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What Are Your Secrets for Getting Great Window Pull?

Published: 22/03/2016

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You can create some half-way decent window pulls, but sometimes you can't get it spot on. This is particularly challenging when you have a larger room and my speed lights don't have the power to adequately illuminate a room. What are your secrets for getting great window pull? 

What Are Your Secrets for Getting Great Window Pull? 

The term "window pull" means getting exposure for the outside where exterior scenery can be detected. It's more natural to let the window view be brighter than the interior. 

However, this can be challenging for rooms that have windows at a longer distance. Depending on the camera, lens and lighting, you can use the following techniques to get great window pulls.

Two living room sofas facing windows

Battery Powered N-Flash

Since window pulls in some rooms require some serious flash power, one way to get more power you can use a studio-type flash. One alternative for this type of flash is a battery-powered N-Flash that can be triggered by most wireless triggers. However, there are some issues associated with this flash

  • Unlike the Profoto B1 which has up to 90 level, the N-Flash has only 6 levels of power output 
  • There are relatively small differences between levels 1 to 5 then a huge leap between 5 and 6. In some situations, 5 isn't enough and 6 is too much. 
  • The levels have no detents (clicks) so it’s easy to move the dial and change the output unintentionally. If the dial is halfway between levels, it's impossible to know which of the two levels 
  • When reducing the power level, you’re forced to discharge the flash capacitor by clicking the Test button otherwise the next shot’s power level is still the same as the old one 

Direct Flash 

You can also use the method of one frame with direct flash on the windows and layering in Photoshop. In this case, you should use Lightroom to balance the RGB values of the window frame so that when you are layering in Photoshop you can just use a soft brush. This method is much easier than making a selection, and you don't need  too much light like the N-flash, most of the time the Speedlights do the trick. 

Darken Mode

The darken mode is a blending technique that looks at the luminance values of each photo and either selects the blend color or the base color and keeps the darkest of the two. To use this technique, you require the following

  • A sturdy tripod and a camera remote shutter release
  • Set the camera to ISO 400, RAW mode, and Aperture Priority: RAW mode ensures you have the full information of your image, and an ISO set to 400 allows you to use the flash at a lower power configurations
  • A flash with a remote trigger. To have an appealing window pull, ensure you aim the flash at the window at around 45 degrees
  • A photo editing software such as Lightroom

Position the Camera on Your Tripod

Considering that you will stack your images in Photoshop, it is advisable to set the camera so that it will not shake or move while capturing photos. Additionally, you can use the manual focus to avoid any possible camera movement.

Set the Camera to Spot Meter and Capture the First Image

Taking the photos while the camera is set to meter the dark regions of the room will result in a normally exposed image with the interior of the room completely visible. However, it causes the windows to be blown out and become overexposed. This image will serve as the master image.

Spot Meter the Camera Again to Capture the Outside of the Window

The relevance of this step is to ensure the view outside the window is glare-free and clearly visible. However, you should not capture the photo at this point because you need to set the flash first.

Set the Flash Power

Set the flash to manual rather than TTL and the power to either ¼ or ½. However, the power configurations vary depending on the manufacturer and model of the flash. Therefore, it is advisable to capture several images at varying power configurations until you get the right settings. 

Import the Images to Lightroom

Import your images to Lightroom and apply lens correction. If necessary, you can carry out any color temperature adjustments before exporting them to Photoshop. Highlight the images and export them to photoshop as layers.

Align the Layers

In most cases, a camera will slightly move when changing the settings between shots. Aligning them helps avoid possible issues of image blurring that are caused by these tiny movements. After aligning the photos, place the flash layer (the dark one) on top of the photo that is fully exposed.

Create an Inverse Mask on the Flash Layer

Select the flash layer and invert a layer mask using Control + I on your PC’s keyboard or Command I on your Mac. Repeat the same process if you have other flash shots. Once you are through, set the Layer(s) to darken mode. 

The darken mode allows photoshop to selectively display darker things than the flash layer, saving time that you could spend masking the pull window with a pen tool or polygon.

Use the White Colored Brush Tool to Paint Over the Window

Use the brush tool to paint the mask inside the window. Considering that the elements in or around the window are blown out by the flash, painting outside the edges will not display them when using the darken mode.

Flattening the Image

Launch Lightroom and open the finished photo. Apply any adjustments you would like, such as color corrections and adjustments. You can then flatten the image to merge. This will put the photo together and save it as one file instead of the two layers.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which Camera Mode Should I Use to Get Good Window Pulls?

Set your camera to Aperture Priority and use Manual settings for flash. The Manual settings give you better control of the light. If you want to see the view, increase the shutter speed on your camera, bump up the ISO for the interior flash, and you will be good to go.

Can I Get Window Pulls in One Shot?

If you need to get window pulls in one shot, expose the view and light the interior. If the outside view is just the fence between homes, you want to work your balance to let the outside view blow out a little while retaining some window details.

Final Thoughts

Even with the best lens, camera, and flash like Canon, you might need to shoot several real estate interior photos of varying exposures and then merge them using a photo editing software such as Lightroom to get an aesthetically pleasing window pull.

Larry Lohrman

17 comments on “What Are Your Secrets for Getting Great Window Pull?”

  1. I have not come across the term "window pull" before. I am assuming it means getting an exposure for the outside where exterior scenery can be detected. When I went to the Art Center College of Design in LA lo these many decades ago, we were taught to always let the outside exposure be 1.5 stops lighter than the interior so it would read as exterior and not a poster plastered on the outside of the Windows. Given that, then I would suggest you work backwards building up your interior exposure using flash, hot lights or HDR.

    My problem with the easiest method which would be to fill the interior with flash is that to do so changes the existing lighting in the room thus telling a different story than actually exists in that room. I know, I am in the minority since it makes a faster work flow to do the exposure balancing in camera rather than in post. I prefer to use HDR to achieve the discernible detail through the windows. And that does take longer in post. On the other hand, HDR is faster on location and the light can change drastically as you lug around light stands, strobe packs and fiddle with getting the right balance. I just point and bracket.

    Which is to say that there is more than one way to skin a, um, Window Pull. Just find the right one that suits your goals, budget and time restraints.

  2. I find it a 2 (or 3 part) process. First, expose for the exterior view. Done - no amount of step 2 or 3 will overpower that big ball in the sky lighting (directly or defused) the outside. Step 2 addresses the ambient level and may require two or three exposures to get the right balance, backing off outright flood to building shadows providing definition in the room which can be further micro-adjusted in Lightroom. Step 3 is the hardest - reflections. It seems that the 'perfect' lighting setup reflects back in the window, glass door or other reflective surfaces in the room (TV, pictures, stainless steel appliances etc). First start adjusting light positioning attempting to get it right in camera, at worse, a non-lit photo of the window for later masking the glass portion.

  3. It's more natural to let the window view be brighter than the interior. If you need to see the view outside, expose for the view and light for the interior. If the outside view is just the fence between homes, you want to work your balance to let the view outisde blow out a little while retaining a bit of detail in the window itself.

    There are lots of techniques to blend several images into one composite and each has it's pros and cons. If you can get it in the camera, that will take the least time in post production. Getting close and shooting in RAW format can often leave enough adjustment room for quick work in Lightroom to get an image dialed in.

    I have a JTL Mobilite 300 strobe that I keep with me for situations where I need more light to fill up a large room. It will run on battery (external pack) or AC. It's not a top of the line unit, but works very well for the price. It uses a common Bowens type mount to attach softboxes and other modifiers and also has a mount for umbrellas. I'm not sure that the N-flash is as versatile.

  4. I often use the method of one frame with direct flash on the windows (avoiding reflections) and layering in Photoshop. I use Lightroom to balance the RGB values of the winodow frame so that when I'm layering in Photoshop I can just use a soft brush and be a bit slap happy.

  5. @Matt:

    HUGE fan of your work. I've seen what you do. I'm just thankful that you are over there and I'm over here! You'd run me out of town! Thanks for sharing! Your window pulls are breathtaking, as is your catalog of work...just amazing, man. (not throwing rocks at anyone else...I come in peace).

    Some of my hiccups are direct flash reflection from a window when I need to capture that view. I sometimes use high speed sync too. HDR and enfuse is my go-to. My photoshop chops are very much in infancy stages, but trying to learn some tricks of the trade via youtube.

    I know Scott Hargis may chime in and say not all photos need a window pull. And I think he's correct. I've read his E-book and I use a lot of his techniques (Thanks Scott!), so a good many of my photos have that "frost" look too (as his book mentions) but just enough to see what's out the window. I also have read Simon Maxwell's book (HDR enfusion). I employ some of his technique too. I still get that "dirty" look a bit with HDR, but I think it is more a function of me and my post work than anything else. Something about flash that can "crisp" up a room.

    Anyway, thanks everyone for advice!

  6. I bought an nFlash 680A with HSS almost exactly 2 years ago from Mark Shapiro (I don't think Mark has much to do with nFlash these days because recently-sent emails to him have not been answered after many weeks). I haven’t used it much during that time but tried it again recently and the results are good. However, there are a couple of issues and annoyances:

    1. There are only 6 levels of power output. I know the Profoto B1 is many times more expensive but it has up to 90 levels (9 stops in either 1/10th of a stop or 1 stop increments).

    2. There are relatively small differences between levels 1 to 5 then a huge leap between 5 and 6. In some situations, 5 isn't enough and 6 is too much.

    3. The levels have no detents (clicks) so it’s easy to move the dial and change the output unintentionally. If the dial is halfway between levels, it's impossible to know which of the two levels you've set.

    4. When reducing the power level, you’re forced to discharge the flash capacitor by clicking the Test button otherwise the next shot’s power level is still the same as the old one (i.e. too powerful). Most flashes use circuitry that limits the output charge from the capacitor depending on the setting chosen AT THE TIME IT'S FIRED whereas the 680A appears to simply charge the capacitor to the required level then discharge the whole lot of that level, regardless of whether the setting has been reduced.

    5. Unlike the Canon 600EX-RT and ST-E3-RT combination, you can’t remotely fire the flash from the 680A (which is very handy when you take a second shot with the flash in a different position so you can erase one of them in PS).

    Is there a newer version that fixes these issues? If not, I'd recommend against buying an nFlash.

  7. I use the direct flash like Matt, sooooo much easier than making a selection, and you don't need a big light like the nflash, most of the time my speedlights do the trick.

  8. Rob,

    I checked out your website and work, congrats on being a 3rd generation photographer!

    As you already know... the only camera setting that doesn't affect the perceived power of your flash/strobe at full output is shutter speed (HSS, modifiers, etc. is another topic).

    Keeping that in mind, might I suggest you run a little experiment.

    Let's say you normally shoot at iso 100, 200 or 400. Go ahead and crank it up, even if that takes you up to iso 800 or higher. Then run through your normal f stops and speeds until you find a balance between the ambient room exposure and that window view.

    Now stand back, because those flashes have been turned into little light bombs. Just be careful where you point them. Power them down as needed.

    And of course, this allows you to decrease your shutter speed for those perfect window views. This isn't to say that these are recommended settings, but it may give you an idea of what you can achieve in a pinch or where you may need to supplement your flashes/strobes.

    I know exactly how you feel, but thankfully, I'm no longer chasing window pulls. I'm more concerned with pushing my Nordic look.

  9. Leaf shutter? All due respect, Jim, but this isn't a speed issue requiring the use of a leaf shutter due to flash/shutter sync, x sync or high speed sync above 1/200 or 1/250. Where are you getting your information from?

  10. I often do my ambient brackets in Aperture Priority and use Manual settings for flash. I find that Manual gives me better overall light. To control windows (in Manual), if I want to see the view, I max out my shutter speed on my 6D which is 1/160, bump up the iso for the interior flash and I'm good to go.

  11. Rich Baum has a quick 'n easy procedure (assuming you have some photoshop chops) that I use quite often. To briefly describe the method you first shoot a normal room exposure, then shoot a second (darker) exposure for the outside - only on that second exposure you hit the window frame (and shutters) with a pretty strong flash. Then you apply that second layer in photoshop using the "darken" blend mode - which makes the flashed window frame and shutters disappear. I don't do it on every window - because as someone mentioned in an earlier post - if it's just a fence or swingset out the window I'm letting that window blow out a little.

    Here is a link to Rich Baum's video:

  12. JD Armistead Photography, thanks for a link!!!

    To theme:
    I use 3 way to see outside^

    1. Enfuse.
    2. Pen tool with darken shoot.
    3. Wait a needed moment, when we got the same light like in interior ))

  13. Rich thanks so much for the technique, I have subscribed to your You Tube channel. I work for a company that does the listing photographs for new properties and sometimes trying to get the view of the city through the windows in some of these high rises in Chicago can be such a pain! Sometimes I'm on point other days can be a struggle. Thanks to everyone else who offered tips as well!

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