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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Anonymous Stewart Macdonald said...

I reckon you could get a job doing that.

August 11, 2008 12:25 AM  
Anonymous dannyROD said...

Yes! Fantastic! The steps you explained for starting at 1/250th and then working your way down with aperture for flash balance and shutter speed for ambient are of great help, thanks a ton!

August 11, 2008 12:36 AM  
Anonymous Matt said...

DH you are the man, and that Dock photo is awesome, i just wish my mind would think of light how yours does.

August 11, 2008 12:49 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

And in those ten minutes you just added at least the value of your whole kit to the house.

August 11, 2008 1:13 AM  
Blogger D™ said...

Thanks for the tips David, very interesting.

Speaking of SB-800s, have you seen this modification for them?

August 11, 2008 1:48 AM  
Blogger SiB said...

Thanks Mr. Hobby!
Those photos turned out great!
I have been doing RE photography for a year now thanks to you and the PFRE group!

August 11, 2008 1:55 AM  
Blogger Bowen Photography said...

WOW! As always outstanding!

So much information!

Shots look great!

August 11, 2008 2:26 AM  
Blogger Ryan and Rebekah said...

Thanks for the breakdown.
It's funny to me how difficult it seems for people to aim a flash. I always tell them "where the head is pointed, thats where the light will be..." Doesn't seem too hard, but somehow the subject still ends up with glowing toes.

August 11, 2008 5:04 AM  
Anonymous Walt E. said...

Hey! When did you get a D3!!! I'm jealous. heheh

August 11, 2008 6:43 AM  
Blogger JVL said...

I've got to say, from what I've seen, anyone looking to go semi-pro may have an "in" on real-estate photography. With a home-buying population having grown up in the internet age, more and more of us are looking online before we go and buy. Which means those images really have to pop to be competitive in the marketplace.

And as you've pointed out, you don't need much of a setup either - a wide-angle zoom, an off-camera flash - and some knowledge (read: Strobist) of lighting - BINGO!

Sure, you can get fancy fisheyes and expensive software to do some VR's - but it's still going to be those first few images that "sell".

I know, when I need to list my house, I'll likely be doing the images, not someone with a P&S.

August 11, 2008 7:51 AM  
Anonymous Ken said...

I just got into real estate photography. I have shot 2 homes and also working on 360 pano. I got the software and the pano head thing.

Thanks for the tips


August 11, 2008 9:55 AM  
Blogger Ronalds Šulcs said...

Hey, really nice shots. I was having problems lighting and shoting one building. Any advice maybe? This house is a lot bigger.
here's the shot of the building done in HDR, but I would like to light it strobist style. I have 3 vivitars and pw set.


August 11, 2008 9:57 AM  
Blogger andy said...

DH-mind giving us an update when the house sales? Working in real estate for the last 8 years, your pictures alone would get multiple showings. My photography skills has definitely helped my business and I know that you've helped good people. Keep up the great work.

August 11, 2008 10:53 AM  
Blogger David said...

@ D™-

I had not seen Neil's post, but I have seen the video. I have it slated to run later this week (contrary to appearances, I do try to plan ahead!)


August 11, 2008 10:56 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Hello sir,

Do you travel/shoot with a tripod, ever? Or do you do all this lowlight stuff at handholdable speeds?

Skunk in Los Angeles

August 11, 2008 12:20 PM  
Anonymous Matt Haines said...

Can you please now go and delete this post, so those of us who have already seen it can go make some real estate money with our speedlights? Thanks.

Oh. Wait. "Real Estate Money"? That doesn't exist anymore, doe it? :)

Nicely done. I know it's possible to do interiors with small lights, but I don't think I would have contemplated doing it with a *single* strobe. Extreme lighting!

You should be a contestant in the X(-sync) Games.

August 11, 2008 12:24 PM  
Blogger Franz said...

So, you not only help your parent's neighbor, but then you help a million readers by sharing your knowledge? You're a fine man, Mr. Hobby!

August 11, 2008 12:40 PM  
Blogger David said...


Absolutely. In fact, I used a tripod for the interior photo and the rear exterior photo.

A tripod is your most powerful fill light for a large subject. Something I will be writing more about soon.


August 11, 2008 12:51 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Hi David,

Looking forward to the tripod post!

I never saw the tripod mentioned in your posts so wondered about that. Congratulations on the D3!!!

How do you manage to pack light with a tripod or will I have to wait for the post?


August 11, 2008 12:57 PM  
Anonymous Mark Sirota said...

Aw geez, we don't get to see the original "point-and-shoot specials"?

August 11, 2008 12:59 PM  
Anonymous Peter Cull said...

We used your techniques to take our own house photos. They were taken as insurance in case the first Estate Agent (Realtor) didn't do the job. Sure enough we needed to change Estate Agent and out came my pictures; very necessary as the house was now empty.

Last week completed the sale and I owe you a big THANK YOU for the blog entries from last year. They really work (but it did take me more than three minutes.)

August 11, 2008 1:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have an upcoming wedding where the bride has requested portraits in front of a stained-glass window. I think this technique would work in that context also. Just get the aperture right for the subject and then dial down the shutter speed until the stained-glass looks good.

Rock on.

August 11, 2008 2:13 PM  
Anonymous Hawaii Photographer said...

I am finally diving into off camera flash with gusto and I thoroughly enjoyed your explanation of how you were able to achieve these wonderful shots with just one light. Thanks for sharing!

August 11, 2008 2:38 PM  
Blogger Philippe and Patricia said...

You continue to amaze us all. That is dynamite lighting, regardless of how many lights used.

Your are in great part responsible for my present lighting skillset. My level of photography has improved greatly thanks to what you share. What used to be pretty stale shooting in my job has become very exciting. You have a great gift for teaching, and the wisdom to do so.

If what goes around comes around, great stuff is heading your way.
Best to you.

August 11, 2008 2:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That totally ROCKS, dude! If you had not mentioned "done with just one strobe"...I would have NEVER believe it was done with ONE strobe! Totally awesome.

August 11, 2008 3:12 PM  
Blogger John said...

Great tips. I just shot my first property this past weekend, so I appreciate this more than you know.

Thank you!

August 11, 2008 3:13 PM  
Blogger clive said...

Seriously nice house.
Where is it listed?
Could be seriously interested!

August 11, 2008 3:19 PM  
Blogger John said...

The thorough step-by-step explanation is beyond priceless, thx so much. From ceiling-beam shadows, I'm guessing you hand-held the flash in your left hand, maybe head-high or higher -- close?

August 11, 2008 4:35 PM  
Blogger Craig Lee said...

Architectural and Real Estate photography have just recently been getting my attention as an area I would like to explore. Of the articles and websites that I had read recently, I thought that I would need a "McNally dozen" SB800s at least; which was a bit disheartening to say the least. This article gives me some hope that I could at least start experimenting with it. Thank you so much.

August 11, 2008 5:06 PM  
Blogger Steve Dobson said...


What a great demonstration.

I have to echo the opinion of Matt Haines.


August 11, 2008 5:11 PM  
Anonymous Embassy Pro Books said...

These are great shots. I believe there is a lot of money to be made in real estate photography. The cliche 'A picture is worth a thousand words' is 100% true when it comes to home buying/renting.
Some real estate agencies have even started contracting photographers for their listings to help out during this economy.

August 11, 2008 5:39 PM  
Anonymous Terry Thomas Photos said...

Stewart Macdonald said...
"I reckon you could get a job doing that."

Stewart, I shoot homes for Realtors and private individuals. You would be surprised how cheap the Realtors are. They won't pay for quality photography and think Point 'n Shot is good enough.

I try to tell them people DO judge a book by it's cover and if the photos shown are low quality potential buyers will think the same of the house.

Some examples of my work are on my website.

Terry Thomas...
the photographer
Atlanta, Georgia USA

August 11, 2008 11:01 PM  
Blogger seenew said...

I might be confused, but I could have sworn you posted this already..

August 12, 2008 12:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great photos! A few points to those planning to get rich in RE photography with 1 SB:
1. Think about how many "ambient light balanced" shoots you can do in a day. 2. Now for fun, multiply that number by the amount realtors pay for photo usage. 3. Profit! err... maybe not.

August 12, 2008 2:42 AM  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

Scott's wondering right now why his page hits went through the roof.


Cycle 61 Photography

August 12, 2008 3:57 AM  
Blogger Big BAD Benny said...

Awesome - cracking results!
Did you use any CTO gel?
Or any other special white balance tricks?

August 12, 2008 4:55 AM  
Anonymous haru said...

thank you so much for informations like these :) there are days i do nothing but make things i would normally go broke for. since my SBs do not come with a modelling lamp, i improvised one. using illustration boards, i made first a snoot-like square tube for the SB head. inside are two walls with center-aligned holes big enough to hold a solitaire mag-lite. -haru

August 12, 2008 10:19 AM  
Blogger Steve Wetzel said...

For the second photo, I am wondering how far from the house you were? Were you using an ultra wide angle lens? I assume you had to be close to get the flash to light the house like that.

August 12, 2008 11:56 AM  
Anonymous Tim in Ft. Lauderdale said...

Great pix and much better than real estate agents' snappy-cam pix...

The only problem I have with these RE sellers is they're not willing to invest a couple hundred dollars in professional pix and get outstanding images to sell a half-million dollar home!!

August 12, 2008 12:04 PM  
Anonymous Nabityphotos said...

Great tutorials, David.

As fas as a career in Real Estate Photography, my local craigslist has an ad looking for a professional real estate photographer - they are offering $15 per interior assignment and a whopping $20 for an exterior/interior assignment. No mention of how many images they expect from each assignment.


- Ron

August 12, 2008 1:37 PM  
Anonymous Diego Cavalcanti said...

i'm Diego Cavalcanti, i don't know if you read it but i want make a version in portuguese of storbist if you read it and want that i make send me a email please:
I really like your blog! congratulations!
ATC, Diego Cavalcanti

August 12, 2008 9:29 PM  
Anonymous Ryan said...

I shoot all my Real Estate with one SB800 (more to cut time then anything) But I find that at 1/250th you really go through batteries. I like some ambient light so try to expose for windows then work from there. Great Post!!!
All these shots are with One Flash

August 13, 2008 3:29 PM  
Anonymous Nathanael Gassett said...

Absolutely brilliant. Great information. Great post. And best of all, great pictures.

August 13, 2008 6:51 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

The thing that immediately stood out to me, other than the nice work, is the fact that you were standing in a lake in Florida at dusk, which is about the time of day the floating log impersonators strap on the feed bag. Thanks for all you do for the community!

August 15, 2008 10:00 PM  
Blogger ProPixel Photography said...

Awesome! I did something similar although it was indoors. I was using Nikon's CLS and we all know how that works (or doesn't :D) from far away. Very warm and cozy looking images!

August 18, 2008 11:32 PM  
Blogger Jackson said...

Why no EXIF data on your Flickr pages?

August 20, 2008 2:32 PM  
Blogger Real Estate Guru said...

Your posting looks really great.... Thanks for the tips. :)

August 21, 2008 8:05 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

This has been inspirational and educational.

The education (that moment when my personal light bulb lit up) being how since the light entering the camera from the flash is independent of exposure time, you can effectively balance the contributions made by ambient and flash.

- Adjust aperture (and/or flash power) to get desired flash contribution.
- Adjust exposure time to balance ambient contribution.

The inspiration being those beautiful results.

August 22, 2008 9:31 AM  
Anonymous Phoenix Photographers said...

Oh Wow! The photos turned out stunning. The listing agent must have been beside themselves. Really great job and you are awesome to share.

December 03, 2008 1:09 PM  
Blogger Ian Haseltine said...

Great shots! Good work replacing the unworthy photos that were there. You are lucky those SB-800's did not eat up your batteries.

March 11, 2009 5:20 PM  
Anonymous Matthew said...

This is a great post, but we all know you're cheating here by using that D3, lol. Gotta love that lowlight pickup!!!!

March 26, 2009 9:50 AM  
Blogger nerd_alert said...

I always assumed that photo's like this were HDR photography like you see at VHT

Its great to see you can get such good results just by understanding lighting. I wonder what it would look like if you used your lighting skills with HDR techniques.

June 10, 2009 2:42 PM  
Blogger Emma Giles Powell said...

I put your beautiful advice to work after ogling Scott Hargis' gallery, and my results definitely need some work. I had 2 flashes on stands dialed up to +3, and according to this should have had plenty of power, but I kept blowing out the windows in order to get enough light in. My ISO was about 640, and still D300 was noisy. I'll keep at it, but not sure what to try next :( Thanks for the post, would love to see another with advice take 2.

October 16, 2009 10:17 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

Hi David,
Firstly I love your lighting techniques and I love your blog.

I'm looking to get into doing some real-estate photography using small strobes, and was wondering if you had any good references to help me along, either other blogs, books or videos or even photographer's websites with info.

Thanks in advance,

March 18, 2010 9:50 PM  
Blogger Ilkka said...

Funny, I was just looking at some recent screenshots from Alan Wake, an upcoming game from Finnish developers Remedy Entertainment, and saw this. Looks eerily familiar :)

April 29, 2010 6:38 AM  
Blogger PeterD said...

Interesting article. The interiors worked really well. Were you using the flash guns bare or did you have some sort of diffuser (brolly, small softbox etc)? The idea of shooting small interiors with strobe rather than a larger head is quite appealing from point of view of them being less weight to carry.

architectural photographer

June 02, 2010 12:20 PM  
Blogger Florida said...

It's very interesting thanx for this.........:)

most expensive house in the world

September 10, 2010 7:41 AM  
Blogger Your adoring mother... said...

You are VERY talented!

September 10, 2010 12:18 PM  
Blogger Garner.k said...

These are gorgeous photographs! Many people underestimate the value-added that can be had from professional photographs and presentation. When I was trying to find someone to sublet my Fenway apartment in Boston, it seemed like I was getting nowhere for a long, long time. As soon as I posted some proper photographs (aka not my amateur attempt with a cell phone), I received a ton more leads, almost over night!

February 15, 2011 11:12 AM  
Blogger Admin said...

nice shots, the lighting is always hard to control, especially due to time constraints or lack of equipments, we just have to make the best of what we have on hand ... or stop the kids from playing their wii =D

March 28, 2011 2:21 AM  
Blogger i.Sniper said...

Thanks for your helpful info. What's an average hourly or job rate for an architectural photographer? Or shall we say a 'real estate photographer.' Someone with little previous experience doing it commercially but let's say a professional artist.

April 04, 2011 2:46 AM  
Blogger global001 said...

Hey David,

Brilliant tutorial as usual!

I've got a question about the apertures used in interior photography. I'd thought that I'd need a low aperture like f22 & slow shutter speed to get so much of the room looking crisp and in focus at a low ISO but I think you mention here that you used f4 & Scott Hargis mentions using f6.3 in a link. Has my thinking gone off track here somewhere?

September 01, 2011 11:47 AM  
Blogger Joel Duncan said...

I have been traveling and shooting interiors for a year now with a one-light set up also. I am still learning daily, but your tips are excellent food for thought. It is amazing what you can do with one light. Just to confirm are you using the SB on or off camera? Did you use an umbrella or soft box to diffuse the light?

May 14, 2012 11:22 PM  
Blogger Ryan Hoffman Realtor said...

No surprise that the agent that got the listing did not do much for the home in regards to photography. Most agents have minimal background in any aspect of sales. You would think a nice commission would buy you a decent camera and a Photog 101 book. Nevertheless, still not just as easy as pulling out a camera and off you go, goo lighting techniques and improvising with what you had

January 16, 2013 7:53 PM  

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