I’ve been photographing high-end real-estate for about 6 years and have probably shot several hundred, if not thousand, properties in that time. When I look back at the images I handed over to my clients in my first year, I cringe. Back then I thought to myself “how hard can this be? Walk in the room, take a photo, email it to the client, nailed it!”. If I could go back, I’d give myself a nice open hand slap.
You see, interior 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 my 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, Canon’s 10-22mm or 10-18mm and Nikon’s 10-24mm lenses are ideal. For full-frame bodies, consider the Nikon 14-24mm, Canon and Nikon 16-35mm lenses and the Canon 17-40mm. Don’t dismiss the cheaper options from Sigma and Tamron, as reviews show they deliver image quality close to the Canon and Nikon versions, but at a lower cost. These recommended lenses zoom out far enough to make rooms look large and spacious without causing unrealistic distortion or proportions. Never use a fish-eye lens. Once your budget allows, look in to arming yourself with a proper architectural, tilt-shift lens or some high-end primes.
Tripod – Hand-holding your camera with interior photography not only looks unprofessional, but it will result in blurred shots every time. Arm yourself with a tripod and a remote shutter release to eliminate the risk of camera shake when taking a shot.
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 triggers. Something like the Phottix Strato II can be found for £75 a set and are the ones I use myself. 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
When photographing a room during daylight hours, the light inside a 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 interior 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 – which is vital if that view is a selling point. 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 in software such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. However, I find a lot of interior photographers produce very unnatural-looking results using this technique. Therefore, if you are going to use HDR or exposure bracketing, make sure you watch my detailed tutorial on natural-looking HDR interior photography.
Personally, 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 room.
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. See my tutorial on interior photography without over-exposing windows which explains this technique in more detail.
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 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. Of course, flash modifiers and diffusers are another path to explore. 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. Always photograph a room from more than one view point. This ensures you can review your images later and make a more confident decision on which perspective works best.
There are certain key rules when it comes to real-estate photography. Firstly, all your vertical lines should be vertical. 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.
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.
If you found this article useful, check out my latest article on Advanced Real-Estate Photography Tips, helping you work more efficiently with your clients and produce better-quality images.
Author – Oliver Pohlmann