Working in a Box

Okay, so I’m not doing the magician thing and working inside of an actual box, but real estate photography felt pretty damn close to it. You’re still working with mirrors, though instead of using them for misdirection, you’re trying not to see yourself, or the flash, in them. Instead of hiding away, uncomfortably cramped into a corner with a knob or ridge poking into you, all for the sake of staying out of the audience’s field of vision, you’re doing it to get the widest field of view possible. The biggest similarity? Spending hours setting up a scene, then some more hours tweaking it in post so that you impress your audience for a grand total of 20 seconds before they move on to the next visually appealing cue.

I volunteered for the World of Real Estate photography to aid my roommate’s mom, and my pseudo-mom at that, who is a realtor. She’d asked me several times in the past if I’d be willing to help her take pictures for listings and it finally came to pass. Two homes in the span of a week. Apparently she had enough faith in my abilities that I could put their agency’s staff photographer to shame, and was willing to give me a shot over him. Challenge accepted.

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And then it hit me just moments after I accepted:

Wait, I’ve never done real estate photography before. CRAP!

As a certified nerd, I immediately scoured the interwebs for tips, tricks, tools, and tutorials on real estate photography. Thankfully, there’s a lot of information out there. I picked up two major knowledge points in the form of Photoshop and actual shooting set up, and some other tips about composition and how to really show off a given room. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me until the very creation of this sentence that practicing the techniques on my own apartment beforehand would have been a really smart idea. I swear I’m a smart guy, really.

Melody, my “adoptive” mother and realtor extraordinaire, picked me up from the apartment and brought us to our first location, a condo in Buckhead. My immediate thought upon seeing the floor plan was, “Wow, this is kind of small.” In all actuality it wasn’t, but I was just worried 24mm wasn’t going to be wide enough. At times, it really wasn’t. The first major point of my online research came into play on my very first shot - mixing multiple exposures with flash. The main living room was under tungsten light, with a view through another door that led to the outdoor patio, with absolutely beautiful blue sky. In translation, the indoor scene was way darker than the outside one. I chuckled at the immediate challenge, and thought, “Well, if I’m getting my feet wet, I might as well just dive right in.”

I started by setting my camera to its max sync speed of 1/200 of a second to darken the sky as much as possible while still working in the acceptable range of my flashes. I put my aperture at f/11 to get maximum depth of field, and then adjusted my ISO to the point that the outside looked a little darker than properly exposed. I underexposed the outdoor light for two reasons:

  1. By underexposing the outdoor light, it would show more detail and have a slightly more dramatic appeal.

  2. My flashes are only so powerful. The brighter the outdoor light, the more power I would need from my flashes. When you only have 100% and you’d have to set the flashes to 150% to get the look you want, you’re going to have to make a compromise.

    Once I had my outdoor lighting where I wanted it, I added a single flash at ¼ power and took a test shot. Underexposed. I kicked it up to full power and the indoor scene got brighter, but it was still underexposed. I pulled out another flash and set it on full power as well; Perfect. Once the lighting levels were balanced, I started moving my flashes around to avoid shadows and to make the lighting look as natural as possible. Instead of using modifiers like umbrellas or softboxes, I just pointed my flashes at the ceiling or a wall and bounced the light. Bouncing your light has the same effect as using a modifier, the only downsides are that you can’t control light spill, AKA the light goes everywhere instead of a controlled zone, and the reflected light takes on the color of the surface the flash was fired at. In other words, fire a flash at a blue wall, and you’ll get a blue light. Luckily for me, the condo was all white ceilings and slightly off white walls.

    Once I nailed that shot, the rest was basically cake. I took the same approach of exposing for the outside light in any windowed rooms and then added flashes until the rooms themselves were properly lit. This got interesting when I had extended hallways and I had to hide flashes behind random shelves or furniture to get the proper light, but it was a really fun challenge.

The worst was taking pictures of the bathroom. I officially hate shooting bathrooms now. Every bathroom has large mirrors. This particular condo had large windows immediately reflecting my goofy mug standing in the only doorway of the bathroom. Great…. Guess I’ll be spending some time in Photoshop cloning myself and the camera out of these pictures. It all worked out really well thankfully!

The funny/embarrassing moment of the day came when I was shooting the walk-in closet. I needed to light the closet, but didn’t have a wall to reflect the light because the bathroom was directly across the hall with its mirrors. There would have been a giant Mike shadow in the shot. The embarrassing part was when I realized I forgot my reflector. The funny part? Finding out that a white bathroom towel makes for a fantastic reflector! I ended up looking like Quasimodo, hunkered over my tripod with this towel draped over my arm and shoulder, just to reflect my flash’s light. Melody found this particularly amusing.

Once we captured all the shots, I got to my laptop and began what was arguably the most painstaking masking job in Photoshop I’ve ever done. For a few of the shots, I just couldn’t get the exposures to blend with the outdoor light and the rooms; I just didn't have enough flash power, honestly. So I took one frame exposing just for the windows, and then another with the flashes firing to light up the room. I had to overlay the two exposures in Photoshop, and “reveal” the outdoor shot within the room shot by performing a manual version of HDR photography. That bedroom had over 250 individual blinds, which meant using the Brush tool 250 times to paint rectangles between each individual blind to show the properly exposed outdoor light. This lead to a major hatred of blinds. Needless to say, it took a lot of time as Photoshop didn’t want to play nicely with any of the quick mask tools. So much for shortcuts. It paid off though as that series of images came out wonderfully. In my online research, I also learned how to fix distortion and perspective warp in Photoshop. I applied it everywhere I could to my images and damn, what a difference. It’s like I knew what I was doing or something?!

Upon delivery of the images, I got great feedback and reviews from Melody. I even impressed the manager of the real estate office, which was a nice feather in my cap. The clients were blown away by the images, and that just put a nice little bow on the entire shoot for me. It made shooting the second house WAY easier too because I felt like I actually knew what I was doing at that point. Confidence is a wonderful thing. Haven’t heard what the take on the second house’s images are, but I haven’t heard any complaints either so I’ll take that as a good sign!

It’s always really nice when you take on a series of shoots and things go really well, especially when it’s your first attempt. Were there things I wish I had done differently or better? Of course, but that’s part of learning and I’ll be sure to implement them next time. I’m definitely going to use the methodology of building my lights one by one in my future portrait shoots. I think it’ll make a tremendous difference! Here’s to trying new things and not sucking! Muahaha.

Mike Glatzer

Mike Glatzer Photography, Marietta St NW, Atlanta, GA 30318, United States