Real Estate Photography - a Guide to Getting Started

Real Estate Photography – a Guide to Getting Started

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real-estate-photography-home-front-lighting

Photography has never been more important to selling real estate than it is today. The markets are heating up again and demand for real estate creates demand for photography. This is good news to photographers, but like any business, there is plenty of competition. If you are new to real estate and architecture photography, here are some general guidelines to start you on the right path.

Camera Equipment

A camera, lens, and tripod, are all that is required to get started, but you might quickly learn that many competitors are very proficient at using supplemental lighting and Photoshop techniques.

Your camera should allow you to add a cable release, a flash, different lenses, and wireless triggers. Wide angle lenses are required. For cropped sensor cameras a lens around 10-22mm or 12-24mm is perfect, and for full frame sensor cameras, a lens around 16-35 mm will do the job.

Tilt-shift lenses help avoid converging vertical lines such as wall edges and door frames leaning in or out. There are several tilt-shift lenses available from Canon’s 17mm, the 24mm from Canon and Nikon, and others. While these lenses are wonderful to use, they are fixed focal length so if you need  a perspective that is for example; 19 mm or 27 mm or somewhere in between, a 16-35mm zoom lens is a great companion to a tilt-shift lens.

real-estate-photography-converging-lines

This image before processing shows diverging vertical lines, seen best by the edge of the fireplace, from using a 16-35mm lens tilted down to add foreground and minimize ceiling.

Shooting techniques vary from exposure blending, HDR, wireless flash, and light painting with multiple exposures. No matter your shooting style the camera should not be moved to guarantee image alignment of multiple exposures. The camera’s self-timer, a cable release, or wireless triggers insure no camera movement. The iOS App or Camranger also triggers the camera and provide a preview of the photo on a smart device.

Approaching the Property

The first image a potential buyer sees (usually) when reviewing properties online is an exterior photo. That photo is important so take the time to find the best angle and best light. Ask the realtor what are the important features to highlight. They usually want exterior photographs from front and rear, a deck or patio, landscaping and gardens, pool or hot tub, a barn, shop, or other outbuildings. Each feature should be emphasized in the composition by using the surroundings, like beautiful gardens leading to a cool garden shed.

  The client was most interested in the outdoor theater under cover on the back porch, which I captured, but I also captured this image showing the patio furniture and giving a broader view of the backyard.

The client was most interested in the outdoor theater under cover on the back porch, which I captured, but I also captured this image showing the patio furniture and giving a broader view of the backyard.

Exterior Lighting

Most outdoor subjects benefit from early or late day lighting, including real estate. Using Google Maps and Google Earth can help you determine the best time of day prior to the photo shoot.  Searching only takes minutes and provides an idea whether a home faces the sunrise or sunset, or neither.

Light hitting the front of a home is perfect as seen here after sunrise. In winter, some homes facing south never have the sun hitting the front of the home To avoid shooting into the sun, photograph from the same end of the house as the sun.

Light hitting the front of a home is perfect as seen here after sunrise.

In winter, some homes facing south never have the sun hitting the front of the home To avoid shooting into the sun, photograph from the same end of the house as the sun.

 This home has a huge yard and a street lined with cars. Photographing from the left put the sun right above the roof but moving to the right side was a better perspective and the sun was out of view.

This home has a huge hedge behind the camera and a street lined with cars. Photographing from the left put the sun right above the roof but moving to the right side was a better perspective and the sun was out of view.

Overcast skies can eliminate any problems with sun’s position, but shooting on poor days is a decision best discussed with the realtor.  The advantage is you can shoot any time of the day but the disadvantage is white skies can lessen the impact of an otherwise great exterior image.

The dusk/dark technique

The dusk/dark technique

The dusk/dark technique is often requested by clients because it helps sell properties. The image is photographed outside and from the best angle to showcase the house. The technique is to turn on all the lights in a room and shoot at a certain time. After sunset the sky’s exposure will balance with the room lights’ exposure. A better approach is to add lights to the rooms creating even lighting, and working this way means not having to wait for that perfect balance between room lights and outdoor light.

Interior Photography

Homes come in all shapes, sizes, styles, and conditions. I always tell my clients that I am not in the house cleaning business, so I send them a task list with my suggestions on prepping the home prior to the photo session. Once inside, I set out to photograph the main rooms: the living room, kitchen, dining area, master bedroom, master bath, are all ‘must shoot’ rooms. There could also be a library, office, large walk-in closet, and more. The client can often tell you what they deem important. Next, seek the best perspective for each room.

The master bathroom

The master bathroom

I describe my approach as using the inside elements: furniture, windows, and room layout, to create visual flow. I generally try to avoid composing something large in the foreground that prevents the eye from flowing through the room.

This is the first test shot I took of this room and the foreground chair blocked the flow through the room.

This is the first test shot I took of this room and the foreground chair blocked the flow through the room.

real-estate-photography-interior-after

By rotating the chair and lowering the camera height slightly, the eye can flow through the room easier. This image also has the vertical lines corrected.

Camera Height and Vertical Edges

There is broad agreement among clients and photographers, that if there is to be a rule it will state: verticals must be correct! In most interiors there are edges and corners of walls, door frames, and windows that have vertical sides and these edges need to truly be vertical. When you use a tilt-shift lens this problem is solved, but tilting the camera up or down with a non-TS wide angle lens makes vertical edges converge or diverge and they no longer appear straight.

One widely used approach is to level the camera using a hot shoe bubble level, making edges straight. While this is a simple solution, it is not always the best solution when using a non-TS lens. A level camera at chest height can result in foreground subjects, like furniture being cutoff at the bottom with too much ceiling at the top. Lowering the camera height will improve this problem but how low can you go and still have an effective photo?

This image by one of my online course students; Simone Brogini, illustrates this point. His camera is chest high and his camera is leveled to avoid diverging lines. The problem as I mentioned to him was that the foreground furniture is cutoff and there is too much ceiling that lacks interest.

This image by one of my online course students; Simone Brogini, illustrates this point. His camera is chest high and is levelled to avoid diverging lines. The problem as I mentioned, is that the foreground furniture is cutoff and there is too much ceiling that lacks interest.

 Simone also shot this bedroom image the same way. It looks pretty good but I advised him again that in my that camera height might be just a little too low as the bed and furniture get only about 1/3 of the frame and the wall and windows uses 2/3 of the frame.

Simone also shot this bedroom image the same way. It looks pretty good but I advised him again that in my opinion the camera height might be just a little too low, as the bed and furniture get only about 1/3 of the frame and the wall and windows use 2/3 of the frame.

So what is the perfect camera height? There are many opinions. Some suggest chest height while others suggest door knob height or even lower, all to avoid diverging verticals lines. I prefer chest height or close and correcting vertical lines using other methods like a tilt-shift lens or the Lens Correction Tool in Photoshop (or Lightroom).

This image shows the use of the Lens Correction Tool. The bed and furniture consume 2/3 of the frame and provide a fuller view of the room.

This image shows the use of the Lens Correction Tool. The bed and furniture consume 2/3 of the frame and provide a fuller view of the room.

Getting Good Exposure

The perfect interior exposure is challenging when balancing bright window light, with darker interiors. You can deal with scene contrast many ways; one is to shoot when outdoor light levels are lower. Midday light will be much brighter outside than during or after sunset, or on a cloudy day. Turning on every light inside increases the interior brightness, and if the outdoor brightness is lower a RAW file can often capture the scene in one frame.

  This room has a dark ceiling, dark furniture, and window flare and hot spots. To much contrast for one capture.

This room has a dark ceiling, a dark floor, a window flare and hot spots with too much contrast for one capture. (see corrected version below)

  On a overcast day, the interior exposure is quite good as well as the window exposure. A flash was bounced off the ceiling on the right.

On a overcast day, the interior exposure is quite good as well as the window exposure. A flash was bounced off the ceiling on the right.

To make sure I have all the exposures for a great image, I determine my ‘base exposure’, the image that has most of the data centred in the histogram. Then I bracket widely in +/- one stop increments of varied exposures so I have variety just in case I need them. Lightroom and Photoshop, and certainly other programs, allow selective lightening and darkening of shadows and highlights on a single image, but if the contrast is too much, I can blend those bracketed images into a great final image.

The Adjustment Brush was used to bring down the brightness of the left window. There is still a little flare around the window, but this worked for the real estate website.

The Adjustment Brush in Lightroom was used to bring down the brightness of the left window.

Interior Lighting

Just like a finely lit portrait, interiors can benefit greatly from nicely styled lighting. HDR can manage scene contrast but it does not create highlights and shadows in areas that have no directional light. If you have a dark cabinet against a dark wall, adding supplemental light can bring out that needed detail.

Most interiors have two light sources: window light and interior lights, both constant light sources. You can add constant lights or use strobe or flash. Constant lights, unlike flash, are like the lamp on the table or window light. Changing your exposure to darken window light also changes the exposure brightness of your constant lights. Flash is not a constant light! If you change your shutter speed to darken the window light exposure, flash exposure will not change and for this reason; flash or strobe provides flexibility when lighting interiors.

Photographers shooting for architects or magazines often have plenty of time to photograph a property with finely crafted lighting techniques, but a real estate photographer’s time is usually limited, making flash the perfect tool. Some photographers have mastered the balancing act of using direct on-camera flash to fill in a scene while others use on-camera flash in a bounce capacity.

Here the only light is coming from a window on the left and the ceiling fixtures, leaving dark areas in front.

Here the only light is coming from a window on the left and the ceiling fixtures, leaving dark areas in front.

Adding bounce flash, hand held just to the right of the camera, filled in those darker areas effectively.

Adding bounce flash, handheld just to the right of the camera, filled in those darker areas effectively.

Also popular are multi-flash wireless set ups allowing the flash to be placed around a room for styled lighting. Also growing in popularity is the ‘light painting’ approach where areas are selectively lit and the exposures are blended.

This image utilizes the Light Painting approach to interior lighting.

This image utilizes the Light Painting approach to interior lighting.

One side effect with outdoor lighting mixing with interior lighting is ‘lighting color balance‘. This is different than camera White Balance settings. Camera White Balance is set to either specific areas of your scene or set to average all light sources together.

There is a blue color cast above and right side of the window as well as the floor on the left.

There is a blue color cast above and right side of the window as well as the floor on the left.

When you have mixed light, such as daylight colored window light mixing with tungsten colored ceiling lights, and then throw in a fluorescent kitchen light, you have a veritable palette of different colors mixing together. Walls closest to windows will be blue while the wall closest to a lamp will be amber and the ceiling in the kitchen will have a green tint.

The final image shows color correction in those areas as well as verticals and window flare.

The final image shows color correction in those areas as well as corrected verticals and removal of window flare.

In some cases the effects of mixed light will be minimal and other times require attention. You can prevent mixed color in many cases by color matching the inside lights to the same color or use Photoshop color correction techniques to change color of specific areas.

The End Product

Once you have completed the assignment you will need to deliver the image files. Clients may have different preferences, but mine usually request low resolution for the web and high resolution for print publication.

Be sure to save your files in the proper file format and size for the intended use. Most Multiple Listing Service’s specify what is accepted format and acceptable sizes. I use Photoshop and the Save for Web option for the low resolution and TIFF format for high resolution.  Then final delivery of the files is made by Dropbox or a comparable online service.

Summary

Things to remember doing real estate photography:

  • You are not photographing for yourself; you are photographing for clients who will expect professional quality work.
  • Don’t get ALL the best gear, get only what is required to do the job well.
  • Master the creative side of photography such as angles, perspectives, and composition.
  • Master the technical side of exposure, HDR, supplemental lighting, color matching, and exposure blending.
  • Be careful when processing real estate images, like removing power lines, to avoid misrepresenting the property. 

There are many styles and techniques you can use to photograph architecture and real estate and you should master them all. Real estate photography is architecture photography and you can photograph a home for a real estate agent for $200 or photograph a model home for a home builder for $1000 or more.  Start small, plan big!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Charlie Borland Charlie Borland has been a commercial photographer for 30 years and completed architecture photography assignments for hotels, commercial buildings, developers, home builders, and realtors. You can find his online course: Mastering Architecture and Real Estate Photography here.

  • chrisn

    Great post with great photos, however 99% of the homes people are photographing are not as beautiful as the ones in this article. How to do make a dingy wood paneled room with a floral patterned couch look attractive?

  • Charlie

    Chrisn-

    Very good question! My approach is to make them as light and bright as possible, but honestly I dont get asked to shoot homes that are horribly outdated very often. They command a lower price and many agents dont feel that spending money on quality photography will impress a buyer more than their iPhone images. In fact, I often feel they want to show less sometimes. My brother is an RE broker and only has me work on his best listings. Sorta like when a home is really ugly outside, the agents exterior photos are shot from half a mile away.

    Charlie

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Great article Charlie. Can you point us to some tutorials that detail the technical aspects such as perspective correction and colour balancing with bracketed WB shots?

  • Charlie

    Gavin-

    Thanks for your kind words. There are some tuts out there but I am not sure where to send you because most of this article is excerpted from my online course in RE and Arch Photography, introducing techniques I have used for years. The link to that course is in my bio above. There are a few eBooks on Amazon but I find them shallow and dont cover the techniques I think work best with today’s technical options.

    All the best!
    Charlie

  • Ed Brumley

    Great article!

    I’d love to do this professionally, but can’t get my foot in the door with the local realtors. Nevertheless, I helped sell my brother’s home (For sale by owner) in just 32 days. I posted stills on-line (https://picasaweb.google.com/edbrumley/JoelSusanBrumleySHome#) But the one feature that impressed the buyer was the most was 360 degree photos I posted too> (Front yard) http://www.photosynth.net/view.aspx?cid=bf76f065-d56b-4e96-bd0c-791ac426d63d (Backyard) http://www.photosynth.net/view.aspx?cid=946d3cc8-b842-43b0-b5cb-2d69f517650f
    I used http://www.Photosynth.net, but have since switched to using http://www.demandar.com. (Both are free) Dermandar loads very fast and is simple to use. It not only features the house, but the neighborhood in which it is located. You can see more of my stuff at http://www.dermandar.com/user/edbrumley/.
    This house was in Illinois and the buyer was from Louisiana and had just accepted a job locally. His finance was in Georgia and unable to make the house hunting trip with him. Therefore, while he toured the house he talked to her on his cell phone while she looked at the photos on-line. The first time she saw the house in person was at closing!

  • Charlie, this is a great tutorial. I have a quick question: my commercial work has been moving further and further into restaurant interiors. I’ve been ‘getting by’ with a 17-35mm f/2.8 but as you can imagine this truly limits my ability to keep the vertical lines correct. Would you recommend a 17mm tilt-shift vs. 24mm tilt-shift as my next go-to lens?

  • Charlie

    Hey Mike-

    My opinion is the 17mm TS and the reason is that if you have a 24 and need 20, you wont get it. With the 17 if you are to wide you can move in and while that changes perspective it really gives you more options. I think the biggest thing is that having the 17mm TS helps alot but there is a need to avoid shooting everything at 17 because there will be many scenes that are perfect at 23mm for example. Since you have the 17 – 35 you really are covered for a lot of options.

    Good luck!
    Charlie

  • Charlie

    Nice Ed!

  • Bill

    Wow Ed. Very talented.

  • ziplock9000

    In your last example you edited an image that had lighting at different temperatures. Can you explain your workflow for correcting something like this?

  • Pete

    Thanks for the links Ed!

  • KevinTucker

    Charlie, I enjoyed the tutorial. I have been thinking about pursuing this kind of work for a long time. If a person buys your course, is there a way to communicate with you for questions and clarification as needed?

  • Charlie

    Hi Kevin-

    Yes absolutely!

    Charlie

  • Charlie

    There are several ways to do this and in the days of film we would gel all lights to match, even windows as well in some cases so the color all matched. In other cases you would shoot after dusk where there was no light coming in from the windows but you could still see outside. You will still match all inside lights with gels, which was usually tungsten and that created the blue windows we often see some photographers still using. It is a great technique for creating a mood: warm inside, cool outside. This is not always practical for the RE photographer who might have to shoot a house at 10 in the morning on a bright sunny day. So a lot of color can be corrected with Photoshop layers and blending different color layers. Some do color correction in channels but I dont and I think it is a matter of preference and workflow style.

    Charlie

  • Duwi Mertiana

    Nice article sir,

    Actually I’m a property photographer too, such as for hotel and villa in Bali. So far, this is the most interesting and easiest photography job for me. No need any complicated equipment like heavy lighting kit. Currently I’m working with Canon 6D, 16-35mm lens, and a solid tripod. Like you said, the most important is to keep the stability of the camera because we’ll work with a slow speed, ISO 100, and f20 – 22, then trust lightroom to do the rest. Always do the job on golden hours (6 – 7pm and 5.30 – 7am) to get amazing result.

    Regards,
    Duwi Mertiana
    http://www.baliphotoshooting.com/hotel-villa-photography

  • SelimTheDream

    Heya. I am planning to get a drop on real estate photography in Turkey. At the moment the existing competetion is little to none since the market for real estate photography is very new in fact it’s almost non existant! I already have a steady job and I am about to buy a canon DSLR system so I thought I’d give the real estate photography a try, if things work out I might quit my current job and take the patch of phogography. Since I cannot afford full frame atm I am planning to buy a Canon 60D for the body and probably a Tokina 11-16 or Canon 10-22 for the lens for starters. I would truly appreciate any advice you can give me in the matter. I am not new to photography I just had to sell my 7D and the lenses I had for financial reasons last year. I know all the basic terms, techniques etc. My most challenging aspect will be that some of the apartments I may need to take photos of will not have any indoor lighting. I will either have to use the light coming through windows (which will be none for bathrooms etc) or use artificial light. I would love to hear about your suggestions on what type of artificial light you use in these situations.

  • Aaron

    Well said! I appreciate the balanced approach to this article. Way too many folks are discounting techniques that others have put time into mastering. I suggest trying all of these techniques if you have the equipment and opportunity. If not, don’t sweat it. Rock what you got!

    http://www.gulltec.com

  • Karen

    Hi Charlie – could you give me a copy of the “task list” for sellers to do. Thank you – Karen

  • Charlie,
    Do you have a suggestion on a specific camera & accessories that would be sufficient for someone who may be starting out as a RE photographer?

  • Heather Walters

    I cannot agree more strongly with this article. Getting proper photos of a property is crucial in standing out from the ever growing crowd of ‘other listings’. I’ve seen listings that have sat for months who reshoot (hire a photographer), take some solid pictures and then the house is under contract in less than a week. Your client’s happy and they call you back for more work. This article is full of excellent tips for anyone out there trying to sell it themselves, but if you find yourself unable to get it right in camera, it usually pays to just spend a few bucks on a pro (like me, lol). A good photographer is surprisingly affordable. Heather W, The OM Agency, Gulf Shores, AL. http://www.gulfshoresphotopro.com

  • Charlie Borland

    Glad you enjoyed it Heather!

  • bumbleb.ee

    I would like to see this question answered!

  • Rina Esquieres

    Aside from the opportunity to list a property for free, real estate agents will do almost everything to advertise the property that you want to sell. One of the best ways to advertise is to master real estate photography. The pictures of the property will encourage potential clients to inquire about the property by basing on how good it looks in the photographs. And when the prices are right, they’ll go straight to the open house to see the actual property for sale. Capturing and captivating the hearts of buyers through photography really gives amazing results especially when you’re in the real estate business. http://www.prelist.org/

  • Sylvina Allende

    great tutorial!! I’m starting my business as a real estate photographer. I have two lenses 18-55 and 18-300. Of course, work in manual mode. Which one (lenses) do you think is better?

  • Brian Peixinho

    Using Kit lenses to start a business is a sure way to end it also. There is a world of competition out there and you can’t do much without being serious about your craft.

  • Gary Harris

    I would use neither! I agree with Brian about the kit lenses. A professional would not even think about using a kit lens to start a business with so much competition.

  • Sylvina Allende

    listen your advice

  • Brian Peixinho

    I don’t understand what you mean by that.

  • Good luck in your new career!

  • Jennifer

    I have to say I have worked with an agent that sells older homes. The photos I have taken have actually gotten more interest in the home even though it was older. So I guess it just depends on what the agent thinks. I have helped her sell many older homes in twice the time by this method and so she spends the money.

  • Another important thing to consider is creating panoramas. A 360 panoramic image makes the viewer feel like he is standing in the middle of the room.

  • True! DPS did write an older post on that very subject, but a newer how-to on 360 degree panoramic photos for real estate would be very very helpful, especially because some cameras like the Sony alpha series actually have a panorama setting in camera. I think one challenge we face in our photography is when using wide angle lens, is the ability not get converging lines in the shot. I do understand that you can fix alot of it in the digital editing room, however when you fix the angles that are way off it often times requires the image to be cropped and also creates a softening in areas around the image, usually on the sides. A few of our latest pictures can be found on our portfolio page http://www.lakenormanmike.com/real-estate-photography-portfolio/

  • True! DPS did write an older post on that very subject, but a newer how-to on 360 degree panoramic photos for real estate would be very very helpful, especially because some cameras like the Sony alpha series actually have a panorama setting in camera. I think one challenge we face in our photography is when using wide angle lens, is the ability not get converging lines in the shot. I do understand that you can fix alot of it in the digital editing room, however when you fix the angles that are way off it often times requires the image to be cropped and also creates a softening in areas around the image, usually on the sides. A few of our latest pictures can be found on our portfolio page http://www.lakenormanmike.com/real-estate-photography-portfolio/

  • dp full course

    I have both TSE 17 and 24 II and mainly use both for landscape and sometimes in tight space inside the building, I would not choose one based on the image quality, while I do agree the TSE 24 II is very slightly better than the TSE 17 especially when I use large degree of tilt and/or shift, but we are splitting hair here, I am confident to say most people will be just happy with either one.

    So I will suggest just pick one based on the focal length you need and don’t even think about the optical quality difference between the two, they are both top notch lenses, however, regarding the filter support that’s a valid concern, not about “protection” but when you need ND, GND for the landscape application, I don’t normally use UV filter on any of my lens for the so called “protecting the lens” anyway, also the huge protruding front element of the TSE 17 makes it more prone to flare, I always have to pay special attention to that as I shoot outdoor under bright sun light a lot. so again is not because it’s easier to get damage but for photographic reason it makes it more difficult to use, sometimes you just can’t avoid the direct sunlight with such wide lens, so a lot more attention is required on the TSE 17 than the TSE 24 II.

    Free digital photography course http://freedpfullcourse.blogspot.com/

  • Nadia Reckmann

    Thanks for the great post, Charlie! There’s another aspect to real estate photography that one should keep in mind, both when just getting started or already being a pro — protection of the photos. Just recently, we uncovered that more than 7% of all the infringement cases we handled at Pixsy this year were connected to real estate. We dig deeper, asked real estate photographers to speak up and uncovered three reasons for this state: https://www.pixsy.com/why-is-image-theft-so-common-in-real-estate/

  • Giang Hanu

    These tips is useful and interesting. Here we also share some experiences to add information that you refer: http://fotosolution.com/tips-make-beautiful-real-estate-photos/

  • Paddy

    Many realtors don’t want t pay a lot, they just want decent pictures. How much would you charge for these images? In western Pennsylvania the going rate is about $200 which is not enough to spend too much time in processing.

  • very nice tutorial i say something here There are a variety of lenses as needed, but if you are starting both lenses 50 mm as 35 are a good choice. https://goo.gl/maps/dLKQpzzYfru

  • cucurigu

    Hey, don;t listen to them. I know it’s best to have fixed lens with hight end (L for Canon for example), but not always this is the important part. You’re new, try your best, and then when money will flow start investing in better equipment. 10-55 it’s a crappy lens, 18-300 as well. Try to compensate a little.

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