We’ve all heard a lot about HDR photography, but we seem to hear more about the bad examples than the good ones!
Understanding how to use HDR methods correctly and in subtle ways is absolutely necessary for shooting interior or real estate photography.
Whether you’re doing real estate photography, photographing large estate interiors, or working with designers for interior photos, HDR will play a role in your shooting and editing. Let’s explore what HDR is and how it can be used!
What Is HDR photography?
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. Simply put, this is when you account for the bright spots all the way to the shadows and you balance them out in one image. In other words, one image evaluates a wide range of lighting all at once.
Often this is done by some form of blending multiple exposures.
The reason that HDR methods can make a big difference is that it makes an image look closer to what our human eye sees. Since a camera doesn’t evaluate and compensate for light the same way that our eyes do, though, we need to create the look to match.
Why Use HDR for Real Estate Photography?
The main reason for using HDR was mentioned above – so that it looks closer to the way that our human eye sees things.
As far as different genres of photography are concerned, though, HDR methods are most often used to balance interior spaces with exterior views.
This applies to real estate photography, interior photography, and exterior architectural photography.
Shooting for HDR
Working with HDR methods actually begins when you shoot, not just when editing. If you know that you’ll be shooting a subject or location that will need HDR to balance out bright and dark areas, then you’ll definitely need multiple exposures that you can later blend.
This means you’ll want to take one shot that is going to act as your base for the photo, and then at least one that is darker to capture your bright areas at the desired exposure, and then at least one that is brighter to capture the darker areas at the desired exposure.
Your base exposure is the one that you’ll apply your lighting techniques to, should you bring in artificial lighting of any kind. I would recommend doing your exposures in one stop increments (-2, -1, +1, +2).
Especially when you first start experimenting with HDR methods, you’ll want to take several shots in either direction so that you have plenty to pick from when it comes time to layer.
Remember that one of the great benefits of digital photography is being able to shoot endlessly and experiment at no extra cost!
Editing for HDR
There are several ways to edit to create an HDR effect. While there are a few programs out there that are specifically for HDR editing, you can easily create HDR images with Photoshop.
Let’s go through the steps for basic HDR editing in Photoshop.
1. Open Your Photos
Open all photos you want to blend together as individual layers in one file.
If you’re only working in Photoshop, this means you open the base photo and then either click and drag the additional photos from the finder window into the Photoshop window, or you can open all the layers individually in Photoshop and then Select All → Copy → Click into base photo → Paste.
Alternatively, if you import photos through Lightroom for editing, then you can select all the layer photos you want to work with and the right click (or Command + click on a Mac), select Edit in…, select Open as Layer in Photoshop.
2. Put the Files in Order so That They’re Easier to Work With
I recommend putting the darkest exposure at the top, then work your way down to the brightest. Finish it off by having your base exposure as the bottom layer.
3. Turn Off All Layers Except the Base One
Then turn on the bright exposures one at a time to see which ones you’ll want to use. Once you decide to use one, create a mask on that layer by pressing Alt + the mask icon (or Option + mask icon on a Mac).
This creates the mask, but the masked layer will be invisible until you brush portions on.
4. Brush on the Portions of the Mask That You Want to Apply
You do this with the eraser tool, making sure that the color for the eraser is set to black (black will make the layer appear, white will make that layer disappear).
You can adjust the opacity and severity of the brush, as well as the size, with the settings in the top panel. Also, you can adjust the opacity of the masked layer overall, which is great for making the entire layer have a more subtle effect.
5. Continue This Masking Effect With Each Layer
Continue until you get to the layer that is for the outside view, as in through a window or door frame.
This one you’ll do differently because it has harder edges than what a brush can comfortably allow for. For the dark layer that has the outside view, mask as you did the others. Rather than using the erase tool brush directly, though, you’ll first use the polygonal lasso tool to carefully select the edges of the area you want to expose.
For example, if it’s a view outside the window, you’ll want to lasso all the edges of that window view, including the frame and any objects that may be in front of the window view.
Once you have the outside view selected with the lasso tool, you can then use the eraser brush tool as with other layers. This time you can brush freely because it will only apply the brush effect to the image within the lasso-selected area!
6. Use the White Brush for Corrections
While doing the masking and revealing of each layer, you can always switch the brush colour to white to erase the masked layer.
For example, if you reveal too much or too far to one side, you can use the white brush to correct it until it’s just right.
7. Save Your Work
If you started this process in Lightroom, then when you save this file it’ll create a new layered file and automatically add it to your Lightroom gallery so you can continue editing there.
If you did this whole process entirely in Photoshop, then I recommend saving the layered image as a Photoshop file so you have it as reference. When you’re happy with the results, merge the layers and save as a JPEG file so it’s universally usable.
Tips for Using HDR for Real Estate Photography
It’s easy to get carried away with this process and create images that look too balanced. You want your work to still look realistic.
What does this mean to your editing technique? It means that the view outside the window should never look like it’s the same exposure level as the interior. It’s okay to leave it a little brighter and just allow a bit of the view to visible.
Likewise, while you brighten the dark spots, remember to leave some shadows in the image so that it looks realistic. Having the dark areas too bright will make it feel sterile or washed out, which again is not a realistic look to have.
HDR, like any editing method, is a great tool to have in your arsenal. However, it’s a tool that should only be used in moderation and to the extent needed.
This being said, it’s completely normal to experiment early on and allow yourself to take it farther than needed so you can test the limits! Experimentation is what will help you find your comfort zone.
HDR is a vital tool to be familiar with when working with niches of photography like real estate or interiors.
While there are a number of ways to incorporate this method into your editing, the simple steps we discussed above will get you familiar enough with it so you can start implementing with client shoots.
As always, experiment and have fun!