. I know this comment is a couple years after but it is still making a difference to the novice photographers of 2016. Cheers!

Micah Frazier's picture

30 minutes?? For a standard real estate shoot are you only offering 10-15 photos? It's 25 photos in Oregon so 20-30 minutes per photo is going to add up. I guess there's a difference between the $150-200 real estate photography market and the 400+ real estate photography market, would be great to see the comparisons.

John Browning's picture

This series was great. I bought a shift tilt lens to pursue real estate, and I feel sort of cocky because when I first started reading this I knew the off camera flash was pretty much the best choice.
Thanks for the article!

The main problem with this article is that it implies that all HDR is sub-par, and if you use off-camera flash, your pictures will instantly look better. HDR can look quite good, if you do it right, and can easily be good enough to sell to high-end real-estate clients. Flash, on the other hand, gives beginners a level of control they may not be ready for. Poorly-executed lighting can make the room look like a crime scene. HDR, on the other hand, is quite a bit easier to master, cheaper, and provides a good stepping-stone for beginners while they practice lighting setups at home or at the homes of friends. Personally I think all beginners should use HDR.

I use an entry-level DSLR, a tripod, and Lightroom. I haven't started using lights yet. Here's something I shot the other day using HDR:

Steven Hendricks's picture

Love these articles Mike. I know these are older articles, but what would make these completely awesome is a floor light diagram (the layout, lights, modifiers, camera settings, and light settings similar as you would see in a similar article about doing a model portrait shoot) I know it was explained but to really see the layout would be really useful. Thanks as always for taking the time and effort to put out some really great and informative articles!

You couldn't do it in half an hour NEVER!
Set up outside flash in 3 minutes? Bollocks!
It only takes 3 minutes to walk out and back in... Set up stand, angle... I do this, I know...

James Aston's picture

Thanks for this article. Advice I greatly needed.

Peter Mars's picture

I keep seeing this stuff from a couple people... Momma always said if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything! OK then!