Photographing Real Estate Interiors

The Interior Appears Too Dark

 updated article Jan15, 2011 - Let's assume your real estate images show dark rooms (see the not too untypical photo at the left). Buyers and Sellers alike want to see brightly lit interiors, and a dark inside photo is next to morbid. This is a typical metering issue you must make a decision to expose either for the bright exterior daylight bursting in the windows or go for the darker inside. Unlike a camera your eyes can focus on both scenes at the same time, and the inside may not look all that dark, alas no digital image sensor or film has yet been invented that can recognize such a large range of dark to light. When you set your camera on autofocus it will try to capture the detail in the extremely bright windows (assuming they're the subject), relegating the balance of the room to a big undistinguished shadow. Even if you set the exposure manually may entail compromises unacceptable to you.

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Example: Interior Looks Too Dark
Example: Interior Looks Too Dark.Shot with Nikon 18-55mm kit lens.

Solution Number One: Reduce the Exterior Lighting

You can't dial the sun down, but you can shoot when there are heavy overcast skies (In Sunny California). Or get up at near dawn or stay to shoot at dusk as the daylight levels begin to match the interior lighting intensity. To carry this to to an extreme, Try interior shots at twilight with extremely low light... a dazzling effect. But interiors shot at night produces dark depressing windows. But let's further assume you have absolutely no control over exterior illumination or the available shooting time. So..

Solution Number Two: Switch the Lights on

Hot lights (non-flash) are somewhat simple to employ: since the lights are always on, you can go about adjusting the scene to what pleases you. I prefer using bunches of lighting and I lean shift towards overexposure to present a bright and cheery appearance, even when some the lamp bulbs burn out (highlight features of a lamp shade aren't always necessary). Here's some suggestions for interior lighting, beginning with the easiest to do.

Existing Room Lights Turn on every available light in a room: ceiling lights, lamps, appliance lamps... everything but hold the fluorescents (which turn green using daylight film, but not as much of a problem using digital). Turn the lights on in adjoining rooms too, to allow visible doorways to not appear dark. Even as the room seems to already be bright enough, Lights all aglow will create a positive effect. (You want the electric meter to look like the meter in the move, "Christmas Vacation".

The shot on right used bounce flash and Photoshop for lighting This shot used bounce flash and Photoshop for lighting... what could be easier? Shot with Sigma 10-20mm lens.

Use Halogen Bulbs. I carry a number of 150-watt halogen bulbs to switch out in the existing lamps (typically 75 to 100 watt tungsten). Halogen light is much whiter and the extra 150 watt brightness makes a huge change. In the Lakeshore House shown at the left, all the artificial lighting was supplied by four lamps, while three of the interior ones being bulbed with 150W halogens. Carrying along additional bulbs also solves the widespread problem of burned-out bulbs. The halogens need cool down for a few minutes after turning off the lamps, before removing them from the lams: they become finger burning hot. To keep the build-up of heat down and allowing me to quickly move to the subsequent room, I keep them turned off until I'm ready to shoot.

If the light room still seems dim, get lamps from another room to use for added light . Either add them to the setting if that makes sense, or place them down on the floor in back of the camera to add additional light io the room. I keep extra extension cords in my car for these kind of situations..
Kitchen photo with bounce flash Nikon SB400 Bounce Flash

Bring floods. Not those costly photofloods just inexpensive (500 or 1000 watt) halogen lights that are widely available in most home improvement stores. When used In a large room, they can be hidden in closets, behind furniture, and other discrete areas to bring stronger light throughout the room. In a smaller space, just place them right behind the lens by using them as bounce light off the walls and ceilings to even out the lighting.

Use a reflectors to redirect the existing light to places you need more illumination. Reflectors can even be set up outside to bring daylight into a poorly-lit window (one that might appear dismal otherwise in the final image). I have even laid out reflectors behind furniture on the floor to redirect sunlight to eliminate tint bouncing off a colored rug. Those portable reflectors with wire-hoop are especially good if you can put them on a stand to keep them in just the right position. You can also get plastic drops with silver reflective sides at home supply stores, and in a real pinch, just make use of a white sheet off a bed.

Solution Number Three: Flash Lighting

 Flash outside of window injects sunshine
A solution that requires you to acquire one or more camera flash attachments and other accessories. The better flashes can cost in the hundred of dollars. Flash units may add complexity and require more time for each setup, but you gain control over illumination -- especially when using powerful studio flash units. Be careful of flash reflections showing in mirrors, windows, and picture glass!

Stay away from direct flash. When you the camera's built-in-flash aimed direct at the scene is guaranteed to create unpleasing consequences: the foreground will consist of flat light (light without sidelight defining texture and form) and be be starkly lit, plus the background and all the corners will diminish into shadowy darkness. Either turn off the camera's built-in flash unit or look for a way to redirect, diffuse or bounce the light from the ceiling or a wall (try a using little tape and foil).

Bounce Flash. A flash mounted on the camera's hot shoe can nicely illuminate a small room. Just use a light colored ceiling to bounce, soften and diffuse the lighting. You need a flash head that will rotate, point it backwards and up to reflect from a white wall located in back of your camera. Bouncing spreads the lighting throughout the whole room rather than only lighting the close foreground. But it also reduces the power of the flash, so using a low power flash or in a large room you might have to adjust your aperture to a larger setting than you want (and sacrifice depth of field) to allow more flash in. You should not expect even a powerful hot shoe mounted flash to illuminate a room at similar intensity as exterior daylight.

Using bounce flash adds power, extends coverage and range, lighting details, and lights adjacent hallways and rooms. Slave flash units can also be placed where you need more light, being especially effective in a large area. Optical slaves discharge when they notice another flash going off - very convenient.

Flash accessories range from small suction-cup battery-powered slaves to huge studio lights on big stands. If you don't have a white surface to reflect from, use a softbox or shoot-through an umbrella to disperse the light.

A digital camera helps to finely adjust a complex flash arrangement, as you are able review and readjust the lights. consider getting a inexpensive point & shoot digital camera to sample the lighting If you're shooting 35mm, medium or large format film camera.

Light Modifiers. Numerous attachments can give you more power over using flash and its effects. soft boxes and umbrella reflectors disperse the flash to soften shadows and reduce specular highlights. Snoots, barn doors, honeycombs and other accessories help in directing illumination where it is needed and prevents spillover to other areas.

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