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One-Light Real Estate Photography

While down in Florida last month, I found out that my parents' next-door neighbors (and good friends) were selling their house. I was a little bummed, as they are good folks and you hate to see them leave.

But I was even more bummed when I saw the point-and-shoot specials the real estate agent had thrown up on the "for sale" page.

We only had one working flash. But certainly we could do better than that...

One House, One Strobe, No Problem

Okay, to be clear I did bring two SB-800's down to Florida. But I only brought two sets of AA batts, too. (Hey, trying to travel light here.) And when one set of batts gets liberated by the kids to power yet another few hours of continuous Wii playing, two SB-800's become one SB-800.

And to be fair, I am no Scott Hargis, either. He is a magician at speedlighting a house to within a hair's breadth of Architectural Digest. But one SB-800s is better than no SB-800s, so we gave it a whirl anyway.

The trick, as always when using a small light to light a big thing, is to wait for the ambient to come to you.

We wanted to do four looks, with one strobe, in one evening. Each would be an exercise in flash/ambient balance. And each would need to be shot at a different time -- but all at twilight.

First stop was the interior, seen above. For this, we needed to balance flash with two ambient sources -- one fixed and one declining.

The outside light would be constantly falling, and the lamps inside would be constant. Because the flash would be lighting a large area, we needed a decent ISO speed and a large aperture.

If memory serves, we went with ISO 400 at f/4. Don't quote me, but it was at least close to there for the reasons listed above.

So, the f/4 becomes the anchor for the exposure. Using f/4, you chimp a little on the shutter speed to see where the lamps will look best. You want them bright, but not nuclear.

Remember -- they do not have to light the room. The flash will do that. They just have to look good.

Once you get the f/stop and shutter speed, it's simply a matter of waiting for the outside ambient light to drop down to where the windows look good. At that point, we pulled everything together by throwing a flash into the ceiling to bring up the rest of the room.

We had to nuke it - either 1/2 or full power, if I remember correctly. Always gonna take a lot of power to pull this off. If full power is not enough, you have to walk the ISO up until it is. (You'd walk the shutter down to keep the ambient in balance.)

Bonus: The ceiling-bounced flash is gonna pick up some warmth to accentuate the wood in the room. With more time, we would have lit a fire in the fireplace. But honestly, those are usually just for show in Florida anyway.

Moving fast now, we went out front. The front view is very cluttered, graphically speaking. Lots of trees and bushes. So I wanted to highlight the house with some focused light. We backed the flash up behind the camera and over on the left and zoomed it to 105mm.

Half power was more than enough light to pop the house -- and just the house -- to make it stand out against a twilight sky.

Easy balance here: Pop the flash on the house at a 250th of a sec, adjust the aperture until the house looks best, open up the shutter until the background looks best. Quick and easy.

Since the house is being lit by a low, warm light source it almost looks as if the house is being lit by the sunset. When the sunset is, in fact, happening at back camera left.

Next, we went to the back of the house. The ambient is getting much darker and now those interior lights are starting to sing. Nice and bright, relatively speaking.

So now the interior lights are the focal point and the twilight afterglow is secondary, as far as the ambient is concerned. But the house exterior needs bringing up. Given enough aperture and ISO (we were at 400) this is another easy, one-speedlight job.

The flash for this photo needed to light both the house and the trees I used to frame it. So we placed it out a ways at camera right and pumped it all of the way up to full power. (That throw to the house was an easy hundred feet or so. Maybe more.)

By feathering the light (aiming it between the trees and the house -- more toward the house) we could light both objects evenly, even though the house was much further way.

Now that we were done with the three-source-balancing stuff, we could finish off down at the dock. No hurries now, as we could fix the one ambient source no matter how dark it got. For those keeping score, this is the same dock as the one on the left in the tiki hut photos, if you want to get any context.

At this point, this one-light real estate stuff should be making sense. In a fairly dark ambient environment, I stuck a voice-activated light stand (AKA my dad) up on the dock. I had him aim the SB-800 (at 1/4 power, and synched with a Pocket Wizard) high, across the top of the dock. Actually aiming it a little up into the air. This helped to feather the light and keep the left side of the dock (from the camera's perspective) from getting too hot.

Meanwhile, I am down in the water:

Start on a high shutter (1/250th) to kill the ambient. Firing the flash, chimp the various aperture settings until the dock looks good. Open up the shutter until the ambient (post-sunset sky and reflection) looks good.

This stuff is not hard. It's about a three-minute job, and two minutes out of three are spent showing my dad how to hold and aim the flash.

So, there you have it: A quick-and-dirty twilight real estate package, to replace the point-and-shoot nightmare on the "for sale" page.

Not that we couldn't have done a nice job with a point-and-shoot, too...

NEXT: On Assignment: Reluctant Poet


(Same setup, all photos)

Nikon D3
Nikon 17-35/2.8
Nikon SB-800
Pocket Wizard Plus II


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