There’s something about the way sunlight illuminates a room. The light pours over surfaces, metal fixtures gleam, wood detail shines, and the edges of furniture upholstery glows. Natural shadows produced by different objects convey a sense of depth. A naturally-lit image gives you a feel for what it would be like to see the space in person.
The following will give you a basic understanding of equipment needs, how to manage contrast and mixed lighting in a room, and HDR shooting techniques to get you started doing real estate photography using natural light.
Shooting with natural light has the benefit of a short equipment list. A camera, tripod, and wide angle lens is all you need.
- Camera: A DSLR with auto-bracketing will increase your shooting speed and ease.
- Tripod: Your tripod should be sturdy enough that your camera will stay put if you need to manually adjust camera settings, while shooting a series of bracketed images.
- Wide Angle Lens (with lens hood): For cropped sensor cameras, the Tokina 11-16mm is a fantastic choice for real estate photography. The Canon 10-22mm is also a great option. You’ll be able to handle just about any real estate shooting situation with either of these aspherical lenses. For full frame cameras you’ll want a lens in the 16-35mm range. A lens hood is necessary to prevent lens flare.
- Not required, but definitely a bonus: Circular Polarizer. In addition to deepening blue skies, a circular polarizer can be very helpful in reducing glare on windows, foliage and pool surfaces.
Sunlight on the exterior
A sunny day is the best canvas for your exterior shots. Try to schedule your shoot during a time of day when the sun will be shining on the front of the house. Ask your client (or check Google Maps) to see which direction the house faces. You want capture the front exterior in its best light, as it’s almost always used as the featured image for the property’s listing.
If it’s not possible to shoot the exterior in sunlight, don’t fret. Shooting HDR (explained later on) will help perk up a shady exterior.
Camera position within a room
There’s usually one ideal spot in a room, to position your camera to showcase the best angle. A room’s best angle usually shows:
- As much of the room as possible.
- The most aesthetically pleasing furniture and/or architectural elements.
For the natural light photographer, finding that spot depends on two things: available space, and window brightness.
Most importantly, you need to pick a space you can physically occupy. For smaller houses and rooms, quite often your only choice is the doorway, as it is likely to be the only spot where you can fit behind the tripod, and still squeeze enough of the room into your shot. Capturing three walls in your shot will give the viewer a better idea of the size and space of the room.
Rooms large enough to offer more than one shooting location often have windows lacking shades or blinds. Pick a spot in which extremely bright windows are angled more than 45 degrees away from center of your lens’ field of view. Doing so will help you avoid a high-contrast shooting situations and potential lens flare, which will in turn reduce your time spent in post-production.
The shooting location for this image placed the bright window at a 90-degree angle to the lens, minimizing contrast, as well as producing a pleasantly side-lit scene. An out of frame kitchen window, provided supplemental light from the right.
This room’s patio doors looked directly onto a foliage-covered hillside, resulting in a reduced contrast between interior and exterior, and less work required in post-production.
Working with windows
The windows in smaller rooms, such as bedrooms and bathrooms (in which your shooting position is limited) usually have blinds or shades. If the windows are bright, consider closing them at least partially, to reduce contrast between the interior and exterior – especially if the view outside is not an additional selling point for the house. This cuts down on the overall contrast of the scene, while still illuminating the room. It also prevents direct light from hitting your lens, minimizing flare and ghosting.
Blinds are angled at 45 degree to cut down on scene contrast.
Blinds on the brightest window are partially closed, whereas the patio door blinds were left open.
Natural light can create beautiful images, but they do require some extra work in post-production. Rarely can a single exposure handle the range of contrast produced by an interior space with windows. HDR techniques will help remedy shadowy corners and bright windows, properly exposing all parts of the space.
From a single exposure.
HDR composite created with nice bracketed images.
To create an HDR image, you’ll need to shoot a series of bracketed images. Tiny rooms without any windows, such as washrooms and closets, usually require three images bracketed by 1-1.5 stops. In most rooms 5-7 images will do the trick. High-contrast spaces containing bright interior lighting and/or windows, may require nine bracketed images. For rooms with exterior views, sometimes HDR programs have difficulty rendering the contrast, no matter how many bracketed images you shoot, and the composite starts to look unnatural.
In general, it’s difficult to achieve a natural look within an image that contains a room with a view. For finer control over this interior/exterior blending process, consider shooting an image to expose for the view out the window, then using Photoshop to mask the view into the HDR composite image of the room.
HDR composite image.
HDR composite with an additional image exposed for the view masked into the windows with Photoshop (above). Even though the change is subtle, the potentially distracting overexposed window scene is now closer to proper levels, making it easier for the viewer’s eye to move from the interior to exterior, and back again.
Mixed lighting inside
One of the difficulties of working with natural light, is dealing with mixed lighting situations. If enough light is coming in through the windows, you can choose to leave interior lights off, resulting in a single daylight color temperature throughout the image. Leaving interior lights off works especially well when window light is sufficiently illuminating the room, the light fixtures themselves aren’t in the frame, and the palette of the room is mostly white.
Lights off in this bathroom resulted in a fresh and clean look.
The window light was so abundant in this bedroom that turning the interior lights on could have arguably made the scene look unnatural.
The interior lights were kept off to avoid mixing tungsten with daylight for this shot. Turning them on wouldn’t have added much illumination, as the sunlight was quite bright on its own.
If the room isn’t bathed in sunlight, or contains light fixtures like pendants or chandeliers that should be on display, make sure to turn them on. You’ll end up with multiple color casts that will require correction later, but there’s a point at which simplifying the lighting just to speed up post-production, starts to undermine the ambiance of the room.
Mixed lighting in the living room above, and the bedroom below, required a significant amount of color correction in production, but resulted in more inviting and warmer looking spaces.
You can reduce your color correcting time by masking in the lights, the same way you would the view outside a window. Shoot the room with the lights off, then with the lights on. Create two HDR composites of each lighting situation, then mask in the illuminated lights. This works well with fixtures that don’t provide much illumination but should be seen turned on.
HDR composite with chandelier off.
HDR composite with the illuminated chandelier masked in with Photoshop.
Shooting real estate with only sunlight and interior lighting lends a beautiful, natural aesthetic to your images. When setting out, remember:
- A wide angle lens is a must-have, along with camera and tripod.
- Shoot the exterior bathed in sunlight, if possible.
- Avoid shooting directly into extremely bright windows.
- Adjust shades and blinds to control contrast within a room.
- Decide how to deal with mixed lighting, and shoot different variations to give yourself plenty of options in post-production later.
Please post your questions and share your real estate photos in the comments below.
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