How To Do Basic Twilight Exterior Real Estate Shots

June 26th, 2016

WellsExteriorRhett recently asked:

I was wondering if you have anything on doing exterior nighttime photography. settings etc. I use a Nikon d7000 and a tripod but need some good settings to capture great photos. What times do you usually like to capture photos?

Doing twilight exterior shots is super important in real estate because a twilight shot has the capability to add drama to any listing. If there’s a view involved it gets even better. Twilight has the power to hide those mundane details and make any home look magnificent. My wife and I have gotten many listings just because a home seller saw a flyer of our listing with a twilight shot or saw one of our listings on the web that had a twilight shot.

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

  1. Twilight shots require a separate trip: Because of the setup and attention to timing a twilight exterior shot requires a separate trip. So charge accordingly.
  2. Plan and schedule the shoot using the naval observatory site or the LightTrac app. I love the LightTrac app it not only shows you what time sunset will happen but it shows you exactly which direction the sun will be. 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, the weather, and clouds.
  3. 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 the exterior spots can frequently be too much (too bright). You can selectively turn each bulb off by unscrewing the bulb slightly. A small step ladder is handy for this.
  4. Some photographers like to hose down the driveway or cement areas that are in the shot so they are wet for a twilight shot.
  5. 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. Some people have said, “I can’t to twilight shots because I don’t have a DLSR that has high ISOs”. Not a problem, with a tripod you just make long exposures. In fact, better to use a low ISO and long exposure times so you have minimum noise.
  6. Shoot raw so you will be able to adjust the white balance and exposure to your taste in post-processing.
  7. 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.
  8. Set your camera on manual and use an aperture around  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 camera’s light meter.
  9. 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. This is a whole dimension beyond the basic twilight shot. For details see Mike Kelly’s in depth video series on how to do this.

Twilight shots can make a very ordinary home look dazzling and hide ugly defects. Everyone loves twilight shots and they look great in your portfolio. The twilight exterior shot is worth its weight in gold for what they do to get attention for the listing agent and the listing online.

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

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8 Responses to “How To Do Basic Twilight Exterior Real Estate Shots”

  • Well perfect timing, I’m about 10 minutes away from doing my first twilight shot.

  • Many Years ago after doing many Twilights I invested in the Kelly Videos and He has great tips on adding xtra light with flash and blending in Photoshop, I highly recommend

  • Over time I’ve realized the key to twilights is shooting earlier than expected. By the time it looks right to your eye it is probably too dark. Once the sun goes below the horizon, I’ll capture 2-3 frames, one for the house itself, sometimes one for foreground and surrounding landscaping, and a darker exposure for the sky. Pretty easy to manually brush these together in post to achieve the desired effect. If you wait too long, the house lighting starts to take over and you will be left with lots of unwanted color casts.

    If the house faces west, you can usually get a great twilight with just one exposure about 5 minutes after the sun goes below the horizon. The east facing houses are usually the ones where I end up blending 2-3 exposures.

  • For east facing homes, a sunRISE image works the best.

    Shooting all the way through sunset and into the “blue hour” will either yield a couple of photos that can be nudged a bit in LR or there will be good material for a composite. Plan for some compositing by picking your composition and solidly anchoring your tripod so it stays put the entire time.

    The technique of using multiple flashed frames that Mike Kelly is know for is a process that takes a ton of time in PS assembling the final images. Mike makes it look so simple in his videos, but anybody wanting to market that look should practice it a bunch first. A potential downside is that it makes the property look like there is extensive outdoor lighting and people might not be happy to find out that the photo was more artistic than accurate.

    For the best effect, plan to bring work lights (with 100W bulbs) to get a consistent color temp in all of the windows. It might take a bunch of work if each window has a different type of lamp in the room. It’s a good idea to bring low wattage lamps for outside porch lights and sconces too. With the demise of tungsten light bulbs, collect all that you can get when you see them.

    Not every home is a perfect candidate for twilight photos and some just beg for them to be done. Don’t expect to get too many images. 1 or 2 is a good starting point for a session and it can take over an hour to get them.

    I charge almost the same for a twilight photo as I do for an entire home. If I start getting booked a lot for twilights, I’ll raise my prices.

  • I have used LightTrac for years, but recently bought Sun Surveyor ($9.99 on iPhone, not sure if it’s available for Android) It is well worth the cost and in my opinion, puts LightTrac to shame.

    BONUS TIP! Bring some black gaffer tape to cover light sensors on solar lights or coach lights with sensors. I wish I had it ages ago. By the time the sun actually sets, those lights come on far too late!

    Also – does anyone raise their twilight rates in the summer?? I sometimes have to go back to a property or end up working a very very long day June-August with the sun setting at 8pm++. Winter twilights are far easier to achieve around 5pm.

  • Where I live (Denver, CO), I have to do a lot more editing for evening twilight shots than for morning twilights. The reason is that the mountains are to the west, so the sun is behind them an hour before official sunset. That means the sky is generally very bright compared to ground level. By the time the brightness of the sky matches a home’s interior lights, it’s an hour AFTER sunset and all color has gone out of the sky. So typically I have to do a sky replacement just to get any sort of color or interest out of it. Homes in the foothills are even worse because they’re sometimes in the shadows TWO hours before sunset. It makes for a challenging couple of hours in Photoshop.

    Morning shoots on the other hand are a breeze. I can usually do those without any sort of sky replacement. I should start charging double for evening shoots. 🙂

  • TIP: Some lenses, in my case the Canon 16-35mm f/4, have higher, sharper image quality at open apertures, according to DXO. Of course the depth of field decreases, but when shooting from a distance that won’t matter, plus you can use lower ISO without a super long shutter speed.

    Twilight shot at f/4:

  • Don’t forget CTO gels for the flash!

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