Flash vs HDR in Real Estate Photography

Flash vs HDR in Real Estate Photography

Flash vs HDR in Real Estate Photography

Most of us are already familiar with the term HDR or High Dynamic Range because it has been the rage in Real Estate Photography for quite some time. HDR or the technique of high dynamic range photography is mostly known for  images, where you are able see the details of the outside in a window when photographing an interior room. Usually the outdoors during the day are much brighter than a well lit room and high contrast scenes like that can be a challenge – even for more experienced photographers.

Here are two photos which I saw on the MLS today. Wouldn’t you want to see what is outside the windows?
Typical MLS listing photo with blown out windows

Typical MLS listing photo with blown out windows

 Nonprofessional photograph - dark room with over exposed windows

Nonprofessional photograph – dark room with over exposed windows

So how come my own eyes can see everything perfectly  but the camera makes the outdoors too bright or even white, or the room is too dark?

Dynamic Range refers to a range of brightness. For example, imagine being in a room which is totally dark, with no windows and no lights. What do you see? Black of course, and this is a very good illustration where our eyes reached the limit on seeing in the dark. Another example would be driving in a car toward the setting sun. Most of us will flip the visor down or raise a hand to block the sun because everything is so bright that one cannot see much else, other than glaring white – the other end of the dynamic range of our eyes.
Our own eyes are far superior than most cameras.

We can see over 18 stops of light (In photography stops are a measure of light – Every time the light in a scene doubles, photographers say that light has increased by one stop). Most cameras nowadays have a dynamic range of approximately 10 to 12 stops, the best professional DSLR cameras of today can reach a dynamic range of 14.5.
So even using the best camera available today, it is almost impossible to take a photograph in one shot to render scenes containing very dark and extremely bright objects as you perceived it with your own eyes.

The only way possible to be able to get that perfect shot where all the details are preserved over the entire dynamic range is either:

  • Bring photographic lighting equipment (flashes) to light the darker areas in the scene
  • Shoot multiple exposures (brackets) and create an HDR image
  • Combine both techniques
  • Manually blend multiple exposures in a program like Adobe Photoshop


Single exposure - not enough dynamic range

Single exposure does not offer enough dynamic range to show good details in dark shadow areas and highlights in the picture window

What is better in Real Estate Photography – HDR or Flash? (let’s not worry about the hybrid techniques for now)

As you probably guessed, there is not a definitive answer to this question. Each technique has its pros and cons but can produce excellent results when skillfully executed under the right conditions.

HDR has become so popular in real estate photography because of the convenience factor. It is so much easier to just bring a camera and tripod, frame the image and press the shutter button. Most digital cameras nowadays have a bracketing feature and several exposures can be recorded by enabling a default setting. Some cameras even process High Dynamic Range images inside the camera and you don’t even have to process several images in software like Photomatix or Photoshop.

HDR is fairly easy to master and this is also why many Real Estate Agents go the DIY route. This can save a lot of time and produce excellent results with little effort. However there are a couple of caveats.

  • The final image will depend on the existing available light
  • HDR images need to be processed wisely and should look natural
  • The composition of the photograph is still more important (HDR cannot overcome terrible framing)
  • Color Balance can be challenging. Mike Kelly has written a great articles about Color Balance in Real Estate Photography over at f-stoppers.

On the other hand, bringing multiple lights enables the real estate photographer to create better light if the existing light is not desirable. Yes photography is mainly about lighting. It is great when the natural or ambient light works out to be perfect, however most of the time it is not. This is exactly why photographic lighting was invented to take control of the image.

Our eyes have been conditioned by looking at beautiful images in magazines, bill boards and other media every day. It is safe to say that most professional images involve some sort of light modification and/or artificial light. And real estate photography is no exception.

Of course using photographic lighting doesn’t come only with pros:

  • It requires more time and effort
  • The equipment can be expensive
  • Lighting equipment can fail on location
  • Steeper learning curve, experience and photography knowledge is required

Move the slider to see the the HDR image made from 9 different exposures (before) and the flash exposure with separate window exposure (after)

So what should any real estate agent be aware of when hiring a service provider for Real Estate Photography?

Knowing all techniques is important for the real estate photographer to get the best possible shot every time in every situation. Of course using HDR standalone in real estate photography is much faster and more cost effective. Shooting with multiple flash takes a lot longer and requires more effort and skill compared to shooting in HDR only, but often produces superior images.

Before you hire a real estate photographer find out if he or she knows and understands all the techniques. If you are on a tight deadline or have budget constraints then by all means, HDR and exposure fusion can produce good results.  However you need to be aware that there are some limitations. I have encountered many situations  where HDR and exposure fusion alone would not be my first choice and additional lighting would set a scene light-years apart.

So there you have it. Hopefully the images in the post  help reveal the differences and nuances between Flash and HDR in Real Estate Photography.

If you have any questions about Real Estate Photography or if you need help getting your listing professionally photographed in the Phoenix Metro area, then please head over to our  contact page and shoot us an email.




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