Hey everyone! In this post we are going to get into a topic that a lot of people ask about: Flambient vs HDR - which is better?
So as you probably already know, the two most popular methods photographers use to shoot real estate photos are some form of HDR or some sort of flash/ambient blending or “flambient”. Truth be told, you can achieve good results with either technique but people often ask “which one is better”? In this post we are going to compare and contrast some of the advantages and disadvantages to each method and toward the end I will give my personal opinion on what I think is better.
Before we get into a compare and contrast analysis of the two processes, I first want to show you some example images. While I was at a shoot the other day, I shot the exact same image both flambient and HDR in a few different rooms and in a moment we will take a look at those so you can see them side by side and see how they stack up against each other. I’m going to show you each of the images but I’m not going to say which one is which. I want you to pick your favorite looking image from each set and then after I will say which one is which so you can see which one you liked best.
There are 3 images total and each image will have a set of 3 images labeled “A”, “B” and “C”. One will be a flambient image, one will be a hand blended HDR and one will be just an auto merged HDR from inside Lightroom. These HDR’s were 5 bracketed shots, 2 stops apart. I decided to include a hand blended HDR and an auto merged HDR because I thought it would be helpful to illustrate the quality differences between those in this post as well. Alright so let's take a look at these images. Just make a mental note on which image you like the best “A”, “B” or “C” and I will tell you which one was which afterwards. Alright, Let’s get into it.
Alright guys, so which one of those images did you think looked best? A, B or C? In this set “A” was the flambient image, “B” was the auto merged HDR and “C” was the hand blended HDR.
Alright so now that you have a feel for this let’s take a look at the next set:
Ok so in this set image “A” was the hand blended HDR, image “B” was the flambient and image “C” was the auto merged HDR.
Now let’s take a look at the final set:
Alright, in this final set image “A” was the auto merged HDR, image “B” was the hand blended HDR and image “C” was the flambient.
So which ones did you guys pick and why? Did you consistently pick a certain one of the methods throughout each set? Could you easily identify which image was which? I’m very curious so please let me know down in the comments below!
So now let’s get into comparing and contrasting these techniques and I will share my thoughts on what I think the advantages and disadvantages are to each of these methods.
AUTO MERGED HDR
As you may be familiar, the auto merge HDR technique is achieved by taking your bracketed photos and doing an HDR merge in software such as Lightroom. Lightroom itself has an HDR merge function but I’m not the biggest fan of the results so I would lean toward a plugin called LR/Enfuse if I were to go that route. I go into this process in my “Real Estate Photography Basics” video so if you're interested in seeing more about that I will link to that video here.
The advantage to this method is that it is super fast and straightforward. You just auto merge all your bracketed photos, do some light editing and export. Fast, easy and you can turn the images around in minutes. This is exactly what I did with the auto merged HDR photo examples I showed in this post. You could of course get a little more in depth by masking in windows and doing more with color correction and things like that but I just wanted to show a basic HDR merge with basic editing for comparison sake.
The disadvantages to this process is that the end result is not necessarily the highest quality. It yields a decent result but suffers from the pitfalls of the “HDR look” that a lot of people don’t like. What I mean by that is images looking over processed, unnatural, flat looking and lacking contrast. Also, HDR merges suffer from a lot of color casts and inaccurate color rendering in general.
HAND BLENDED HDR
Hand blending your HDR images can get around a lot of the disadvantages of auto merging your HDR images that I just mentioned. The main advantage of hand blending is that it gives you a much higher level of control over the look of your final image because you choose which aspect of each of your bracketed photos you want to incorporate into your final composite. If you are shooting 5 brackets like I am, a lot of the time you only end up using 2 or 3 brackets instead of all 5. With an auto merge it basically takes all 5 brackets and averages them together no matter what, even if all that information isn’t necessary. So by taking advantage of that greater level of control with hand blending, you are able to achieve a more natural, less processed looking final image with better color rendition that ultimately has a noticeably higher quality appearance. I’ve also made a video on this process as well and I will link to that here if you want to learn more.
The biggest downside to hand blending is that the editing process is more labor intensive and takes more time. As with most things in life though, if you want something to be good it usually requires more work. You can help expedite the editing process though by using things like photoshop actions and lightroom presets. I also made a video on that as well that I will link to here.
The biggest advantage of incorporating a flash into your real estate photography is probably that it helps you achieve the most accurate color representation in your image. By overpowering the ambient light in the room with the flash you eliminate almost all color casts that are present. You can then blend in the ambient light layer to taste when editing to give the image a more natural feel. Because you are hand blending these frames together, you also have a high level of control over the look of your image. If you aren't too familiar with this process, again I made a video on it that I will link to here.
What I think is the biggest disadvantage of the flambient process is that it takes more time on site to shoot because you're dealing with lighting equipment and each shot usually requires a bit of trial and error to get it right. Also, since it requires lighting equipment that is more gear you have to invest in.
So what method do I personally think is the best? I would have to give the edge to flambient as it gives you all the control you get with hand blending HDRs with the additional benefit of more accurate colors by incorporating the flash. I always color correct my hand blended HDRs but you are relying solely on ambient light to create the image so there is only so much you can do. Overpowering the ambient light with the even color temperature of the flash gives you that clean and accurate color layer to work with and incorporate in your composited image. Yes, flambient takes more time to shoot on site but it’s not a lot longer especially after you get the hang of it. Hand blending HDR is faster shooting time but longer editing time so when all is said and done the process is not necessarily any faster.
Truth be told, image quality is not the only factor when it comes to choosing which method is the best for you. Clients won’t be comparing images side by side like we are doing in this post. They will only see what you give them and you can get a great looking image with shooting either HDR or flambient. I actually use both techniques at the moment depending on the shoot. My point is that I think it’s important to experiment with different approaches and see what workflow suits you best, what results you like best and what process you enjoy doing the most. At the end of the day it comes down to personal preference.