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How Do Real Estate Photographers Deal With Windows?

Published: 01/03/2017

Ginnie asked the following:

I am starting to explore real estate photography and have been playing with HDR in Lightroom. When looking at this month's photo winners, I notice that the views outside the windows are crystal clear. How is that done? Does the photographer use multiple flashes? Any input would be appreciated.

Yes, bright windows are the classic challenge for real estate photographers! The difference between brightness level outside and the brightness inside is typically beyond what digital sensors can capture. So as a photographer, you have a couple of choices:

  1. Use lighting to raise the interior brightness closer to the brightness level outside. This can be done quite easily in most situations with small manual flashes (in some cases with just one). This approach is explained in more detail in this post.
  2. Shoot a frame in which the windows are exposed exactly as you want them and a frame with the interior exposed as you want it. With the inside and the outside on two layers in Photoshop, you then create a composite image that renders both the inside and outside as you want it. For details see this post.

Everyone must decide which approach is best for them. #1 takes less time and gets the image as you want it in the camera with little post-processing required but you must learn how to use manual flashes (that is a challenge for some). On the other hand #2, takes time in post-processing but you don't need to bother with flash lighting.

Larry Lohrman

9 comments on “How Do Real Estate Photographers Deal With Windows?”

  1. The "darken mode window pull" technique works wonders. Search for the phrase on YouTube or browse Rich's Baum's YouTube tutorials for demonstrations. #1 is going to be the fastest since the image will be done in camera and may not need much post production. The least cost effective method is to use selections in Photoshop to cut out window panes. It can be a big pain if there is something like a plant in front of the window with endless fiddly bits to select around for a believable edit.

    Take the time to learn lighting with flash. You might not use it for every image, but there are rooms in every house where you can be in and out in 60 seconds with a complete image on the memory card.

    And, turn off the ceiling fan!

  2. #1 is by far the easiest with everything done in camera and works to RE/MLS standards 95% of time. There are times when light placement outside of a reflection source just can't be done. For #2, rather than non-flash frame exposing the exterior and a lit interior blend which does work but requires a lot of selection of fine details - like woodwork on each window pane, blinds, and plants - I prefer interior lighting of two (or more) frames and just move the light source. Then it becomes simple masking in Photoshop, and typically not the entire window, just the affected area which typically doesn't require any selection, but will select for strong, highly defined edges. As always, the manual camera setting is set for the exterior exposure, then interior lighting is raised. An extreme situation is essentially a glass wall - sliding glass doors out to a pool and the weather won't allow them to be open, two shots with light source in different areas, choose the best overall as the top layer in PS, add adjustment layer and paint black/white over the reflection to bring "good" part of the lower layer forward. This isn't limited to windows but can be used with any reflective surfaces - pictures, TV's, cabinets, etc. Thankfully, not a routine occurrence and may have two or three per shoot which I code 3 star and work first in Lightroom/PS, then code the output 5 star (deliverables) which I then work.

    An extreme example of what I described is what I submitted for the Nov POTM contest and opening slide on my website. While no exterior window, this was a dining room shooting directly (4 point) into a mirrored wall. Lighting was two 42" shoot through umbrellas left and right. While I took 3 shots, didn't use both firing as ceiling blended well with two. The other two were single flash and physically removing the non-firing flash (and self-timer to remove me) giving two frames with each side exposed. Then it was a matter of blending to bring the two good sides together and minor cloning of a small portion of camera/tripod that couldn't hide from reflection. Another one in that same slideshow is more typical of window reflection issues. The living room with the large aquarium had a reflection in the windows that second shot masking, that had reflections in another area, removed the reflection and brought in the natural vegetation seen outside the window. In reality, the second shot is not intentional, but the result of moving the light source around trying to find a place where doesn't reflect. When there is no place, or that place gives bad overall lighting for the room, then masking to the rescue with the multiple shots already taken.

  3. #1 is probably the easiest and can typically be done with a single small manual flash. I do it every day. The only challenging part about it is your camera settings; typically, if it's very bright and sunny outside, especially on the exterior side in direct exposure to the sun at a given time, you would have to get your exposure very low, sometimes below 1/200, which is the YN-560IV's sync limit. I usually flash rooms at ISO 800 or 1600, which is problematic when lowering exposure. Lowering ISO to 400 would be the obvious thing, but then you may not be able to flash the entire window frame without a hot spot or at all because the flash is noticeably weaker at that ISO. It just requires playing around with it. In these situations I'll usually flash the window twice, left and right or bottom and top, so if I can't avoid a hot spot from the flash reflecting in the window, I at least have another flash frame I can use so I can mask right over the hot spots.

    I have tried manual masking, and it's not effective given the time it takes to do it, running into problems others have mentioned above. It's also difficult to select precisely, because it takes time, and when using the polygonal lasso, you can't zoom in and out to make it as precise as possible. I wouldn't recommend this.

    If anyone doesn't have a flash to do effective window pulls, the best way to deal with it may be brushing with a 100% opacity, 100% flow, 100% hardness brush and being as precise as possible brushing in to mask, then using a low-flow (4-5%) eraser to take care of any overlap. This way you don't have to be as precise with the eraser (especially with a really high DPI mouse that moves the cursor across the screen just when you think about moving the mouse). Low-flow brushing is your friend, as anyone who hasn't seen Rich Baum's videos will soon find out upon watching them. You watch one of his videos, you'll find you've sat there for a couple hours watching the rest wondering where the time went.

  4. Not everyone follows the heard mentality, but there's definitely a migration away from the window pulls of the past. The reason for this is simple. In general, the public's eyes have begun to learn when those window pulls are underexposed, lack gentle diffusion and miss natural reflections from the glass.

    Consider the fact that in reality we dilate and constrict our pupils when focusing between interior spaces and window views. This isn't required nearly as much when we look at photographs on our screens and in print. Our ability to focus on an entire room in reality is minimal compared to what we can take in as a whole in a photograph. By creating and combining a perfect exposure out the window and inside the room in one photograph, we're actually creating something in 2D that our eyes can't quite manage dynamically and focally in 3D.

    Case in point... our recent winner expertly blew the windows intentionally and for good reason. The view out the window wasn't necessary. The viewers eyes remained inside and focused around the 1 point perspective. Moreover, I would argue that the resulting photograph was more realistic and closer to how one might perceive that room in reality.

    For this and so many other reasons, I prefer a more "nordic" look with all the windows half blown. I like window light that's clearly flowing inward while gently revealing the exteriors. The hyper window pulls are typically reserved for rooms and specific angles that need to showcase beach, lake, mountain or desert views.

  5. @Ryan Christian, The maximum sync speed is a function of the shutter mechanism and not the flash. I agree that time flies when "learning" stuff on YouTube.

  6. I almost exclusively use the "darken mode window pull" technique. It allows me to let in more ambient, which requires less supplemental lighting. It's also makes things much faster on-site, where agents or homeowners might be standing around looking at their watches. Of course, it means more time in post-processing, but I kind of enjoy that anyway. Although it's great to get the image completely in-camera in one shot, I realized long ago that it's also very time-consuming, and sometimes just not practical.

    And the technique is very fast (I have a Photoshop preset hot-key that does all the work except for the brushing). So, when I'm shooting, I basically let the windows blow out as much as possible without losing the outer edge. That's the base exposure that I then build on in post.

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