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Photographing Display Homes

Courtesy of Chris Groenhout

For the uninitiated, display homes (sometimes referred to as 'Project Homes') are exactly what the title implies; a real-life house built for the sole purpose of simulating what a new-home buyer will be getting for their hard earned cash (or that of the bank). All the big builders have them, mostly in outer suburban growth areas and often in an area surrounded by other display homes (quaintly referred to as a 'village'). From a photographic viewpoint, a good display home is furnished (don't laugh, some are completely empty), landscaped and possessing an assortment of items to make the house look like a home. The later is often absent and a judicious phone call to the builder or publicist will often result in the delivery of flowers, magazines, bread, even fruit - everything helps!

But why display homes? (I hear you ask) Well for one, builders need photos, and good quality ones at that. They use them to market the homes (ads, editorial, brochures etc...), enter them in awards and to some extent, record their work in the form of a folio. The beauty of display homes is that they remain pretty much constant allowing you to experiment with your lighting and composition, without feeling pressure from a home owner to hurry up or problems with access when a reshoot is necessary. The lessons learnt photographing display homes are extremely useful when confronted with a lived in or even historic home. In many respects they are more difficult as there is less to work with - making your compositions all the more important.

Other than builders, real estate agents are another big area of potential work, though nowhere as well paid. While most work for new home builders is shot on transparency film, photography for real estate brochures, boards and ads tend to be on colour negative film. If anything, this makes exposure, colour balance and contrast considerably easier for the photographer. So if you've mastered it on transparency, shooting homes on colour negative film will be a breeze!

Part One - Internal Shots

Ambient lighting only
The easiest time to do internal shots of a display house is generally around the middle of the day. This is for two reasons - colour balance (which can be particularly blue in the morning and evening) and contrast (to avoid excessive direct light on and around the windows).

In many situations, using existing ambient and artificial light can be more than adequate. This includes rooms with two or more sources of daylight or rooms too small to hide lighting, such as a bathroom. Don't immediately assume that additional lighting is necessary in any given situation - firstly consider subject contrast and the effect you're trying to create. A simple detail of furniture or fittings may work perfectly well with no additional lighting, but shooting into a sizable room with the sole source of light behind you won't look great.

Regardless of the subject, start by turning off any existing lights to evaluate the proportion of natural daylight to artificial illumination. This can be easily accomplished using an incident light meter - the EV reading, a direct comparison in stops. Don't discount the use of existing lights altogether as some surfaces such as wood flooring and furniture can benefit from a little of the warmth of tungsten light. Also keep an eye out for other forms of artificial light preexisting in the home. Fluorescent tubes are always to be avoided as are energy saving lamps that flicker when they turn on. If you're not sure, turn it off!

Ambient + Fill Flash
When existing natural and artificial light just aren't enough, you'll need to consider a little outside help. The most common choice is mains-powered flash as it's very bright and daylight colour-balanced. The power from professional flash units is measured in watts (or joules) per second - more useful as a unit of comparison than a real measure of light output. Up to 8000 w/s can be obtained using floor-pack units, where the power is generated by (you guessed it) a floor pack rather than inside the flash head. If you're looking to purchase something, I'd suggest sticking to the self-contained flash units (referred to as monoblocs) for their simplicity and versatility. I personally use a couple of Bowens heads which are extremely reliable and are variable from 15 to 1500 w/s.





Situations where lighting with flash is suggested...
   bullet to balance a dark foreground with a bright background (eg. window light)
   bullet to light through a doorway and give a sense of life (and light) in another room
   bullet to enable an acceptable depth of field while maintaining good contrast in the image
   bullet to balance the internal and external light levels so as to show the view through the window and not have it overexpose completely

It is this very situation that makes you appreciate a high power flash, if only for the flexibility it permits. First, take an incident reading of the flash at full power (eg f16). Then take a reflected reading of the window (1/60 @ f8) and adjust the meter so the aperture matches that of the flash reading (1/15 @ f16). You will be left with a shutter speed and aperture combination which should balance the inside and outside illumination perfectly.

From here you have the creative control as to the brightness in the window versus the level of natural light in the room. If anything, the window will look more realistic if slightly overexposed by using a longer shutter speed and keeping the aperture constant. If you reduce the power of the flash, the aperture will also drop, and the level of ambient light in the room will effectively increase. This is an area where practice and experience will do wonders. Try experimenting with a fixed aperture (say f11) and a number of different exposure times (say 1/60, 1/30, 1/15, 1/8, 1/4 and 1/2 second). Evaluate the results and maybe try using two flash heads avoid the lighting looking too directional.





Of course an issue dear to the heart of any photographer is reflections, and interior photography is no exception. Apart from the obvious dangers of windows, look for nasty highlights in TV screens, pictures and even silver tableware. A Polaroid back can help with this, but is only useful if the results are scrutinised closely.

To minimise the chance of reflections, positioning a light near the camera, or far left or far right of the subject is a good start. Umbrellas will reflect easily, but this can make it easier to spot the problem than when bouncing the light off surfaces such as the ceiling. Rooms with full-length windows are virtually impossible to light normally, so slightly lower any window-coverings if available or use cross-lighting if you've got the space.

Your method of lighting an interior is as subjectively based as the composition of the image itself. Keeping this in mind, here are some basic rules...
   bullet don't over-complicate the situation - one light is generally enough in most situations. Firstly consider why you are lighting the room(s) and reflect on whether you've achieved the goal
   bullet don't over-light the room - try to include a little ambient light or it can look really clinical. When metering, make the foreground slightly darker than the background (half a stop difference is enough on transparency film)
   bullet avoid bouncing the flash off coloured walls of ceilings - this can give the image an unwanted colour bias
   bullet turn off the flash modelling light where the shutter speed is long and the colour is critical
   bullet alternatively use the modelling light to introduce warmth into a room, but prevent it falling on blue carpet or walls as the result will approximate grey (yellow and blue tend to cancel each other out)

Interiors at night
For a different look, try shooting interiors at dusk or nighttime. Tungsten balanced film, just after dusk is particularly pleasing - at the right moment, it'll look very moody and appropriate, evoking a feeling of warmth inside, contrasted with the blue-coldness outside. The big advantage is the ease of lighting as there is no dilemma with mixed colour temperatures, reflections are easy to spot and existing lighting compliments what you bring in.




Personally I feel that nighttime internal shots suit the more expensive and dramatic homes with extensive halogen lighting and high quality finishes and furniture. Cheaper homes with domestic grade bulbs tend to look better when lit with daylight and maybe a little fill-flash as previously outlined. Try both techniques, if you have the time and budget.

Another technique to try is placing a light outside the window to simulate sunlight. This is especially effective when it is shone through something such as ivy to cast shadows in the room. The Hollywood cliche of Venetian blind shadows can also add visual interest and mood, though be careful not to overdo it!

Compositional hints...
   bullet utilise the rooms' perspective - line of windows, archway, stairway to make interesting and dynamic shot
   bullet avoid large areas of 'nothing' or the backs of couches
   bullet use tabletops and their settings to lead into the rest of the room (eg. dining to kitchen)
   bullet keep camera parallel in both directions, only tilting down if no lines are near the side edges of frame
   bullet if you're shooting a wall square on - make sure camera is also perfectly parallel to the wall to avoid converging cornices and perspective distortion
Watch for perspective distortion!

Watch for perspective distortion!

Part Two - External shots

Daylight Externals
Take a look through the hastily put together real-estate flyers to see how badly homes can be photographed from the outside. Excellent results can be obtained by following some simple guidelines...


   bullet don't use a super-wide lens up close (unless unavoidable) - not only will you lose the roofline but the perspective distortion will look obvious
   bullet keep the camera parallel - it's not that difficult, but photographers seem to have such a problem with this. Using a tripod helps (especially one with a spirit level) and if you're feeling wealthy, invest in a shift lens or even a view camera to utilise the vertical rise for such situations. More often than not, a careful choice of viewpoint, foreground and a sturdy ladder will save the day.


   bullet don't just shoot the facade - try to include a little of the side to show some perspective. It's fine to shoot the front square-on, but be sure to have the camera completely parallel to the house and ground or it'll show.
   bullet try to show the roofline - move your viewpoint back or up if needed
   bullet minimise the less attractive aspects of the house - the garage, any permanent signage, fences (by whatever means)

All of these pointers are useless if you photograph the house at the wrong time of day. Shooting into the sun rarely does it justice, so come back another time or consider shooting the home at dusk (see below). Early morning and late afternoon can also be problematic - watch for excessive colour shifts and long shadows from the fences, architectural details, even the photographer!
Incident Metering

Incident metering the exterior

Dusk Externals
To photograph a display home exterior at dusk, you'll heaps more preparation than shooting the same house during the day. The trick is to subtly light the building when the sky is a deep blue tone and not pitch black. Depending on the orientation of the house (and the weather/time of year), the tonal range of the sky will vary. I personally prefer it when the house faces away from the sunset at a slight angle which gives you a nice gradation in the sky. A little cloud in the sky can be an asset, reflecting the last rays of sunlight and introducing some additional colour into the sky.

I suggest using tungsten halogen lights to fill the foreground as they're cheap, easy to use and predictable. Very cheap options include those $30 security lights from KMart (500W). For a few hundred dollars you can buy a pair of Lowel Tota lights which fold up and generate 800W of pure and even halogen light. A spot light is also handy to highlight areas such as the detail in the roofing or portico. Having more than three lights can make the situation more confusing than necessary and increase the risk of 'over lighting' the subject.

Also, bring a good ladder and tripod, lots of extension leads, a few spare light bulbs (for lamps inside the house - often without bulbs) and a basic toolkit to remove a sign, fence or fix some photographic equipment in a hurry.

On arrival, find a discreet power-point and run some extension cords from it around the perimeter of the property. Careful not to trip over pedestrians with the cables and anticipate potential problems with traffic later on when you're actually shooting. One evening I was set up on a back street, standing on a chair when a car careered around the corner and screeched to a halt 2 inches from the tripod! Never assume that you're safe (especially in the middle of the road).


Dusk exterior
South-facing house shot with tungsten lighting at dusk (Provia 100)



Set up a floodlight at each side of the house and a spotlight somewhere in the middle, leaving heaps of slack in the cable for quick changes once it's dark and you can see how it all looks. Avoid too much light on the foreground garden and watch for reflections of the lights in the windows from the camera's viewpoint. This is probably a good time to remove labels from plants, doormats, and any stray rubbish or garden mess. Also do a walk through the house turning on all the lights (avoiding fluorescent ones of course) and adjust curtains and furniture visible from the outside. Later you might need to reenter the house alter the balance of lights between various rooms.

Camera positioning is often determined by environmental factors (eg. unmovable signage, flagpoles, fences, trees), but can generally be improved by a high viewpoint (hence the ladder) slightly to the side of the home (to suggest three-dimensionality) opposite opposite to the side where the garage is. Ideally keep your parallels straight - the foreground can always be cropped out later if necessary. Visibly distorted buildings rarely work, especially when shot square-on.

Now, it's a waiting game and hopefully it'll all fall into place at the right moment. When you feel dusk approaching, take an incident light reading (from the subject's viewpoint) and a few frames, if only to practice. Compositional and lighting problems may become apparent and are easier fixed at this point than later when light is falling at a dramatic rate. I suggest metering the brightest point and bracketing up to +2 stops over from that in half-stop intervals. For now, ignore the light levels from the windows, they'll take care of themselves.

Do a series of shots every ten minutes or so. If not, you might miss the 'magic moment' when it's all at the perfect balance and looks fantastic. For a second you'll realise why you started photography and marvel at the spender of it all, or maybe you'll just be too busy firing the shutter. When it really starts to look like night (inky black), pack up and go home!

I use Fuji Provia 100 for dusk shots and while it is daylight balanced, this intentional 'mistake' (by using the tungsten balanced lighting that is) gives brick houses some much-needed warmth. Tungsten balanced film (such as 64T) can also be used, but results can be a little too 'cold' on brick facades. On the other hand, light coloured render can look too warm with daylight film, so tungsten balanced emulsions can come in handy after all. The added bonus is that the inbuilt blue cast gives the sky an added boost of blue, even on cloudy days!


Detail using 64T film

Detail using 64T film

It all may sound a little 'hit and miss' and to some extent it is, but the results are well worth it. The trick is to make something ordinary look glamorous and inviting with a warm glow from each window and a deep blue twilight overhead. Try it once and you'll be hooked (as will your clients).

Shopping List
Camera - I use a Bronica SQAi 6x6 system for all my work as the electronic shutter times perfectly up to 16 seconds and the lens range is affordable. Other suggestions include the Hasselblad and Mamiya RB/RZ range. If you plan to use 35mm, make sure your camera has manual exposure and focus override and is capable of long, timed exposures.

Lenses - It's very useful to have at least two wide angle lenses to cover most situations. On the Bronica I use a 40mm, 50mm and occasionally an 80mm (standard) lens for details or compressed perspective shots. On the 35mm format , you can't go wrong with a 20mm and 28mm or 35mm lens as well. Nikon and Canon both have high quality, expensive 17-35mm zoom lenses to consider, but you're probably better off putting that money into some decent lighting gear. Fixed focal length lenses tend to be faster, better quality and make you a more disciplined and careful photographer anyway!

Lights - As previously mentioned, high power monobloc (self-contained) flash units are best for this kind of work. A couple of 1000 or 1500 w/s heads should suffice but don't forget to budget for some decent stands and white umbrellas as well. Softboxes are a nice luxury but can be extremely bulky on location. For dusk externals, a set of cheap tungsten lights is generally sufficient - lights with a broad, even light (and cheap replacement bulbs) are best.

Other - Don't overlook a good tripod and light meter, ladder, extension cords and double-adaptors, gaffa tape, and a good book to read while you're waiting for the sun to set! Good luck...


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