One of the most common questions we get about house interior photography is how to photograph interiors without daylight over-exposing and washing out the windows. The quick and honest answer is – it’s tough but can be done.
For lots of listings, the view outside might be a big selling point you want to show off. Even if the view’s not that great you don’t want a big section of the picture completely blown out by those over-zealous photons racing into the room through the glass.
Read on to find some answers but be warned, this blog is a little more technical than usual. Actually, that’s a lie – it’s way more technical, mainly because it’s really hard to achieve the desired look if you’re not a pro photographer.
In my ongoing mission to simplify things and help agents have beautiful property photos to display, I do have a hack for you, dear reader. If you want the easiest way possible to stop whited-out windows, skip to Option 3 – but know this; it’s still kinda tricky!
Why are my windows over-exposed?
Over-exposed windows are a pain in house interior photography, but there’s a few solutions depending on how much work you want to put into your photos. Let’s start with why it happens in the first place.
When you walk into any room, you can see detail in the brightest highlights and the darkest shadows. If you look towards a window, you see everything in the room before the window and everything outside in perfect detail – the human eye is pretty amazing like that.
The problem, when it comes to house interior photography, is that there’s no camera or lens in the world that comes close to what your eye can manage. A camera’s sensor can expose for bright light outside, or it can expose for the dimmer interior ambient light. It can’t do both at the same time.
The sensor’s ability to show detail in the brightest and darkest areas of a shot is its ‘Dynamic Range’. The human eye can detect more than 20 stops of detail in its own dynamic range.
The best sensors in the most expensive professional DSLRs on the market can only manage about three-quarters of that. As agents, you are unlikely to want to buy the top of the range stuff, we actually recommend more basic entry-level gear so you inevitably will sacrifice some of that elusive Dynamic Range. It’s a cost-quality trade off.
If you do want to splash out a little more on a camera that can perform window detail capturing miracles, keep reading, but first, more technical stuff.
Here’s some interior photography tips to fix those washed-out windows.
Option 1: Balance out the lighting with flash (Skill level: Pro)
The only way to catch both interior and exterior detail in one shot is to even out the difference between the interior ambient light, and the daylight coming in from outside.
We can’t turn down the sun, so the only option is to add more light to the interior. You’re not going to manage this with regular home lighting already in the room, so it means setting up studio lighting or flash photography.
But that leads us to another problem. Unless you’re able to set up a few remote flash speedlights away from the camera to bounce the light, you’ll get unflattering shadows and a generally ugly photo.
Even if you can somehow bounce the light off the ceiling, your camera’s built-in flash isn’t up to this kind of job. And if you’ve read my blog before, you’ll know I’m not a fan of flash, it’s easy to shoot a dark room without flash.
Let’s forget the flash then.
Option 2: HDR interior photography and bracketing (Skill level: Pro)
No matter what equipment you’re using, whatever interior photography camera settings you try, sometimes getting a perfect exposure in-camera in one shot that shows the outside detail through a window isn’t possible. That’s where bracketing and HDR photography comes into play.
Bracketing images means composing your shot, then taking multiple photos at different exposure settings, then using software like Adobe Photoshop to composite them together into an image that shows the detail from each image cleverly fused together.
The darker exposure adds more detail to brighter areas, and vice versa. We call the finished composite a HDR, or High Dynamic Range image.
The simplest bracketing method for house interior photography is to take three exposures of -2, 0, +2 “stops”. In this case 0 is a neutral, regular “point and shoot” exposure. -2 is a darker exposure two stops down, and +2 is a brighter exposure two stops up. Most DSLRs have an auto-bracketing setting which will set the exposures for you.
HDR interior photography is a way to get perfectly exposed photos with tricky lighting situations in any part of the property. Here’s how to pull it off:
Tried & tested interior photography camera settings
First of all, we need to measure the dynamic range of our subject. Turn your camera to manual mode and set the lens aperture wide – say, f/8 or f/11. This will make sure everything is in focus. We’re not after depth of field here.
Set your ISO low. The HDR process will add noise to your image anyway, so use as low an ISO as you can manage – 100 or 200 should be fine.
Next, we need to lock the focus so the camera doesn’t try to autofocus halfway through and mess the whole thing up. Either set the autofocus now by half-pressing the shutter, or switch to manual focus and adjust the focus ring on your lens until everything’s nice and sharp.
Either way, remember to leave your lens in Manual Focus mode. What’s the best lens for interior photography? A prime lens as wide as possible. We recommend this Sigma 10-20mm wide-angle lens.
Finally, set the metering mode to spot metering.
Use the spot metering to measure the brightest part of your subject (the window) as you adjust the shutter speed until the metering hits the mid-tone (0 in the middle of the meter). Make a note of the shutter speed.
Now, do the same on the darkest interior part of the subject. Those two shutter speeds give us the dynamic range of our photo, and the -2 and +2 bracketing we need to expose for. Now it’s time to take our photos!
Oh, and if you are still reading and thinking “WTF”, then you’re not gonna like this either, to do all this you need a tripod, and I personally am not a fan, in fact, I advocate not using a tripod as they just slow you down!
However, if you’re wanting to do the bracketing technique, you need one because we’re merging multiple shots you don’t want any movement or differences in camera angle. You should ideally be also using a remote trigger or the delay timer to avoid camera shake.
Take those two shutter speeds you measured, set your settings slap bang in the middle of them, and take the photo. This is your mid-tone, vanilla, middle ground exposure.
Next, set your shutter to the first shutter speed you measured and take the photo for our -2-bracketed exposure. The window will look good but the rest of the image will look too dark. Don’t worry, it’s supposed to.
Finally, set your shutter to the second shutter speed and take the photo.
So, we’ve now got three images, one exposed for the daylight through the window, one exposed for the interior ambient light and shadows, and a third with an exposure in the middle. It’s time to process them to create the final image.
Still confused? Don’t worry, the easier option is coming up soon.
There’s a lot of HDR programs out there, but the best HDR software for real estate photography is still Adobe Photoshop.
Launch Photoshop, and go to File→Automate→Merge to HDR Pro. Click Browse, select your three photos and click Open. Then hit OK to start the photo merge.
On the next screen, adjust the sliders until you get a natural looking image with both the interior and window exposed right, paying particular attention to the Edge Glow Radius and Strength sliders (don’t overdo it, we’re after a natural looking image). Once you’re done, click OK to create your HDR image, then carry on with your usual Photoshop edits as normal.
You should now have a lovely photo with good highlights and shadows, and some detail through the window.
Hard work, right? Especially if you’re just sending out Bob from the office to take some shots. Poor Bob. Fear not. Bob’s day is about to get a lot easier!
Option 3. Auto HDR Mode (Skill level: Intermediate)
Proper, manual bracketing and processing HDR images in Photoshop gives you the most control of the final image, but honestly, have you actually got the time or skill to do all that? Don’t you just want a nice set of shots with a cheeky bit of window detail on show?
Many of the newer DSLR ranges have built-in HDR modes that do a fine job for HDR interior photography. This is definitely true of all Canon DSLRs since the 5D Mk III was released in 2012. But cameras with built in HDR do cost a little more than the entry-level gear that most estate agents use to photograph their properties.
HDR mode (aka ‘HDR Backlight Control’) will take three bracketed exposures in-camera and merge them to extend your sensor’s dynamic range and capture all those important details in your house interior photography.
When you take the shot, all of the stuff in Option 2 is pretty much done automatically, inside the camera, in a couple of seconds.
And the best bit, you don’t need to use a tripod! Just try and stay as still as possible, hold your breath when snapping, that helps.
Now, I’m not wanting to make it sound like the HDR Backlight Control is the holy grail of an answer. It helps a lot but it is still a very tricky skill to nail. If you absolutely, positively, must have the window detail on show all the time, you may be better off hiring a pro to shoot your houses and do all this bracketing jigery-pokery for you.
These images below shows on the left; what normally happens when photographing a house, the whited-out window, and on the right, the image when the camera is set up to shoot in auto HDR mode; where the window detail can be seen.
What’s an affordable camera for auto HDR?
I recommend the Canon Eos 70D. It’s awesome for its built in HDR functionality and can really help capture nice internal shots with a nice bit of window detail as well.
The shots will still look pretty dark, to be honest, so you’ll need to enhance your images in Lightroom, but we can help with Image Enhancement if you need it.
How do I set the camera up to shoot HDR?
The following settings are for the Canon EOS 70D. Why only this model? Because I shoot with Canon and I don’t actually know the Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Polaroid, or any other settings I’m sorry to say.
If you are shooting with a different camera, just see what your instruction manual or Google has to say on the matter.
- Spin the settings wheel to SCN
- Press the Q button
- Choose HDR Backlight Control
Is the extra window detail worth the hassle?
At the end of the day, if there’s a window view that could add something to your property photos, or if the windows are a feature in themselves, then by all means try to show them off with HDR interior photography. It’s quite an advanced concept, but definitely a lot easier to do now with the right camera.
On the other hand, don’t think that a slightly whited-out window will be the make or break of getting people booked in to view the property. Maybe you just have a pet-peeve about it and I get it, it’s amazing to have so much attention to detail and I salute you for it.
The choice is yours my friend; get a pro lighting setup, brush up on some pro bracketing tekkers, pick up a camera that does the hard work for you, or ignore all this and keep things simple but have slightly whited-out windows.