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How to Do Basic Twilight Exterior Real Estate Shots

Published: 10/07/2018
By: larry

WellsExteriorI think it is important to occasionally revisit the subject of twilight exterior shots because they are so important. From a listing agent or home seller's point of view, they are hugely important 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 or listing photo that had a twilight shot. The photo above brought us two listing customers this way.

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 siteLightTrac, or SunSurveyor. SunSurveyor and LightTrac not only show you what time sunset will happen but it shows you exactly which direction the sun will be. You need to be set up and ready about 15 minutes before sunset. The best light will start around 15 minutes after sunset and last for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the latitude, the weather, and clouds. The key to getting a good twilight shot is to shoot earlier that you expect.
  3. Turn on 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 a twilight shots because I don't have a DLSR that has a high ISO". 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 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 real estate photographer, the listing agent, and the listing online.

6 comments on “How to Do Basic Twilight Exterior Real Estate Shots”

  1. I have a love hate relationship doing twilight shoots even though it adds a lot of impact to the property, can be fun to shoot and looks great in your portfolio. I feel it is important to have the agent and the home owner on the shoot, not only to find and turn on the lights, but to see what is involved for the setup, how long it takes and to justify the extra charge. I normally have my agent meet me there at least 30-45 minutes before the shoot for the reason mentioned above, finding all the lights, and making sure the property is cleared of any distractions. I also ask my agents make sure all the bulbs and any lighting used is working correctly before we do the shoot (but many agents do not do this).
    when shooting, keep a small flashlight (with or without a red filter attached) with you so you can see your camera settings. Twilight shoots can be very rewarding, financially and emotionally, so make sure you have done your research of the property and perhaps a pre-shoot list, because many times, things can and do go wrong. A few years ago I had a small but beautiful vacation home on the water, to shoot at twilight. the agent assured me it was all ready. when I got there the pool light was out and he didn't know where the switch was. so, I had a great shot of the house, but the screened lanai was dull because there was no light illuminating the pool area. I tried to fix it in photoshop, but would have looked better with the light. Another issue I had (only for you people who shoot in FL) be carful when you shoot twilight shots of homes on golf courses with lakes. Alligators feed at night, and because photographers taste the same to them as do pet dogs and cats, I had to quickly abandon the shot from the lake. I also keep the spikes on my tripod legs extended, as things in FL slither in the night.

  2. Hosing down the driveway is usually a waste of time. You have to keep doing it and getting the hose out of the way as you take photos. It also rarely has the reflection effect that people are trying for.

    Another application is The Photographer's Ephemeris. It's free for desktop use and reasonably priced for use on a mobile device.

    If you are handy, converting halogen work lights with 3200k LEDs for interior light up works great. I used to use work lights, but they get very hot, which is a hazard and take a long time to cool down enough to put back in the car. I might take some photos the next time I change out one. By pumping a bunch of light into the rooms, a good balance can be had much sooner and, for me, it's more reliable than having multiple flashes. Relying on the lights that are in home may be a problem. One room might have incandescent lamps, one has CFL's and another daylight LED's. You might also not have very uneven lighting from window to window. Done right, you can get a very nice image in one frame. Sometimes you might need two if you want a darker sky without losing too much light on the home. If you have to composite a stack of images, you are likely going to be spending more time than you should to get a final image.

    Twilights can be done in the morning too. If the sun isn't going to set in a convenient place, see if it will be better in the morning. You may also have the chance to do two homes in a day. You might also want to do one side of the home in the morning and the other in the evening. Having a flexible schedule with your customer can make this easier to do.

    Scheduling doesn't always have to be predicated on a separate visit and if it is, you may be able to photograph the interior and daylight exteriors later in the day, go out for a quick dinner, and return to set up for the twilight session. Since I have a big service area, it can be a long round trip just to do a twilight but I charge enough that a modest dinner fits into the budget.

    Shooting tethered makes life so much easier on twilights. I bring image right into Lightroom and can fiddle the sliders quickly to see if I'm done. The larger screen is also easier to see if the image is good rather than the little LCD on the back of the camera. I also don't have to go near the camera once it's set.

    If you want to make a multi-flashed image. Be sure to discuss it with the agent. Those images often have the look of extensive outdoor lighting setups and buyers might feel they've been lied to when they find out the home doesn't have that. Mike Kelly makes it look so easy, but it's a ton of work in Photoshop and very time consuming until you have done a large number of them and have a workflow down pat. Even then, it's a big production so charge for it. A Camranger or other remote+tablet is very useful for making these types of images.

  3. I like to take three bracketed images to get the most out of the light inside a building as well as the depth of shadows outside.

    I try and combine with a later afternoon shoot whenever possible so I dont need to do a return visit - not all my clients are prepared to pay for a second visit, even though they still want the shot!

    Rick McEvoy -

  4. I'm in agreement with the notes above. I typically book a shoot in the late afternoon and coordinate so that I finish the property about 30 minutes before sunset, take a break in the car to respond to emails or enjoy a snack, and then prep for the twilight portion. I'm typically able to accommodate the service in one visit to the property. This also allows a bit of scouting during the initial photo shoot, to decide which angles will be best at twilight, how the light is falling on the house, etc. Never raise the ISO above 100, just go long exposure and keep the tri-pod steady. Watering down the cement is a waste of time, a graduated filter in lightroom can accomplish the exact same thing without the risk of losing precious time at twilight.

  5. I do not ever return for twilights myself. Schedule home shoot same afternoon, get the timing right based on the sq ft and give yourself about a 20-30 min buffer to be safe. I usually head to the nearest del taco to kill my buffer time. I suppose return visits make sense if you have a small service area.

  6. I agree with all the previous comments with exception of wetting the driveway. It's a great concept, but when it's time to shoot, I want to focus on what's happening behind the camera. I've found the biggest challenge is waiting for what I'll call the "magic moment" when the image will really pop. It's very possible to be too early or too late. I generally start shooting at sunset and continue creating images about every 3-5 minutes for up to 45 minutes. The direction the home is facing will have an affect on the timing for the magic moment. I've tried numerous combinations of settings but have had my best success by blending 3-5 bracketed images. I don't refer to this as HDR because I adjust the images in post to assure they don't have an HDR feel to them. I shoot twilights in Aperture Priority at f8 (for depth of field) and 200 ISO. Obviously my Nikon D500 is on a sturdy tripod and I use the built-in timer to trigger the exposures. When I can, I position my pick-up in front of the home and put the tri-pod in the bed, set up as tall as possible. (When I create daytime exteriors I always use a ladder because I like the feel created by the extra elevation. (I also shoot with a drone, but I still use the ladder when shooting with my Nikon.) I ALWAYS shoot in RAW and I will often do some exposure toning prior to blending the images, and then fine-tune them for uprights, etc. after the blend is completed. As with most photography, there are many ways to skin the cat. I've had success with other approaches...but I've had more consistent quality when I've followed this procedure. I'd love to hear thoughts on this as I'm always interested in learning and improving! I've shot over 500 homes per year for the past 2 years and every day is a new learning experience!

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