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Is Compositing Ambient and Flash Shots in Photoshop for You?

Published: 18/03/2017
Let an ambient exposure do the "Heavy Lifting" for Real Estate Photography

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recently asked the following:

I would love to know via a poll how many real estate photographers do a Lightroom to Photoshop composite process vs. lighting the way Scott Hargis does where you spend much less time post processing.  I see so many tutorials on YouTube for compositing, and it seems like it's a very big time investment, if you're processing 30 images.

First of all, this is not a great subject for a poll because I suspect there are many real estate shooters that don't do everything one way or the other. For example, I use Scott's technique first and foremost for the reason you site. But since learning about ambient/flash compositing here on PFRE, I've gotten in the habit of also grabbing an ambient shot or two in case there are some shadows or highlights that need fixing when I get home.

Another factor, is I find Scott's technique super fast and easy in bedrooms and other small rooms. But when I get to larger complex spaces, I can't always get it right in the camera the way Scott does. It's nice to be able to just grab an ambient shot for insurance or to cut down on the number of flashes you have to use.

So would I use ambient/flash compositing in every room? No, you don't need it everywhere. But I think it is very handy when you need it.

What do others think?

Larry Lohrman

16 comments on “Is Compositing Ambient and Flash Shots in Photoshop for You?”

  1. I agree with Larry from the standpoint that there is no one solution for all situations. I think it is a sliding scale between compositing and flash or other added lighting depending on what you are shooting and how you like to shoot. Some like to use flash all the time, and others, like myself, seldom use it at all. I like to shoot fast and spend time at my computer getting the images exactly how I want them. That is just how I like to work. That being said, there are at times situations where added lighting is simply the best way to get the shot. Experience helps you determine what to use. I always have both a basic flash (I use studio packs with 5 or 6 heads) or a Quartz set up with and without blue correcting gels to obtain either tungsten balanced light or daylight balance.

    But as I said above, I seldom actually use them. I find each shoot has its own demands and our cameras and lights and software are just tools to be used in ways that best suite our own individual styles and the subject matter we have to translate into images. There is also always what our clients like best to be considered. I parted ways with one client, a good client too, because she liked the over lit style that I cannot stand for interiors. We did fine on the exteriors. So she has stuck with her former photographer. I am so glad since I could not live with myself if I had tried to copy that style. Only time I have had such a stylistic issue.

  2. Like many others I have seen some of Scott's classes on Lynda and I think they are excellent. One thing to note though that people may not factor in, even Scott does spend a couple of minutes in post per image from what I can tell. When you get more efficient in Photoshop, things can go very very fast using compositing. If we take Scott's average time per image in post we can justifiably subtract that from our average compositing time per image because we can consider that time as sort of the base amount of work you can do in post and still produce quality work. In other words, everyone has to do at least as much post as Scott, or thereabouts. Suddenly, composites that may take a photographer three to four minutes to put together aren't sounding like very long post times at all, since the necessary base even if you get everything in camera is still a couple of minutes.

    That leads into the other aspect, you'll be onsite for far less time without moving around all the necessary lighting equipment you need for getting it in camera.

    Just want to make it clear this isn't a competition at all, just my way of addressing Sharon's question. I believe, and I can think of a handful of good photographers who I know would agree with me, that compositing allows you to move quicker onsite, and perhaps spend a little more time in post. But in the end it sort of evens out and I believe you have more control with the composites. The other advantage is many clients want to be out of homes as fast as possible, and if you can get out of the home asap and do a little bit more on the post end of things I think it is a better model to build you client list. What is more impressive to a client than delivering great images and being out of a house in a very short amount of time with hardly any of the cumbersome lighting gear? The big disadvantage compositing bring with it is the amount of time it will take you to get proficient enough with photoshop. It is definitely worth the leap though in my estimation.

  3. I agree with everyone so far. I love Scott's work and his results and for the most part, it's about 90% of what I do. Larry when it comes to large spaces, I have to use bigger lights. Flashes just don't cut it even when I use a higher ISO setting. From seeing Scott's other work, he uses a variety of lights, but like you I always grab a few ambient shots too. It really is just matching up the situation with the appropriate technique.

  4. I am now compositing most images using Lightroom and Photoshop together. I never thought I would go this route because I thought it would take too long. But I'm telling you, I have the compositing process down so fast, an argument can be made that it's faster than other methods! It can be done.

  5. I try as much as possible to use the Harris method and it does take a lot more time in the field. But then in Lightroom most of the time processing is as simple as hitting Auto and doing minor adjustments to get a great shot. But sometimes when I can't seem to get the light right I'll throw up my hands and do a three shot, 2EV, composite. In fact, sometimes this is the easiest thing to do where the space already has good ambient light or a lot of window glass or mirrors and wall photos which cause glare problems. But my computer just takes too long to do 5-9 shot composites and I like the result from three shots because it looks pretty realistic. I do not like composite shots that are soft and look like paintings and I won't do them.

  6. I love the Scott Hargis videos. I learned a ton from them a few years ago. But I've moved on from trying to always get the shot in camera. Many times it's just not practical. So I do a lot of ambient/flash blending. I almost always let the windows blow out so I can use the most ambient, then do a second exposure for windows and bright lights, which are then blended in post.

    This method definitely requires more time in Photoshop. But it makes it much faster on site, where agents and homeowners are often standing around looking at the clock. That said, I'm still on site for an hour, even with a small home.

    With non-real estate stuff, like with designers, where we have a lot of time and may spend an entire day in a home, I feel more comfortable doing it more in camera. Although I still let the windows blow and bring them in in post.

    I also like this method because I like the look of the natural light, rather than trying to over light something. And, to be honest, I kind of like the post processing aspect of it.

  7. I've become rather obsessed with a) keeping the direction of light as realistic as I can, and b) trying to leave no lighting 'fingerprints', so I rarely take frames with a flash anywhere behind the camera and tend to rely on ambient light to light the bulk of the space and then use flash to take care of the subsequent highlights - mostly windows, on reflective floors, and items of furniture. Unless I was using lighting outside (ie. through the windows) then I don't think I could achieve the look I want using Scott's real estate methods. I still love watching his videos though because there's so much to learn and he makes you think about so many things.

  8. The main problem people have when they think they can get an interior photo "right" in camera is that they think the camera "sees" a scene the same way we do with our eyes.

    The trouble is the eyes only record the light like a camera does, but it is our brain that "sees" the scene.

    Compositing an image is the same process that our brain does with the light information the eyes provide.

    Harvesting the light from a few different exposures is a fast, easy process providing the photographer has a proficient knowledge of Photoshop.

    The problem I see is that there are an awful lot of photographers that really don't know how to use that program -- it's kind of like in the old film days not knowing how to do your own prints in the darkroom.

  9. I think the biggest reason for using flash is to produce a "clean" frame to work from. By "clean", I mean well exposed combined with clean bright color. In dark homes, where not much daylight comes in, and you shoot mixes of ambient and artificial light, the results are often "dirty". By "dirty", I mean over-exposed interior light sources, deep grainy under-exposed shadows, and muddy color that lacks good clarity. Daylight is blue, interior light is orange usually, and blue and orange = mud. Some call it Grundge, which happens quite a bit to over-cooked tone-mapped images.

    If you have a good clean frame, you can always modify it with an ambient frame (since the flashed frame often looks to sterile), and perhaps one more frame for the exterior. In the latest version of LR, you can use the RA side by side comparison and get a pretty close color match of the flashed and ambient frames, so when you paint, the match is far better then it used to be.

    For windows, I created an action that changes the mode to LAB color, and then masks the windows via Calculations in PS. It's usually is a fairly accurate slightly soft mask that is roughly 85% accurate to the windows, which is close enough. There are good YouTube videos that can teach you how to use the Calculations feature. The only extra step is to delete the extra channel it creates, and then return to RGB. It can be included in the action by placing a "stop" during the action, and then completing it after painting the windows in.

  10. I'm glad I don't have to make my living at real estate photography.

    It gives me a chance to play with all the toys/tools I acquire here and elsewhere.

    I've learned there is no right or wrong toy/tool to use.

    There is some kind of inner, artistic drive that chooses what to tinker with in the moment.

    It's my own personal ongoing slideshow.

  11. I do the same thing each time, unless the house itself isn't worth taking the time to use lights. It's so easy to batch HDR those homes. I usually do 3 brackets for HDR then layer a flash shot over it with a window pull, and I'm fast enough at it. I could be faster, though.

    I've been experimenting a lot lately with getting the ambient shot as good as possible in-camera and then just layering a flash shot over that. There's less to add to my workflow then, because now I'm not color-tagging all my shots to batch HDR and then my flash shots, nor am I waiting for brackets to process. That's generally quicker than bracketing.

    The thing is, to echo what others have said, everyone does things differently. I try to meet my clients' needs whatever they are. There are some things, granted, on which I don't want my name, but if one client wants just bracketed shots with no flash and another client wants flambient, I'll do what they ask. But if they have no preference, I do just HDR and flash. I'd probably change my style tailored just to interior design shots, but the bulk of what I do is for real estate. With big rooms, you basically have to pop flashes all over the room and use lighten mode in Photoshop, or get an ambient shot and window pulls. There's plenty of room to be creative and do what you want to do; if you feel like you have the time, take the route that gives you the best images possible in the final product.

  12. I agree with Jesse that a roadblock to using Scott's speedlight method is when I'm accompanied by realtor's assistants who always seems to be in a hurry to get in and out. It's also difficult when I have multiple shoots in a day (and they're all 45 minutes from each other!). That said, I spend far too much time in Lightroom/Photoshop trying to made make merged Photomatix images look "natural" instead of washed out or just plain ugly. I've tried taking single flashed frames and blending but it simply doesn't work for larger rooms. Arg.

  13. I know I am hogging some space here, but when most people refer to using "compositing" or as I know it as HDR using PhotoMatix or AuroraPro, I have a feeling that most people use the resulting image as is. For me this is just the start. I take the resulting image as a good starting point (barring just a RAW image out of the camera) and finish processing in Photoshop. This is necessary to correct for the lens distortion, clear up any slight fogginess that HRD often causes, lighten some areas that remain dark and darken some over bright other areas like foregrounds, adjust for getting vertical and horizontal lines parrallel to the side of the image, adjust brightness, saturation, contrast, highlights and shadows etc. not to mention dealing with mixed lighting color. Yes it is tedious but I much prefer the results to adding flash which is tricky to do so it does not appear to be a room shot with flash, so it takes time on site. I take as much time on site as necessary to capture the images I need to then work with in post. So my final images look natural and don't have the murky, muddy, foggy effects that so many complain of. It also ensues that I don't keem my clients twiddling their thumbs more than necessary as they wait for me to finish. Of course what always slows things down is when they walk into my shots as they pace when they talk on their cell phones or take the opportunity to do a showing in the middle of my shoot. And when they do, they keep turning on lights after I have turned them off for my shoot and I don't always notice until I get to my computer afterwares. I shoot fast yet give a very full coverage so I am rushing always. I then take my time in post.

  14. It's very rare for me to get photos from Photomatix that DON'T require tweaking. My post-merge results are different depending on how well a house is lit, how much ambient is present, cloudy vs sunny days. I still haven't found or created a consistent set of presets for any situation.

    I've seen competitor's work that clearly went straight from Photomatix/Enfused/Etc to the realtor, and almost all of it is horrible... and, I think, lazy.

  15. I use compositing on pretty much every shoot. I have never used Scott's method full-on as taught. I feel that those who claim that setting up all those lights plenty fast are also buying into high fee/the low shot count philosophy. Lighting 25 images on-site in 2 hours is one 40 images? A lot of my agents still meet me at the property (even though I am an agent myself) to fluff pillows to their taste and stuff. I don't think they would want to be there for four hours.

    With my remote trigger I can shoot my window pull shot and any rooms back deep in the scene quickly just by walking to the room and doing my ceiling bounce with my NFlash. I don't even need to look at the iPad to do this anymore.

    Then I return back behind the camera and do my main ceiling bounce flash shot. Then it is a series of three brackets that will become an enfused image that will use as my HDR base for the composite.

    Using this shoot-n-move technique, I can tackle most homes in 2 hours or less with as many as 40 flash/ambient interior shots and 6 exterior shots . Post processing takes a good while, but a big part of that is my propensity to use the clone stamp and healing brush tools well as sky replacement on a pretty much every shot for six months out of the year.

    Also, a more significant time suck that I didn't anticipate with this method is the simple fact that you have to try to match up you white balance before compositing. You can get close by turning all the lights out and using daylight wb for the ambient HDR base image and flash wb for your flash images...but they never work so out comes the eye dropper tool in Lightroom for pretty much every room.

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