Good light is not easy to come by, but at least if we can recognize when the light will be good, we may be able to plan accordingly and make a beautiful photograph, and do it relatively quickly.
The (main) problem
Camera sensors can only do so much. On a bright, sunny day, they render the sunlit areas as very bright, and areas in shadow as very dark. A human eye, on the other hand, has a fascinatingly large dynamic range. Our eyes and brains are able to work together to see as much as three times the amount of light variation than your average dSLR camera. To put it simply, when the sun is out, our eyes can see detail in the bright and the dark spots, and a camera can’t.
When we take a picture of a house, do we want the viewer to be limited to the amount of detail a camera can see, or the amount of detail our eyes can see? Do we want the viewer to experience the property as if they were there on site, or do we want them to see it as these contraptions called dSLR cameras render the scene? This is of course subjective, but I believe the answer is we want them to see the property as our eyes see it. We are documenting a space, hopefully with an appropriate amount of taste and creativity, and we want the viewer to experience the space as if their own eyes were there at the location. I hope you agree with me on that.
The Theory via apps
Instead of going into a lot of complicated theory about when and where the sun will be during any given time of year, it's better just to download a sun tracker app for your phone. This way, as long as you know which way the house faces (use google earth to figure this out), you'll have a good idea of when to show up to reduce the number of shadows. Because that is really what we want to avoid, we want to reduce those hard, dark edge shadows as much as possible. This helps, to a certain degree, the renditions from our cameras to look more like what our eyes see, simply because there are less shadow areas, and the camera's exposure can be set based on those bright areas. We'll also consider more ideal ways to photograph a house so as to depict it as our eyes see it, but first let's consider the daytime, sunny photos, as that is what we have a large portion of the time here in Southern California.
THE DAYTIME, SUNNY SOLUTIONS
What is the best time to photograph an exterior on a bright and sunny day? It's probably more useful if we talk about time of year. During the winter months, the sun is very "low" and in the southerly sky here in Orange County. This works to our advantage, because the lower the sun is, the fewer of those dark, evil shadows it is going to cast on the face of the house. In the summer, the sun is going to track much closer to directly above our heads, so it will be much more difficult to find good light in the middle of the day during the summer months. I would say just keep your sun tracker app handy, and be ready to know when and where the best locations will be for any given house, on any given day of the year. Reducing shadows and having the sun at your back as you shoot are you main goals. But even if you happen to reduce many of the sun's shadows, we are still going to get that effect we spoke about where the camera can't "see" all the detail on a sunny day. Let's move on to some even lighting solutions, which are much more favorable because they tend produce imagery closer to what we see with our eyes.
The even lighting solutions
Now, if you want a more even feel and tone to your photographs, without the bright highlights and dark shadows, there are a few ways to go. First is to wait for a cloudy day. When it is cloudy you can photograph the home at any point during the day. This will give you a nice, even look with the lighting, and really even out the exposure so we are closer to our goal of seeing what our eyes see with the camera. But we don’t always have clouds. Further, cloudy lighting can look a little flat or dull, and the sky in your photo will be a bland white. This method clearly isn't perfect, but if you need a quick, pretty darned good photograph of a house, grabbing the camera when the the sky is cloudy would not be a bad idea at all. The best scenario you can possibly come by, is in those instances when the is pretty close to the horizon, and it dips behind some clouds, but there is still blue in the sky. The clouds will help soften the light a little, and you may still be able to get a blue sky in your image.
The other option is to wait until about 30 minutes before the sun goes down, or start shooting right as it comes up and 30 minutes thereafter. If your house faces East/Southeast, you'll want to choose the latter, and vice versa. The light does change to a more golden color at this time, which can add a warm, natural feel to a photograph, but you may still have some hard edged shadows that aren't to your liking. But, the shadows aren't as bad as the midday shadows because the sun isn't nearly as intense in the late afternoon. It is arguable if this is even an even lighting method at all, but it can produce some great, warm and inviting results. In fact, there are a few Hollywood productions that were shot exclusively under this golden, or magic hour of light. As with most all our options however, this technique really only works with houses that are facing the sun during that time.
THE PREFERRED METHOD
The last, and perhaps best, option you have is to photograph the house after the sun sets, or before it rises. This requires a tripod, a dSLR and some patience however. Although you could try this technique out if you can find a way to mount a tablet or point and shoot to a tripod. After the sun sets, as you may guess, the lighting everywhere starts to even out dramatically. We don’t have those bright areas lit up by the sun, alongside dark shadow areas. During any given night there will be a period of time, about 10 minutes long (if you are lucky), where the light in the sky, the light on the house, and the light inside the house are very close to being equal in intensity. This helps us tremendously, because we can properly expose everything (sky, house, inside room lights), all with a single exposure! This is ideal because we will have a beautiful photo that looks very natural to the eye.
To accomplish this, get out there early, at least 10 or so minutes before sunset. The most difficult part will be setting your exposure. I would say go to f8 on the aperture, because that is probably closest to where your lens is at its best. Keep the ISO at its base setting. Sometimes this will be 100, and other cameras it may be 200. Then dial your shutter speed until the house's lights look “good” (i.e., not too bright, and not too dim). Some of the house lights may be brighter than others, but you'll just have to find a middle ground exposure you are comfortable with. All that’s left from there is patience. Your photos may start off too bright, because you set your exposure for the house's lights and the sunlight is overpowering them. All you haves to do is wait and keep those same exposure values (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO). As the light falls, you should take a picture every five minutes or so. Some cameras even have built in intervalometers, take advantage of that if you have that option, as it'll take the picture every five minutes for you. Keep taking pictures every five minutes until the house's lights look like they are overpowering everything. In that batch of exposures, you should have one that stands out to you as the best, and that is the one. If you get good at this, the entire process should take you no longer than about 30 or 40 minutes.
If you want to take the best photograph of a property possible, this is the course of action I would recommend. This process will work for both exteriors and interiors. If, for example, you wanted to preserve a nice window view and still have the room look well lit, you'd just turn on the lights in the room, and follow the procedure same as above. Your cameras settings will take care of the lighting inside the room you are in, then you must wait for the exterior light to match the interior light in intensity. Just snap an image off every 5 minutes just as our exterior example above.
Inside or outside, the key is shooting during that time that the light is of equal intensity inside and out. Considering exteriors however, houses that face the sunset will tend to look great when shot using this technique, but houses that face away from sunset can tend to look too dark. The face of the house may never get a chance to match the sky in intensity, especially in cases where the house is a darker color. White houses are the easiest to get a proper exposure out of. I would say if you have a white house to shoot that faces away from the sunset, give it a try. But if it’s a dark blue house that faces away, hire a professional :) In any case, I sincerely hope you can get out there, try these techniques and get some great results out of them. It may not happen on your first try, but keep at it.
Pop-quiz for those that read last week's tip on keeping the back of the camera level. Is the camera sensor parallel to the house's vertical lines here? It clearly isn't. The lines on the far left and far right of the house are clearly converging toward the top, which is our clue that the camera was pointed up in the making of this image. This happens a lot. You can't always get to a vantage point so as to level the camera. In these cases you are forced to correct the lines in post processing, but that is beyond the scope of this current post.