Photography For Real Estate

Tips and techniques for real estate photography

Interior Lighting With Multiple Strobes: By Scott Hargis

Posted by larrylohrman on July 23, 2007

First of all I need to point out that this is Scott Hargis’s post. Like many of you I’ve been admiring the way Scott uses a hand full of strobes to light a room to look like an Architectural Digest shoot and still keep the time to shoot a hole home within a few hours. Like the kitchen above. Scott has adapted the lighting techniques that David over at teaches (don’t put strobe on camera, use manual flash, use Cactus radio flash triggers, etc) to light interiors. So recently I tried to summarize the lighting explanations that Scott puts on his flickr images into a description of how to approach lighting a room with multiple strobes in a systematic way. I sent it to Scott and he re-wrote it and added a bunch of detail. Here’s Scott’s description:

  1. Set the ISO to 400 – this gives you much greater latitude with the strobes.
  2. Set the aperture to f/6.3 as a good starting point. With wide-angle lenses, DOF is not really a problem.
  3. Adjust the shutter speed to expose for the windows. Generally, for a “blown-out” window effect, 1/80th or slower will work. To bring in a view completely, dial up to your camera’s maximum sync speed (usually 1/250th) and only then start stopping down the aperture. Once the windows are exposed properly…..
  4. Add an off-camera light to one side or other of the camera. Bouncing from a wall or the wall/ceiling joint results in a much larger apparent light source, and thus yields softer shadows. However, watch for hot spots! In particular, reflections in windows, mirrors, and glass cabinets are problematic. Hot spots on the ceiling are also common, but can be fairly easily dodged/burned out if the light can’t be re-positioned.
  5. Flash power settings will be highly variable according to the light level in the room, the size of the room, etc.
  6. Most wall colors are fine for bounced light with no noticeable color cast. However, deep, bold colors will result in a tint to the light that bounces off them. In these situations, an umbrella or reflector is very useful.

In my opinion, if you’re accustomed to shooting with one on-camera light, the best way to ease into shooting with off-camera lights is to start SMALL. Try a bedroom, turn off your on-camera light and use only the remote one, placed a few feet away and bounced off the wall, to get used to the idea and discover the tricks of “hiding” the light source from the camera. Then, add in the on-camera light with a diffuser for fill.
For more complex rooms, like kitchens and living rooms, start with an ambient-only exposure and then add lights one at a time, chimping every step of the way. Remember that aiming the strobe directly at the subject will result in harsh light and hard-edged, deep shadows. For me, this is the last resort.

Because flash duration is extremely short (about 1/20,000 of a second), it is not affected by the camera’s shutter speed. For most rooms, it is possible to make the strobes the dominant light source, with only the windows truly lit by the ambient. At this point, control is completely in the photographer’s hands: shutter speed will control the windows/ambient, and aperture will control the strobes. Once I have the lighting evened out, I often fine-tune a shot by adjusting my aperture to move the histogram up or down as desired.

When I walk into a room, I’m looking at the surfaces and dividing them into two camps: surfaces the camera will see, and those it won’t see. The ones that aren’t going to be visible are all candidates for bounced lights. Then it’s just a matter of taking a few seconds to plan out the lighting. It’s amazing how quickly you can gain an intuition for this. Also, many rooms (like bedrooms) are pretty standard – the same setup will work again and again with minor changes.

A note about gear: To learn about ways to remotely trigger strobes, the Strobist blog and Flicker site are invaluable. Nikon CLS and Canon IR are problematic for shooting interiors as the signals will not travel reliably around corners and into distant rooms where we often put our lights. With regard to “hiding” lights in a room, a light stand with a small footprint is very helpful. I use the Slik SVD-20, which can remain upright and stable with a footprint less than 4″ across. Most of the time, my lights are about 24″ off the floor. I also keep a strobe in my hip pocket with the little “foot” attached so it can stand upright on its own. This light is incredibly useful for tucking into small places, on top of mantles, bookshelves, etc.

There you have it. The complete Scott Hargis lighting approach. Thanks Scott for being willing to share all the details with us!

19 Responses to “Interior Lighting With Multiple Strobes: By Scott Hargis”

  1. jeff said

    this is great. i typically shoot with a 580EX on camera. I also have a 420EX, and have on occasion experimented with using 580EX on camera as master, and the 420EX firing as slave. it has sometimes provided me with good results, but it is challenging to hide the 420EX out of frame, yet also get it within IR range to fire. Sometimes for big rooms with vaulted interiors, I simply hold the 420 EX next to the 580EX, maybe angled up and to the side a bit. I see times when 2 flashes are mandatory, and Scott’s work motivates me to try 2 flashes much more often. But it sounds like I can’t use 2 flashes, both off camera, unless I have a sync cord for at least the 580EX, so I can keep E-TTL? Should I get a flash stand from somewhere? help…

  2. Great tutorial. I think it should also be mentioned that different types of rooms can be lit differently. What I mean is for a kitchen like the one shown I think a lot of light is good. But for a “moody” living room or a “romantic” master bedroom it’s a different story. The shot on my home page: could not retain it’s sense of warmth and “moodiness” by using multiple bounced flash units.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents worth!

    Thanks again for the very helpful discussion!


  3. That is simply a stunning image.
    And, coincidentally, I was experimenting with both my SB800 speedlights this morning in trying to light a large room with some style.

    This afternoon I was meeting with the Principle of an R/E agency (who already uses another photographer, but are willing to try me), and showed me an example photo that the other photographer took.

    The “other guy” took 8 shots of the kitchen area (camera locked off, on tripod, using a remote IR shutter trigger), and for each shot he was pointing the speedlight at a different part of the scene. He would have been standing in the middle of the frame in some shots, but layering and masking each image into photoshop resulted in a magnificently lit end result.

    Why didn’t I think of this? !!!

    So, you can get away with only one or two speedlights, providing you have the time to composite multiple images in Photoshop.

    $0.02 🙂

  4. Great guide, I just got my triggers a few weeks ago and have been playing around with couple of older strobes, Tommorow I pick up 3 sb600’s to use, so should be interesting, As I was a little confused, this guide has helped a lot, Ill post some of my results.

  5. I’m just curious…with a set-up like this, how much time could you expect to spend post processing? Obviously, Scott’s technique is nearly perfected. If I were to spend quite a bit of time on-site to set up lighting, I don’t want to spend an almost equal amount of time to do post camera editing. I’m already working 60+ hours a week during the busy selling season. Running at a sleep deficit, I need to know if I could expect to gain some time back if I were to switch over to a lighting system/technique such as this.

    Any thoughts?

  6. Aaron said

    It’s important to note that if you are going to use several small strobes off camera, they are going to be on manual settings so you DO NOT need the newest TTL iteration flash unit for your camera. Keep one 580EX/SB-800/SB-600 for on camera TTL work and just buy older strobes with a PC socket. You can buy 3 older flash units for the price of a single “modern” one.

  7. Gary said

    If you light the scene correctly you can figure that all you will need to do in post is perspective control and wb/tone adjustment. Lots less time behind the computer

  8. Cherie, the whole point of having multiple lights is to have next to nothing to do in post.

  9. I’d like to know more about strobe lighting. I’ve never used any. As stated in “a note about gear”, I’d like to start with a small one that can “fit in my hip pocket”. Can someone please direct me to where I can find a good one for sale and inform me about how they are triggered? Triggering is a mystery to me. My old but trusty camera is a Sony DSC-F707.

  10. Okay, I’m not that dumb…I know that using multiple lights will reduce post processing time. However, I’d like to know from Scott, or others who use a technique similar to his, about the amount of time they spend in post. I already have a great monopod that keeps my verticals straight due to the retractable legs. So, I don’t have to fix converging verticals. Thus, I generally have to lighten up shadows and correct barrel distortion. With ExpoDisc, I rarely have to correct white balance. But, I spend several hours every night editing for the 4+ shoots that I do each day.

    I would prefer to spend my editing time on outdoor photos and resizing. So, I’m looking into adding strobes and purchasing a rectilinear lens. I don’t mind spending more time on site in order to cut down on the amount of time I must spend each night editing.

  11. Gary said

    I probably spend an average of 5 minutes on each image but I fix converging angles all the time so you may be even faster. I never really worry about that while I’m shooting, I just set up the angle that I want and fix it in post. I may use the band aid tool on ceilings where I need to get rid of hot spots but really not that much.

    Cherie, just out of curiosity, how long do you take per image?

  12. It really depends on how dark the original image is. I try to spend just a couple minutes. I can tell you that I can go through about 45 images in about an hour and a half. I photograph a lot of really large properties…easily 4,000+ Sq Ft homes on a daily basis. And, as you can guess, properties of that size require more photos than the average 3 or 4 bedroom home. I would say that I average about 45 final images per shoot. The thing is, I don’t think that I can add an extra hour’s work to each property if it won’t cut my post processing time in half.

    I tried the technique referenced above (adjusting aperture and shutter speed based on the recommendation)…except that I only had one on camera speedlite…Anyway, my point is that it improved my in-camera images tremendously.

    In my area, I can’t get away with charging what a lot of other photographers that contribute to this blog charge. So, I really have to limit the amount of time that I spend to make it profitable for me. Based on the purpose of my work, and the low fees that I charge, I’m not striving for perfection. “Good”, is sufficient enough to bring in constant referrals and my clients keep coming back. But I’m always looking for ways to to improve and to get back precious time w/ my family.

  13. Gary said

    I’m not really sure how much time you’ll save overall. The way it seems to me is that you either spend the time on the front end or on the back end. Right now I’m spending 2 1/2 to three hours on a 4000 sq ft home but I’m not as fast as Scott yet so you have to take that into account. The time I spend on the back end seems very short, I guess it was about an hour the other day on about 30 images so it seems the same but that seems very fast if you have to stop and do dodge and burning or the like. If your not making corrections though it seems to me that all you’ll have to do is shoot them as Jpegs and then load them on your computer and make them the size you want. Whats that take, 30 mins tops and you can set up your comp to do most of that automatically.

  14. What do you all charge for shooting a typical house (pretend there is such thing as a “typical” house). I have not read all the blogs here yet so maybe pricing has been covered – if so point me to the entry please!

    I see pricing all over the map from $8 per image to $1000 or more per home.

    I charge anywhere from $150 – $500 per home depending on what the client wants/needs. Post is included in this unless they want major surgery on the image then charge $75/hour for retouching. I deliver photos on a CD – one folder for printing up to 9×12 in and another folder for Web use. Agents seem to like this. Less work in converting images for Web use for them.



  15. Aaron said

    I think the best way of cutting your post production time is to produce less final images! 😉

  16. Aaron, of course! I’ve been struggling with that…I keep trying to do that, but I always end up with more than i intended.

  17. khadija said

    What about outdoor pictures do you still use flash ? Like the picture of the whole house from outside…

  18. […] Interior Lighting With Multiple Strobes: By Scott Hargis [image] First of all I need to point out that this is Scott Hargis’s post. Like many of you I’ve been […] […]

  19. First of all, great tutorial.


    The big question is what tool are you using for post processing? I don’t know what I would do without LightRoom.

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