Secrets of Real Estate Interior Photography

1. The Room Looks Dark - Solutions

Example: Interior Looks Too Dark

Suppose your photos show the room too dark (see the extreme example on the left). People like bright interiors, and such a dark interior photograph is forbidding. Typically this is a metering problem: you must expose for either the bright daylight pouring through windows or the darker interior. Your eyes can see both at once, and the interior may not look that dark, but no film or digital sensor yet invented can capture a large luminance range (dark to light). An automatic camera may try to preserve detail in the intensely bright windows (thinking they're the real subject), leaving the rest of the room in featureless shadow. Even setting the exposure manually involves compromise you may find unacceptable.

But Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Before looking at solutions, let me point out that brilliant illumination of the entire interior space isn't always the best approach. Many effective interior photographs capitalize on shadows, sometimes making a significant portion of the space fall into darkness. The shot at right seeks to convey the warm sunshine streaming through the huge south-facing windows. Forcing artificial light to fill all of the shadows would diminish the effect, and we can see enough of the room to understand the photograph. (Note the slashing sunbeams are from a low angle sun: this is December in the northern hemisphere... this wouldn't work with the sun directly overhead in summer.)

Solution A: Lower the Outside Light

Just One Lamp On, at Twilight

You can't turn down the sun, but if your space is too dark in the bright sunshine try shooting when skies are heavily overcast instead. Or shoot near dawn or dusk when daylight levels are closer to interior lighting levels. Carried to extreme, you can shoot interiors with very low light at twilight... a very pretty effect. The Bayhouse shot on left used only one single lamp for lighting during a 4-second exposure... though it isn't ideal, what could be easier? But in general I don't shoot interiors at full-black night because the totally dark windows can appear sinister. Now, what if you have no control over the outside lighting or what time to shoot? Read on....

Solution B: Turn on the Lights

Hot lights (as opposed to flash) are relatively easy to work with: since the lights stay on, you can adjust what you see to what you want. I like to use plenty of light and shift toward slight overexposure to give a bright and cheery look, even if the lamps themselves appear burned out in the photo (we don't expect or care to see highlight detail in a lamp shade). Here is some guidance for interior lighting, starting with the easiest.

Existing Lights. Switch on all existing lights in a room: lamps, ceiling lights, appliance lamps... everything except fluorescents (which are rendered green by daylight film, but less of a problem with digital). Turn on lights in adjacent rooms too, so visible doorways don't look dark. Even if the room already appears bright, glowing lights will have a positive effect.

Use Powerful Bulbs. I carry several 150-watt halogen light bulbs to replace the existing lamp bulbs (typically dim tungstens, or worse yet the greenish compact fluorescent twirls). The halogen light is whiter and the additional brightness of the 150 watts makes a difference. In the Stafford House shot on the left, all the artificial light was provided by table lamps bulbed with 150W halogens (three visible, one on the right, and one behind the camera). Bringing along the extra bulbs also solves a common problem: burned-out light bulbs. After turning the lamps off, let halogens cool down for several minutes before removing them: they get burning hot and also break easily when hot. To minimize the heat build-up and so I can move on to the next room quickly, I keep them off until I'm shooting.

Borrow more lamps (with shades) from another room and use them to add light if the room still looks dim. Either place them into the scene if that looks good, or put them on the floor behind or under the camera position to throw more light into the room. I always bring extension cords for this sort of thing.

Bring your own floods. Not expensive photofloods and stands: just ordinary work lamps (halogen) commonly sold at home improvement stores (500 watts). In a big room, you can hide them behind furniture, in closets, and other discrete locations to get strong light throughout the space. BE SAFE and ensure that nothing flammable is placed in front of strong floods - the heat is enough to start a fire quickly, which may ruin your day and your career. In a smaller room, just put them behind the lens bouncing the light off the rear wall and ceiling to smooth out the illumination.

Use Reflectors to redirect available light where you need it. You can even set up reflectors outside to bounce daylight into an under-lit window (which might otherwise look dismal on film). I have spread reflectors on the floor behind furniture to bounce incoming sunlight and to remove the tint from light hitting a colored rug. The wire-hoop portable reflectors are great, especially if you have a stand to hold their position just right. Home improvement stores sell plastic tarps with a silver reflective side, and in a pinch you can just use a white bedsheet.

Solution C: Use Flash

This solution requires investment in one or more flash units and accessories, with the most useful flashes costing several hundred dollars. Flashes can add complexity and time to each setup, but it's hard to beat the control you gain over lighting -- especially with powerful studio flash. Watch out for reflections of the flash in windows, picture glass, and mirrors!

Avoid Direct Flash. Using an on-camera flash pointed directly at the room will almost certainly produce unsatisfactory results: the foreground will be starkly illuminated with flat light (no sidelight to define textures and forms), and the corners and background will fade into murky darkness. Either switch off a built-in flash or find a way to diffuse the light or bounce it off the ceiling (try some foil and tape).

Use Bounce Flash. A hotshoe flash can light up a small room nicely. Just bounce it off a white ceiling to diffuse and soften the light. If your flash head will pivot, aim it backward and up to bounce off a white wall behind the camera. This bouncing really helps spread the light throughout the room rather than just illuminating the immediate foreground. But it diminishes the flash power, so with a weak flash or a big room you may have to push your aperture open more than you'd like (sacrificing depth of field) in order to let in more of the flash. Don't expect even the most powerful hot shoe flash to light a room at the same level as outside daylight.

Multiple Flashes are useful for adding power, extending range and coverage, lighting details, and lighting adjoining rooms and hallways. You can place slave flash units where you need them, which is especially useful in a big room. Optical slaves fire when they detect another flash firing - very convenient (see note regarding slaves and Canon E-TTL flashes). Other slaves are triggered with radio or infrared signals, or using wired sync cords from the camera.

Bounce Flash inside Shower
Flash products range from little battery-powered suction-cup slaves ($25) to big studio lights on stands. Place the flashes so the light is evenly distributed through the room, usually by bouncing off a white surface out of sight from the camera. You can also flash from closets, doorways, and behind furniture. If there's no handy white surface to bounce, use a shoot-through umbrella or softbox to diffuse the light. In the photo at right, the shower stall has an extremely dim bulb - so weak that the shower looked like a dark void. To light up this space, I placed a slave flash inside the shower (on a tile bench, left side) pointing straight up to bounce on the ceiling. I should have added a CTO (Color Temperature Orange) gel to tint the flash light toward tungsten, the better to match the rest of the room lighting.

Flash outside window simulates sunshine
When filling a room with strong flash, open doorways (bathrooms, halls) can appear as dark voids on camera, and you may need to put flashes there too. In the shot at left, the dining room window opens to a covered porch, so the window looked dark and dreary. To solve this I placed a powerful flash (with umbrella) on the outside porch, aiming light in through the window. The flash simulates the effect of bright daylight streaming through the window, thus cheering up the dining area and complementing the bright and warm interior.

A digital camera really helps fine tune a complex flash setup, because you can review and adjust the lights. If you're shooting film (e.g., medium and large format), consider getting a cheap digicam to preview the lighting.

Light Modifiers. Various attachments give you more control over flash and its effect. Umbrella reflectors and soft boxes diffuse the flash to reduce specular highlights and soften shadows. Barn doors, snoots, honeycombs and other attachments help direct light where you need it and prevent spill to other areas.

Solution D: HDR (High Dynamic Range)

HDR plus bounce flash
HDR has been around a long time. I've been using it since I was scanning my film (before my first digital camera). HDR is a process which overcomes the limitations of the camera to better approximate what a human would see in a high-contrast scene. Cameras simply cannot capture detail in the brightest highlights and in the deepest shadows - all in a single exposure.

The HDR process starts wtih taking multiple shots at various exposures so all of the highlights and shadows are captured on at least one of the shots. Then the series are composited in computer software (or even automatically inside some newer cameras) to give a rendering that shows it all. A popular program is Photomatix; download a free trial from HDRsoft.

HDR for inside/outside view without flash
It's important to note that in real estate photographs, it isn't always necessary to capture all of the detail - and sometimes it's best not to do so. Some shadows falling in to total black may be just fine. Some highlights such as lamps or sunshine may not require definition; the photo may look perfect with those blown out to total white. HDR-processed photos sometimes show too much highlight and shadow detail - the unreal look does not inspire trust, and suggests that photos do lie.

But to effectively capture a daytime outside view while showing a bright and cheerful interior (like the photo at right), HDR often does a better job than powerful and complicated flash. In fact, I rarely bring my powerful flashes on real estate shoots anymore, relying instead on HDR as a tool to produce realistic photographs. In some cases I'll combine HDR with handheld flash (above left).

HDR Color Density Issues
HDR is not without its challenges, though. Getting a natural look often takes more than "click the button" in software... it takes skill and perhaps some manual touchup. The photo at left illustrates one potential problem: excessive color density. HDR tends to find and emphasize color where it is not needed. The white cabinets are lit from tungsten bulbs and strong reflections from the red wooden floors and walls. Our eye sees them as white, but HDR software extracts a strong red cast which I desaturated - leaving just enough to look realistic.

There are many articles, books, and courses on using HDR, so I won't attempt to cover it here. Suffice it to say that you can go ahead and shoot the HDR exposures even if you don't currently use HDR. If you decide to try it later you'll need some samples to get started. And maybe you'll come back in the future to process these HDR series you shoot today. Besides, "film" is free, or at least storage is very cheap these days, so there's little reason not to capture the HDR series while you're shooting.

Updated 19-aug-11   Contents copyright © 2001 - 2011 PhotoCentric.Net, All Rights Reserved