How to Shoot Real Estate Photography Using Natural Light

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There’s something about the way sunlight illuminates a room. The light pours over surfaces, metal fixtures gleam, wood detail shines, and the edges of furniture upholstery glows. Natural shadows produced by different objects convey a sense of depth. A naturally-lit image gives you a feel for what it would be like to see the space in person.

1 dining

The following will give you a basic understanding of equipment needs, how to manage contrast and mixed lighting in a room, and HDR shooting techniques to get you started doing real estate photography using natural light.

Equipment

Shooting with natural light has the benefit of a short equipment list. A camera, tripod, and wide angle lens is all you need.

  • Camera: A DSLR with auto-bracketing will increase your shooting speed and ease.
  • Tripod: Your tripod should be sturdy enough that your camera will stay put if you need to manually adjust camera settings, while shooting a series of bracketed images.
  • Wide Angle Lens (with lens hood): For cropped sensor cameras, the Tokina 11-16mm is a fantastic choice for real estate photography. The Canon 10-22mm is also a great option. You’ll be able to handle just about any real estate shooting situation with either of these aspherical lenses. For full frame cameras you’ll want a lens in the 16-35mm range. A lens hood is necessary to prevent lens flare.
  • Not required, but definitely a bonus: Circular Polarizer. In addition to deepening blue skies, a circular polarizer can be very helpful in reducing glare on windows, foliage and pool surfaces.

Sunlight on the exterior

A sunny day is the best canvas for your exterior shots. Try to schedule your shoot during a time of day when the sun will be shining on the front of the house. Ask your client (or check Google Maps) to see which direction the house faces. You want capture the front exterior in its best light, as it’s almost always used as the featured image for the property’s listing.

2 exterior sun darlene

If it’s not possible to shoot the exterior in sunlight, don’t fret. Shooting HDR (explained later on) will help perk up a shady exterior.

851 Cabrillo Ave 05 Exterior print

4036 Baldwin Lane 01 ExteriorFront

Camera position within a room

There’s usually one ideal spot in a room, to position your camera to showcase the best angle. A room’s best angle usually shows:

  1. As much of the room as possible.
  2. The most aesthetically pleasing furniture and/or architectural elements.

For the natural light photographer, finding that spot depends on two things: available space, and window brightness.

Most importantly, you need to pick a space you can physically occupy. For smaller houses and rooms, quite often your only choice is the doorway, as it is likely to be the only spot where you can fit behind the tripod, and still squeeze enough of the room into your shot. Capturing three walls in your shot will give the viewer a better idea of the size and space of the room.

Rooms large enough to offer more than one shooting location often have windows lacking shades or blinds. Pick a spot in which extremely bright windows are angled more than 45 degrees away from center of your lens’ field of view. Doing so will help you avoid a high-contrast shooting situations and potential lens flare, which will in turn reduce your time spent in post-production.

4 side light

The shooting location for this image placed the bright window at a 90-degree angle to the lens, minimizing contrast, as well as producing a pleasantly side-lit scene. An out of frame kitchen window, provided supplemental light from the right.

5 low contrast window

This room’s patio doors looked directly onto a foliage-covered hillside, resulting in a reduced contrast between interior and exterior, and less work required in post-production.

Working with windows

The windows in smaller rooms, such as bedrooms and bathrooms (in which your shooting position is limited) usually have blinds or shades. If the windows are bright, consider closing them at least partially, to reduce contrast between the interior and exterior – especially if the view outside is not an additional selling point for the house. This cuts down on the overall contrast of the scene, while still illuminating the room. It also prevents direct light from hitting your lens, minimizing flare and ghosting.

6 bed shades

Blinds are angled at 45 degree to cut down on scene contrast.

7 living partial

Blinds on the brightest window are partially closed, whereas the patio door blinds were left open.

Shooting HDR

Natural light can create beautiful images, but they do require some extra work in post-production. Rarely can a single exposure handle the range of contrast produced by an interior space with windows. HDR techniques will help remedy shadowy corners and bright windows, properly exposing all parts of the space.

8 bed no hdr

From a single exposure.

9 bed hdr

HDR composite created with nine bracketed images.

To create an HDR image, you’ll need to shoot a series of bracketed images. Tiny rooms without any windows, such as washrooms and closets, usually require three images bracketed by 1-1.5 stops. In most rooms 5-7 images will do the trick. High-contrast spaces containing bright interior lighting and/or windows, may require nine bracketed images. For rooms with exterior views, sometimes HDR programs have difficulty rendering the contrast, no matter how many bracketed images you shoot, and the composite starts to look unnatural.

In general, it’s difficult to achieve a natural look within an image that contains a room with a view. For finer control over this interior/exterior blending process, consider shooting an image to expose for the view out the window, then using Photoshop to mask the view into the HDR composite image of the room.

10 view hdr

HDR composite image.

11 view hdr+extra image

HDR composite with an additional image exposed for the view masked into the windows with Photoshop.

Even though the change is subtle, the potentially distracting overexposed window scene is now closer to proper levels, making it easier for the viewer’s eye to move from the interior to exterior, and back again.

Mixed lighting inside

One of the difficulties of working with natural light, is dealing with mixed lighting situations. If enough light is coming in through the windows, you can choose to leave interior lights off, resulting in a single daylight color temperature throughout the image. Leaving interior lights off works especially well when window light is sufficiently illuminating the room, the light fixtures themselves aren’t in the frame, and the palette of the room is mostly white.

12 bath sunlight only

Lights off in this bathroom resulted in a fresh and clean look.

13 bed sunlight only

The window light was so abundant in this bedroom that turning the interior lights on could have arguably made the scene look unnatural.

14 living sunlight only

The interior lights were kept off to avoid mixing tungsten with daylight for this shot. Turning them on wouldn’t have added much illumination, as the sunlight was quite bright on its own.

If the room isn’t bathed in sunlight, or contains light fixtures like pendants or chandeliers that should be on display, make sure to turn them on. You’ll end up with multiple color casts that will require correction later, but there’s a point at which simplifying the lighting just to speed up post-production, starts to undermine the ambiance of the room.

15 living mixed

Mixed lighting in the living room above, and the bedroom below, required a significant amount of color correction in post-production, but resulted in more inviting and warmer looking spaces.

16 bedroom mixed

You can reduce your color correcting time by masking in the lights, the same way you would the view outside a window. Shoot the room with the lights off, then with the lights on. Create two HDR composites of each lighting situation, then mask in the illuminated lights. This works well with fixtures that don’t provide much illumination but should be seen turned on.

17 dining chandelier off

HDR composite with chandelier off.

18 dining chandelier on

HDR composite with the illuminated chandelier masked in with Photoshop.

Conclusion

Shooting real estate with only sunlight and interior lighting lends a beautiful, natural aesthetic to your images. When setting out, remember:

  • A wide angle lens is a must-have, along with camera and tripod.
  • Shoot the exterior bathed in sunlight, if possible.
  • Avoid shooting directly into extremely bright windows.
  • Adjust shades and blinds to control contrast within a room.
  • Decide how to deal with mixed lighting, and shoot different variations to give yourself plenty of options in post-production later.

Please post your questions and share your real estate photos in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Lauren Schroeder is the owner of San Diego Home Photography and is an avid natural light photographer. In addition to real estate, she shoots landscapes, products, food and the occasional portrait for local San Diego magazines, and blogs about her travels and adventures at On Blue Under Canvas. Follow her personal work on Instagram.

  • kirkhateswork

    Good tip about masking light fixtures. The difference is subtle and went un-noticed until it was pointed out. But it really can change the ambiance!

  • Great advice – thanks!

  • Lauren

    Absolutely, Katie. Thanks for reading!

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  • TLJr

    Really well written advice supported by great examples. Thanks so much!

  • Lauren

    Thanks!

  • Lauren

    Cheers!

  • Howard Raver

    Good article. But, not all houses are as large as those depicted in this article, it would better serve the reader had there been some good examples of smaller houses, which are actually quite common; for example, in my own house, the bedrooms are rather small, 8×10 is the average size of the 3, and our bathroom is only about 8×7. Some examples and descriptions of how to deal with that sort of situation would really complete this article.

  • John

    Hi Howard. I shoot small kitchens and shower rooms regularly! No room for me, a tripod and camera. So I use a flexible table-top tripod or a bean bag and set the camera up un my i-phone from outside the room. It takes a bit of trial and error to get the composition right, but it works – and cuts down the number of reflections that have to be edited out.

  • John

    Great article. I take photos in the UK for architects, kitchen and bathroom companies and estate agents. I always shoot in RAW format and like you I have problems with sunlight streaming in through windows and a shaft of bright light can really mess up an interior – where the colours of kitchen cabinets can be critical to a designer! The only thing you didn’t praise are the two recent features in the Photoshop Adaptive Wide Angle filter where you can finely control barrel distortion ( I use a 15mm lens on a full frame body) and correct verticals and horizontals at the same time. I use this extensively.

  • Howard Raver

    Oh, OK. Great idea! I haven’t done any real estate work, but did shoot my own house so we could put it on the market. We have since decided to stay put though. I have tried to get a few gigs from some of the local RE folks, but no one is interested, most of them just use a point and shoot and do it themselves

  • This is right on time for me.
    Thanks!

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  • Bob Dumon

    Interesting article. I shoot from three to seven real estate listings a week, and agree natural light produces excellent photos. I use bounce flash most of the time indoors, but with the ISO kicked up a bit and the flash toned down, more like fill flash than flash used as the main light source. Sample photo attached. I personally like the look of table lamps turned on without color correction. I think it produces a nice warm “glow” in the room, so I don’t mind the color being a bit “off” and artificial looking. But that’s JMHO. Today I’m going to try using your HDR approach indoors (Nikon D750, Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 V.C., Vanguard tripod). Looking forward to the results. Thanks!

  • Sherry Bell

    Great article! I’ve taken real estate photos for over 2 years and I’m developing my own style using natural light although the other photographers in the area (all male) use flash and plenty of it. The difference is subtle, but distinctive and agents appreciate the difference. You confirmed my approach and added to my practice…thanks!

  • Beautiful set of images, Lauren. Loved them all. 🙂

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  • Lauren

    Thanks Sherry, glad to hear it!

  • Lauren

    In a room like the one you photographed above, I’d agree with you about the table lamps — keeping them on will add more in ambiance to the final image than any color shifts would detract. I would love to see one of your photos using HDR!

  • Lauren

    Hi John, I completely sympathize. Untamed natural light can wreak havoc on interiors. One trick I use to remedy ghosting from bright windows is my own hand. I’ll shoot two sets of bracketed images, block the window in the second set, and then (after creating HDR composites of both) merge the two in Photoshop and mask out my hand. This doesn’t work all the time, but when it does it can be a huge post-production work-saver. As for your comment on Photoshop’s Adaptive Wide Angle filter, I’ve never needed to make use of it, as images shot with my aspherical Tokina 11-16mm needed nothing more than lens profile correction in Camera Raw.

  • Bob Dumon

    Well after reading your excellent article, I bought Photomatix Pro 5.0 and this was my first try. 5 series of bracketed shots, Vanguard tripod, D750, Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8. V.C. lens. I had to bring the greens down all the way off, boost the blues a lot, boosted the reds a bit, and reduced yellow and orange a little in order to get our “tan” sofa to look tan. The final result looks pretty good to me now. I plan on trying this more in the future thanks to you. All your fault! ; ) Bob

  • John

    Useful Hint! Thanks, Lauren.

  • Bob Dumon

    By the way our windows need to be replaced. We have a pool and a Polaris in it which has sprayed chlorinated water on the windows which no one can figure out how to clean. Geesh.

  • Lauren

    Looks great, Bob! I might be biased, but I’d have to say I prefer this photo over the other with flash! 😉 In a room like this you could also try shooting with the kitchen lights on to give the background a boost, or consider lightening it up with editing software. Overall, the natural light looks fantastic.

  • Bob Dumon

    Excellent idea! I’ll try it with the kitchen lights one, Lauren. Thanks.

  • Kitty Hawk Mel

    Can you expand a little on your process in post with HDR? What software do you use? general idea of the types of settings other than how many frames you shoot? I shot real estate photography and the windows are something I’m really trying to improve. For the impressive views I use the technique of masking out the windows in PS that you mentioned, but that’s far too intensive to do for every window to achieve the types of look you have in your photos. I’d love to be able to do it through HDR blending but it never turns out anywhere close to right. Thanks! Loved the article and the examples!

  • Lauren

    Hi Kitty Hawk Mel, Thanks for reading! After shooting the bracketed images, I bring them into Camera Raw to adjust white balance and color temperature. I usually bump the clarity to +25. If the images have mixed or intense color casts, I’ll consider changing the Camera Profile to Camera Neutral, especially the very over exposed and under exposed images. Then I export JPGs from Camera Raw, and create my HDR composite with Photomatix Pro. The only settings I adjust here are Strength, Blending Point and Midtones. Strength can end up anywhere from -10 to +6, depending on how much contrast is already in the image. Blending and Midtones usually end up between +1-3. After exporting this composite I bring it into Photoshop. Maybe 1 window out of 20 I’ll decide needs extra treatment to reveal the view outside; most of the time you can get away without it. For the rest of the image I’ll then desaturate whatever should be grayscale, such as window frames, crown moulding, kitchen appliances, toilets, bathtubs, faucets, etc. Then I correct color casts, lighten the ceiling and lighten any dark shadows. Lastly I’ll use curves to give the image a touch more punch and contrast. This entire process usually takes between 5-15 minutes per image.

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