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When it comes to photographic technique the options are endless, even with professional speciality areas like real estate photography. 

It's all about choices. Each situation is different and the best course is to adapt to the conditions that each listing presents. Modern digital cameras and fancy software are current luxuries in this arena, but there is no substitute for experience and solid technique. Shortcuts, automation and one-size-fits-all quickie HDR (high dynamic range) scripts can save time but consistent and convincing results always seems to suffer.

Cameras: I use the latest full frame digital Canon SLRs. 


Lenses: I am a gear junky and own around 20 lenses. Most of my real estate work is done with modern Canon "L" series zooms and three Canon TSE (Tilt-Shift) prime lenses. The TSE lenses are expensive and require considerable study, but they make a HUGE difference in presenting high impact images. 

Tripod: I always use a tripod. This greatly improves image quality while ensuring the best composition. The tripod helps eliminate unwanted fisheye distortion. I take care to make sure that horizontal and vertical lines are straight and distortion free as much as possible.

Lighting: The trend these days is to not use any added lighting at all. Many photographers just rely on a "one size fits all" HDR recipe. Here the photographer quickly captures the same scene using a wide range of different exposure settings and then uses automated software to merge them all together. This sort of solves the exposure challenges but can present a very false, plastic looking image. I prefer to light the rooms to lift the interior exposure value to the natural window light. I use about four strobes, mostly bounced off the ceilings which also helps maintain a more natural looking color temperature. Bounced lighting makes the rooms look more cheerful. HDR rooms often have dark, heavy looking ceilings. Contrast and colors often look garish with way too much saturation. Walls and ceilings can look like they suffered from fire and smoke damage. Adding light takes care and experience to ensure that it looks natural without overpowering the ambient light. 

Computer technique: I use a 30" professionally calibrated display and Adobe Photoshop. I always use RAW to capture the images. I then use Adobe Raw software title to tweak the color and exposure settings before bringing the files into Photoshop. I often create two or three different exposure instances and then use careful custom masking techniques to control shadow and highlight values. This is more TIME CONSUMING than the instant HDR technique. Once mastered these Photoshop masking techniques can be performed quite efficiently, it just takes experience. I then save all the edited files as large uncompressed Tiffs. I then make two Jpeg versions, one for the web and a larger file for any printed brochures that may follow.

The average listing shoot produces about 15-25 images. Showing 50 images is not worth the extra hassle as prospective buyers will not spend that much time viewing one gallery listing before moving on to the next. If you have not attracted the buyer with the first dozen or so images then showing another 40 images is not going to make that much of a real difference.

Real Estate Photography 101

Anyone who has perused through a copy of Architectural Digest magazine can appreciate the fine photography within its glossy pages. These lavish photo spreads are produced with extremely high production values - along with eye popping budgets. Most of this kind of work is still done with exotic large format camera and lighting systems that cost as much as the family SUV. High end architectural photography is a meticulous and painfully slow process.

In addition to the fancy camera technology there is usually tons of high end lighting that makes a family home resemble a Hollywood filmset. Meticulous lighting can balance the interior with the summer sunlight in the gardens. Dark outdoor winter light can be negated with fake "sunlight" that is blasted through the exterior windows. On shoots like these there is usually an artistic team of busy designers and stylists who fuss over every detail. Truckloads of furniture, curtains, books and nicknacks help "finish" the photographs. Every detail is taken care of. Living room carpets and area rugs will be raked "just so" until they look perfect. Everything must be perfect.

OK, thats great, but what is behind curtain number two? The other end of the spectrum often has the busy real estate agent doing the photography by him/her self. It is just another one of the frantic chores that stressed agents will work through to get a property listed. The photographs are captured quickly, usually with a small digital point 'n shoot camera set on "idiot mode", hand held in one hand with the flash blasting out for several feet. Sometimes the rooms are either shot empty or with the seller's furnishings on display in all their "glory." The quality consistency this exercise produces is what one would expect.

There is of course a sensible middle ground here: professional home staging and photography services. Interior design staging makes a huge impact. One of the design professionals I work with calls it "turning 1950's grandma into Pottery Barn cool..." The home staging design and photography are the two main visual tools for presenting a property to home buyers.

Chances are buyers will see the images before viewing the actual home. Even if the buyer visits the home without seeing any images beforehand odds are he/she will certainly do so afterwords if there is any interest in the home. You can be sure that the interested buyer will email the gallery link(s) to family and friends. This emotional support group might never see the home in person so their "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" verdict will come from their gut reaction to the photos they explore.

For real estate agents this is all about creating a consistent presentation that will help connect with buyers, keep anxious sellers happy and provide an overall impression of quality and professionalism.

The Tripod

Some photographers hate tripods while others rely on them all the time. Most poor photographs could have been saved just by using a tripod. You will also often hear that a tripod stifles "creativity." Photographic technique is a broad brush for sure, but when it comes to architectural photography the practice of using good tripod technique is more important than ever.

While it's possible to whiz through rooms snapping photos without a tripod the danger of inconsistent quality is always there. Not using a tripod will always save time. This is the number one reason for leaving the tripod at home. So, why bother?

Putting the camera on a decent tripod affords many advantages: 

  • lower ISO film speed
  • stopped down lens aperture (for better image quality and depth of field)
  • slower shutter speed (capture more ambient light)
  • eliminates camera shake
  • ensures careful composition
  • proper vertical and horizontal alignment prevents distortion
  • allows for creative camera height positioning
  • camera can be placed in awkward positions (corners & bathtubs, etc)
  • slower technique can resolve quality issues

Correct photographic exposure is dependent on three things: "film" speed ISO, lens aperture, and camera shutter speed. Using a slow film speed ISO (lower is better) and stopped down lens aperture will usually force using a slow shutter speed. To avoid shaky images you either have to resort to using a higher ISO and/or a more open lens aperture. This can negatively affect images in several ways. Using a tripod and/or supplemental lighting can counteract these issues.

Quite often you are faced with trying to balance the outside light with the interior light levels. Using a tripod gives you more options even if you are using off camera lighting to raise the interior light levels.

Most handheld photographs are taken at eye level while standing: its the most natural and sturdy position. However, many rooms look better when photographed from a much lower position. This is hard to do just by bending down: it's uncomfortable and very unstable. The same principle applies when taking shots of children: the photos look better when taken at their eye level instead of looking down from an adult level. This is important when shooting interiors. The tripod allows you to position the camera at the perfect height for any given room. That perfect height will change from room to room. For example: capturing fancy kitchen granite countertops will require that the camera be set at a specific height. 

I find the number one reason for using a tripod is ensuring that vertical and horizontal lines will be straight and free of distortion. The majority of this kind of work is done with wide lenses but wide lenses are prone to showing bulging physical planes and other optical distortions. Using a tripod gives you ample time for your eye to carefully travel from the center to all four corners of the camera viewfinder. This exercise is much harder with a handheld camera.

The big cost of using a tripod is of course time. But when it comes to maintaining a level of consistent quality I believe it's worth it...

Why Tilt-Shift lenses?

Cambridge in Colour has a great article on Tilt-Shift lenses. The first paragraph states: Tilt shift lenses enable photographers to transcend the normal restrictions of depth of field and perspective. Many of the optical tricks these lenses permit could not otherwise be reproduced digitally—making them a must for certain landscape, architectural and product photography.

Some time back I was enthralled with panoramic medium format (6x17) film photography. You would get just four shots on a roll of 120 film. The quality was great but the system was fussy to work with and you had to scan a really odd sized chunk of film. I then purchased my first Tilt-Shift lens, the Canon 45mm TSE f/2.8. I was hooked.

Most of my real estate work was done with the mighty Canon 16-35 f/2.8 L lens. This is an expensive lens that is used by tons of working pros. But when I really looked at the files closely I noticed that the corners of the image were not as sharp as I would have expected, especially when zoomed out to 16mm. I thought about investing in a couple of prime Zeiss lenses before deciding that going the extra mile and getting the new Canon 17mm TSE f/4 L was the better choice. While expensive this really wide Tilt-Shift lens showed itself to be a stunning performer. 17mm can be really wide for some situations however and it was not too long before I added the new Canon 24mm TSE f/3.5 L mkII lens. Phew...

Tilt-Shift lenses gives you similar perspective control that traditional 4x5 view film cameras allow.

Working with Tilt-Shift lenses can take some study and fiddling around before you get comfortable but the rewards are worth it. Using a little tilt can increase or decrease focus interest. But it is really the shift component of these lenses that shines for this kind of work. You can control unwanted backward leaning buildings when using a wide focal length. You can also emphasize or deemphasize elements in your photos. I see a lot of real estate images on the web that feature huge expansive ceilings. This can be an unwanted aspect when using wide angle lenses. Being able to "shift" some of that unwanted ceiling out of the picture is a huge plus.

Bathrooms can be a real challenge. There is just not much room for you and the tripod in such a small space. Having a Tilt-Shift lens gives you several options that a regular lens simply can’t match. One option is to shoot the middle of the room and then record two extra images, one shifted to the left and one shifted to the right. The three images can then be easily “stitched” together using Photoshop. As there is no rotation of the viewing angle this is a simple task for Photoshop. Attempting this with a regular wide lens means you have to fight the different rotational angle distortion that is almost unavoidable. The other nice aspect to using a Tilt-Shift lens in a tight space like a bathroom is that you can use the shift control to avoid getting your reflection in the bathroom mirror! Nice…

One of the main aspects to professional looking images in this arena is straight horizontal and vertical planes - with minimal distortion. Sure, some fancy software programs can help minimize these unwanted defects, but there is no substitute for doing it all correctly in camera. Deploying Tilt-Shift lenses really helps minimize unwanted issues while emphasizing the most important striking details of the scene you are hoping to capture.

Home Listing Samples

home samples illustration

Sometimes individual home galleries (produced from a single home listing) can tell more about a real estate photographer's skill and approach than a single "highlight" folder comprised from years of work...

Tour ->home samples

Articles & More

  • Technique

    When it comes to photographic technique the options are endless, even with professional speciality areas like real estate photography...

  • Real Estate Photography 101

    High end architectural photography is a meticulous and painfully slow process. Not to mention expensive! Some regard real estate work as architectural photography's poor cousin. Of course there is a sensible middle ground here: professional photography services without breaking the bank...

  • The Tripod

    The TRIPOD: yes it slows down the work, but there is no more vital piece of equipment in the photographer's kit than the tripod...

  • Why Tilt-Shift lenses?

    Does your real estate photographer use Tilt-Shift lenses? These fancy optics cost a small fortune. Here is why they are worth every penny...