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Realistic Real Estate Photos Part 2: Effectively Translating 3D into 2D

Published: 04/06/2019

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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.

Bonus: Read all of our recommendations for the top architecture photography cameras.

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.

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

16 comments on “Realistic Real Estate Photos Part 2: Effectively Translating 3D into 2D”

  1. "Must" is a very dangerous word. If a window view must be brighter than the surrounding wall, then how are we supposed to handle a shady garden view in late afternoon, seen through a window in a bone-white wall? To use Ansel's terms, if the white wall is Zone 8, should that deep green view be Zone 9?

    In general, I agree that windows should be portrayed a stop or so brighter than surrounding walls. But if the view is the selling point, as in some lux homes above Aspen that I've done, expose for that first. And if the window faces a used car lot, make it good and bright! It all depends...

  2. I agree completely. One of the few things I remember with total recall when I was a student at the Los Angeles Art Center College of Design is that windows should be, as a rule of thumb, 1 to 1.5 stops brighter than the interiors. To achieve that we had usually to bring the interiors up in exposure using flash or hot lights. In fact is was part of location photography 101. I have always held to that rule of thumb. But it is only a rule of thumb since as the post suggests, there may well be things outside the window that are distracting rather than complementary to the home. Trash cans, boats with blue tarps, sun hitting car tail lights and so on. Sometimes I need to pull the curtains or close or reduce the blinds to achieve this but some properties have neither so I let the exposure do a lot of the work. With video we don't have HDR to help retain or blow out windows and lugging lights around is just not practical anyway.

    The reasons we were told to let the exterior was to allow the viewer to realize that what we were seeing was the out of doors on the other side of the window rather than a travel poster plastered to the outside of the window. So I am not a fan of window pulls or other pain in the neck procedures to equate the inside and outside light. Our eyes are only sharp for a part of our vision and as our eyes roam, they, of course, change exposure rather faster than our cameras. So there are always making adjustments that especially stills cannot achieve. But they still get blasted for a few instants when moving from a room to a sun blasted exterior. I think viewers understand this. So I have no problem with windows looking like they give onto much brighter light.

    Where I do have problems is when the bright window reflects on shiny floors and reflective shiny counter tops. When I was shooting flooring a number of years ago, I did have to add 5-6 kw of studio lighting to bring the ambient light up so that the highlights were restricted to a small amount of the flooring. It was hand scraped flooring and part of the sales/marketing was the hand scraped texture so the window light reflection helped show the irregularities of that but too much just blasted it away. And since I shot with the camera almost on the floor, such flaws in lighting were very obvious. But the same applies today in RE work but to a lesser extent since then I was shooting with film which took a lot more light than digital.

    But to add to this thread, light color. People are used to the changes in color as the eye travels from green under counter florescent to incandescent to daylight and warm LEDs with real day light coming in the windows. No one thinks twice about it until they see a photos with blue light coming in those windows and icky orange or green changing the color of the paint in the room in places but not in others. To an extent we can accept table lights being warmer but I am still juggling with just how much I have to work in post to try to balance these different colors. I like to shoot with the lights off when I can but in some properties the lighting is part of the ambience of the room and often installed by lighting designers and as bulbs die off, owners don't pay much attention to matching the color spectrums. What do others do about this? Part of the exposure for the exteriors is linked to the amount of daylight that comes on into the room.

  3. When I walk into a home, any home, I can see clearly out the windows unless they are disgustingly filthy. Only that would prevent me from seeing what is outside. So saying to artificially obscure seeing out a window is wrong. We should strive to take and edit the images to see the views. Untrained eyes are looking for a view and not a fogged over window. Realistically you clearly see out a window on a bright or dark day. So give the clients images that are exactly what the eyes are looking at. You can remove what is unsightly with PS making sure not to misrepresent the property.

  4. I'm not quite sure if the way a window should appear in an image depends on our experience of reality or our experience of imaging. So long and so often windows were much brighter in images, that I at least take into account that this could determin our image view nearly as much as reality. But I agree in that, windows should not be as bright as the interior (unless you have a situation pointed out by John), because then they really mimic landscape posters on the wall.

  5. My suggestion for any photographer who wants to replicate reality via their post-processing processes is to take a beginning/intermediate drawing class. You'll get all of the insight you need as to how to replicate a 3D space using size ("big/small"), contrast ("light/dark"), color ("cool/warm") and much more. There is a lot of really bad post-processing done in photography... but knowing how light and color work in nature to create space is indispensable when it comes to post-processing. My take on light windows is that it all depends on how bright the room is. Many times you can have a interior space that is brighter than the scene outdoors, for example a sunlit room with a window that faces a wooded area. In this case the window would naturally be darker.

  6. @ Dave Clark --
    You're still talking about your experience when you're standing in the room. Everyone else is discussing a different topic, which is how best to translate that "live" experience to a static, 2-dimensional image that doesn't completely engulf the viewer's field of view. Like it or not, those two phenomena do not work the same way.

    It's a bit like translating a sentence from Spanish to English. If you insist on relying solely on your English-Spanish dictionary, transcribing sentences word-for-word, you'll end up writing things like "The big house, red, that I photographed", or "Me help tell where is the bathroom?"
    People will be able to understand what you're saying, but it'll be so annoying and ultimately difficult to talk to you that they'll quickly go elsewhere.

    Likewise, as a photographer, part of your job is to understand the limitations of the media you're working in, and to TRANSLATE the actual, live experience into something that registers the same way when viewed as a (relatively) tiny, 2-dimensional image.

  7. @ Scott Hargis -

    We are working with a media (digital images) that can look just as realistic as if taken with a film camera. In art you are not suppose to make it look like you took a picture of it. Our job is not art. We provide the best representation of a property as if we are there. If you go to Mexico be sure to leave your English-Spanish Dictionary at home and ask for a translator.

  8. "Our job is not art. We provide the best representation of a property as if we are there."-Dave Clark. No. Our job is creating art. Our clients say it is so, at least mine do. That is what they use me for: photos that can stand out and make the property looks its best. In addition to this, they want the photos to serve a documentary purpose, which sets limits for the kinds and degree of artistry one can apply, and they may also want to have a say in the visual style of the photos (though most of my clients seem to leave that to me, since it appears I have a good sense of what they tend to prefer). In other words, this is commercial, not fine, art. Of course, some clients may just need purely informational, documentary photos, but I believe that tends to be a minority.

    "If a window view must be brighter than the surrounding wall, then how are we supposed to handle a shady garden view in late afternoon, seen through a window in a bone-white wall?" That is a real situation, where it is visually justified having the window view be relatively dark, though it is generally preferable to try to keep the windows in this sort of situation from looking really dark, when possible, which might mean shooting at a time of day when such a view gets the maximum possible daylight, assuming that doesn't adversely affect the other windows. What we are talking about is something like a bright, sunlit view where the photographer makes the window view so dark that the view looks like it was cut and pasted in, which is exactly what some photographers do and then add insult to injury by doing a bad masking job and also neglecting to paste in the reflections of that view on the interior surfaces, or addressing bright interior areas that are obviously lit by a brighter exterior. In short, there are limits to how much you can blend a much brighter exterior with a darker interior and keep it looking reasonably realistic. As a general rule, an interior with a bright, sunny exterior view tends to look most convincing when the exterior is somewhat overexposed. In any case, if the exterior view looks pasted in and there is a visual discrepancy between the levels of the interior and exterior lighting, you have failed and created an obviously artificial-looking photo.

  9. I think the big divide between most here in the RE field is that some think this business is all about artistic ability and how they can create stunning images, while others look at this as a request from realtors to give a realistic look at what the potential buyer will see when they visit.

    Can you have both?

  10. Great discussion. But to address Jerry's comment, happily brief unlike myself, I am not sure that it is an either or situation. I think we need to both produce dynamic photos that will capture the internet browser (for those images seen on the internet but print ads also need a dynamic image to get readers to stop and look again) and hold their attention as well as accurately describe the property, not just the house but the entire property inside and out. We tend to focus on interiors here where as most houses sit on land that can be just as important, sometimes even more important than the structure itself. So whether what we do is art of not is a bit esoteric. But it can certainly be artistic and when it is, then it stands a better chance of capturing the viewer's attention.

    Part of our work is to reach out and pull a viewer into the image so they will hopefully look at more photos, perhaps read a bit and then pick up the phone and call the realtor. With over 90% of Millennials doing their first search on the internet and the bulk of the rest doing the same, our photos are liable to be the first thing seen by potential buyers. So our images are first advertising and only later become documentary and descriptive. So if the view through wall to ceiling windows is part of the marketing/sales of the whole house and property, say a hillside house with an incredible view of a bay or mountains, then we really do have to ensure that that view is clear and impactful. But if the view is of a gravel pit or car wreck yard, then perhaps we need to figure out ways to minimize that impact. For truth in advertising, we cannot pretend its not there but we can minimize it.

    I was just talking to a regular client of mine a couple of weeks ago and she said she keeps visiting the property site I made for her with the photos of just a small 2 bedroom house on a postage stamp property with a fringe of citrus trees where there were hidden grottos since she loved the photos so much and said that the buyers also fell in love with the house through the photos before ever seeing it. And when they saw it, they said it looks just like the photos. Well it did not really since I was showing it in its best light but their mental image and their interior emotional landscape had been primed and set to like the property before they ever set foot in it and saw what they wanted to see and could over look the "cons" that every house has. They already knew they were going to spruce it up, redo the kitchen and so on. In this case, the windows only showed the neighbors a few feet away, but the back yard had all the potential with the rich, green leaves of the orange trees. They could see it as the play ground for their kids in their minds eyes.

    And this is what I think we all try to do. Our photos should not be just a documentary but a sales/marketing aid to the realtor to fish the waters of the browsers on the internet and allow them in person to reel them in. So we are in advertising and need to apply such artistic tools that we have to achieve this function. And windows are a part of this story. But each window has its own story and has to be treated differently; this should not have to be said but apparently, with a view to some of the comments above, it does. There is no hard and fast rule in photography except to do what works best. How you get there is up to each photographer facing each property challenge. Photographs have to fulfill multiple demands simultaneously.

  11. @Jerry - you certainly can have both although I'd argue it's quite rare in our field, as you'd first have to rule out the 99% of RE photography that makes every space look ginormous due to the obsession with wide-angle abuse, as this is definitely not giving a realistic look to what the potential buyer will see.

  12. ha. The old photography is or isn't art debate has gone on for years. It's even more ridiculous when applied to RE. This isn't art by any stretch of the imagination. There is an art to our process, but our final product isn't art. Most photography isn't. Perhaps all. Here's one way to know.

    If Picasso, who we all know as an artist, painted a picture of Bloomingdales for an advertisement, that picture would not be art, even though it's painted by a famous artist. The only way it could get around that is if Picasso also reserved the intent to render Bloomigdales any way he chose, with the intent to sell it in the exact same manner as the rest of the art he produced. And he could draw boobs on it if he felt like it. He often did.

    Photographs are their own category. Saying "I create art" is misleading. I don't arrange the entire contents of what is before me. I don't draw a sofa from scratch, I replicate an image of it in about 1/60th of a second. There is an art to my rendering, but I didn't create what's in front of me. None of it. And my intent isn't to hang and sell it in a gallery. My intent is to produce photos for advertisement. I don't have the freedom to do anything I want to. I can't put a reclining nude lady or dude in the home theater. I can't spatter the house with multicolors of paint like Jackson Pollack. I have a rules I am obligated to abide by. Art isn't dictated by rules, it's has an inherent freedom to it. Tupac can write the word "F__K!" in as many variations he chooses in his lyrics. I can't have that word appear on my RE photos no matter what. I don't have freedom, and therefore what I produce is advertisement, not art. In fact, with respect to Ansel Adams, even having viewed his original photos, I would classify him as a consummate technician, and not necessarily an artist. A photographer, for sure.

    Most of us that have done this kind of work for a long time, and for me that's a quarter of a century, have realized that it doesn't really matter what is in front of our camera... it's our "process" that defines our work. Our signature on it. That said, use what little freedom you have in this wisely. Turn lights off or on, let windows go white if that's your thing, and move the sofa one inch to the left if you must.

    I tend to use the "objects found" approach. That is, to leave objects undisturbed, and use composition and light to make the most of what I find. But for me, to let the windows go white, is to force a condition that isn't there, but highlights the limitations of a single exposure. Most photographers who have seen work prints by Ansel Adams or by Richard Avedon, see that they are extensively marked up with a sharpie, to roadmap what they intended to do in post, via burning and dodging in the darkroom. It was pretty extensive. So much so, that they only produced a single Master Print from it, and all other resulting images were copies of that original master print.

  13. The world of museums, art galleries, art collectors, art critics and art publications has largely considered photography to be an art form for some time. Furthermore, it is entirely possible for fine art to be used for commercial purposes, even when commissioned as such, in which case the sole criteria would be if the commission allowed the artist free reign for self expression. Art that needs to conform to specific client criteria for marketing purposes would fall into the category of commercial art. This is all established fact. Kelvin is certainly entitled to his personal opinions about what represents art to him, but not what it represents to others whom he does not know.

  14. First consideration is it is usually more difficult to do a dark window pull. The ambient starts to fade and every nook in the composition needs to be somehow filled with artificial light. Or, you are taking a separate lighting frame only for the windows. Either case, it is more difficult, meaning more time consuming.

    Second you have to consider what looks best. This is personal, but I really believe if people had a lightroom brightness adjustment slider for windows onsite, they would go with lighter windows than they normally would, because they do in fact tend to look better.

    The real key after those two considerations is make sure you are not spending extra time and effort to make your photos look worse! Because I know for a fact that is what a lot of people are doing.

  15. Art - the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

    If real estate photography (or any photography) was not art then every photographer would produce the same photograph no matter the equipment used. The moment we make a decision about what camera to use, camera settings, whether or not to flash or not, about composition, the lens we use - its art.

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