Estate photography is a skill. It’s as much science as it is artistic. Both sides need to be studied, practiced and mastered if you’re to succeed in this saturated and competitive field of photography.
Being one of the areas of photography I focus on most (no pun intended), I spend a lot of time looking at professional real-estate images. Some leave me in awe, others leave me swearing out loud. From my experiences over the last number of years, coupled with the failings I’ve witnessed in some photographers’ work, here are top five tips for great property photography.
1. Use The Correct Equipment
There are certain must-have items you need to photograph a property.
Wide-angle lens – For general use on cropped-frame bodies (APS-C/1.6x crop sensors), Canon’s 10-22mm, Nikon’s 10-24mm, Sigma 10-20mm and Tokina 11-16mm lenses are ideal. For full-frame bodies, consider the Sigma 12-24mm, Nikon 14-24mm, Canon and Nikon 16-35mm, Canon 17-40mm and why not, the Tamron 11-18mm lenses. These zoom out far enough to make rooms look large and spacious without causing any distortion or unrealistic proportions. Never use a fish-eye lens. It depends on your budget and what kind of DSLR body you have. Once your budget allows, look in to arming yourself with a proper architectural lens or some high-end primes like Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L. But, for extremists or fisheye lovers a Canon EF 8-14mm f/4L Fisheye or Canon TS-E 17mm (Tilt and Shift) are a great choice.
Tripod – Hand-holding your camera with interior photography not only looks unprofessional, but it will result in blurred shots almost every time. Arm yourself with a tripod and a remote shutter release to eliminate the risk of camera shake when taking a shot. It will help you too in the Post Production process while merging 2 or more photos with different exposures to master a top end professional look image.
Flash – Get yourself at least one good-quality flash, as your DSLR’s pop-up flash simply won’t cut it. In fact, I’d go so far as saying your flash is one of your most important tools in real-estate photography. If you’re using off-camera flash, you’ll also need some wireless/wired triggers. These will give you the freedom to use your flash away from your camera without any restrictions.
2. Prepare The Room
Remove any clutter such as paperwork, clothes and anything else which you wouldn’t find lying around in a show home. Next, turn on all the lights in the property. This helps make rooms look inviting and warmer, plus it fills in the darker areas often found in the corners. Plump up sofa cushions and straighten bed covers, curtains and blinds. Make it look spotless in there!
3. Learn How To Control Both Ambient Light and Flash Light
The light inside a normal room may be two or three stops darker than outside – that’s up to 8x less light in the room! Taking a photo with your camera set to expose for the room you’re in will leave the windows over-exposed as a mass of over-powering white light. High-end real-estate photography involves balancing the light coming through the windows with the light inside the room. Doing this correctly enables you to see the view outside the windows. This can be done in one of two ways. Some property photographers use exposure bracketing or HDR in order to cover the differing levels of light. This involves taking three or more shots at varying exposures and blending them together. Personally I find this creates very unnatural looking interior photos.
I recommend learning the art and science behind off-camera flash if you want your images to stand out from the crowd. With the off-camera flash technique, you set the camera to expose correctly for the windows and use flash to increase the exposure of the darker interior room. Usually I use the Shutter Speed range between 1/30 to 1/80 with a constant ISO 200 at F10. Usually for small indoor areas it works…
Learning how your camera’s shutter speed only affects the ambient light (i.e. sunlight), while aperture and ISO affect both ambient and flash power, is a key skill in balancing the two sources of light and creating striking images.
4. Master Your Settings
I recommend keeping your ISO on 100 or 200 as default, not Auto. This ensures your images are free of any unnecessary noise or grain. The only time I raise the ISO higher is if my flash is already on full power and I need more power from it to illuminate the room. Remember, raising your ISO increases the effective power of your flash in your images.
Set your aperture at f/8 (I prefer f/10 for an even greater Depth-of-Field) and work from there. This setting works well for two reasons. Firstly, f/8 is usually where your lens it at its sharpest. Secondly, it offers a wide enough depth-of-field for all of the room to be in focus, whilst allowing in enough light for short shutter speeds. Again, the only time I change this is if I need more flash power, whereby opening up your aperture (choosing a smaller F number) allows more flash light in through the lens.
Now, adjust your shutter speed (if you’re in Manual mode) or shift your DSLR’s exposure meter (if you’re in Aperture Priority mode) to exposure correctly for the windows.
Once your settings are dialled in, you’re left needing to set your flash power and direction for the room. Bouncing the flash light off the ceiling or a wall delivers the best diffused light but this means you have to increase the flash power. If the room looks too bright, lower the flash power, and vice-versa.
5. Learn Effective Composition
Walk around the room and identify the best view points. Often these are aiming from one corner of the room in to the other, or from a perspective which conveys space or the flow from one room in to another. I usually prefer to shoot from the door side towards windows. If there is a fireplace or other room futures, it is a must to have it in your final image. If you are not certain (or just in case), it is always a good advice to photograph a room from more than one view point.
There are certain key rules when it comes to real-estate photography. Firstly, all your vertical lines should be vertical (at least in the final edited image). This is achieved by aiming your camera perfectly horizontal. Aiming slightly up or down will result it converging verticals – an indication that an amateur is at work. There are exceptions to this rule. For example, photographing a stairwell, or shooting from a higher level down to the room below may require tilting the camera up or down. Similarly you may find that you have no option but to aim your camera upwards when photographing the exterior of the property. Fortunately Photoshop and Lightroom can correct any converging verticals if required.
I’ve heard differing opinions on my next point on composition. Some say to always shoot from chest height – which is often midway between the floor and ceiling. These photographers say this creates the ideal composition for a room. I, along with many others, disagree. Why would I want 1/3 of the frame filled with a dull ceiling? Others say to always shoot from hip height. Me personally, I say to shoot from a height which suits the position of the contents within that room. In a kitchen, for example, most of the cupboards run from the floor up to the ceiling. Here, it makes sense to shoot at chest height, since this will also show the top of the work surfaces. In a bathroom or living room, for example, where most objects (sofa, coffee table, toilet, bath etc) are beneath hip height, it makes more sense to shoot from just below the hip. Essentially you want to fill your image with the contents of the room, not dead space. On the same note, ideally, if you have time and know how to photo-edit, position the camera at the chest height and tilt it forward to fill nicely your image with room content, after what you correct any converging verticals in Photoshop or other similar software.
As with every area of photography, there is no substitute for practice and experience. Everybody knows someone with their own home, be it yourself, your friends or your parents. Use that opportunity to practice and don’t forget to take inspiration from other real-estate photographers. One website I visit frequently is Houzz. Get your images close to the ones showcased there and you’re well on your way to making a career as a professional real-estate photographer.
Oleg Moldoveanu with credits to:
Oliver Pohlmann wearesophoto.com