Best Lighting for Real Estate Photography 2022
Real estate photography may be filled with hurdles as you go along, but none of them will compare to the challenges you would face with lighting. Lighting is such an important element of real estate photography, and the way it is to be treated highly differs based on the type of property, the time of day, the floor plan, the equipment used, and so much more!
There are also different kinds of real estate photography lighting that you will have to encounter throughout your career such as natural light, mixed light, fixtures, flash, reflections, and others. Learning how to best navigate through them and still being able to produce top tier images is a skill every professional photographer has mastered over the course of multiple shoots and years of practice.
Real estate lighting in all its glory does not have to be intimidating. It does not even have to be difficult. So long as you understand the ins and outs of it all, you can be better prepared when the next challenge comes along. Trust us, it gets easier from there, too.
In this article, we discuss all things lighting for real estate photography, complete with a few tips and tricks of the trade to make your process go a lot smoother than you are probably imagining it to be in your mind. Let’s dive in!
Why is lighting important for real estate photography?
First things first – why is lighting such a crucial factor in real estate photography?
Not to add any pressure, but lighting can make or break your photo. It is an element that determines whether or not your images are of high quality, if they were taken professionally, and if your listing looks attractive enough to earn a second glance.
Lighting is definitely important. It is what controls the shadows and highlights of the image to ensure that all the necessary details are displayed and all the areas to be showcased are in clear view.
When it comes to listings, you want to leave nothing to the imagination. The more details you can include in your image the better! We are referring to how vivid the colors are, how rich the contrasts seem, how balanced your exposure levels are, and of course how crystal clear your subject matter is.
Lighting has the power to manipulate all of these and more.
Shooting Techniques For Best Lighting
There are multiple ways you can capture a scene in its best light. While we highly recommend shooting with natural light, sometimes it is just not feasible enough and you will have to take more steps to ensure you get the hero shot your property deserves.
There are 3 main techniques you can use to get properly lit photographs, and we explore each one of them below:
Technique 1: Single Exposure
This first technique can sometimes be hard to come by but boy does it feel good when you achieve it! Single exposure is the lighting technique wherein you adjust your camera settings and use natural light to capture the perfect image.
To get this right, you need to fully understand the relationship between the exposure triangle – ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.
ISO. ISO refers to the level of sensitivity your digital camera sensor has.
Aperture. Aperture is the opening of a lens and is used to control the amount of light that you expose your camera sensor to. It also controls the depth of field in your image.
Shutter Speed. Shutter speed refers to the length of time of an exposure, usually measured in seconds or fractions of a second.
By manipulating these three, you can maximize the amount of natural or ambient light available in the scene and produce a properly exposed image.
Other tips you can do to achieve perfect exposure in a single shot are:
Manually Adjust LCD Brightness. More often than not, the camera’s LCD brightness automatically adapts to your environment, which may depict an inaccurate representation of the scene you are capturing. This might make you overexpose or underexpose your image. By manually adjusting the brightness, you can have better control over what you see on the screen.
Turn on Highlight Alert. Within your settings, you can find the Highlight Alert function. Once you have located it, simply enable the feature. These alerts are flashing overlays that can detect blown-out highlights or washed out details. This helps you better keep track of the areas within your image that need adjustment.
Technique 2: HDR Bracketed Exposures
This technique involves taking at least three images of the same scene with constant aperture and ISO settings. However, each image will have a different shutter speed to capture varying exposure levels. Once you have accomplished the three images, they will then have to be merged together to produce one final photo that is perfectly exposed in all areas of the frame.
This is a highly popular method due to the quality of results it produces. With every HDR image, you are guaranteed to get vivid colors, sharp details, balanced contrasts, and excellent exposure levels.
To create an HDR image, here is a 4-step guide:
Step 1: Set the correct ISO and Aperture for your photo
It is crucial to have a constant aperture and ISO setting throughout all your image layers. Start off by switching on Manual mode and setting your aperture to F/8. Once that is set, have your ISO range around 100 to 400, depending on the amount of ambient light present in your frame.
Step 2: Determine the necessary shutter speed settings for each layer
Each layer of your image will utilize a different shutter speed. For you to determine which shutter speed to use, first find out the longest and shortest ones. You can do this by switching to Aperture Priority mode, then selecting Spot Metering Mode. This ensures your ISO and aperture stay fixed while your camera processes the frame.
Next, aim your camera to the dimmest area of your frame then take note of the exposure level displayed on the LCD. Perform the same task with the brightest area of your image but ensure that you are not pointing the camera directly at the sun or a reflection of it.
The dimmest photo is meant to bring out the details within your highlighted areas, while the lightest photo is meant to bring out the details within your shadows. You will also be capturing a base photo, which will serve as the mid-tone shot bringing out all the details in other areas of the frame.
Step 3: Take the photos
With your aperture, ISO, and shutter speeds in place, it is now time to take your images. There are two main ways to go about it, namely:
The Semi-Automated Method
This method makes use of your camera’s built-in features, specifically the Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) system, which also features an HDR exposure calculator, which determines the shutter speeds and the number of bracketed images needed per scene. Most DSLR options today have this capability.
First you must activate the AEB function while in Manual mode, and set your shutter speed to the first value given by the HDR exposure calculator. Then input how many photos are needed before clicking on the shutter. Your camera will not automatically process these image layers.
The Full Manual Method
If your camera does not have an Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) system, or it is your personal preference to go at it in manual mode, there is still an easy way to achieve HDR images.
Locate Single-Shot under your manual settings and select the shortest shutter speed determined in Step 2 earlier. Take that photo to produce your first layer.
Next, decrease the shutter speed by one stop or 1 EV before taking another image. Repeat this process until you reach the slowest speed determined in Step 2.
If you are sticking with only 3 image layers, take one photo with the slowest shutter speed, one photo with the fastest shutter speed, and one photo with the shutter speed set in between those two variables.
Step 4: Merge Your HDR Images
Now that your image layers are ready, simply import them to your preferred editing software and merge the photos together into one HDR image. You can also merge it manually, which we will provide the steps to in the section below.
If you prefer an automated way, there are many programs that support HDR photography and can easily merge the layers for you, namely:
- Adobe Photoshop.
- Adobe Lightroom
- Photomatix Pro
- Aurora HDR
- Nik HDR Efex Pro 2
- Luminance HDR
- Affinity Photo Tone Mapping Persona
- and more!
Technique 3: Shooting with Flash
If natural light and HDR images are not working in your favor, you also have the option to utilize an external flash in balancing out the light for your images and mimic natural light instead. There are 3 sub techniques or methods you can follow when shooting real estate images with flash, and we will discuss them in detail in the section below.
How To Photograph Real Estate With Flash?
There are many ways to go about shooting real estate with an external flash. These techniques, however, will entail more photography equipment to purchase and grow accustomed to. With enough budget and the right mindset, flash photography can be greatly beneficial for your property images.
The three methods of shooting with flash are the following:
Method 1: Single Exposures with Flash or Strobe
Sometimes the ambient or mixed lighting within a scene can be unflattering and create heavy shadows despite bracketing your images. This is when you may need to incorporate your own lighting to the frame.
By adding your own light, you gain more control over the direction and quality of exposure in different key elements of the scene. You have a better hold on which areas get more illumination and which ones stay as is, creating depth and dimension in every shot. While some may think it’s as easy as setting up the flash and going wild with the shutter button, it takes a little more preparation than that.
When shooting single exposures with a flash or strobe, there are three ways to go about it:
Direct Flash. Direct flash is when you utilize a bare bulb or strobe and aim it at your target subject. This will cause very harsh shadows and highlights, which will most likely come off as unnatural. There are ways to go about it, though.
For instance, you can find a good angle so the light hits your subject but not too intensely.
Bare Flash Bounced Off Ceiling. A lot of the time, photographers will opt to bounce the flash off the ceiling. This creates an evened out exposure of a soft glow all over the room.
However, this only works if (A) your ceiling is not part of your shot and (B) if it is of a neutral color. If the ceiling is too dark or brightly painted with vivid colors, it will end up discoloring the space, resulting in yellow, orange, red and blue cast. Only use this technique if the ceiling is grey, white, or somewhere close to either.
Modified Flash. Modified flash includes the use of umbrellas, a soft box, a sphere, and similar tools. If you need the ceiling in your frame or if the color is just not right, you can opt for a light modifier. All it takes is adding a simple tool to your lighting set up to minimize washing elements out of your image.
Method 2: Multiple and Composite Exposures with Flash
Sometimes, a single exposure can’t cut it and you need to light a certain subject from multiple angles. This means either setting up multiple flashes at a time, or taking more than one shot with varying exposed areas, and putting them all together in post production.
Similar to a bounced flash, test this method out in different positions and angles, adjust the flash power, and basically do a trial and error setup until all angles look right.
Layer Masking in Post Production. When you need to merge multiple images, you have the choice of doing so manually or through automated software such as the HDR application in Photomatix Pro.
If going with the latter, simply import your images to the program and let it work its magic. However, if you decide to go at it manually, you will need to have Adobe Photoshop installed and follow these easy steps. Take note that this is also how you edit an HDR image manually.
Step 1: Import your files
Once you have your photos ready, choose all the relevant ones that you want to blend together and import them as individual layers into one single file. The base photo among the three should be at the very bottom, while the others shall be dragged on top.
Step 2: Organize your files so your work process is smoother
To make the editing process smoother for you, we suggest organizing the layers according to exposure levels if you are using more than 3 images. With your base photo at the bottom, place your dimmest photo on top of the base and continue on until you reach the lightest photo at the very top.
Step 3: Add A Layer Mask To Each Of The Image Layers
Now that all the photos are in the file, it is time to add a layer mask on each one of them. You can do so by selecting “Add layer mask” at the bottom of the “Layers” panel.
The reason why you need to add a layer mask is because your final image will require you to add and subtract various elements from each layer. To combine all the best features, a layer mask must be applied so you can easily erase areas or add them in.
Once the layer masks are set, the thumbnail on each of your images should appear white, which means they are visible. Make the layers invisible by pressing down on CTRL + I, which efficiently inverts it. The thumbnails of your images should now be blacked out.
Step 4: Use The Brush Tool On The Mask
Starting with your topmost layer, select the brush tool, change the color to black, and wipe on the areas that you want to make visible on your final photo.
By coloring the areas black, the elements you want to incorporate will appear in the photo. Changing the brush color to white will make those elements disappear.
You may also adjust the opacity, hardness, and size of the brush you are using to make the application process easier and more comfortable for you.
Step 5: Continue With Each Layer
Repeat step 4 for all the layers except for the darkest one at the bottom with only the shadows since this is the image meant to highlight the scene outside such as the windows and doors. Because of its rough edges, this will need a different tool aside from the brush tool.
Once you have reached the darkest layer, select the Polygonal Lasso Tool and trace the edges of the areas you want to include in your final image.
For example, if you have window light in your photo, trace the edges of the window showing the outside view, but not the window frame itself or other subjects that may be in the way. Once this is set, select the brush tool again and use it within the lasso-selected area only.
This process ensures that you are applying the needed adjustments on the precise pixels to have a sharper final image.
Step 6: Use the White Brush To Correct Elements
If you have accidentally brushed over areas that you did not want to include in the final image, simply switch the brush color to white and apply over them. This should undo the process within that specific part.
Step 7: Save Your Work
That is all there is to it! Once you are happy with your image, save the files first as a Photoshop format, or PSD format, so that your layers remain editable.
Next, select all of your layers and merge them together. Save this one again as a JPEG image, and now you have your final photo! You can further enhance the photo in Adobe Lightroom by adjusting its brightness, colors, saturation, contrast, and more.
Method 3: Merging Both Flash and HDR Techniques
This method has the most steps to it, but it also gives you the most control over your image’s lighting.
To achieve this, produce an HDR image like how we discussed above. Next, determine which areas need more illumination and shoot separate images of that using an external flash.
Once you have both your flash-illuminated image and your HDR image, combine the two using the brush tool method, or by importing it into an automated HDR merging program.
What Equipment Do You Need When Using Flash For Real Estate Photography?
If you have the luxury of shooting your property with natural light, your equipment list will be short and down to the most essential gear, which are basically your camera body, a durable and sturdy tripod, and your wide-angle lens.
If you will be using an external flash, there will be a few more tools to pack, namely:
Quality External Flash. If you are just starting out and want to keep your arsenal compact, start off with just one external flash. The more complex your projects grow to be, you may find yourself needing an extra one along the way to make multiple exposure images faster and easier to accomplish.
Flash Triggers. Flash triggers are what control your flash remotely and trigger them to go off right when you need them – no matter where you are standing in the room.
Just like your camera shutter trigger, it is always recommended to remotely handle these variables so that you can minimize risk of moving it off angle and also conveniently control your photo shoot from one corner of the room.
A Flash Stand. A flash stand basically helps keep your flash in place and at the right angle. You can also use an extra tripod or a patient assistant in place of this, but the latter may result in uneven lighting after a few takes.
A Flash Bracket. The flash bracket is what enables you to attach your flash to your light stand and add other modifiers.
A Flash Modifier. Modifiers come in the form of soft boxes, a sphere, and umbrella, or a dome. They can be relatively affordable but very efficient in balancing out your image’s exposure levels.
You’re all set!
Lighting is such an important step in real estate photography and it would make a world of difference to take the time to learn its facets, practice various methods, and see what kind of technique and equipment work best for you.