Is it “Snowing” Outside Your House?

As a real estate photographer and a virtual tour provider, I often peruse realtor.com and other sites where virtual tours and listing photos are posted to gage them against my own work and make sure that my offerings and services are of higher quality than that of my competitors.

One problem I notice again and again on the majority of pictures I view (both stills and panoramas) is “blown out” windows which make it look like a blizzard is raging outside! Since I’m not viewing listings in Antarctica, I know that this is actually because the photographer doesn’t know how to expose the scene for both inside and outside light.

The reason this happens, without launching into a full-scale lesson on dynamic range (the range between the darkest and lightest areas of a scene), is that exterior light (sunlight) streaming through a window is typically much brighter than the ambient light and/or the artificial lighting inside of a room. While the human eye is the most advanced lens on the planet and can adjust lighting levels so that you see more even lighting in a room, even the most expensive camera lenses don’t come close to duplicating this kind of dynamic range.

I live in Los Angeles and often shoot very expensive homes with great views of the beach or mountains, so it is very important for me to adequately capture the view. So, a few “tricks” are necessary to make sure that the end result is a scene or a photo where both the interior and the exterior are properly exposed.

First of all, choose your camera angles carefully. You can often choose camera angles that minimize window glare and still for the most part properly expose the interior. If you shoot a sunny window straight on (i.e. at a 90 degree angle) you will most certainly get a partial or total “wash out” if you expose for interior lighting. However move your tripod so that you are capturing that window from an angle of 10 or 15 degrees and voila!!

You can often capture the exterior scene with very little effect on the interior lighting (you may have to use the “dodge” tool for some minor tuning up around the window). Of course, you may have a window across the room that you are shooting straight on, so that may only solve your problem with one window. Also, sometimes we don’t have the luxury of total flexibility when choosing our interior angles due to room features, furniture or objects we are trying to shoot around. That’s when a little “Photoshoppery” comes into play. Yes, you’ll need a little bit of Photoshop knowledge to do this, and (duh) the Photoshop program itself.

There are a few ways to do this, but here’s what I do. First, you must have a camera that contains selectable metering spots or zones (not all do) and also you must use a tripod to match shots exactly. Also, if possible when lining up your shot, try to not have anything partially or totally in front of the window, because it may create problems for you later. When a window is partially or totally in the shot, you are going to capture two shots. First, expose for optimum interior lighting (the window will be partially or totally blown out to white). Next, without moving the camera, move the meter point so that it is exposing for the window. Immediately, the window scene comes into view while the rest of the room goes somewhat dark. You now have two identical shots, one with optimum exterior lighting and one that exposes the interior properly.

Repeat this process for all shots that include windows. Now, time for a little Photoshop magic! Open up Photoshop and pull up your duplicate shots. Now go to your picture where the window scene is optimum and push in pretty tight on it (200-300%) so you can be precise with your selection work. Now use the polygonal lasso tool (or if you have a more rounded or irregular shape to trace, the magnetic lasso tool) to trace the window. I usually trace outside the window frame, and then if necessary, use the “dodge” tool to lighten the frame up.

Now, select the “move” tool, which will automatically cutout your selection, and drag the window over to your “interior” picture. Push in again real close on this picture so you can place your window exactly where it should be on top of the “blown-out” window. Now flatten the layers of your image and VOILA, you have just “composited” an image!! You have a shot where both the interior and window scene are perfectly captured and exposed. If you are doing this for panoramas, I recommend stitching the scene first, once with the window shots and once with the interior shots and then compositing the resulting images. This is because if you choose to do it picture by picture before the stitch, you will find that you are often cutting out and replacing the same window twice or even three times due to the overlap of the pictures. If you are an RTV provider and have any questions on this process, I’m glad to answer them personally, visit my website and drop me an email.

To Your Success,
Lawrence McBride
Virtually There Media
www.bevirtuallythere.com