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Alternatives For Controlling Window Brightness

Published: 19/01/2009
By: larry

At the same time a discussion in the PFRE flickr group has been going on about the fine points of getting a good clear view out the windows of a view property a reader ask about what the basic options were for controlling window brightness. This reminded me that this blog has readers with a wide range of experience. Since window brightness is such a classic interior photography issue I thought it would be useful to recap the basics of this problem.

The problem is of course, the fact that there can be, and usually is, a huge difference in the brightness of windows and the interior of a home. The brightness range is frequently more than a camera can capture. Here are the standard ways an interior photographer has to control this brightness difference:

  1. Shoot around twilight (sun rise or sunset) when the brightness inside is close to the brightness outside. This makes for some wonderful shots but it's not always possible to schedule.
  2. Use lighting (one or more strobes) to raise the brightness level inside to be close to the brightness level outside. Here is a post that describes how to do this in more detail.
  3. Shoot a RAW image, then open the RAW image once and adjust for interior brightness and then open the same RAW image a second time and adjust the exposure for the window brightness. Then use Photoshop to make a mask for the windows so you can combine the windows with the interior. See this video for a more detailed explanation on how to do this.
  4. Use HDR (High dynamic Range): Shoot 3 bracketed shots on a tripod (-2EV, 0EV, +2EV) then use Photomatix or one of the Enfuse blending applications to combine the 3 shots using tone mapping or blending.

The image above is a shot I took in 2003 for a view property we listed. At the time, I didn't have a clue how to use any of these techniques except #1. I made several trips to this home at twilight and the home owner was very disappointed with my results. I eventually got some useable window view shots but it was a very frustrating for both me and the homeowner. A few months ago I ran across the RAW file for this photo and decided to use #3 to create a shot that showed the view just to get closure on this bad memory. I did a post on the result. I feel better now but I know how it feels to do battle with bright windows and struggle to get the view.

10 comments on “Alternatives For Controlling Window Brightness”

  1. For interior shots on a sunny day, it is best to shoot either early in the morning or later in the afternoon depending on which way the home is facing. It might require mulitple visits, but worth it. You can take advantage of those long shadows.

  2. @ Erik G. --- Actually, the opposite is true. What you say sounds intuitive, but in fact if the sun is behind you, then the objects you're seeing out the window are being directly illuminated, and are as bright as it is possible for them to be. Much better to be looking at the shadow side of foliage etc. Easier to expose for.

    That said, if the goal is to render the view itself as pretty as possible, then having the sun behind you is the way to go, generally. But in the context of this article, that situation really makes integrating the view exposure and the interior exposure much, much harder.

  3. For me, unless it is a sunset, side-lighting of the exterior would be best because it creates a sense of depth. Direct frontal lighting, i.e. with the sun behind the camera, would yield a very flat and uniform effect, which I think would be less interesting in many cases.

    And, if it is mild, backlighting of the exterior can be very attractive.

    However, it seems to me that all of this really depends on how strong or diffused the sunlight is, and the time of day

  4. Some good sound advise. I like HDR if it is not overly "photoshopped" and has the natural look. Realtors and brokers want the natural look an not some artsy faked look. They want the potential clients to see in person what the picture conveyed.

    I also have found the twilight time period to work great. I like to wait for when the interior and outside light levels are about the same. But one only gets one house done in this time period. Best to save that for the upscale houses that need great pictures for that high end pricing.

  5. Bracketing is a really good idea, and if the lighting difference covers a very large range (due to shooting mid day AND not having adequate lighting indoors), you have to capture as much of a range as possible. You may even want to consider taking 6 bracketed shots, all at different exposures. Just make sure all shots are still balance (-2, 0, +2) (-1.5, .5, +1.5). This may get you out of a jam if you didn't bring the lighting (or the right lighting) with you. And since everything is done in post, no lighting setup.

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