[Guide] Real Estate Photography
Photos are currently the best and most widely used method to showcase a property. High quality pictures are a basic expectation regardless of value/price of the property.
In this guide I will go over the equipment and techniques you can employ to achieve much higher-quality photography and to really impress your sellers as well as buyers who will be looking at your listing.
Nowadays we all carry excellent cameras in our pockets, in the form of a smartphone. And while these cameras are great for selfies, or pictures of our cousin’s birthday party, or snap some pics when we travel. Smartphones are simply inadequate for Real Estate photography, yet the vast majority of Real Estate agents use exactly that.
The simple solution is DSLR cameras, but it’s not so simple. Learning how to use a DSLR may be overwhelming to many as DSLRs have a wide range of setting, options and lenses that you need to understand in order to capture the perfect pictures. Attached, you will find 4 illustrations that I will reference in this guide.
The purpose of this guide is to simplify that process for you and give you some ideas for budget friendly equipment.
When looking at DSLR Cameras, the two most commonly used brands are Canon and Nikon, and these are the brands we I focus on.
Contrary to popular belief, the camera you use is less important than the lens and lighting equipment that are used in conjunction with the camera.
So, what makes a picture great? It really comes down to two factors: angle and lighting.
Lighting is really the trickiest part and you might even have to take a few pictures with different setting to get the perfect shot.
While most DSLR camera have a built-in flash, it is practically useless for Real Estate photography. What you will need is an external flash unit such as Canon Speedlite 430EX / Canon Speedlite 600EX or Nikon SB-700 AF.
As far as the camera goes, you can use almost any Canon (EF-S Compatible) or Nikon (AF-P Compatible) Cameras, keep in mind that the camera needs to match the lens and flash unit (Especially the lens - on the amazon links to each lens you will find a list of compatible cameras). If you go with Canon Camera, get the Canon lens and Canon Flash, and if Nikon Camera then Nikon Lens and Nikon Flash.
Here are a couple (price oriented) camera recommendations for each brand: Canon T6 or Canon T7i and Nikon D3400 or Nikon D5500. (if you disagree with my recommendation, please reply with reason and what would you recommend instead)
Lastly, a good tripod will help you stabilize the camera and set it to the right angles, though not requires and I usually don’t use one, I do recommend it, especially if you are just starting out.
Illustration 1 shows you the difference between a narrow angle and a wide-angle. Wide angle basically allows you to have more objects or “space” in a single frame. Think of it like a mini-panorama.
One of the things that will drastically improve the quality of your pictures is the angle of the walls/doors/cabinets/appliances/pictures (object that people expect to look a certain way and have certain proportions). So, when angling your camera, tilt it up and down until the vertical lines in your frame are as straight as they can be – meaning that the vertical lines (of the object you are shooting) need to be perpendicular to the top and bottom of your frame and parallel to each other. See Illustration 2
If you are taking a picture from a corner of a room, you only need to focus on the vertical lines, since your floor and ceiling lines cannot be parallel from such angle. However, if you want the room to be centered and take picture from the center of the room, you will also have to pay attention to the horizontal lines (ceiling/floor/table/desk/counter/wall shelves/pictures…). See Illustration 2
It may be hard to get the right angles when holding the camera by hand and that is where a tripod can be very helpful, however with good practice, you will be able to take the pictures with the camera handheld.
Note that if your vertical lines are not perfectly perpendicular or parallel, its okay. Small imperfection can be corrected in post editing. (but make sure you do correct it)
Lighting is where things get a bit tricky. And I will break this topic into 2 sections; Outdoor and Indoor.
Outdoor Lighting – Getting the right outdoor lighting is generally very easy because the sun can do most of the work for you, all you have to do is work with the sun. I’ll explain; direct and unobstructed sunlight will generally give you the best natural lighting and natural colors. And the way to take advantage of sunlight is by planning the time of day when to take the pictures. The time of day will depend on how the property is positioned. If the property is facing East, North or North-East, then best time to take the picture is in the morning. If the property is facing West, South or South-West, then the best time is in the afternoon. See illustration 3
Generally, there is no need to use flash for outdoor Real Estate photography, and with good sunlight, you can just set your camera to Auto-mode and snap the picture. You can even use your fancy smartphone camera for outdoor pictures – turn on HDR mode for extra colors and cool lighting effect. (Remember to maintain proper angles)
Indoor lighting – This will probably require the most practice and understanding of your camera.
While there are different methods of getting great indoor shots, in this guide I will focus on using the external flash unit as I find it to be the easiest method with the least post editing requirement. If you are a Photoshop expect, you may find another method (such as HDR – which I won’t cover in this guide) to be easier.
The key to indoor lighting is balancing the light from light sources (window/bright lights) and the other object in the frame (walls/floor/ceiling/appliances/furniture…). You want the light to be as even as possible. This is where your handy-dandy flash unit comes into play.
In this step you will learn a technique called “Light Bouncing”. Instead of pointing your flash directly at your object, point it at the ceiling or even at slightly behind you (if there is a wall behind you). This will make the light bounce off the ceiling and the walls and spread evenly throughout the room, thus eliminating hard shadows and most of the reflection from reflective objects. See illustration 4
When using this technique, you cannot rely on the camera’s Auto Mode and you will need to dive into Manual Mode where you will have full control of the camera’s setting, which includes ISO, Shutter Speed, Aperture, and Flash intensity.
5. Camera Settings
First and foremost, set your camera to save RAW images – you can enable RAW format in your camera’s settings. This function will save an uncompressed image and will preserve image data in its most un-edited state from the sensor.
Now, lets cover a few basic camera terms;
ISO is the sensor’s sensitivity to light. A lower ISO number makes the sensor less sensitive, higher ISO means higher sensor sensitivity.
Shutter Speed is the length of time when the sensor inside the camera is exposed to light. The amount of light that reaches the sensor is proportional to the exposure time.
Aperture (F-number) is the hole in the lens, through which light travels to the camera’s sensor. It is an easy concept to understand if you just think about how your eyes work. As you move between bright and dark environments, the iris in your eyes either expands or shrinks, controlling the size of your pupil. Aperture also controls the depth of focus (DOF). Lower F-number means more light can travel through and the DOF is shallower. Higher F-number means less light can travel through and the DOF is deeper. This is as far as I’ll go explaining it in this guide, if you want to learn more about it, head over here: https://photographylife.com/what-is-aperture-in-photography
Flash Intensity is pretty simple and it means the amount of light that is emitted by the flash unit during the flash. (Controlled on the flash unit itself - See attached flash screenshot)
White Balance In photography and image processing is the global adjustment of the intensities of the colors. An important goal of this adjustment is to render specific colors – particularly neutral colors – correctly. For Real Estate photography using a flash, I would recommend to set the White Balance on your camera to Daylight.
To teach you all the ins-outs of how your settings will affect the final picture, I will have to write a whole book (there are plenty already available). I will instead give you a few scenarios and the setting to use in each (you can manipulate these settings in Manual Mode – usually indicated by M on your camera’s dial - See attached camera screenshot)
Bathroom: f/5.6, Shutter Speed 1/200, ISO 200/400 (depending on amount of light coming from window if there is a window), Flash Intensity +1/+1⅓/+1⅔ (Depending on size of room and ISO – lower ISO = More flash, Bigger room = More Flash)
Average bedroom/Kitchen/Dining Area: f/6.3, Shutter Speed 1/200, ISO 200/400/800 (sunny/cloudy/evening), Flash Intensity +1⅔/+2/+2⅓ (Depending on size of room and ISO – lower ISO = More flash, Bigger room = More Flash)
Living Room/Large Open Kitchen: f/8, Shutter Speed 1/200, ISO 200/400/800 (sunny/cloudy/evening), Flash Intensity +2⅓/+2⅔/+3(Depending on size of room and ISO – lower ISO = More flash, Bigger room = More Flash)
If you are paying attention, you can see a trend with these settings.
Also note that you may not get the absolute perfect result (and probably won’t) regardless of your camera’s settings, you want to get as close as possible because you can correct most small imperfection in post editing.
While these setting are kind of general, different lighting situations will require different setting, and again, I want to clarify that there are other methods and setting for taking great Real Estate photos (some of them may even produce better results), I am sharing the method that I use and I find it simple to start with.
Feel free to reply with your opinions and methods in the comments.
If you don’t like to edit photos, too bad! You will have to – and I will do my best to simplify this process for you.
There are plenty of Photo Editing Software available such as Darkroom, Lightroom, Photoshop, PaintShop, PhotoDirector….
Personally, I prefer DxO PhotoLab. It is inexpensive ($99), fairly easy-to-use and offers plenty of tools.
When you open your photos in DxO, the software will apply automatic correction based on the camera/lens and setting used to shoot the photo. And then you can make additional corrections manually.
Here is the list of the general tools that I employ when editing photos in DxO: (plenty more tools are available)
- FORCE PARALLEL – correct vertical lines
- RECTANGLE – correct vertical and horizontal lines
- EXPOSURE COMPENSATION – Exposure (Slightly increase if picture is dark – don’t overdo it)
- SELECTIVE TONE – Midtones (Increase to 15-25), Shadows (Increase 30-70)
- DxO CLEARVIEW – Enable for some outdoor photos (usually of a pool/lake/ocean)
- CONTRAST – Contrast (increase to 10-20), Microcontrast (increase 20-45), Highlights (Increase to 20-60)
- COLOR ACCENTUATION – Vibrancy (increase to 25-50)
- NOISE REDUCTION – Prime – Luminance (increase to 20-40)
- HSL – Channel – Yellow (reduce to -20 to -40) (my camera seems to produce more yellowy pictures)
Once you are happy with your results, Export your pictures into JPEG format and they are ready to be uploaded to the MLS or elsewhere.
Attached is a screenshot from DxO for you to see the setting I use.
While a good DSLR package isn’t the cheapest or simplest tool to use, it will greatly improve your listings and will move you, as a listing agent, to a level above others. While a value DSLR package will run you roughly $900 for Canon and roughly $1000 for Nikon, a new iPhone XS or Galaxy S10 also sell for $1000, so ask yourself what should be your next investment. Not to mention that a DSLR will serve you for many many years to come, my go-to camera is a 8 year old Canon T3i and it is just as useful today as it was in 2011, and has paid for itself over and over again.
8. Additional suggestions and recommendations
- Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, shoot Real Estate pictures in Portrait mode, Only in Landscape mode.
- Refrain from taking pictures in Wide-Screen Mode, use standard 4x3 format.
- Practice makes perfect – practice with different camera setting and make small adjustments until you achieve the desired result.
- If possible, avoid cloudy skies. While a few clouds won’t hurt, but if the sky is covered with clouds, you will likely get better results on another day. (This may not always be an option)
- If this whole photography thing is too much for you or you simply don’t want to deal with it, do yourself, you customer and everyone else a favor, and just hire somebody to take the pictures for you.