As a Marietta, GA real estate agent specializing in Atlanta real estate photography, I had to learn quite a few lessons on my way to competence. Even though I was a decent Atlanta photographer, or so I thought, it didn't take long to realize that taking pictures of homes came with its own set of unique challenges. This blog series is written with the amateur photographer in mind. Whether you are a real estate agent, home stager, seller or just interested in taking better pictures of homes, this blog series is for you.
Part 2, How to get the most out of your flash- Your camera's flash can be your best friend or your worst enemy when it comes to taking interior photos. Used properly it can significantly brighten a space, reveal fine detail in furniture and decor and help keep otherwise over-exposed windows under control. On the other hand, it can create harsh shadows, "flatten" the light and make darker adjacent areas look like black holes in the background of the image. To further complicate matters, many point and shoot consumer cameras only give you an "all or nothing" option. Its either on, or its off.
Ideally you would want an option that not only allows you adjust the power, or brightness, of the flash (also known as strobes) but provide the option to get the flash off the camera. Having this kind of flexibility or control over 'where' and 'how much' extra light you add to an image not only frees the photographer up use the flash as a problem solving device but also as a creative tool. I will talk more about this in a moment. For now, let's try to get the 'Point & Shoot' users something they can try on their next shoot.
Point & Shoot Cameras- It seems a little counter intuitive at first, but using the built-in flash on a P & S camera in a room that already has plenty (or too much...) ambient light can actually be a quite helpful. I find this especially true of shots that have bright windows in them. If you have ever taken pictures of a room like this in the middle of the day you probably experienced one of two things; when you pointed the camera away from the windows, the interior became brighter but the windows in turn became over-exposed, or 'went nuclear' for lack of a better term. If you pointed the camera towards the windows, the window exposure was more correct but the interior became much darker. The reason behind this is the cameras built-in light meter automatically trys to adjust for a correct exposure by either averaging the light sources or basing it off the light at the center of the frame.
Try this the next time you are faced with this situation. Start by getting a good idea of the composition you want to capture and make a note where the windows will be in the scene. Next, turn the auto-exposure to the "Spot" setting and turn your flash ON (not AUTO, but ON). On some cameras this means you will have to change the mode from AUTO to Program mode (or the capital P). Point the camera towards the windows and let the auto-exposure adjust until you are able to get an acceptable view out the window. It will still appear fairly 'bright' outside and somewhat dark inside, but this is ok for now. (*Note that you may have to point the camera at the window, press the shutter release half-way to lock the auto-exposure/focus and then recompose your shot.) Now take a test shot with the flash on and review your image on the LCD. You should see that the windows stay somewhat the same but the interior will be much brighter from the light of the flash. Depending on the camera and the power of the built-in flash you may have to repeat the initial steps until you achieve an acceptable balance between the ambient light and the flash. If the interior is still too dark, simply move the camera a little further away from the bright windows, let the camera's auto-exposure adjust to let in more ambient light, recompose and shoot. With some practice you will develop a sense of where to point the camera in any given scene to meter off of and then simply use the flash to fill in the darker areas.
The following photos should give you an idea of what I just described. I used a Canon Powershot S70 for all of these. There was no editing; these are straight out of the camera.
The first image has good interior exposure but the windows are completely blown out. The second has a nice exterior exposure but the interior is much too dark...
In the third image, the exposure was still set to the exterior but the flash was turned on. The final image, the exposure was set to let the windows overexpose a little and the flash was on.
I find this technique has diminishing returns the larger the room gets, primarily because most on-camera flashes are fairly weak compared to a strobe. There are external, 'slave' flash units that you can use to supplement what your camera already has. These auxiliary flash units are triggered by the light of the on camera flash and in theory can add a lot of additional light to a scene. Being that I have no personal experience with these I can not go into any detail. It may be worth looking into if you are not ready to upgrade to a better camera and dedicated flash.
DSLR Cameras- For those of you that are using a DSLR camera, thankfully your options are more plentiful. With more options, however, come many different ways to use the flash. I will not go into all the various techniques in how to use strobes to light interiors because there is enough material there to cover several blogs. I do want to cover a few tips that really helped me overcome some common issues that those new to external flashes often experience. Obviously, the first step is adding an auxiliary flash that mounts to the camera via the hotshoe adapter on the top. I recommend buying the best flash you can afford but the important thing to remember is to use a flash that is compatible with your camera. Not all strobes are created equal, not only do they vary in terms of construction quality and light output, using the wrong flash can potentially damage your camera!
You will likely find that these flashes can be quite powerful. Attaching the flash to your camera and simply pointing it into the room you want to light up will seldom produce the results you are looking for. Often it will be necessary to adjust the power or actually either point the flash straight up toward the ceiling or even over your shoulder or behind you. In fact, 'bouncing' the light off a white ceiling or wall joint just out of the frame can produce a very natural looking light that can fill the entire room and minimize the hard shadows often associated with on-camera flash. There are also various different products that can be used to diffuse the light other than bouncing it. Umbrellas, soft-boxes and Stofens are a good place to start, but since those applications are outside the scope of this blog I'll leave that for another day. Regardless, combined with the approach I outlined for the P & S users, this bounce technique can yield some nice results for just one flash.
The following photos used a Canon 580 EX II on full power with no diffuser, no editing was done.
In the first photo the light from the flash was way overpowering, causing a hard shadow on the light fixture and washing out most of the ambient light. The second image is not as bright, but the light is 'softer' and more natural looking as you can still see some ambient light coming in from the windows and door. At this point I would like to mention that depending on your goal, either image could be acceptable.
The next step is to actually get the strobe off the camera and then eventually add additional flash units until you can more or less 'artificially' light up any size space. For this to happen, you will need some sort of remote triggers. Once again there are several different varieties of triggers. I found a set on eBay for a very reasonable price and they work: http://www.cowboystudio.com/product/c14/p140704-04.php . Once the flash is off the camera you are free to move it around and strategically place the light where you want it. This is particularly helpful when you have windows or highly reflective surfaces where the burst of light from the flash actually shows up in a reflection (as is the case in both of the above photos). Had I taken the flash off the camera and moved it toward another part of the room that was not in the frame, I could have easily avoided the reflection and achieved a result that was just as good if not better than the second photo. Not only that, but had I the option of using more than one flash, I could have bounced one light out of the frame to brighten the room and another to use elsewhere, in this case maybe pointed at the table and chairs to bring out more detail there as in the first photo.
Understanding how to get the most out of a camera's flash or strobe will improve your photos. I suggest practicing with these techniques as every room will require a slightly different approach. Once you get the hang of it, you will find a good flash is one of the most important tools in your camera bag.
Be sure to check out the other blogs on the Tips to Improve Your Listing Photos series:
Part 5: White Balance and Color Control
Part 6: Understanding Focal Length