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How To Do Basic Twilight Exterior Real Estate Shots

Published: 05/12/2016
By: larry

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 do twilight shots because I don't have a DLSR that has high ISO capability". 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 minimal 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 to manual mode and use an aperture of 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.

4 comments on “How To Do Basic Twilight Exterior Real Estate Shots”

  1. It is truly important and worth scouting the location a day or so before your shoot and give a list of things that you want the agent to make sure is done, before you arrive, like making sure that all the lights are working. If there is landscape lighting, see if they are on timers, all the bulbs are working, and if they can be turned on manually. I always tell the agent that I want to be there about 45min-1 hr. before sunset , only because I use external lights and want to make sure that all the lights are on and working. You will find, many times, the home owner has not done what you and the agent has asked. Last week I got to a shoot, and someone left a car in the driveway, with no keys to move it. Luckily, I had a shoot in the same area, only one street away, the next day, and re-shot the front (charged them $50) to return.

    Also, if you live here in FL, especially near Tampa, be aware of the weather, as Tampa is the lightning capital of the world (or at least the united states), and the storms come quickly and from no where. Twice while taking night shots I was almost electrocuted standing on a ladder. Also, be very clear with your agents about the cost to shoot twilight shots. I like my agents to be with me to experience the set-up / prep time and make them aware of what is involved, and how long it takes. Also, I use the agent as my assistant which helps get things turning on and off all lights, but mostly to bring coffee and donuts, and. talk them into another shoot.

  2. On the importance of twilight photos, check out the first segment of Scott Hargis' real estate agent interview in his marketing video on Lynda. The agent makes the point clearly of how vital a twilight shot can be in selling a property.

  3. Eric's points are all good.
    I would add that in those regions where lawn sprinklers are common make sure to turn them off before the shoot and then make REAL SURE you turn them back on when you leave.
    Another item is pool lighting and spa pumps, water features and the like.

    Having the agent or owner present is critical to ensuring that the location lights are all functional.
    A breezy assurance the day before means nothing when on the site trying to find switches, timer etc.

    Learn layering techniques in PS that will add a lot to your final image even absent flash or added lights. Of course, learning to add light is valuable.
    Finally, the pricing has to be consistent with the effort you expend in creating that shot.

  4. Scott Hargis has a tutorial on specifically on twilight photos that is very good. Mike Kelley is known for his twilight shots, but he tends to go way over the top adding additional lighting and spending a bunch of time assembling the image in Photoshop. An additional problem with Mike's approach is that it makes it appear that the property has extensive outdoor lighting. There could be issues arising for misrepresentation of a property if the images are being used to sell a home. I've never heard of that in the US, but in other parts of the world buyer's can be more picky. Mike's product does look pretty amazing and it's certainly not going to hurt to learn how he does it.

    For the best and most consistent color from the interior lights, you may want to bring some shop lights or other lighting that is the same color temperature as tungsten. It's not unusual to have LED, CFL and tungsten lights in one home. It's good to learn how to fix color temp issues in PS, but getting it done in camera is almost always going to be faster.

    I see agents trying to water down the concrete for effect and it rarely works very well. There is a PS filter called "Flood" from Flaming Pear that will likely give a better look than the real thing.

    The Photographer's Ephemeris is a great sun/moon tracking application that is free for desktop use and very reasonable for mobile devices. I use it all of the time when I book appointments. Even if I can't specify the best time for the all important front exterior photo, I will know how bad it may be. I might be tempted to shoot the front in advance when the sun is in a more favorable position. It only takes a few minutes and I can often fit that in between other jobs in the area.

    A tripod is mandatory. Getting the image done in camera is the best way to go, but sometimes you will need to take one image for the best sky, another for the best exposure of the building and a few others for the interior and exterior lights. Without a solid tripod, there is no way to line up all of the frames in post. I often like to make a separate photo for the exterior lights and leave them off the rest of the time. I don't like taking apart the fixtures to install different bulbs if they are too bright or a strange color. I can alway use a HSL adjustment layer in PS to change the color and fiddle with the opacity to get the right levels to match the rest of the composition.

    Some experimenting with your camera is a good idea to balance noise from a higher ISO and noise from a longer exposure. I leave long exposure compensation off in camera as it takes twice as long for each image and it easier to clean up noise in post. A little bit of noise isn't much of a problem for RE photos. Remove or leave UV filters off of your lens. Haloing and odd flares can be a problem with UV filters in place. The only filter that you may want is a graduated ND filter to darken the sky while leaving the home in good light.

    I charge about the same for a twilight as I do for the rest of the home. It's rare to be able to schedule the twilight with the rest of the home and it takes about the same amount of time. I also consider that I can only do a maximum of 2 twilight sessions a day. In the summer that means getting up really early and staying up late too. I sell my customers ordering a twilight photo where it will have the most impact and add professional photography to all of their listings, even those properties on the low end of the market.

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