Why We Light Things


If you spend time on a photography forum where interiors get discussed, you’ve seen this exchange:

Photographer A:   Hey, here’s a photo I made. I used a bunch of strobes/hotlights/umbrellas/whatever.
Photographer B:   Nice photo, but you could have just done HDR and gotten the exact same result way faster.
Photographer A:   Uh, no, I couldn’t. HDR isn’t the same as lighting stuff.
Photographer C:   I could have done that with one flash. My new strobe has 1.21 Gigawatts of light!
Photographer A:   Wait, I….
Photographer B:   HDR is just the same! It’s just two different ways to get the same result!
Photographer A:   I think you’re mis-understanding what I did here….
Photographers B & C:   NO WE AREN’T! YOU’RE BEING ELITIST!!


It usually goes downhill from there.

HDR, and exposure blending, and Fusion, and Photomatix, and all their cousins, means taking a series of exposures, from over-exposed, to under-exposed, and using software (sometimes referred to as “instant photographer” software) to blend them together, kind of like making sausage. Sometimes the results can be pretty nice, but only when the light is already nice to begin with. These methods can help compress a dynamic range into something the camera can handle, but they can’t do anything to change the quality of the light, at all.

And what’s more important in a photograph, than light? Without some way to manipulate light, a photographer is utterly at the mercy of Mother Nature (even when you’re deep inside a Manhattan loft), and an evil and capricious mother she is…

Make no mistake — when the light is already good, then you run with that. Here’s a shot where I did almost nothing other than a little boost in a couple spots, which in theory at least could plausibly have been done in post:


Likewise, sometimes the blending techniques can come in handy. In this shot, I did some lighting with strobe, but I also used Photoshop Layer Masks to blend in a shot where the girl was posed just right, and another to add in the dog (because a 5-year-old and a Sheepdog just can’t seem to do things right on cue, dammit). While I was at it, I blended in a better exposure for the far corner of the yard, which was just a little too bright in my “base” exposure.


Trouble is, the existing light almost never conforms to my vision for the shot. For example, here’s a shot I made earlier this year. This is “ambient” light only, and the exposure was easy — well within the camera’s dynamic range. One click of the shutter button, and I was done:


So it’s OK, right? Decent composition, evenly lit…..but not really memorable. All the light is coming from a huge floor-to-ceiling window to the left of the bed. It’s flatter than a pancake!

So we pulled the blinds, and replaced that light with our own:


We also fluffed the pillows and swapped out some of the knick-knacks, but it’s the light that makes this photo. Check out this detail of the fur blanket and orange throw:


No amount of software is going to give you this result. And this light wasn’t going to happen, naturally, ever.

Here’s another example. This bathroom (designed by my client Holly Bender) had a single recessed tungsten light above the vanity (sometimes called a “can” light). Here’s what that bathroom looks like, in it’s own lighting conditions:


Again — simple exposure, one shot, this is 100% reality. Holly looked at this shot on my laptop and said something like, “Uh…yeah. Sure. Ok. It is what it is, I guess…”

I told her to come back in half an hour…and showed her this:


This time, her reaction was a bit more, uh, exuberant, and involved a fist pump. And I was right there with her! Suddenly you can see how the wallpaper has this metallic inlay that makes the tree trunks and pears really POP….when the light is right.

Lighting for interiors doesn’t mean simply getting an exposure up to match the windows. It means the difference between taking a photo, and making a photo.

Below are a few more examples of shots that were manipulated with added lighting, in some cases dramatically, in order to establish texture, depth, and mood. None of these could have been achieved simply by massaging the existing light.


39 responses to “Why We Light Things

  1. Beautiful examples of why I keep trying to illuminate my shots instead of using HDR. My skills are improving and clients are starting to realize that there really is a difference between HDR and lighted images.

  2. Very good post Scott. I think all real estate and interiors photographers should have this kind of exercise somewhere on their web site to remind customers that little details make a big phsycological difference.

  3. It’s great to hear an expert stress the details of this craft. It’s such a niche topic and very little info is out there. Keep it up Scott!

  4. Thanks for the reminder Scott 🙂

  5. I’ve never been an HDR shooter–I like the challenge of lighting and using layers when needed so that I can have control of where the light is coming from and the quality of that light.

  6. Of course this is better. But it all about time.
    Sometimes you must do the shoot fast.
    Two reson:
    You have not the time on the location for light arrangement.
    The payment of an object is low.
    So i think you can get a really good result by using HDR when the job needs to be done quickly.
    Not perfect but the client like it.
    Light arrangent needs big client with good money.
    And the market has been destroyed by big company and photographers working for coffe money.

  7. Scott Hargis, I want to be like you when I grow up (as a photographer). MY HERO! Seriously, you’re my favorite interior photographer. These shots are gorgeous. Sometimes I can see boc that the shot would be okay all ambient. But I just want a little more… depth, dimension, color. So I add some light anyway. My goal is to be as good as you. Someday…
    There are so many problems with HDR.

  8. I would argue that you should give every shot your best. The payment, while definitely important to you, is not why you should be shooting the shot. If you’re not willing to give it your best then you should allow another photographer to come in who IS willing to give it their all. Every shot you deliver is a reflection of you as a photographer. The payment is a reflection of what your client thinks you are worth, and the two are independent factors.

  9. Then the potential buyer walks in and sees what the home really looks like.

  10. I love your photos Scott!! I refer to you as the Ansel Adams of interiors!! At age 55, I too want to shoot like you when I grow up — I just bought my 5th speedlight! Its a struggle, but I am learning every day of what works and what does not. Every home, small or large, trashed or not is a “home and garden” home that someone is paying me for (so I can own my own home) and to photograph the best way I possibly can. To me, HDR is too complicated, and too much post processing as well. Its a lot of moving around flashes, etc. but “Its What I Do!” and am proud of my work.

  11. This is a great post Scott. It reinforces how I feel about following the lessons that you’ve taught, and not being satisfied with HDR to shoot interiors. Overtime, I’ve tried using HDR I’ve ultimately regretted it, and ended up think “why didn’t I just take a little time to do it ‘right with light’ instead “. I almost never use it these days, as it’s just too much hassle compared to thinking about things and lighting what you want lit then just shooting it.
    Keep up the inspirational work.

  12. Excellent Scott; thanks.

  13. I’ve done 50 real estate shoots with speed lights (zero with HDR), and everyone’s impressed with the results. But, frankly, my real estate photography isn’t in great demand, aside from a few agents who insist on the quality Scott’s taught me to bring. Most agents have other priorities. They’re fulfilling an obligation to the client for “pictures” and feel the house will sell, great pictures or not. Speed and budget are the concerns of most agents — not great photos, unfortunately. (I’m sure this changes in the multi-million dollar home market, where quality becomes an expectation).

    I don’t think agents would know or care if the photos were made with HDR, but will surely love that the photographer is done in half an hour (and they hate my 2+ hour sessions). But Scott’s impeccably crafted examples are interior design magazine worthy, and way over the top for real estate, to Hebry’s point.

    Assuming time allows for beautiful results, HDR would seem to have only limited occasional application. It’s a tool, not a mode of operation. As Scott says, best to get it right “in the camera.” But his imbedded point is more poignant: With light, we make photos. With HDR we render them.

    So three levels: Showing a scene, lighting a scene with good craft, and finally interpreting as photo-artists.

  14. Hi everyone. I think this is a matter of discussion because we´re mixing two different things (or at least not exactly the same): Interior photography in general and real estate photography. As Scott says in the first words of the post: “If you spend time on a photography forum where interiors get discussed” he is not talking only of real estate photo. There is a huge difference between a work for an interior designer (as you can see, Scott´s work shown here is mostly for interior designers or something similar, excepting a few images) with plenty of time, a home stager helping with the interior decoration, big income and the possibility of bring lot of lighting equipment, than a work for a regular real estate agent with big rush, auto home stager (yourself) and only the basic lighting equipment because there is no time to assemble and disassemble it (if you can have it, of course). Of course, there are different kinds of works also in the real estate world and it´s not the same a luxury home for a top producer agent than a little condo shot for a regular agent with little budget and time. It´s better not to generalize
    But even in the worst work conditions there is a window for seek improvement, of put a speedlight or two here and there and try to show some above average final results and get out of the HDR of automatic fusion methods confort zone.
    And having said that, i´m absolutely agree with Scott in the essence of the post about the need, usually in interiors, of modify the existing light conditions and play with it, after all photography is light.

  15. David – We agree. Please see my comments just above yours. Vic

  16. Thanks for the comments, folks!

    As someone else pointed out, it’s worth noting that I haven’t shot real estate in a significant way since about 2011. There hasn’t been a real estate photo on my blog or my website for many years.

    For sure, there are going to be compromises when you have to work as fast as real estate photographers do.
    But one reason I was as successful as I was shooting real estate was that I never, EVER succumbed to the notion that because there was a small budget, or a client with low expectations, that I couldn’t push the photo anyway. I pushed hard, VERY hard, when I was shooting real estate, to create opportunities to make great photos. I went way beyond what my clients wanted, or needed, because I knew that no one was going to hire me to shoot the stuff I really wanted to be shooting if I couldn’t demonstrate that I knew how. Clients are disappointingly easy to please…but I was (and still am) shooting for myself, and for the clients I expect to have tomorrow.

    I’d also like to point out that among the photos I used for this blog post, are several that are in extremely “humble” homes, that were frankly “aesthetically challenged”. My job as a photographer (despite Hebry’s objections) is to make these places look good, and I can accomplish that with careful compositions, and even more careful lighting. No one objects when portrait photographers make them look better by using lights (and lets not even get into the world of photoshopped models), and I doubt very much that anyone is haranguing the manager at McDonald’s when their burger doesn’t look like the one advertised on the billboard. Likewise, Interiors photographers make rooms look good..that’s kind of the basic tenet of the gig, most of the time.

    This was not meant as an HDR-vs-Lights post. But I am trying to point out that lighting is not really about controlling dynamic range (although it can be used for that). The real reason to use lights, in Interiors photography, is to create texture and depth and interest when the existing light doesn’t do it. As I said in the post — no amount of software can create texture and mood where it doesn’t already exist. If you want to MAKE photos…you’re going to have to let go of the software, and start using light.

    • I’ve learned so much from Scott, and have improved my RE photography greatly. My initial post is only because of the objections I have received from some clients/realtors.

      No, not that my photos weren’t good, but that the home didn’t look that good. I was even asked what time of day I took some photos, and had to explain that I did use extra light.

      As a realtor I get feedback from buyer’s agents through the MLS after each showing, and have gained shooting gigs from other Realtors.

  17. Great blog post Scott, thanks!

  18. Great post. Seems so obvious. But is not apparently. The difference between art and production.

  19. Having learned from Scott’s materials, pushing hard too (see http://www.fantastic.house), I have no expectations of attaining “jobs I really want” directly stemming from that work. My real estate photography portfolio is distinctly different from my nascent interior design work (see http://www.vicwahbyphotography.com).

    Real estate photography is, however, a tremendous learning experience and foundational for interior design and architectural photography. Essentially, the same techniques, applied with more thought and time.

  20. This post is spot-on, Scott, with wonderful use of sample images to make your points. I very much enjoyed reading this … thank you!

  21. A great post Scott. I love the simple, yet very clear example of the blanket on the bed showing how much more interesting lighting can make a photo. Thanks to your books and videos that I studied when I first started I am now a full time real estate photographer. I love your work and I aspire to one day be in a similar position photographing interiors and architecture.

  22. Awesome read.

    Personally I feel there are people that can “see” great work and people that cannot distinguish the difference, whether they are photographers or clients. HDR, lights, computers don’t create work, visionaries do.

    Its the same as people that can taste great food, there will always be someone that says “why pay 20$ for that when you can get it for 5$”.

    • Michael – Although you’re absolutely right, some agents can see the difference but rationalize, “Why pay more for better photography when the house will sell anyway.” Maybe Scott can help us on pricing. I’m charging $150 for 25 photos, filling the MLS quota in my area. Getting no complaints on quality, but losing business (presumably) to those who sell for less.

      Another distinct problem is production time. The agent has to be with me for 2.5 hours. (A huge or unprepared house is much longer). The walk-through and set-up are 20 minutes, leaving 5 minutes per picture. I whip-off most in 3-4 minutes, leaving a little extra time for the “money” shots (LR, DR, KIT). Even if I practiced and got it down to 2 hours total, it’s painful for agents compared to the cheaper competition (using faster production of HDR or photo blending). Mind you, if the LR has a DR in the background, and a stairway on one side, I’m balancing speed lights everywhere. Although I’m a rookie, my goal for 2016 isn’t higher quality, it’s to learn to cut more corners. Oh, and to do better photography for those who care.

      • Victor, as an agent I can take all the time I want however my goal is to be in and out with room measurements in an hour to hour and a half.

        I give my client’s a pre-photograohy flyer and expect everything to be as outlined. (no laundry dishes, trash cans, etcetc etc)
        This is also after I pay for a home Stager out of pocket (included in listing commission) to make the home as beautiful as can be.

        • Perfectly normal. I, for one, can’t possibly produce 25 photos (plus set-up and walk-through) in that time using speed lights. After 50 shoots, I’m still at 2.5 hours when the house is staged and ready. (I do fix a few things as I go, the bed spread, lamp shade, and window treatments as required).

          There’s a gorilla in the room for real estate photographers hellbent on higher quality: the companies that are cranking out photos of sufficient quality in much less time with HDR or layer blending. You see, as Scott devotees, our “goal” is impressive work, which requires seeing and controlling light in every photo. Your stated “goal” is to be out of that house “in an hour to hour and a half.” I think improved pictures would save you time in terms of DOM, and plausibly return a higher resale value for your homeowner, but not many agents see it that way.

          • Yes I do have a time frame, however that Is the least amount I can take and still deliver great photos.

            I cannot improve resale value much if at all. My listings this year have sold at or above list price (I don’t list under market value) about 85% of the time.

            Maybe I can incorporate lighting for next year and see if it makes any difference.

  23. I too have a hard time justifying the additional time it takes to properly light my real estate listings for Sotheby’s. I have tried to follow Scott’s teachings in book and video form but getting what I would consider “acceptable” results takes a lot of trial and error. I always fall back to HDR to accomplish the shoot and produce 30-40 good photos. I feel that I have a good mastery of HDR but I certainly would like to be able to light a scene with my flashes and umbrellas in a timely fashion before my sellers get too agitated. There is nothing I would like more to then to produce the pics I know I want to make versus the status quo for residential real estate.

  24. I can only reiterate that I do not shoot real estate….haven’t shot real estate for a long time….and this post has nothing whatsoever to do with shooting real estate…

  25. Thanks for sharing.
    Learning to see the difference between a good shot and a great one is the hard part.
    Technique needed is just a consequence.

  26. Bravo Scott! Thank you for sharing! I tried HDR once and BLAH! To even imagine getting the same result or better than a well lit interior is just ridiculous. I see that many of your followers are real estate photographers so the argument will always exist for HDR (agent needs images yesterday). The funny thing is I feel like even with 1 speed light and some creative photoshop layering, you can still achieve a great image without HDR….AND complete a house in very short time. HDR is a crutch.

    • I love when photogrphers claim on their site that the reason they use HDR bracketing is to get realistic looking images. LOL! Since when did blue hue window views look normal? Since when did every shadow in the house nearly disappear? Since when did dark stained cabinets or floors have a magenta hue in the highlights?

  27. Great post. Thank you for the clearly illustrated examples.

  28. I’ve landed some architectural shoots because of these things Scott speaks of. I have some great clients that I shoot real estate for (new custom builds), and when I’m in there, I’ll take time to shoot stuff that is more architecture related and not RE related (when they are staged and when I’m not rushed to get to another appointment). Different ball game.
    When a client asks for something a little different from RE, I can show them sample images that will help them showcase the quality of their work and help land future clients.

    For the people who talk about how much more time it takes, I’ll bet a lot of these images don’t need much post work and Scott can get them done in no time (except ones like where he had to replace the girl and dog). I would bet the bathroom RAW file doesn’t look too different than what we see here.
    One thing I notice when I use multiple strobes is how quick my post time is, and I’d rather be shooting than sitting in front of a computer.

  29. While I agree 100% with Scott’s point that you certainly can’t get the same result with HDR that you can when you control the light in your photos. He crafts light like I could only dream I could! And I’m trying, damn-it.

    I learned a simplified approach to lighting real estate through his e-book and video, and produce what I’m told are better real estate photos than the corner-cutting bums, but I’ve also looked into HDR as a tool that surely has a place.

    The other day I had eight photos to take around town for an architect, and the expectation was that we would do them all in two hours. When I ran across a scene with dynamic range that my camera was unable to capture, I used HDR for its expedience, not its superiority. The straight shot and final can be seen here:


    The client is thrilled, and while it’s not art, it shows the space. I had all my lights and gear with me, but see no place to put supplemental lighting. The goal was to show the architecture, which I think the final result achieves. I could only think of putting lights behind the camera, which detracts from, well, everything.

  30. This article is so apt. Love your work Scott.

  31. Super article Scott! The issue I’ve always had with HDR is that it tends to flatten the image space by reducing overall contrast… that is unless you know how to control this in the software you use. The wonderful aspect of your photography is that you use shadows and highlights to play off one another, resulting in a more dynamic scene. I’d love to see more before and after photographs that illustrate the difference that lighting makes to the scenes you light.

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