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Realistic Real Estate Photos - Part 1: Why "Window Pulls" Don't Make Sense

In: 
Published: 23/05/2019

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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.

  • This home is for sale, right?
  • And it's our job to show all the details, right?
  • Let's document this home, inside and out, and that's a job well done. Our photos are information for the potential buyer.

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.

Garey Gomez is an architectural photographer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a three-time PFRE Photographer of the Month, and the creator of the Mastering Real Estate Photography tutorial series.

Garey Gomez

34 comments on “Realistic Real Estate Photos - Part 1: Why "Window Pulls" Don't Make Sense”

  1. Amen...Amen... Amen... Amen!

    ...that said, I still do it for clients who scream if I don't (you will obviously hear the "I give them what they want" argument - which I agree with), but I've been trying to talk all of my agents out of over-adjusting the views for years. I have no problem trying to match what the eye sees, but I've seen so many unnatural examples of this - even in DWELL and AD (online) - and it's gotten ridiculous lately.

  2. Dark window pulls are the modern day mullet of real estate photography.

    Only close friends will tell you if you have went to far, and even then, nobody is listening until it is too late.

  3. I don't know about the rest of the country or world, but in my market, Orange County California, the window pulls are next level mullet...Randy Johnson mullet!

    Please...someone google high-end real estate in Orange County to see what I mean...it's out of hand and I'm losing clients to this type of work.

  4. I want to print and frame this blog post! I laugh my butt off whenever I see window "pulls" that look more like paintings on the wall.

  5. Here in SW FL where most of the homes I shoot are important water views, “mullet” photos are a must for the customer regardless of what is popular here and these “mullet” photos help make me and my family a great living so...until a different method is in demand to my customers “business in the front and party in the rear”.

  6. This is what separates me from 95% of my competition. They have the hyper window pulls, I let them go fairly bright--for the exact reasons you mention.

  7. Excellent, so glad to finally see this. I came to the same conclusion a while back when I realized that these "properly exposed windows" were just silly looking, and many (most) views need to be played down... we don't need a clear, detailed view of the neighbor's stucco, or their cars in the street in front. In most cases I give them a realistic hint of what is outside, unless the views warrant dialing it up a touch... but even then I keep the window exposures a little brighter than the room; let them see that there are spectacular views, but keep it secondary.

  8. I do window pulls, and my customers love them. Mullet or no, they are popular, and serve an important purpose. The camera is incapable of representing the entire dynamic range that human eye can see. As photographers, we all take measures to provide an image that attempts to recreate the dynamic range of the human eye. HDR is a good example. Even though it is often poorly done and yields garish results, the premise is sound - combine several bracketed shots to mimic the effect of a higher dynamic range.

    It is the same with window pulls. The human eye can take in and process both an interior with average lighting and simultaneously process the image visible through the window.

    Using interior flashes is another example. Using a flash both illuminates the room and balances the interior/exterior view. The balance changes through out the day - an early morning or late afternoon shot will yield a photo with perfectly exposed interior and exterior. The technique of window pulls is not false, and it isn't unrealistic - it enables a photographer to create that sweet spot in the day when everything is balanced.

    The window pulls that I do are sought after and my market share in my marketplace is good. It does not make any difference to me, and it shouldn't to you, what cork sniffers think. If your customer wants it, and you won't provide it, then there is another photographer on the same google page that will.

    Another way to look at it is that people want professional photos that are distinctly different from the photo that they take with their Iphones. If we don't provide the differentiation then we collectively shoot ourselves in the foot. The window pull technique cannot be done on smartphones, and many "photographers" cannot do it well. It adds time to the processing and extra photos to the shoot. In many cases it is why we are hired in the first place.

  9. Q: when you are in the room can you see the outside clearly? If yes, isn't it realistic to show the room as you see it?

  10. Oy... There is nothing natural about white-out windows. If you're too lazy to do do window-pulls, just say "I'm too lazy to do window-pulls". Own it outright.

  11. Here in the mountains of Western North Carolina the views can be breathtaking. Also, many of the homes and cabins in the mountains are very dark inside (lots of dark wood) but have giant widows with amazing views of the distant mountain ridges, lakes below in the valleys, etc. The agents specifically want those views to be clear as that is the main selling point for many of the properties that I shoot. In some cases I use 4 speed-lights on full power and HDR to pull this off. And yes, sometimes the window view looks like a painting, but the agents or homeowners are happy, and that's all I care about. Of course I also get shots of those views from the outside decks as well.

  12. I do window pulls all the time. But I try to keep them "realistic". We're talking the difference between what a camera can capture naturally, and what the human eyes perceives. In the average person's mind, they think, well, of course they can see inside and outside at the same time. I think realistic window pulls simply attempt to recreate what people perceive they're experiencing or seeing.

    I do see some pulls that are way, way overdone, almost like someone tacked a poster up on the wall of the view through the window. My approach is to leave some of the atmospheric haze in the view that hopefully makes it more natural.

    And as someone pointed out, this is what the customer wants.

  13. I wish we could expose correctly. The trend now is for uber window pulls. Even magazines like Luxe and AD are doing this. A few years back they were blowing out all the windows. This is a trend and it will probably go back to something that is more realistic but for now, you had better know how to "pull".

  14. Thanks, all, for your comments! Fun discussion!

    A few days ago, in a Facebook group, a photographer posted a side-by-side comparison of the same photo, one with bright and airy windows, which showed plenty of detail in the trees just outside, and a version with a "proper" exposure for the window. The photographer asked the group for feedback on which version they liked better. Answers were pretty split, but I noticed that the trees outside in the darker exposure were actually darker than the interior walls surrounding the window. I see this A LOT - it's really common in RE photography - and that's what sparked this idea for me. I commented, and I wondered how the exposure of those same trees compared to their exposure in the exterior photos this photographer shot of this house. I'm speculating, but I'd bet the exterior photos were significantly brighter than the window view in the photo I was looking at. It has just become automatic these days, or so it seems to me. I'd like it if more photographers put more thought into WHY they are making the stylistic choices they are making, and WHY they put their cameras where the do, and WHY they light a room the way they do, as opposed to just following the same default recipe in every room they shoot.

    A few comments I'd like to respond to and see how the conversation develops:

    @Frank - This question is a good one! The answer isn't so clear, but that's what I will be covering in Part 2 to this post. There are lots of things that the human eye sees that the camera can't. Mixed color balances are much more toned down to our eyes, and the dynamic range we see is much broader than what current camera's can see. So you're not wrong in that thought process. What we see with our eyes IS the full dynamic range. The difference is, our brains are wired to translate what our eyes see, and we see in 3 dimensions. We see depth, and bright vs dark, really easily. Camera's take a 3 dimensional space and translate it into a 2 dimensional image. Unless you go out of your way to add depth to the photo with your composition, and by making sure there's a clear relative difference between light and dark, then you typically have a flat and uninteresting image. This isn't news - photography 101. Composition and light are what it's all about. So it's our job to create that depth so viewers of the image can relate to the space we are shooting in a way that more closely resembles the human EXPERIENCE of physically being there. Not to use a 2D tool to ATTEMPT to emulate a 3D scene. Anyway, more on that later....

    @Kelvin - I agree, white-out windows are not attractive. There should be detail. Lazy is a strong word, though. I'd argue the opposite, actually. It's very easy to shoot the "window pull" method and composite it in using Darken Blend Mode in Photoshop. Really fast and effective. What's difficult, is thinking about what works and what doesn't for each photo you shoot, because not every photo/house/room/window is the same, and therefore shouldn't be treated like they're all the same automatically. Then there's dealing with the nuances of how much is too much, etc. It's work, and it's not easy.

    @Tony - My customers hire me to take photos. They choose me because I make photos they like. What they see on my website is what they expect from me. They wouldn't dare tell me how to shoot. I do agree when it comes to providing service, the customer should be treated like they're right. If you make a mistake, or even if they just THINK you made a mistake, they're right, and you should fix it. But as far as the style of photography that I consistently deliver, that's all me. If they're looking at the windows and wondering why they can't see the texture on the neighbor's siding more clearly, then my composition wasn't any good, and neither was my light. Consider that there's more going on in the photo that you can control with some amount of creative freedom, and work that as much as you can. Make something unique, and you'll always stand out, and no client will tell you how to expose your windows.

    @Jesse - Agreed! Moderation/restraint is really important. Finding a happy medium for each photo is what will sell the look. The idea is, brighter outside, darker inside. That should be a theme in every interior photo, but many photographers take it too far, in either direction.

  15. Frank wrote: "Q: when you are in the room can you see the outside clearly? If yes, isn’t it realistic to show the room as you see it?"

    Answer: No.

    It can be discouraging to hear that the "common sense" answer is wrong, but the reality is that photography, done well, is a demanding and difficult thing.
    The relationship between viewing a scene "live", with binocular vision and the ability to move in space, vs. viewing a 2-dimensional representation of that scene, is far, far more complex than most photographers (let alone laypeople) realize. Add to that the complication of how far away the 2D image is from the viewer's eyes and the two experiences get completely untethered very quickly.
    The more research is done, the more we realize that the eye/brain combination is NOTHING like a camera/lens. It's confounding and complex and wonderful and frustrating, and the more you understand it the better you'll do as a photographer.

    Many people here are coming at this issue (as with all subjective "photo quality" issues) from the point of view of an employee, doing the bidding of their boss (in this case, the RE agent). In my opinion, that's a poor business model. First, it's boring. Don't you want to be your own boss? Second, it commoditizes your product. Yes, you can make a little money being a pencil in the hands of your client, but pencils are ultimately cheap and replaceable. Once you assume the role of artist yourself, you move the control, and the money, to your side of the table.

  16. I'm always doing window pulls whether it's exposing for the the window view level I want and lighting to bring up the rest of the room or using a specific technique like "darken mode window pull". Sometimes I am just looking to tame the bloom, show some detail about the window, but trying to downplay that 4 feet out is a cinder block wall. Other times I trying to bring in a much more detailed view of a nicely landscaped backyard, pool, view of the mountains, etc. Very infrequently my focus IS the outside and I'm just framing the view with the window to give some context. I could go out on the deck and make a photo of the view, but it doesn't say that it's an image realizable from the home. It could be a photo taken while walking around the neighborhood as far as anyone would know if there isn't something that anchors it to the home. I don't go out of my way to have a dark window pull on every window if I'm not making a conscious statement about the view. I'm still learning the art of using luminosity and sharpness to place the focus of the image where I want the viewer's eyes to go along with leading lines to move them from point A to point B. I know some people that do that instinctively, but I have to work at it.

  17. Sure,
    I do window pulls on every shoot I go on and I have been doing it for years. I try to keep the balance of warm light coming in the house and show details out side. If I just shoot so it is a histogram right on exposure for the exterior they tend to look awkward when I am finished with my editing. How can you have a couch or wood floor glowing from the sun but the window is dark? I think when the windows are brighter than the room but still shot with a fast shutter you win. You get the view outside and the feeling the rooom is giving at that time of day. It is more work but my clients keep coming back and they comment on how the windows are not just white like they see in other listings. I took Scott Hargis interior lighting course many years agoa and it has payed off many times!

  18. Frank: I agree with you. I don't agree with you

    Scott: I dont agree with you. I agree with you.

    I think the answer is somewhere in the middle. You have to balance the light of the view with the interior of the property. Sure this takes time, but my goal is to always make the image look like what I saw with my own eyes.

    I want my images to look as natural as possible and sure that takes quite a bit of work while shooting and processing. But it puts me heads above my compition in my town.

  19. I find photographers don't really understand how much their aesthetic is shaped by the tool they use, their camera.

    Look at other disciplines such as illustration, painting and even cinematography to see how those fields have handled the problem of depicting an interior scene.

    I really struggle to think of a single illustrator or painter who would depict an interior with pure white windows that you can't see out of?

    If it was "natural" then wouldn't that be the way they depict it?

    In the movie industry, they often take great lengths to overcome the brightness of windows.

    That's not to say, that a soft, glowing window may not be appropriate for some scenes.

    In fact when Stanley Kubrick wanted the effect of a bank of windows streaming sunshine into a large hall in "The Shining" he used such a massive amount of lighting that it actually burnt the Elstree studio down.

    Like all aspects of photography, a certain technique may prevail for a while before the market matures and it is used more responsibly.

    You only have to look at how long the travesty of over-cooked HDR was popular for before people came back to their senses!

  20. "Mullet or no" This word mullet keeps popping up. I know mullet as a species of fish.

    What do you guys mean by using it?

  21. I have never "pulled" or composited a window.
    HOWEVER, I definitely do use strategic amounts of interior diffuse flash to show the view through windows whether sunny or shady outside, all in a single frame. My objective is to attempt to show the listing interiors EXACTLY as the human eye would see it in person, including realistic window views... unless there is truck or trashcan just outside.

  22. Absolutely spot on. I whole-hardly agree with you. My rule of thumb is to allow enough light through the window to show that there are window blinds. I only do window pulls if the view is scenic, like seeing the pool and even then, depending on the view I just want to make it a teaser. why? well because if I am shooting the interior then it is the interior that needs to show its best. That pool shot and all of visual dynamics that go with showing that pool or view will be covered by the exterior photos.

  23. I don't know how you folks can decide ahead of time what's best and what ain't.

    Y'all must be psychic.

  24. Interesting how so many of us creatives see things and are so opinionated and call each other wrong. Guess that is the way art goes. I encourage window pulls. Window pulls that are good. When I walk into a home I can see out the windows. My opinion is simple. If I can see it, I want to show it. If my competitor wants a blown out window fine. It's art and I sell it my way. You sell it yours. Best one gets the shoot. Simple! Cheers all!

  25. I find that everyone I've ever known that doesn't do window pulls is because they simply do not want to actually work for their money. If you're just taking bracketed photos and running them through Photomatix, you're not a real estate photographer, you're a hack, doing little more than taking advantage of people's ignorance. No you don't have to do window pulls for every last exposure of the neighbors driveway, but our job is to show a perspective buyer what they would be purchasing, not making pretentious art to hang on the walls. For that reason perspective buyers should be allowed to clearly see what is outside the windows; be that incredible views or a plain cement slab and bock wall. I'm sure I've offended a bunch of cheap photographers out there, but you know that I'm right. Those whom pull windows will always get more work because it's a valued addition. It's just about the only thing that differentiates us from the average agent just taking pictures with a smartphone. If you don't want to do it because it is hard work, sorry but you're not going to be doing this job very long most likely.

  26. Pics are the resume' to the world.

    If the window view is near a garbage dump or something as unsightly, do what's possible to minimize the view but not to the point of distortion.

    Overall, I get your point but sorry, no go. Let the windows shine through with clean, crisp clarity!

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