How to: Indoor Real Estate Photography
Taking proper indoor photos can be a pretty daunting task when you're faced with the difficulties of a real life situation : badly lit spaces, different color temperatures, variances in light intensity causing burned out highlights, narrow time window for task execution etc.
Let's go through a few things you might run into in the field and see what you can do to prevent unnecessary complications in post-production.
Light is the most essential part of taking great photos. The whole concept of photography is to capture light in the most efficient way possible. In order to do that, you have to know the drawbacks of your camera, acquaint yourself with its limits (specifically your lens speed and sensor noise levels) and take pictures within the abilities of your equipment. These factors are crucial for your work as they determine the amount of light you have to add to a specific shot and dictate whether you are forced to use means of stabilization to reduce camera noise.
Let us focus on indoor real estate photography and go through the specifics of indoor light.
Closed spaces represent a special challenge in photography since they are often badly lit with high contrasting lighting, causing either burned out highlights or the loss of information in the shadows. Cameras sensors today are mostly unable to deal with high dynamic range differences and will give you terrible results in every shot. The only cameras that might be able to pull off these high dynamic range shots are the high end RED and ARRI cameras which cost around 50.000 $ a piece (body only). Let's presume for a moment that you don't posses the necessary funds to finance your high cost real estate photography adventure and see how you can pull off great results on a small budget.
2. IMAGE CAPTURE
Always use a tripod. A tripod is an essential tool in real estate photography since it gives you two indispensable advantages: image sharpness and low sensor noise levels.
a) sharpness - low light rooms will force you to open up your aperture and reduce your shutter speed. An open aperture will leave you with a shallow depth of field, leaving foreground or background objects (depends where you focus) blurred and out of focus. You could solve the problem with focus stacking and combining the images in Photoshop, but that's not always reliable and can leave you with small blurred areas in an otherwise sharp image. Also, do not attempt handheld photography when working with low shutter speeds. The smallest move, seemingly infinitesimal in nature, will punish your final result, drastically reducing your sharpness. No sharpening in post production can fix these image capture errors, since they will leave you with a soft, noise - filled image. You could, of course, try and solve your problems with a higher ISO, but that's additional noise to your picture, noise that can be only partially covered with Photoshop's reduce noise filter. High application of the filter will leave you with a soft and grainy picture not suitable for bigger prints. A tripod solves this by giving the camera its much needed stability, allowing for a smaller aperture (and therefore higher depth of field), longer shutter speeds and low ISO levels leading to less sensor noise.
b) noise - noise is an unwanted disturbance in the electrical signal inherent to the image capturing process. It is produced by the sensor itself and can be influenced by both electronic circuitry around the sensor as well as man made or natural electrical interference. The biggest producer of noise in the camera is the ISO setting. Think of the ISO as a sort of gain button which boosts the signal entering the sensor. You can only manipulate that signal to a certain degree before it starts breaking and giving you all sorts of visual distortions such as heavy grain, dead pixels and random color noise. Every camera has its distinct noise profile which allows users to reduce its effects through different software programs that calculate and subtract the noise from the final image, but that's something you want to avoid unless you're doing real estate astrophotography. The point you should try to take away from this is the lower the ISO, the less noise your final image will have. The easiest way to get around using high ISO settings is by using a tripod and simply prolonging the exposure time (shutter speed).
Bring your own light. Having a proper flash with a diffusor will save you a ton of headaches in post production. Let's say you've set up your camera, put in on a tripod with a long exposure setting, low ISO... everything seems perfect and the histogram shows a good exposure graph. Two things might go wrong:
Improper light distribution - the lights in the room were set up for human use, not photography. The human eye is a very powerful, sensitive instrument and doesn't really care much for noise performance and equally distributed lighting. What you may notice is that the light concentrates in certain parts of the image while not reaching others, forming darker areas that need special brush and masking treatment. The RAW image format is a life saver in a lot of these situations because it helps you retrieve information from the shadows and highlights, but it comes at a price - a higher noise profile in those areas. It's essential you consider the nature of your final image: is it a moody, dark scene only lit by practicals or a highly lit, detailed scene. In both cases, having the ability to bring details from shadows represents a big advantage, allowing you greater creative freedom and control over the final product. The way to go about it is to use your flash, lighting different sections of the room and then carefully mixing those shadows or highlights back into the image.
Difference in color temperature - Color temperature is the temperature of an ideal black-body radiator (an idealized physical body that absorbs all incident electromagnetic radiation, regardless of frequency or angle of incidence) that radiates light of a color comparable to that of the light source. Color temperatures over 5000 K are called "cool colors" (bluish white), while lower color temperatures (2700–3000 K) are called "warm colors" (yellowish white through red). Buildings are usually equipped with lights consisting of different kinds of lights with different properties and temperatures. One room may have both fluorescent (cool light) and incandescent (warm light) lighting giving off totally different temperature profiles. Light bounces around with different wavelengths giving objects an unnatural hue, leaving you with extra post production work. The only solution to a mixed lighting environment is to use a flash and flood the room with bright flash light, defeating its inherent lighting and later masking that footage with the original, restoring the warmth in places where flash makes the scene look unnatural.
2. POST PROCESSING
Post processing is an inevitable truth when it comes to indoor photography. High dynamic ranges demand either high budget equipment or a bit of ingenuity and masking work in Photoshop.
The easiest way to curb the highlights and shadows is through masking. Taking several exposures with different shutter speeds (on a tripod of course) and then blending those using luminosity masks in Photoshop. Luminosity masks are a great masking tool due to their accuracy and perfect gradient transitions. They leave you with a lot of flexibility as well, since you can always adjust them using standard brush methods and opacity sliders. You can create either dark or bright luminosity masks, depending on the details you need to bring back (highlights or shadows). A big benefit of this method is the extended dynamic range with a low noise cost, allowing detail otherwise unimaginable with standard one shot methods.
The other method of blending is by simply stacking images in a single Photoshop file and then creating masks for every image. One for the flash image and one for each differently exposed image with the original at the bottom. Blend the flash image into parts where there's unnatural light temperature pollution or where you want to bring out the shadows, but try to keep the light sources intact. Masking the flash image layer on the light source itself will make the image look strange and unnatural most of the time, especially when you have a scene filled with practical lights (use your discretion here and take into account the entire scene). Blend the lower exposures into your highlights and voila! You have a high dynamic range image. Manually blending images using brushes is a fast and efficient way to go if you don't want to deal with luminosity masks, but be careful... it's easy to make the image look unnatural. Try using soft brushes to maximize the gradient between differently lit parts of the image.
3. HUMAN FACTOR
Make sure to talk to your clients and set up your session during closing or low traffic hours. You don't want people walking around your set-up, forcing you to move the tripod and loose valuable time both on scene and in post production. This way, you'll be able to take pictures of empty spaces without having strangers photobomb your photoshoot every other second. Having strangers on photos not only reduces the value of real estate photos, but also brings with it a legal risk. You will not be able to post the photos without the their written consent. Should you do so, you risk a takedown notice and may face legal repercussions. If, by any chance, the place is extremely busy and you're forced to work a set date and hour, knowing you won't be able to avoid having people in the scene, try using a long exposure. That will blur most of the faces, while you can fix the rest in Photoshop with directional blur and masking, making the image look interesting and at the same time not distracting from the main motif - the real estate.