When photographing interior images of a listing, there is a very prominent trend in real estate photography to keep the window views exposed evenly with the interior light. In recent years, a popular technique has come into practice to help photographers achieve a "proper" exposure for an exterior view with an extra step in the field that makes it really easy to composite the window view in the final image. It's a really great technique, and works fantastically. The problem, however, is that the results don't look good.
I know - I'm opening a can of worms. Hear me out...
First, why are real estate photographers exposing windows dark? Presumably, it's to ensure all of the details outside are clearly visible.
That's a fair and rational point of view. But I have two counter arguments that I'd like you to consider.
The first is, it is brighter outside than it is inside. Outside you wear sunglasses, and inside you take them off. It is logical, then, that our interior photos should have windows that appear brighter than the interior. If we adjust our goal to prioritize a realistic feeling to the photos we will be shooting, then let's allow the windows to become overexposed. Not completely blown out - that doesn't look good either - but 1-2 stops overexposed is a sweet spot. We can see some detail outside - in most interior situations, just a little window detail is all we need, because...
Here's the second counter argument. It's all about the story you're telling with your photo. Why do you want to show all of the detail outside?
Unless you have an incredible view that is an important selling feature of the home (such as an ocean view or a city skyline, for example) then your story is most likely about the interior space you're shooting.
In a typical suburban living room, is your story about family memories around the fireplace? Or is it about the grass outside? In your photo of the kitchen, is the story about the quality of the materials and appliances, or is it about the neighbor's driveway? Yes, the back yard is very nice, and it is a very important selling feature of the home you're shooting, but you will be taking exterior photos of that back yard. The yard will be its own story, in its own photo. The goal should not be to include all the information in your photos. As my friend and coach, Tony Colangelo, says, our photos need to evoke a feeling for the viewer. That's what's going to sell the home. That feeling.
Of course, there are times when the view is the main subject of the story.
Let's imagine a beachfront property with giant glass doors in the master bedroom that open to a patio overlooking the ocean. The view is definitely a major part of this story!
Here's where shooting multiple images of the same space can really tell a better and more complete story than just shooting wide images that capture all the information in one shot. Let's imagine some more...
Let's make an establishing image of the room, with a window that is brighter than the interior, but showing just enough detail so the viewer knows, unmistakably, that the ocean is just outside. This tells the story of the bedroom itself. This is a photo of a master bedroom, not unlike most other photos of a master bedroom that you've seen, except that there's a huge window with an ocean view. Remember, the view is important, but this is still the master bedroom. The room itself, and how that room is used day-to-day, is a major part of this home's story. What else, besides the ocean view, can we talk about here? Well, huge windows, regardless of the view, also provide tons of natural light. Making those windows nice and bright communicates to the viewer very clearly that there is an abundance of natural light in this room. It would not make sense to have a dark window here - it would be a distraction at best, and at worst, it would turn a photo that should be about the room into yet another photo of the view.
What's the story here? "This is where you sleep. And yes, that's an ocean view in your bedroom. Imagine waking up to this every day with all of this incredible natural light."
Now let's do another composition, possibly with a longer focal length, and we'll make this one all about the view. Let's leave some familiar objects in the foreground. We can use the corner of the bed, or maybe a chair that was visible in the wider establishing shot. This provides the context for our story - "We are still in the master bedroom".
Now, let's expose for that amazing view so we retain all the detail. Let's allow the interior to go a little dark in order to keep the view in the window as the brightest thing in the photo, and help pull the viewer's eye through the foreground and straight to the view.
Now, what's the story in this image? "This is a view of the ocean. Isn't it incredible!? You can see this view from the master bedroom when you wake up, and you can just walk right out these doors whenever you want, and take it all in."
It's all about relative brightness. If you can communicate the correct story, and give a sense of reality in your photo by keeping the exterior brighter than the interior, your photo will be better as a result. A bright big, bright window goes hand in hand with loads of natural light. A big, dark window with loads of natural light on the interior looks strange.
Realistic = Relatable.
Now you might be thinking, "But when I walk into a room, my eyes see a proper "exposure" outside and inside simultaneously, so exposing the windows properly is actually correct."
I'll address that in Part 2 of this post, where I talk about 3D vs 2D and how, as photographers, we can leverage our 2D medium to make this work.