Glowing Architectural Exteriors

Great exterior shots happen just after dusk. There's about twenty minutes that separate the heroes from the 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 shoot until 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.

Plan for this shot before it's time though, because you won't have much time to get everything set. Camera placement is only one little part of it. The basic idea is to match the indoor light with 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, this time 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 the lights. It'll still be too light outside to get a good reading on how everything's 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 as 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 ninterior 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.

Tip: Shoot in spring and fall when days are shorter
I know this because I one time flew to Edmonton, Alberta to shoot a house in July. That far north, that close to the equinox 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?

Cheap Photo Tip: White Bed Sheet

In photography, it's all about lighting. Natural light is the best for many things, but not always in the package that Mother Nature delivers.

Dramatic sunlight in the early morning and evening will give you blazes of color and beautiful photos. Hazy days can produce a wonderful soft glow that's diffuse and subtle.

This is the light that we often try to mimic in a studio or on location with softboxes and umbrellas. A softbox tames the harsh light from a strobe or hot light into a dramatic diffuse glow of light.

As a magazine photographer, I have to travel light (at least for the magazine that I work for), carrying around more equipment that I can carry isn't an option (I have no assistant). In fact, carrying less than I need is SOP. Rather than pack softboxes and big light kits, I've come up with ways to get great shots with little extra baggage. One trick involves a big white bed sheet.

When I check in to a hotel room, I make sure to get a king sized bed. This way I get the biggest sheet available. When I shoot house interiors, I can hang the sheet in front of a bank of windows to diffuse the light into a glow rather than a harsh blaze of light. This evens out the light making it easier to balance the whole shot. Hang the sheet with all the usual tricks: spring clips, thumb tacks, duct tape, and voodoo.

You can also hang the sheet between a couple of light stands, step ladders, doors, bookcases, or some combination and place job lights or clip on lights from the hardware store with big bulbs behind it. This will do the same thing: give bright diffuse light to balance a room.

Tip: Fitted sheets are easier to drape over curtain rod ends.

What travel tricks do you have?

Chet Grady's Machine Shop

My grandfather made it three months past 100 years old, but no further. He was a machinist who was loved and respected by the whole city (it seems) of Belfast, Maine. I grew up loving his shop; it still looks a lot like it did when I was five -- full of tools, scrap metal, drill bits and balpeen hammers.

I shot it last week without using artificial lighting except an occasional clip on light. Mostly it's just shutter speed and timing the shots with the path of the sun. Brian VandenBrink says "If you need to use lights, you're shooting at the wrong time of day." That philosophy is great if you've got all day, like I did last week.

I photographed Grampy's shop the day after his funeral, so I think he was there with me. Some of the best angles came from sitting in his chairs and setting up the tripod from that spot.

More photos soon as I find the time to resize them and put them in a gallery.

Take Great Photos of Kids, part 4

Great photos are over-rated: they take forever to set up, the "right" equipment costs an arm and a leg, and nobody really notices the difference anyway, do they?

No, they don't, at least not consciously. But subconsciously, people can tell the difference between a great photo and a mediocre one. But in order to take great photos, you need to know how to take bad ones first, right? As part two of a series (In part one, I talked about the light) here's another simple rule to keep in mind in order to take lousy photos:

4. Only shoot when you want to
This one sort of goes along with rule # 3, but it's an extension. Not only should you ignore the light, but you should ignore the moment. After all, how often are candids better than staged shots? Er, hmmm... well, maybe

Bottom line: If you're not ready to shoot when the opportunity presents itself, you'll miss a lot of great candids.

This rule applies to composition as well as light. When you learn to recognize great light, you'll learn to keep the camera handy and to change your priorities to accommodate photography. As it turns out, great light is predictable. It happens in the same place at the same time every day (depending on the weather, of course).

Our side yard has fantastic evening light, so I'm ready when the magic time rolls around. This magic time is earlier in winter than in summer, but it's always when the sun is at the same height in the sky. Learn to look for it, and you'll be able to set up, and come away with, some great shots.

Also, be willing to experiment with strange lighting conditions. Sparklers at night for example, are a great opportunity. Jack up the ISO to as high as you can, turn off the flash, and start shooting. Slow down the shutter speed for more light. When slowing shutter speed, it's helpful to have a tripod, but it's not absolutely needed if you take extra care to anchor the camera steady (Dig your elbows into your gut and don't breathe).