How Can You Improve The Clarity Of The View Through The Windows Of Homes You Shoot?

April 27th, 2015

JLSlivingRobert asked the question:

I’m a real estate photographer who uses Enfuse and Lightroom to process my images. I’d like to find a way to improve the views through the windows of houses I shoot and I was wondering if Photoshop Elements 13 might be a good solution. From what I understand, I need to be able to create layers and merge the layer with the correct window exposure with the layer for the correct interior exposure. I don’t know that I need the full power of Photoshop (along with its steep learning curve) so I thought Elements might be a simpler way to get the result I need without the expense or learning curve with PS.

This is a classic real estate photography problem: how to capture the view outside and the room inside when the brightness range is way beyond what your camera can capture. In fact this very problem lead to my starting this blog! In 2000 my wife listed a $2 million property on Lake Sammamish in Issaquah, WA. Mrs Seller demanded that I come up with a photos that showed her beautiful home that also showed the great lake view. I couldn’t do it, and I couldn’t find any books that explained how to do it either. Look at the burned out windows on the right side of this living room (west towards the Lake) completely burned out! I’m still embarrassed!

OK so now that I’ve had 15 years to figure this out, how do you do it? There are several ways:

  1. Shoot at Sunset: Shortly after I shot this listing I realized that if you shoot at sunrise or sunset when the brightness levels are the same inside and outside this becomes a piece of cake. Problem is at sunset you only have about 20 to 30 minutes where this works. Forget about sunrise, no one will let you shoot then! This is not an effective solution that works for every shoot!
  2. Shoot with flash: I learned from Scott Hargis that the way to do this is to use a few manual flashes. Expose for the window to make it look like you want and then light the room with a couple of manual flashes bounced off walls. Scott would argue that this is the easiest, most effective solution. He’s probably right. Takes the least amount of time.
  3. Use Enfuse or HDR: Shooting brackets and processing with Enfuse or HDR software is better than not bracketing but it doesn’t completely solve the problem. Usually the best you can do is getting the windows with partial detail. What you really need is an unrealistic level of window detail.
  4. Mask the windows in post: This is the method Robert is referring to. Take a shot exposed for the windows and then use Photoshop to drop those correctly exposed windows into a photo that is exposed for the interior. To answer Robert’s question, yes you can do this with Photoshop Elements (PSE) as well as Photoshop CC but PSE doesn’t have as many sophisticated ways to select the windows. Also, these days I’m liking OnOne Perfect Photo Suite 9 for doing layering and masking. It’s a little more expensive than PSE but very intuitive. As many point out in the flickr forum, this approach of masking in perfectly exposed windows makes windows look totally unrealistic, but that’s what most people are looking for.

So those are the classic 4 solutions to this classic window problem. There’s no right one, they all work and everyone has their favorite. I just wish I could go back and reshoot this property and give Mrs Seller what she wanted. But at least you can give your Mrs Seller what she wants!

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23 Responses to “How Can You Improve The Clarity Of The View Through The Windows Of Homes You Shoot?”

  • While I know of a few photographers that use photoshop elements, I would suggest using Gimp instead, which has more features than elements and is free!!!

  • I feel like when dealing with a problem like this one should consider the most effective solution as the solution that will work under the widest range of variables. I have tried all of the methods, manual masking, Exposure Fusion and flash.

    They all worked great sometimes but some had pitfalls. When using exposure fusion I was very happy a few times when nice natural sunlight was dominant inside and out of the room creating great illumination and eliminating problematic color casting, however I found that this was actually pretty darn rare. In cases where the room was lit predominantly by artificial light there was almost unusable color casting and banding across highlights and shadows. It is nice to know when merging exposures can work and when they cannot.

    When blending with ambient light shots I find similar color cast issues with exposure fusion but almost worse issues with unrealistic area where light meets dark, like window sills and door ways. The enormous time spent in post trying to feather and blend these photos makes me cringe and the results still are less than perfect. Again, I feel this technique can and does work well in certain circumstances, but it is nice to know when the scene is so wide (dynamically) that it is stressing this options as well.

    Then there is flash. The most difficult to figure out in the field and the saving grace back home in the studio. I have finished flash shots that did not even receive 20 seconds of post production, and the color accuracy and natural consistency was amongst my favorite.

    I will not be a preacher of any one method. I believe they all have there moments and usefulness. Sometimes you really only have 10 minutes to nail a shot and maybe your flashes are out of battery or what have you so I truly believe you should have all of the skills in your tool belt to handle the circumstances. It is nice to practice them all and know what will work and what will not. Do not rely on any one method without trying them all.

  • Where can I see the photos you were talking about?

  • Michael,
    There is a software called “Photoengine” by Oloneo.com that will take off-color balanced incandescent lights and individually correct them without messing up the rest of the color balance of the image. It auto-detects each light and gives you a panel to correct the white balance of that light and only that light. It’s really very neat! Unfortunately, it’s only available for PCs and not Macs. I have not used it, because I use a Mac computer. You can go to their website and view a video of the process. Often you can correct the white balance by compromising on the white balance in camera using the color temperature setting (Kelvin) and color balancing them later in Lightroom or Raw before Enfusing the shots. Then tweaking the balance on the finished image. It just depends on how much time you want to spend on the job

  • One other very important thing to consider when evaluating window exposures:

    If there is no compelling reason to show what is outside the window, or there is no extraordinary view, do not bother with trying to flash or mask in an exposure for the window. In RE photography there seems to be a desperate attempt to have perfect windows in every single room at all angles, it is pretty silly!

  • I’d agree with Tony.

    And, long before I tried any kind of blending software, I’d be looking at manipulating a single RAW file. Given the image degradation that occurs with brackets and HDR, the malleability of modern RAW files and Lightroom or ACR editing looks pretty darn good. In an extreme case, it’s simple enough to use just 2 exposures (one for highlights, one for shadows) and a basic layer mask to manually paint in the areas of each that you want.

  • Shoot at sunset, using flash, Enfuse, photo blending or compositing is all fine. Just remember, most realtors do not understand the process and effort needed to get the “Goldilocks” images you can and would like them to have. You need to weigh the time it takes to edit those images and be sure your earnings from the shoot justify it. A $100 shoot where you have to spend several hours working your magic in PS or Elements is not justifiable unless you like working for less than minimum wage. It also sets a precedent for what the realtor will expect from you for what they are paying. You are best to keep it, “What you see is what you get, unless you are willing to pay for what they want.” Of course you would be much more polite in getting this across to them, but this needs to be talked about and understood by the realtor before anything happens. Your photo packages may have various levels or you can have ala carte items they can add on. What ever the case, be sure you get paid for what your work is worth.

  • Tony, I sometimes fall into that trap of trying to get good exposures in the windows most of the time. ( I mostly shoot with multiple flash off camera).
    But sometimes, as you mentioned, it is more trouble than it is worth, since the view is not important, and you sacrifice being able to use the ambient light for nice fill exposures.

    But, in our area in FL, shooting beach rentals or homes with water views (which is the selling point of the property) I’ll spend the time either using flash, HDR or both. But, I still haven’t mastered the technique and wished there was a in-camera HDR solution.

  • “Given the image degradation that occurs with brackets and HDR….” What? I dispute this point as a general comment. If done badly, these processes can result in image degradation, but then that could be said about a lot of processes. Image degradation can also occur when trying to push a single exposure too far, and sometimes even a two-exposure composite is not enough for some difficult lighting situations. If restricting that comment to real estate photography only, then, yes, I would say that HDR and bracketing are either often poorly used or are really unnecessary in some cases

    As to using flash to achieve more detail in window views, a couple of speedlites bounced off walls may or may not work. It depends in part upon the color of the walls, the brightness of the exterior and interior ambient lighting, and the power of the flashes. It also depends upon how bright you want the windows to be.

    This is a very challenging feature of interior photography. To consistently achieve high quality is seldom easy, and may require mastering a variety of techniques, depending upon the photographer’s style.

  • There’s more than enough info in single exposures to make it work if properly exposed and strobed/flashed. When it seems impossible, I’ve had great success by slightly overexposing the windows and underexposing the interiors. That usually falls right at a point where the interior lights are just shy of a blowout.

    Each home is so different, even the colors and casts vary, so I try to roll and emphasize the feel of each home. One might be cool, another warn, bright, deep, etc.

    If the view is part and parcel, you bet I’m on it and will bring the view out more than I might even prefer. Get them sold, otherwise, I prefer the windows bright and glowing, just a reveal of the outside.

  • These are some really great tips for those just starting out in this style of photography. I’m quite a few years in now, but I wish I had half this knowledge when I was first starting out!

  • Hi Robert,

    You might want to take a peek at our website http://www.everittphoto.com just type everittphoto in google.. We have clients that would not use us if we didn’t show their luxury homes without “Burned Out” windows.

    Our solution, 5 brackets, -4, -2, 0, +2, +4 – D7100. Compensation -1.3. We don’t worry too much with average shoots. In high end luxury, we play with compensation until we get a very unexposed shot – includes all outside window detail. Next Old Reliable, Photomatix Exposure Fusion + good tripod.

    We have never used flash, we don’t use layers in PSE 13. We also know the super job Scott Hargis does.

    Try is sometime, what can you lose?

    Tom Everitt

  • Dummy Me – I meant to say “Underexposed” not “Unexposed”, Tom Everitt

  • Wow – what great feedback to my question about window views! These are all great comments and suggestions. I will try incorporating these into upcoming jobs and see if I can improve my results. I’ll also keep in mind the advice about knowing what’s important and how much time to spend chasing a shot as I go about my work.

    – Robert Miller

  • When I was shooting RE I had great success masking in the window view with two separate exposures and using a single handheld flash (usually fired at the ceiling) to raise the ambient levels in the darker window view exposure. IMHO this method is far superior to masking ambient exposures only and once you get a feel for it, very quick to do in post.

    I’m surprised this wasn’t mentioned as I know there are many other RE shooters using this technique.

  • Hi Robert,

    When I started with real estate photography, I received the advice to read the e-book “Interior Lighting with multiple strobes” by Scott Hargis (its advertised in the right hand coloumn of this pages). I was also privileged to attend one of Scott’s workshops in Melbourne. He describes in simple terms how to expose for the outside light and fill the room with off-camera flash or multiple flashes. Learning these techniques makes it easy to solve your problem. Initially it might feel that it takes longer to photograph a home, but shooting it right in the first place saves you heaps of processing time. As pointed out by Tony (and Scott) that sometimes there is nothing to show through the window, or maybe there is something less attractive outside the window, then I use this “problem” to my advantage and slightly over expose the window. Buying Scott’s book or videos is a very good investment. By no means do I shoot down multiple exposure techniques. There is a place and preference for each technique.

  • Hi tom everitt,

    What apeture are you using and by underexposing by that much don’t you fight how dark the photos are and ability to lighten them up enough

  • Hi Chris-
    Funny you mention Scott’s book. I’m actually re-reading it now and while I see the value of getting it right with lighting (and see that as the goal), I worry about how much time that approach will take. It takes me about 90 minutes to shoot a typical 3 bedroom property capturing 3 ambient shots plus one off camera flash shot for each set-up. That time might increase significantly as I light the room, take test shots, reposition lights, etc to get it right in camera. I know post processing time will be reduced but will agents/homeowners be willing to give me another 45 minutes to an hour in the property? I just don’t know that I can work fast enough using Scott’s methods.

  • Hi Tom Everitt-
    One question about your approach to bracketing. With the -1.3 exposure compensation, is your effective bracket range -5.3 to +2.7? Is there anything (other than window view) in the -5.3 exposure and doesn’t that pull down the overall light level of the image when you blend them? If so, how do you lighten back up the interior without losing the windows?

    I bracket -2, 0, +2 and typically blend in a flash shot that (more or less) exposes for the windows. Even then, I often fight the darkness of the -2 exposure and its effect on the overall image.

    Would love to hear your approach to dealing with this because your website photos look great!

  • Hi Robert

    I fully understand your predicament. You have a tried and tested method of producing good quality work and with a steady flow of work, there is hardly ever time to change to something unfamiliar. If I have switch my shooting method to shooting brackets, it will take me ages to shoot a home. In the end each person use a system (method) that works well for them and that they perceive as the best. After all, the best method (or software) is the one you know well.

    As I said in my previous post, I started shooting with three off-camera flashes. Over time I’ve streamlined my methods and got much faster and added more flashes. One of the best decisions I made when I started was to have only one method that will work well for me in all scenarios, and my choice was to use multiple off-camera flashes based on the method as described in the Interior Lighting book by Scott Hargis. The result was I’ve always started a job knowing exactly what method (my only method) I was going to use and that made me faster and better over time. On average I’m shooting a standard 3 bedroom home in under an hour, and that includes moving things around, removing distracting objects (and putting them back), rearrange cushions, pillows, curtains, blinds, duvets, etc. That’s my style and realtors love for that and give me lots of repeat business. Once again I’m saying its the method I’m using and its working well for me, even though many other photographers disagree. Don’t we all think our own method is the best 🙂

    My setup for this style of shooting is a camera on a tripod with a geared head, 2 x small flashes on lightweight tripods, which I use as a light stands, and then I have several other flashes on the standard flash stand that comes with the flashes. Its very much as Scott describes it in his book. Where I’ve deviate from Scott’s method is that I use a remote trigger (Yongnuo 603) on every flash. It is simply because they are cheap (unlike PocketWizards) and have been quite reliable and they seem to endure quite a bit of hammering(I used other ones over the years). BTW, I keep the triggers attached to the flashes in my bag to avoid extra setup time on site. Shooting with the camera on the tripod (most of the times, except in very small spaces), it frees up my hands to handle the flashes and moves thing around as mentioned before. I set up the camera for the desired angle first, expose for the brightest spot (windows), then decide where I will place the flash or flashes. In most of the bedrooms / bathrooms I only use one flash, the one on the small tripod, and bounce it of a wall, or the corner where the ceiling meet the wall. By holding the flash away from the wall, you effectively increasing the light source and avoid shadows around light shades. (There are exceptions, like walls with bright colors, etc, but ignore that for purposes of this discussion, think improvising or read Scott’s book). Living areas and bigger rooms require more flashes and the challenge gets bigger since you have to avoid flashes reflecting in windows. Its relative easy to point the flash on the small tripod in a different directions or different wall to avoid the flash reflecting in a window. Practice makes perfect. I usually take 2 or 3 shots per room depending if I’m happy with my first attempt or it gives me an alternative lit shot to consider in post production (Lightroom). I know my description might look cumbersome (Scott describes it much better than me), but with practice, it comes more natural after a while and above all, it works well to get well exposed windows.

    Before people start pulling my method (and Scott’s one) apart, I repeat, it works well for me and other people might prefer some other method (like brackets). It is hard to change your shooting style and you have to practice and practice over and over again to become faster and better. I have trained a few other photographers using this shooting method. New photographers picks it up easily, but more established photographers find it hard to change, saying it will take too long. What has worked well for me was to ask a realtor which uses me regularly if I can use use a property (maybe a staged one) over the weekend in exchange for more images or offer them a discount. In that way a person is under no pressure and one can experiment more easily. Or practice in your own home.

    Change is such a hard thing to do and a person has to be motivated to change, otherwise you will not succeed. An interesting observation I had was noticing that other photographers who joined me on Scott’s workshop did not change their method of shooting after attending the workshop, even though they thought Scott’s method produces great results. Ask a golfer to change his putter and see the response you’re getting. If a pro golfer changes a putter, I’m sure they have to practice a lot before they play a tournament. Its the same for a pro photographer.

    In summary Robert, if you are not happy with the results you’re getting from your current shooting method and you wish to change, be prepared to work hard and practice a lot. Alternatively try improving or fine tuning your current method. It might just solve your problem. Looking at the images on your website, I don’t think you have a problem with over exposed windows. If your problem is time related, follow Scott’s instructions and practice. It could just as well work for you. It did for Scott, for me and I’m sure many others all over the world. Good luck!!

    Regards, Chris

  • Hi Chris:
    Thanks for your explanation of your approach. I like the idea of shooting a property in an hour or less! And, I bet your post processing time is a lot less than mine ????

    I completely agree about practicing new techniques before using them to a paying job. I took lots of practice shots around my house when I was transitioning to brackets and flash combination. I’ll spend some time practicing lighting shots in my house with the goal to revamp my style and reduce my shoot and processing time.

    Thanks again for the advice and insights. Best of luck to you!
    Robert

  • Hi Robert

    Yes, I’ve managed to cut down my processing time considerably with Lightroom. I would guess that about 95% of my processing is done in Lightroom, and I only do sky replacements and more “invasive surgery” in Photoshop. I use the Creative Cloud versions.

    Since you are using Lightroom (from what I understand in your previous post), here are some thoughts on processing in Lightroom. To me the most valuable tools in Lightroom is the highlights slider (for pulling back the brightness in those windows) and the radial and graduated filter tools ( for lighting up darker spots or areas in a shot). Over time I’ve learned to strike a balance between adding an extra flash to get it right in camera or fixing it in Lightroom with a radial filter. Mastering the radial and graduated filters in Lightroom, as well as the auto vertical correction preset I run on import helped me a lot to simplify and speed up my processing time. Off course the other tools in Lightroom are also great, but those two filter tools stand out for me as very valuable. BTW, I only shoot in RAW, in case you wondered about that. As I said before, the best software is the one you know best.

    Good luck and keep up the good work.

  • Without a shadow of a doubt, when you absolutely, positively, want the best possible results, manual masking on multiple layers is the best way to go.

    ACR 9 HDR, Enfuse, Photomatix, Auto Blend are quick, easy, dirty solutions with inferior results. But when quality counts, you can not ever beat Manual Masking (and no, he is not a Spanish guitar player).

    2 shots, properly exposed for int and ext on two layers in Ps equals = Best Practice.
    imho.

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