I have a photo that was taken by a third-party photographer (i.e. I was not the one who postprocessed it). I've been told by a number of people that this photo looks unrealistic, more like a computer-generated render than a photo of a real-life place. I can see where they are coming from, as this photo looks a bit off to me as well. However, I can't pinpoint the reasons why it doesn't look real.

Can you all help me articulate why this photo looks unrealistic? I believe it has something to do with the condensed dynamic range — the shadows seem to be rather nonexistent, and there aren't many highlights. However, I can't figure out if this is the only reason, or if there are more factors contributing to the lack of realism.

Photo in question

  • 3
    Am I the only one to whom this looks realistic?
    – Vilx-
    Feb 3, 2019 at 12:56
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    TinEye says it's 318 Main St #A3D, San Francisco, CA. Photo 7 from this set.
    – shoover
    Feb 4, 2019 at 19:47
  • 2
    Friendly reminder, comments are not intended for answering the question, even with short answers.
    – AJ Henderson
    Feb 5, 2019 at 2:21

6 Answers 6


Certainly the biggest factor is the dynamic range processing. The room is so bright, and shares the same color temperature as the outdoors daylight lighting. Yet the shadows in the balcony and near the glass door, which are closer to the light source, are the darkest parts of the scene.

Also, one "fakeness" indicator that your mind might not have caught, but your eye did, is the scene in the mirror. The few parts of the sky in the mirror are clearly blown out white, but the sky visible directly through the window is a nice sky blue. An interior even partially that bright would have a blown out sky, if not also more of the general light-colored scene outside the window. For instance, the "tent" pavillion (that looks like a mini version of Denver's airport) is completely blown out.

Good architectural / real estate shots are hard. This is one of the better something's-not-quite-right ones (as opposed to the surrealist crank-the-hdr-to-eleven ones that are more typical).

Try to imagine how this can be improved by controlling the outdoor lighting — either early in the morning, or late in the evening. The light level outside would be brought way down, and provide dynamic shadows on the buildings. That would allow for better control of the indoor lighting (whether by longer exposure from natural light, or with use of artificial lighting from the table lamp or via flashes).

  • 7
    Oh my god, that is a tent pavillion? I honestly had no idea. To me it looked like those little "curves" below the windows are a result of massive shadows ft. post-processing created by some marquee or similar.... I know I know, how would that make sense? But that's what catched my eye first and that's why it looks highly unrealistic to me. The entire "outside" scene just looks like photoshopped inside with the real windows covered by a greenscreen from the outside... Before I read the question, that's what I thought how this image was made.
    – confetti
    Feb 2, 2019 at 14:22
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    Oddly, the dynamic range compression actually makes it look closer to what the human eye would actually see in the room. People are just used to taking photos of their messy houses with their crappy phone cameras and thinking that's "real". Here the place is immaculate - staged, cleaned, organized. A clean house and good camera are foreign concepts to most people. It doesn't look fake to me at all - just looks like a decent photo of a reasonably nice place.
    – J...
    Feb 2, 2019 at 14:40
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    There’s also something weird about what’s in the mirror. It seems to be reflecting a partitioned window with a construction site outside – but neither the window nor the construction site is visible at all in the scene seen through the glass parts. The twig-thingies in the urn-thingy just reflected in the mirror give a hint of the refraction angle which indicates that the ‘window’ in the mirror is really the sliding door – except it looks much too narrow to be, and the construction site doesn’t fit with anything that would fit in the outside scenery. Feb 2, 2019 at 18:40
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    @JanusBahsJacquet But that reflection is probably correct: What is in the mirror is what is seen from that point by looking about 45° to the right, whereas we see only nearly straight ahead out of the window/glass door itself. Given a wide enough street (to accommodate the tent and the actual street and pavements), the construction site is quite a bit off to the right. Feb 2, 2019 at 20:14
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    "the shadows in the balcony and near the glass door, which are closer to the light source," - Actually, unless I'm reading things wrong, the shadow of the table establishes the primary light source as being to the right and behind the camera. Although the shadow on the building on the far left also seems to indicate that the outside is illuminated from the left. Feb 2, 2019 at 22:04

The thing that sets off the alarm is the perfectly bright and uniform lighting in the room, especially on its ceiling. The room should be quite dark, since the sun is on the other side of the building (according to the building in the background). You can see through the window (and in the big mirror) that the ceiling of the balcony is more realistically in the shadow.

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    The uniform lighting is what sticks out to me as well, and I think is the most significant factor. Even if you take out the windows and the mirror, it still seems "fake" because such perfect, uniform, soft lighting just never happens in real homes. You rarely see professional lighting in pictures of empty rooms; but that sort of lighting is extremely common in computer-generated rooms. Feb 2, 2019 at 19:06
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    This point is only valid if we as viewers know that the wall behind the camera isn’t as open and glassy as the one opposite – it may be that there’s as much light coming in from the other side (indeed, the shadows show that the light source is behind and/or to the right of the camera). That would probably still give a less uniform lighting, of course, but I don’t think anyone would expect a professional picture like this not to use artificial lighting at all. That doesn’t make it look unrealistic to me, just professionally lit. Feb 2, 2019 at 20:24
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    Give that the sun seems pretty high in the sky, and that the room is at a fairly low level in a high-rise district, natural lighting wouldn't explain how the ceiling gets such light, and even why the whole room get more light than the balcony. Professional lighting perhaps, but unrealistic, definitely.
    – xenoid
    Feb 2, 2019 at 22:26
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    If the glass in the windows is darkly tinted, it could easily block a high enough proportion of the incoming sunlight to keep the room from seeming dark by comparison.
    – Vikki
    Feb 2, 2019 at 23:00
  • @JanusBahsJacquet it would need very good white diffusing curtains as there aren't any sharp shadows - but that's not impossible
    – Chris H
    Feb 4, 2019 at 10:27

The focus seems too even to me.  I would expect a photo taken to have something blurrier, either in the foreground or background.

  • Yes, I can count threads on the chair upholstery and almost read the construction site elevator suppliers name on the lift. This would have been taken with f:256 and very long exposure. Possible but unlikely.
    – KalleMP
    Feb 4, 2019 at 18:39
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    There are a couple of people (perhaps in conversation) and a few cars (perhaps parked) in the right exterior foreground. They have no motion blur and neither do the palm fronds. I believe it to be a montage or at best a multiple exposure.
    – KalleMP
    Feb 4, 2019 at 18:57
  • It could be focus stacking, yes. Feb 5, 2019 at 9:15
  • @KalleMP a small enough aperture means diffraction starts to be an issue. Focus stacking seems plausible (maybe even just 2 exposures but the interior/balcony focus is probably too uniform given the range of distances involved)
    – Chris H
    Feb 5, 2019 at 9:26

Shadows — or the lack of. This makes the scene look like a computer rendering with ambient lighting coming from everywhere. The walls and ceiling look sterile and a little too pristine. And whatever treatment was given to the scene outside the windows (some kind of tone mapping) made that look flat, and the reflection on the window happens to look just pretty much exactly like something artificial drawn there to signify glass.

There are a number of things which come together — really, I think I'd be hard-pressed to replicate a scene this fake-looking on demand. But, still, the number one thing is lack of natural-seeming shadows. You don't want them to be harsh and stick out — that won't look fake but it will look like you don't know what you're doing. But there should be some dynamic range.


Assessment based on photos found by @shoover.

The exteriors match reality (Google aerial view at least).

However some trickery is going on there. In another comment I mentioned long (or multiple) exposures to account for massive depth of field to maintain focus. Looking at images 1/35 and 6/35 from the set in the link it is possible to see ghost pedestrians and vehicle that would be just too much trouble to insert so I assume they are long exposure artefacts or real people.

If we accept that images are photographs and of real object then we have to assume the digital filtering and/or post processing is responsible for cleaning up surface dirt somehow, maximising exposure range in each image area and air brushing out blemishes.

One thing to note that may cause unease is the probable presence of other than right angles on some of the exterior wall corners. The building when viewed in aerial photo mode on the map on the linked page seems to be a non-orthogonal design.

Property advertisement was for a value of over US$1million so money was available to process photos and set up professional lighting. The real skill here is processing each image equally well and consistently. Managing to get times with minimal humans in sight and movement of vehicles is harder.


The room is very bright and the sky outside the window look artificial

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