In architectural exterior photography, uniform lighting on all angles of a building being photographed is unnatural.  There is only one sun.  That sun casts shadows under eaves, window sills and in doorways.  When I work with realtors and commercial building contractors, I first ask which direction the front of the building faces.  I shoot based on that information, taking into account the time of year and the weather conditions projected on the day of the photoshoot.  In autumn and winter, northeastern Wisconsin has limited sun.  The sun is lower to the horizon as arcs across the sky, rising earlier and setting earlier.

Choices and Realities

There are choices I make, depending on the project.  If I have a property to shoot that also has marketable qualities in the back, I will shoot at two different times of day.   For instance, let’s say a home’s front faces east.  In the back, there is a pool or a patio area.  It is a sunny July day.   I will shoot the front at 9 AM (the sun is low enough to minimize shadows under eaves, and sills).  I will return in the afternoon at 2 or 3 PM to shoot the back, (which faces west).  Natural shadows from trees and other structures will be evident but the main light (the sun) will be directional on the back area.

front and back of home - lighting

A World of Difference

Below are two of the same views of a backyard, (looking onto a golf course), of a home I photographed in Appleton.  The first image was shot with the sun in front of me.  This lighting silhouetted the trees, leaving little definition on the grass or in the leaves.  I returned five hours later, when the sun was behind me and off to the right.  This lighting illuminated the scene, throwing the shadows to the left. To summarize: if possible, I will break up the location photography, shooting when the sun is at it’s prime on the two featured sides of the building, working at two different times of day.  A note: If the building’s front faces north, it will never get direct sun, so I can shoot at any time. If it faces south, conversely, I can shoot any time.  Southern exposure gets sun all day.

examples of 2 different times of day to photograph

No Choice

Sometimes I have no choice as when to shoot.  A realtor or contractor may need a property shot that day, no matter the weather conditions.  If it is actively raining, I will try and set up an alternative shoot date. The home below was photographed on an overcast day.  There was a bit of sun (you can see a shadow on the left garage wall), however, there was not enough sun and blue sky to make the home look appealing.  The benefit of working on an overcast day, from a professional photographer’s point of view, is the visible lack of hard, dark shadows.  This type of diffused outdoor lighting is analogous to the sun shining through a big soft box. When I photograph under skies like this, I add the blue sky in post production. See below.

image of home photographed on an overcast day

Added Light

I was photographing an addition to a home.  It was a small four season’s room.  The west side of the addition was shaded by trees.  

no added flash to this natural light outdoor view

Layers of Light

The focus of this job, the sunroom addition, was small enough where I could “flash” various sections on the dark left side to make the final image more attractive.  My camera was on a tripod. After capturing the basic ambient exposure of my desired angle, I simply tethered my SB900 speedlight to my camera (Nikon D810) with a 30 foot sync cord, dialed in my settings,(f/16 125th sec. ISO 320) and tripped the shutter set to a ten second self timing mode. The ten seconds gave me time to position myself to make my desired flash.  I did this 5 times, each time aiming my speedlight in different areas of the scene. The first flash was a broad, overall lighting of the left wall.

broad flash to illuminate left side of addition.
I then focused the speedlight (done through commands on the back of the light) to 85mm and flashed other areas of the addition.
handheld flash upper left roof line.
flashed lower left bushes
flashed lower center of frame to light walkway
interior lit up

Putting it All Together

I end up with 5 different lighting frames, including a flashed interior frame.  In post production, I combine each frame in layers.  I mask and paint away, removing areas from each layer, revealing what I want to show from the layer below.  I  eventually create a well lit final image by combining what I actually photographed on location and utilizing photoshop layering and masking techniques in post production.

digitally combined all images.
Below is a side by side comparison of where I started and what became the final image.
side by side comparison


Sometimes I will elect to photograph a building at twilight.  This happens if the front of the building faces north or if an unattractive surrounding area is prominent in the frame.  The Wisconsin Swim Academy in Appleton was an example where I shot during the day and came back at twilight with my speedlights and photographed again.

north facing commercial building photographed during the day

The above daytime image is OK, but I decided to return and shoot again at twilight.  I set up four speedlights, radio slaved from my camera.  I exposed in combination with the fading existing evening light and with my speedlights.

The final twilight image was more to my liking.
commercial property photographed at twilight


The many photographic options available to my clients in order to capture a commercial property or residential home depends on budget.  It takes more time to make a return trip to shoot at twilight.  It takes time in post production to replace a sky.  It takes time to add light to fill in daytime shadows.  If a process time falls within the estimated cost, I will simply employ the needed technique on location.  My goal is to capture the best image I can, using my angle of view, lighting, post production skills and visual instinct.

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