Real Estate or Fake Estate

May 18, 2016

The camera lies. It's true! Although a camera has a lens, which like our pupils can widen in response to light, our brain is what "sees" the world around us. It affects how pictures are taken, and is something crucial to real estate photography.


We only think that our eyes capture the whole picture, but they never do. You've probably seen this when you take a picture of a room, and the window is so bright it looks like the sun's corona. But when you were looking at the room the light seemed balanced: you could see the inside and the outside just fine, but the camera could not.


For professional real estate photos, you want to show both the interior and exterior of a home in a single shot. This requires balancing the light, and there are two ways to make this happen:


  • HDR: Typically lower cost where no flash is used.
  • Supplemental Lighting: Can cost slightly more, where flashes are used to light the room.


So which of these will draw in buyers, and which one is the most cost-effective? Before answering those questions, let's take a quick test. Which of the following pictures looks best, #1 or #2:

Which of these looks best?


And for extra credit, which one do you think cost the least and took the least amount of time to shoot?

Answer: picture #2 was HDR, but the cost and time may surprise you.


HDR pictures are a blend of multiple exposures, in this case, these three:

Three exposures for HDR


Combined, these three shots provide some light balance that your brain may use to see the room naturally; however, your brain is way smarter than a camera and you'd need hundreds (if not thousands) of exposures to make a more accurate blend of light. The camera and HDR software only attempt to recreate what your eyes would naturally see. For instance, look at the third picture and notice how the colors became garish on the walls, which carried over when processed into HDR. There's a reason why lights have been used since the dawn of photography; it wasn't just to add light, it was to provide "natural" light.


But can HDR work in some cases? Let's take another test real quick: Which looks better, "A" or "B":

Which looks better, A or B?


In this case, "A" was shot using HDR, and "B" was shot with supplemental lighting. At first glance, "A" may look better: "A" has more punch and the colors look more vibrant. But let's take a closer look:


When you look closely you can see some obvious flaws with the HDR shot. In particular, note the "dirty" shadows on the sliding door's frame, the odd glare on the floor (magenta and harsh), the harsh shadows above the cabinets in the corner, and how the front of the island is dull and grayish yet the cabinets have a surreal, unnatural look in the wood-grain.


From a photographer's artistic point of view, supplemental lighting wins once again. But photographers don't sell houses, agents do. So two questions remain:

  1. Which picture do you think would help an agent sell this property?
  2. Is it worth the cost?


Shooting HDR is fast. In the photog world we call it runnin' and gunnin'. A photographer carries very little gear and whips through a property, and then automates the shots later. This keeps the cost low, but can lower the quality. If you're having your pictures displayed in Architectural Digest, it's a no-brainer: avoid HDR. But for an MLS listing, is it worth it? I'd say yes, and here's why:

  • It's more than MLS: While MLS listings use smaller photos, agents print material like fliers, post cards, and other marketing material. HDR flaws carry over and become more noticeable in print material.
  • The competitive effect: As buyers browse numerous properties on sites like and Zillow, they see hundreds if not thousands of photos of homes. High quality photos are representative of the house they want to buy, and the agent listing it.
  • Syndication degradation: As MLS photos are syndicated from an MLS to other sites like and Zillow, each "copy" step degrades the picture. If you start out with a garish HDR, it can lose even more quality once it shows up on other home buying search sites.
  • Higher returns: It may cost a bit more to have a property shot with supplemental lighting, but it's really not that much more than using a run-and-gun method. Better pictures can help sell a property faster, so the small added cost is worth it in the end.
  • Reputation: Agents want a reputation of being top-notch. When buyers see high quality pictures, they can associate this to a high quality agent, someone they trust, would refer to, and likely use in the future.


In short, quality counts, and it's why I'm a fan of supplemental lighting. In fact, I take it one step further and use a technique that blends lighting angles to more naturally match that of the human eye. From flash and non-flash shots (called ambient) I can manipulate the lighting angles so that you have a natural, high quality image. Let's take the original eye test on the dining room as an example. For this photo the final product used one shot with supplemental lighting, blended with the "light" (luminosity in photog speak) from one of the non-flash shots. Here are those two shots:

Flash Lighting with Ambient Light Direction

Flash shot

Ambient shot for light direction


And here is the final image:


Did this process take longer? Just a few minutes to move a lightstand into place and take a couple readings. But the post processing was simple and fairly quick, arguably faster than HDR since I didn't have to try to edit out all the imperfections. Moreover though, I was in control of how this image would look, instead of leaving it (mostly) in the hands of a computer algorithm.


Would you like to see the difference for yourself? Give me a shout and I'd be happy to show you first hand the difference a little lighting can make.



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