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In Part 1 of this series, I wrote about how the trend of dark windows in real estate photography is not a realistic, and subjectively speaking, pleasing style. I supported my position with a few key points and today, I want to discuss one final aspect of my position on the brightness of windows in real estate photography to tie things together. It's all about interpreting and translating the 3-dimensional space in front of our camera into a 2-dimensional photograph. It's not easy to do well, and takes a lot of careful thought. Let's dive in.
Our brain is wired to our vision such that we intuitively understand depth, distance, dark, and light. Most of this is based around a sense of relationship within our surroundings or, how things feel relative to other things.
For example, big is relative to small. In our 3D world, you can tell the size of something relative to yourself. In a 2D photo, you can't always tell how big something is unless it is next to something that is a familiar size. A common example of this in architecture photography is the inclusion of people in photos. We intuitively know roughly how big a person is, but we don't always intuitively know how large a space is in a photo. By including a person in a photo, we effectively communicate scale and therefore, the size of the space.
Likewise, we intuitively know, roughly speaking, the size of a sofa, so the sofa can communicate the relative size of a living room. This is why a staged home shows and photographs better than an empty home. It's real estate sales 101, and we all know that. But are we applying the same logic to our photos?
The same relative senses can be applied in other ways; cool is relative to warm. Have you ever edited an entire set of photos, then looked at all of them back to back as a slideshow, only to notice that one of the photos is a different color temperature than the rest of the set? You didn't notice it during your edit of that photo because you were viewing it on its own, but the relative color temperature when viewed back to back with other images makes it stand out instantly, even if the difference is very subtle.
Near is relative to far. Things closer to the camera will appear relatively larger than things farther from the camera. Using this knowledge, we can make better photos with more depth. Foreground is relative to middle ground, which is relative to background--you need all three. Without a clear foreground element, you don't really have a middle ground or a background. Your photo lacks depth.
Relationships are what communicate to the viewer in photography. Because we are missing the physical dimension of depth, when we create or simulate depth in a photo by playing to all the senses, we are making better photos that feel more realistic to the viewer.
So what does this have to do with the brightness of windows in a real estate photo?
Bright is relative to dark. We have to experience light and dark side-by-side to appreciate either one.
It's true that our eyes can see a much larger dynamic range than our cameras, and that is why when we are standing indoors and looking outside through a window, we see detail both inside and outside simultaneously. Speaking in camera terms, this may seem like we are seeing an even "exposure" inside and outside.
Yet as we stand there, we instinctively know that what we see outside the window is much, much brighter than what we see indoors. That's a human experience. A human feeling.
So how is it that we know it's brighter outside than inside, even though we see all of the detail? We EXPERIENCE our environment. And in that experience, there are several factors that communicate to us in very direct ways. That includes past experiences. You know from experience that if you walk outside in the rain, you're going to get wet. You don't have to actually step outside to prove that theory. The same holds true for sunny days--you know it's going to feel much brighter outside than it feels indoors, and that is because it actually is brighter outside. We grab our sunglasses before stepping outside to make our eyes more comfortable in those bright conditions.
This is the nature of the world we live in. We experience movement, highlights, shadows, shelter, and open air. We experience wind, texture, scents, and it all happens in a very dynamic fashion. It is constantly changing, moving, and doing so at varying levels. We live in three dimensions, and most of us experience 5 senses.
A photo exists only in a two dimensional space; length and width. A photo is static. It doesn't have a texture, a scent, a breeze, or a light switch. It just is, exactly as it is, and doesn't change. When we are photographing anything, we are interpreting and diluting the scene in front of our camera from a three dimensional space that we experience with 5 senses, to a two dimensional image that we experience with only one sense. If we aren't careful and intentional about decisions we make with each photo, the photo will just be a watered down version of reality. I want to do better than that.
My goal is to create a photo that, as much as I possibly can, makes the viewer feel like they are experiencing the space.
To achieve that, I need to simulate touching on as many senses as I can in each photo. I use relative scale to communicate near vs. far and establish depth. I use contrast to communicate shape and texture, and I use the interplay between relative brightness and darkness to create movement for the viewer's eye.
And I want my windows to feel brighter than the interior, because that's what it feels like in reality.
How bright should the windows be? For me, the simple answer is, brighter than the interior. Specifically, it is my position that the window MUST be brighter than the interior wall surrounding the window frame. That side-by-side relationship of light vs. dark is what will intuitively resonate with the viewer. Sometimes, if I can't make the window itself brighter for fear of losing too much detail outside, I will instead make the interior wall a touch darker. The resulting feeling that is communicated to the viewer is identical.
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Exactly how much brighter to make the windows depends on some variables:
Is the view really nice? Maybe a stop or two brighter is perfect. That's the point where all the detail we actually need is visible and very effectively communicated, but still meets my requirement for being brighter than the interior by allowing the highlights to go white.
Is the view of the neighbor's garbage cans or cars parked on the street? I'm going even brighter to minimize those distractions. If these photos are being used to help sell a home, I think we can all agree this type of a view is NOT a selling feature of the home. Minimizing unsightly details outside will ultimately be more helpful to the agent and the homeowner.
I do not advocate completely blown out, white blobs for windows. I don't feel that is a good look. Subtle application of any technique is a big part of creating a realistic and relatable photo that will resonate with your audience. We don't need to beat people over the head with overly bright windows and we don't need to beat people over the head with overly dark windows either.
So what is your goal for your photos? What is your client's goal for the photos? How can you achieve your goal and your client's goal simultaneously? This is what is working for me, and I'd love to hear your thoughts.