Photographing Old Homes – Part I

Old homes are beautiful to look at, yet they seldom photograph well. Our brains perform a marvelous trick when looking at homes.  For example, they see through all those ugly telephone, power and cable lines.  In the following photo, most of the major culprits of unfortunate-house photography are in view. First, a blown out sky. It was bluer, more nuanced. Trees have covered of up much of the house.  Modern street signs that don’t match old home architecture.  Lastly automobiles. Not only do they block the view of homes, and neighborhoods, almost all of them are ugly.

Except in the early morning, and late evening, houses do not light well. If you expose for the outer exterior, the porch and shadows go dark. If you expose for the shadows, the rest of the house over-exposes. And again, the sky, is always too bright in normal shooting conditions.

The following photos are what I’ve taken in trying to figure out how best to photograph houses. I don’t love any of them. They are here only to illustrate my learning process so far. Since it is the winter, I’ve taken these photos in the middle of the day, when it is warmest. When I go for the photos I want, in the Spring, I will take them in the morning or evening when the light is best.

In the following photo I have abused the image adjustments quite a bit to get balanced lighting. Some like the effect, I find it artificial and, though pleasing, phony.

In the following photo I have Photoshop’d out the telephone wires and darkened the sky. The lighting is good. However, the tree, though not overly distracting on its own, casts shadows on the house that greatly compromise the image.

As you can see, snow will almost always over-expose.  I could do HDR, but I’d like to avoid it if at all possible.

I pass this home almost every day, walking to, or from, Davis Square. I know the owners spend a lot of time on it and its garden. Unfortunately, old homes have a lot of detail and the detail over-whelms the photograph.  So far, the most important thing I’ve learned it the biggest obstacle to pleasing house photography is overwhelming detail.

Many photographs are taken of a house at an angle. They look pleasing because they create perspective lines; lines that converge into a distant point. My problem with them is they do not give the real feel of the house, as seen in person.

The more photographs I take, the more I believe that good photographs are always simplifications of something we like in a view. If you can’t simplify the image, it doesn’t generate the same emotion as what you experienced while viewing the scene. The following photo doesn’t do anything for me, though if you were to stand in front of this tree and house in real-life, you would find it quite wonderful.

There is probably a way to take this scene and make it into a good photograph. My point is that the more stuff going on in the scene, the more difficult that is.

The following is a house that is fairly simple. I’ve taken countless photographs of it and have yet to find one I really like.  The problem with this house, I believe, is the light next hits the front of it during the winter.  I’ve already started consulting the direction of the sun throughout the year to dictate which houses are best to shoot in each season.

Here is a close-up, which I feel is close, but not there.

Shoot from directly in front of the doorway, while adjusting the perspective of the image in post, is what seems to work best for me. If you shoot directly in front of the house, but not directly at the door, the house is less inviting.

However, for a house that is balanced, squarish, the image looks okay

The bushes, the snow, and the house to the right of the following, overwhelm the fine detail of this house.


Here’s another house, where dirty snow, which makes winter shooting difficult, kills the image.

One way to reduce the number of distractions is to shoot with a lens that vignettes. The following is shot with a Fujian 35mm 1.7 CCTV c-mount lens on a Canon EOS-M.

I love these types of photographs. But the blur also makes one lazy in finding the best sharp image for the whole house.

Current Workflow

  1. First, spend as much time as you can, in front of the house, looking through the viewfinder. Move around to find the best position and angle—through the camera—that gives you the feel you want. I wish I could visualize what the camera will do, but I never can. I need to experience the house as the camera sees it.
  2. Try to get an image where the objects in front of the house, like telephone lines, signs, etc., can easily be removed (through Photoshop say) in post. A telephone line over a window, for example, is a lot more difficult to remove than when it is over siding. Of course, don’t take a shot just to get rid of distracting power lines, the distractions are just something you don’t want to overlook.
  3. In post, use perspective tools to straighten the house. As a camera purist, I don’t like this, but I’ve concluded that you can’t get the emotional feel of a house through camera/lens alone. Auto adjustment sometimes works, but generally you have to play with the horizontal, vertical and distortion adjustments until you get an image that you respond well to. Our eyes are very sensitive to crookedness. A photo needs a plane, either vertical or horizontal, that our brains can rest on.
  4. Use dodging tools to create brighten the windows and porches; that is, brighten and darken areas of the house to move the eye to where you want it to rest.
  5. Usually, select the sky and make it darker

2 thoughts on “Photographing Old Homes – Part I”

  1. Max, I ran across your post on photographing old houses while puzzling about a pesky problem for Real Estate photographers. I began shooting Real Estate back in the winter, when trees in front of houses were not a huge problem. Now, I cringe whenever a Realtor asks me to shoot a house hidden behind trees. I frankly haven’t come up with a good strategy yet. Shooting up closer to the house with a really wide angle lens is one solution, especially given the ability of Lightroom to fix perspective, but I hate what that does to the roof line. Like you, I have to walk around and seek a good angle through the viewfinder.
    I really like your yellow two-story and grey two-story just below it. Nice separation of colors in those two.

    1. Thanks Brad! I looked at your site Very nice! An irony to me is people pay tens of thousands of dollars to improve the look of their home (not to mention thousands of dollars on yearly landscaping) yet believe they can get a good photograph with the $10 camera in their cell phone. You’re in a tough business.

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