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How Do Real Estate Photographers Deal With Dark Colored and High Gloss Walls?

April 7th, 2017

Rich in South Carolina asked:

Shot a higher end house the other day and encountered a tough scenario: black walls, dark wood, lots of windows. Any tips or tricks for shooting black walls? Flashes were doing very little at full power.

Also in the same house, high gloss red paint! I left the flashes in the bag for that space and went back to HDR type work. Any thoughts on high gloss finishes?

There probably isn’t any one single fix for either these two challenges. I think there are several options. Some may be better than others depending on the particular situation:

Black or dark walls: As Rich Baum illustrates in this tutorial on shooting a room with an all wood vaulted ceiling using a more powerful flash like the Godox AD600 or N-Flash may give better results than smaller flashes.

High gloss paint: One way to deal with the reflections off high gloss surfaces is to experiment with where you place your flash lighting. Move your lights around to find an angle that creates minimum reflections. Another approach would be to shoot one or more ambient shots and then hand blend in Photoshop to remove undesired reflections.

Does anyone else have tips for Rich to deal with these issues?

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7 Responses to “How Do Real Estate Photographers Deal With Dark Colored and High Gloss Walls?”

  • I push for twilight using HDR, it’s the only method I’ve found that produces consistent results, and it is especially flattering for dark wood.

  • I’m still waiting for somebody with more experience to publish a tutorial but there are some things that I do now that get me by. I find that dark surfaces are usually shiny as well just compounding the problem of getting a well lit composition. I have never been able to get one of these problem interiors finished in the camera so I always shoot for post. If there is direct sunlight coming in from the windows, the best approach is to determine if the sun will shift enough during the time you will be on site to not come into the room and in the mean time you can photograph other rooms in the home. Streaming sunlight really exacerbates the dynamic range issue. I want to be able to get the longest exposure I can without huge amounts of blooming around the windows. I’ll use the “darken mode” technique to get the view through the window or to tame the light to the exposure that I want. A strobe can help put the needed amount of light into the room but you also want the light source to be as big as possible. This is where having a large white sheet and a cross-pole to span two light stands can come in real handy. You can either strobe though the material or use it to bounce the strobe from depending on what works best. Again, you may not be able to get the image all done in the camera and need to divide up the room into halves or quarters to light separately. A technique that I haven’t tried is “scrimming” the windows to lower the dynamic range you need to conquer and using a longer exposure. Using a scrim can take a bunch of time and ladders to get into place. If your are faced with large two story view windows, the time and cost will be too high for an RE job. There isn’t going to be one Silver Bullet technique to handle every scenario, so having a few different tools in your box is something to work on.

    Specular highlights from shiny objects can be controlled by having a nice big light source and spending some time placing your lights. One of Scott Hargis’ videos has him showing how he was able to put a hot spot in a place that was simple to latter brush out in post. Make your image and note where you are getting a bad hot spot and then move your light slightly so you have a matching exposure with the hot spot someplace else.

    Be sure to always discuss problems like dark and shiny interiors with the agents you work with so they will automatically tell you about a kitchen with black granite counters and dark cherry cabinets or a dark wood interior that just hoovers up light. If possible, visit the property beforehand to do a little scouting and to give yourself some time to think about what you will need and how you might want to approach the shoot. Google maps and Street View are great tools to do a virtual scout but you might not be able to see that two story window fronted great room. The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) is handy for tracking where the sun will be throughout the day and there are many apps available for IOS and Android that can be used on site. Consider splitting the job up if you have to. Do the exteriors and bedrooms/bathrooms in the morning and return later in the afternoon to do the common areas or vice versa. If your service area isn’t too large, you might even suggest photographing the property over a couple of days. Some agents will appreciate that you are so dedicated to making the home look good that you will earn points and others will feel put out by having to visit the home twice to get the job done. If your client is more of the latter, try for a time that’s best for the common areas and do what you can for the other rooms.

  • I envy you. I always wanted to do a penthouse, got my chance yesterday, wish it had just been dark walls.

    http://pdxrealestatephotography.com/1704/burnside/gallery/

  • I think based on my experience that you can’t go wrong having a large light, strobe or others that Larry mentioned in your arsenal (I only use a wireless strobe now for everything).

    ENFUSE or HDR is the last thing I want to do in the scenario described. The more I started using lights, the more I could not stand the by-products that accompany Enfuse or HDR techniques, even with the added extra work in post that it requires to have a realistic finished product as well as seeing how the images are sharper and cleaner than with fusing. The big reason I would stay away from fusing a dark finished room with bright windows is that the blending process always includes an overexposed image in the bracket, and with that your final product will be much more washed out and “muddy” than if you exposed correctly with lights. There are lots of ways to fix that in post but in my later experience using light (I use the NFlash) I have never had that problem no matter how contrasty or reflective the space is… and with your small speed lights, using them within the bracketed images still would not have helped much since you need more overall power and a larger light spread.

    The other thing that I think is important and that I see all the time in my area is failure to control how the post treatment of a space is carried out… basically, RE agents like “Light and Bright” images but that doesn’t mean the space has to be brighter than it really is… My basic principle is to accurately reproduce the space as is in my control and time… so dark spaces, dark finishes should stay dark… not too dark for the photograph (they should have clean data present) but realistic.. the wireless strobe helps facilitate this easily… I am now able to have large amounts of control on dark spaces without worrying about window flare, or washed out finishes, I can reproduce the space closely to what it is like in real life. (I’m not always perfect though lol but I try) Dark finishes stay dark but clean. Using enough light (and the strobe works well in small spaces too, it will go down to 1/64 power) will enable you to keep the images popping but maintain an overall realistic reproduction.

    I have seen some great blending on this site but no matter what, in a contrasty situation that has finishes that are delicate to treat as are dark finishes, the blending technique works against the situation.

  • Happily l don’t face this situation very often. But I find that adding flash can simply add to the problems with shiny surfaces. Shiny surfaces call for very soft lighting if you are adding it. But since you can only see what flash is doing by shooting images and then seeing what you are getting, I would suggest some daylight LED light bars instead so you can see what you will get in real time. But then I come from the HDR approach that is ridiculed and trashed by those that swear by using flash. But HDR with finishing in Photoshop to not only correct for verticals and horizontals but adjust the “muddy” and “fuzzy” effects that HDR software tends to add to an image, but it works for me and my clients love it so each to their own.

    No in this situation I would use HDR and a rotating polarizing filter (you can find these at Amazon made by Tiffen and Altura for less than $20). These filters will also help to get richer blue skies, cut reflections in swimming pools if the pebble coat is a marketing item, cut reflections in patio window/doors to see inside, reflections from windows on those shiny counter tops etc. You can see its effects through the lens and rotate it until it gets rid of the shiny reflections causing the problem. It does cut down on your exposure but then if you are on a tripod, just decrease the shutter speed. Then bracket enough to get exposure in all areas of the image. Yes the windows will blast out. But then in Photoshop I lay in a layer from the best exposure RAW for the window, lay it under the HDR adjusted image and erase the window and the area around on the HDR image for any artifacts to get a correct looking exposure.

    Does this take longer? Well yes as will any particularly difficult room will present. And I agree that you should always do a walk through first, preferably with the realtor, not only to recommend declutter and other problems for a photoshoot (I hate having to coil up bright green garden hoses!) but also to point out to the realtor just such a photo problem and explain that it will call for “extreme” processing in post and/or special lighting set ups, if that is your preference, which adds to the time and thus the cost. For good, regular, well paying clients I don’t charge extra but do explain the work involved. With them there are always other shoots that take less than normal time so it balances out.

    A pre-production walkthrough also lets you identify wandering pets and express the hope that the pets can be contained during the shoot. The last thing you want especially in such a difficult situation like the cause of this post is to spend a lot of time and trouble solving the photo problems only to discover in post that the family dog is licking various strategic body parts reflected in the mirror or seen through a door way. And yes I have recently had several shoots that took longer than expected by having to lure the family pooch out of my shots. And you don’t always see a head peeking around a door way in the distance. At least in stills we might be able to Photoshop Fido out but not with video. And has anyone run into the situation where the owner has the yard clean up crew and house keeping crew scheduled for the same time as the shoot? Has happened to me several times in the last couple of weeks. Have to move mops and brooms and vacuum cleaners not to mention bags of trash sitting almost but not quite out of sight. And pool crawlers that have not been removed before the shoot. Dripped water leaves oil like stains on the pool surround and takes a while to dry out. Sorry off topic, but a lot can be covered in that pre-shoot walk through including dealing with planning for the post topic..

  • Sometimes it easy to forget the tools and tricks that were available prior to the digital transformation of photography. In a situation like that, the first thing I would try is a circular polarizing filter. In most cases, you can eliminate, or substantially reduce, objectionable reflections.

    This is just one of many tools, but it is always better to fix it in the camera than in post.

    For troublesome rooms like you describe, I will often shoot several ways, and then decide in post which works best.
    ie, bracketed and HDR, fill flash, polarizer, blinds open, blinds shut (sometimes blinds shut is best for the room, but you still want that view. Shoot both ways and then replace the window in photoshop).

    FYI, cheap circular polarizers are not a good investment, get a decent one made of glass and make sure that it has a fingerprint repelling coating. It really makes a difference.

  • @ Bill Jones.
    This is the craziest thing i´ve ever seen! Thank you so much for showing this. You should win every price with those pictures, sell them in galleries ore else..

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