How to Photograph Houses with Glowing Inside Lights

Great exterior shots happen in the twenty minutes after dusk that separate heroes from zeros.

Shooting houses is easy, right? Morning light and evening light will make you look like a hero; all you have to do is show up an hour before dawn and come back an hour before dusk. Better yet, because most houses don’t have a direct path to morning and evening sun, you can usually pick the best one and either sleep in or go home early, right?

Not so fast. Good photographers don’t go home early

Even after the golden evening light dips behind the horizon, they know the real photography is just beginning — the shots that art directors love to put on magazine covers (shoot vertical). Plan for this shot before it’s time though, because you won’t have much time to get everything set up. Camera placement is only one little part of it. The basic idea is to match the intensity of the indoor light with that of the outdoor light. And the indoor light ought to be fairly even throughout the house. You may need a few clip on lights from the hardware store to balance everything. It’s nice to have two nights to get this shot, but most of the time, that luxury isn’t available. Another luxury not always available is a helper and a couple of cell phones.

The first thing to do is make sure there is at least a reasonably equal amount of lighting in the rooms facing the side of the house you’re shooting. Try to keep light bulbs out of the windows because they’ll be much too bright in relation to the other light sources. You’re not trying to light the windows as much as create ambient light in the room. Larger rooms need more light than smaller rooms.

Some photographers run through the house with a light meter, trying to balance the rooms. I don’t bother with that, it’s tough to get real readings with daylight slipping through the windows, so I just use my eyes. And make sure I have a few spare clip-on’s. An assistant comes in handy too. But let’s back up.

After the golden evening light is gone, start setting up the shot 
Set up the tripod and camera. and go inside to flip on all of the lights. It’ll still be too light outside to get a good reading on how everything is balancing, but you can get a rough idea which rooms will be easiest and which will be trouble spots. Bigger rooms are usually tougher.

With the lights on and the camera set, you need to be patient and wait. You can play around with camera settings if you want, but everything will change soon enough. As darkness creeps in, you’ll have to move fast to make sure the lights are balanced. As soon as the interior light is visible from outside, you should be able to gauge which rooms will need more light.

Turning on outdoor lights is optional — too long a shutter speed and they can blow out in the photo, but they do add a nice accent. Try it both ways, shoot a bracketed exposure with them on and with them off. If you have an assistant, and a long shutter speed, you can have the assistant flip them on for part of the exposure. For example, on a three second exposure, snap the shutter with the lights on, then tell the assistant, who is standing inside the house with a cell phone, to shut them off as soon as you snap the shutter. The result will be that the lights will be on for about a second.

There’s about twenty minutes where the light balance will work, after that and the outside will be too dark, and you won’t be able to see the house. You can slow the shutter speed to compensate for this a little, but pretty soon, the interior light will begin to blow out. Within this twenty minutes it’s worth bracketing like crazy. Also try different white balance settings — tungsten will make natural light bluish while keeping a yellow interior light. This can give a photo the effect of a warm glow on a cool night, and works well when the leaves are off the trees.

Tip: Shoot in spring and fall when days are shorter
Ask me how I know this. I know this because I flew to Edmonton, Alberta to shoot a house in July. That far north, that close to the summer solstice meant that dusk didn’t arrive until 11:00 pm, which made for a loooooong day. Besides, the light in spring and fall is really nice.

How do you do it?

Photos by Dan Morrison, courtesy of Fine Homebuilding

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