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Advice for a Shooter’s First Twilight Exterior Shot

Published: 02/08/2019

Francine, of New Orleans, LA, writes:

“Help! I’m two months into doing real estate photography and I’ve just been asked to do my first twilight exterior shoot, three days from now. My client says she only wants one photo (phew!) but I’m really nervous because she said she wants a "special" shot! Do you have any pointers that I should use?”

Hi Francine. Yes, doing your first twilight exterior can be a little nerve-wracking. I was really anxious when I first started shooting twilights but now, I truly love doing them! As a bit of background, there are a couple of main schools of thought re: how to do them. One is the "straight-out-of-camera" (SOOC) method, in which you wait for that magical window, lasting just a few minutes, where the “intensity” of the natural light from the setting sun, matches that of the house's interior light (i.e., subjectively, they look and feel balanced). The other method is the “light-painting” approach, in which pops of flash are used throughout the scene, after sunset, to both augment the directionality of the light emanating from the house, as well as to enhance various features of the surrounding landscaping. Then, in post, parts of these various flash shots, get blended into a base exposure. Given that this is your first twilight shoot and you don’t have a lot of time to practice, I’d suggest to save the light-painting approach for another time.

For me, while I’m closer to the SOOC side of the continuum, I don’t try to capture it all in one shot. I find that I get my best results after blending three images--i.e., an exposure for the house; another for the sky; and one for the interior lights. Why do I use this approach rather than the SOOC method? For me and my eye, I've simply found that I get more 'pop' using a blending approach. If I'm being totally transparent, though, I simply love the act of blending in Photoshop. I just find it very satisfying, so that’s what I do!

So with that said, I’d like to offer an overview of how I personally capture a single twilight shot (as you've been asked to do), with the hope that others in our community will chime in and offer their own approaches/tips/techniques.

First, find out the exact time for sunset on the day of the shoot. If you’re shooting the house for the agent's listing, during the day, then spend some time after your shoot to scout out the best camera angle for your twilight shot. In regard to composition, it will typically be focused on the front of the house but not always. Sometimes, the back of the house is more remarkable, as evidenced by the shot I've included at the top of this article. If you're going to shoot the front of the house to get your "hero" shot (and your surroundings allow it), try to get a camera angle that allows you to show the front entry door being closer to the camera than the garage doors. If the garage doors are closest to the camera, they will look disproportionately large, relative to rest of the house. For more on this, please reference this article.

Once you’ve found your preferred spot, place a marker there so you can find it easily when you return. I’d suggest trying to get there about 45 minutes before sunset, while there's still lots of daylight. There are three reasons why you want to get out there so early.

  1. You simply want to give yourself some time to breathe and get set-up at a leisurely pace
  2. You want to lock down your composition early because you don’t want to be fiddling around with your comp at the last minute, just as the sun is going down!
  3. Most importantly, you never know what kind of weather you're going to get, so you want to be ready to capture that perfect light that will match the intensity of the interior lights, so you need to be ready to go.

I’d also suggest extending your tripod as high as it can go; and, if you’ve got a graduated neutral density filter, then use it. The darker top-half of the filter will darken the sky, while the clear bottom-half of the filter will keep the natural exposure on the house. Next, make sure that the homeowners turn on ALL lights, both inside and out. This is a MUST! Lastly, remember to apply some mosquito repellent before the shoot (I learned this lesson the hard way at my first twilight shoot! lol)

My camera settings are: aperture at f/11 and ISO100, shooting in Manual mode. Of the three shots that I want to capture for my blending, as specified above, the most important one for my blending, is the house exterior, as it will be my base layer in Photoshop. For this shot, you want to expose for the brightest thing on the exterior that you want to keep some detail in (this will usually be the outdoor lighting/sconces). This, of course will determine your shutter speed and, consequently, will determine your "zero-EV" exposure--i.e., the middle shot in your bracket. FYI, I do 5-shot brackets, using one-stop increments. I know others do a 3-shot bracket with two-stop increments. You should consider setting the two-second timer on your camera, so as to allow you to take your bracket with only one activation.

Start shooting just before sunset and continue taking a new bracket every minute or so, and then continue this until it gets dark. As darkness comes, you may need to slow down your shutter speed so as to make sure more light is reaching the sensor in your camera.

Francine, regardless of whether you go with the SOOC method or you use a blending approach, there's certainly no end of tools that you can use in Lightroom or Photoshop in your editing. That said, I wanted to talk about the interior lights and, specifically, about the color of the interior light. For me, the color that seems to "fit" best is often driven by the style of house. I find that, to my eye, a more modern/contemporary home tends to look best when the interior light looks more yellowish-white (i.e., like a pale straw). Whereas, a more traditional home tends to look better when there’s a warmer interior light color (i.e., a bit more reddish-orange).

Anyway, this has been an approach that has worked for me and I'm sure others will offer many other considerations when doing twilight exteriors. Thanks for writing in, Francine. Good luck with the shoot!

Tony Colangelo is a residential and commercial photographer, as well as a photography coach, based in Victoria, BC, Canada. He is a long-time contributor to PFRE and is the creator of The Art & Science of Great Composition tutorial series.

4 comments on “Advice for a Shooter’s First Twilight Exterior Shot”

  1. Is your twilight photo best in the evening or the morning? If the sun is setting behind the house from your vantage point, by the time the sky looks great, the house will be really dark.

    Start early. When the scene looks great to the eye, it's likely going to look too dark to the camera. Shooting brackets is a great idea. The magic time when everything is lit the best is pretty short so you don't have time to fiddle around with camera settings when it comes.

    Make SooC your goal and separate components for home, windows and sky your backup. It's not always possible to get it bang on straight out of the camera, but it's whiz in post when you come back with an image that's 95% done.

    Bring some worklights to light up the windows from the inside. I've gone to LED (warm white), but the older halogen ones work too. Don't forget extension cords. If the home just has a couple of table lamps, you may never get a good quantity of light out of the windows until it gets very dark outside and you can drag the shutter all you need. Speedlights and strobes will also work, but you will need to gel them to get a good color and you may have to modify the settings quickly to get all of the windows balanced well enough.

    I like using the graduated neutral density filters to darken the sky. It buys some time and often lets me finish when there is still a little light left to pack up.

    If you have a CamRanger or other remote software option, you will be much better off by not having to touch the camera to make exposure adjustments. By tethering, you also can get a much better screen to evaluate how well you are doing as you make images.

  2. I forgot to add that if you are using halogen worklights, they get hot and they also suck up a bunch of power so you have to be careful about blowing a breaker if you are running 4 or more. I splurged on the LED type (not Home Depot or Lowes junk) as they draw far less power and don't get nearly as hot so I don't have to wait 45minutes before I can pack them away.

  3. The advice to get there earlier than you think you need to is spot on. The pre-sunset sun can drop behind a thick cloud bank at the horizon an hour before sunset and it can get a whole lot darker really fast! Also, as people probably already said, it takes time to find and turn on all the lights, position and set your own lights if you're using them, set up your own rig outside, troubleshoot whatever, etc etc etc. Good luck!

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