How To Shoot Twilight Exterior Architectural Photos

May 5th, 2009

I had a request to do an article on shooting twilight exterior architectural photos. I realized that I’ve never written a complete summary of the process of shooting a exterior twilight shot.

First of all, doing a twilight shoot is almost always a special trip so most real estate photographers list a separate price for doing a twilight shoot. Here is the collective wisdom from the PFRE flickr group on what to charge for a twilight exterior shoot.

Here’s a summary of how to do an exterior twilight shoot:

  1. Plan and schedule the shoot using the naval observatory site or the Focalware iPhone app. You need to be setup and ready about 15 min before sunset and the best light will start around 15 min after sunset and last for 10 to 15 minutes depending on the latitude and the sunset.
  2. Turn on ALL the interior lights, landscaping lights and exterior lights if there are any. It’s easy to underestimate the amount of time it takes to get all the lights on, especially if the homeowner is not there to show you where all the switches are. I’ve found that many times the exterior spots can be too much. You can selectively turn each bulb off by unscrewing the bulb slightly. A small step ladder is handy for this.
  3. Some photographers like to hose down the driveway or cement areas that are in the shot so they are wet for a twilight shot.
  4. Use a tripod and cable release to eliminate camera vibration because exposure times will be several seconds or longer. If you don’t have a cable release use the interval timer to release the shutter.
  5. Shoot raw so you will be able to adjust the white balance to your taste in post processing.
  6. Set your camera to a low ISO (100) to get better color and less noise. This is probably not as important with newer high ISO DSLR bodies.
  7. Set your camera on manual and use a aperture around f/5.6 or f/8. Lenses are typically sharpest around the mid-point of their aperture range. Adjust the shutter speed to produce a normal exposure. Check the LCD and adjust until the result looks good. A lot of bright lights can fool the light meter.
  8. Flash or continuous lighting can improve the photo by adding extra light and drama to landscaping or areas of the exterior that are completely dark. See Vince Destefano’s (the master of twilight shoots) examples of how to use rechargeable spots for lighting accents.

Twilight shots can make a very ordinary home look dazzling and even hide ugly defects.

Everyone feel free to add to this list if I’ve missed

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9 Responses to “How To Shoot Twilight Exterior Architectural Photos”

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  • I would add that houses where the front of the house faces west are easier to shoot. In this case the sunset is behind your back providing more light to hit the front of the house, and the sky behind it is darker. The light level will be more even between the house and the sky at some point.

    When the front of the house faces east, the camera is facing into the sunset and the front of the house is in shadow. Now the sky will be much brighter than the front of the house and will be harder to get a balanced shot.

  • I’ve had problems with deciding what I should meter the exposure on.

    Am I trying to expose the home? If so, the sky blows out and the interior lights are super bright.
    Am I trying to expose the sky? Then only the sky and interior lights show.

    So, basically, what is the purpose of a twilight shot? …a balance between exposing the home and exposing the sky?

  • @Matt- The purpose of the twilight shot is to create a dramatic image of the home. My general approach is to experiment and try as many things as possible.

    During the time just before sunset and after sunset the light changes rapidly. The sky changes from being bright to sometimes very dark depending on the direction you are shooting and the weather conditions. If it’s overcast twilight shots can be “ho-hum”. If it’s clear or scattered clouds it can be spectacular. As Scott mentioned above the siting of the home is always a big factor.

    You have to experiment with the exposure and the white balance to find out what you like best for your situation. This is why I recommend shooting in RAW… that gives you the maximum opportunity to adjust exposure etc after the fact.

    You have to experiment with things like porch lights and garage lights that are on the exterior. Many times these can be too bright.

  • Larry, much thanks for the very timely article. I shot my first practice home last night… of course the agent wanted a twilight shot. I learned a few things and came up with this:

  • Scott- Looks good! I think you could even go darker and this would still look good.

    Although, I found that twilight shots have a lot of personal preference involved. For example the homeowner of home in the photo above, that I used for this post wouldn’t let me use this shot on the flyer because she felt it was too dark and too blue. She insisted that I use the daylight version of this shot for all the marketing. She basically didn’t like twilight shots.

  • Larry, thanks for the tutorial! I’m excited to do more twilight shots, and will keep this in mind.

  • Scott – thanks for the tip. I haven’t thought of the direction of the windows as so important but that makes sense.

  • Hi, I work hard on these twilight shots but am llimited with my camera, a Sony Cybershot. It has 7.2 mega pixels and it says “High sensitivity ISO 1000”. Do you have any suggestions – is it realistic to think I can get good photos? THANKS!

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