Real estate photography can be much more than just snapping some photos of interiors. Successfully capturing a property’s unique elements can challenge your skills as a photographer and as an editor. It’s this aspect of real estate photography that has made it my favorite subject as a professional photographer.
If you’re trying to take better real estate photos, and operate a real estate photography business, there are some tips I recommend that can make a massive difference in the results and client experience. In this article, I’ll break down some of the major things I keep in mind when approaching a new property for photography.
Challenges of Real Estate Photography
As a professional photographer, I’ve worked with a wide range of subjects and genres, yet something about the technical and deliberate nature of real estate photography has continued to appeal to me. Whether it’s a small or large property, each place has something unique to showcase, and it’s an enjoyable, creative challenge to quickly find that angle.
Beyond working with the property itself, there’s also the question of the client’s expectations. Unlike many other professional photography subjects, you’re not taking photos of the client. But you still need to understand what the client – typically the realtor or real estate agent – wants. You need to figure out what to emphasize and de-emphasize about the place you’re photographing in order to meet their needs.
Lastly, expect time pressure. Whether it’s a brief window that the owners will be out of the property, the small amount of time the agent wants to spend at the listing, or a requirement for a quick turnaround, there’s often a very compressed time frame for shooting and editing. Within this window, however, there’s a clear need to deliver results the first time. Reshoots are often going to present a problem for both the client and owner, leading to dissatisfaction all around.
Real estate photography can be divided into two processes: taking the photos and editing the photos. I’ll cover both processes below.
How to Take Real Estate Photos
1. Lens Choice
These days, you can get incredibly wide lenses for very little money, and there’s no doubt that wide and ultra-wide lenses are essential to real estate photography. However, going wider than necessary can actually work against you. If you’re able to get the shot at 20mm, you don’t need to go to 14mm or 12mm just because your lens can zoom out that far. Going too wide can lead to perspective distortion, throwing off the look of the room. Ultra-wide views also require more care to be taken with aligning verticals, to avoid making it feel like the room is crooked.
On the other hand, there are going to be times when there’s just no alternative to using a very wide lens. Small bathrooms are virtually impossible to photograph any other way, and you’ll often find that even with an ultra-wide, you’re stuck compromising. In these cases, just focus on making the shot pleasant and functional. An ancillary bathroom won’t make or break the viewer’s interest, but you do need a photo of it.
Your choice of wide angle lens also doesn’t need to be particularly fast. I shoot with the Nikon Z system, and I’ve found the Z 14-30mm f/4 to be a great fit. It’s smaller and less expensive than an f/2.8 zoom, and the distortion (automatically corrected in most editing software) is rarely problematic. I previously used the Nikon 16-35mm f/4, but I’d be comfortable using an ultra-wide zoom from any brand. The technical requirements for typical real estate photography just aren’t that intense.
2. Ultra-Wides, Tilt-Shifts, and Specialty Lenses
When photographing the front of a building, tilting your camera back to capture the roof can lead to issues with your verticals. This tilt makes it look like the building is falling backwards. There are a number of ways to address this: stepping back, using a tilt-shift lens to correct for this in camera, or fixing it in post.
If you’re just getting started, a tilt-shift lens like the Nikon PC-E or Canon TS-E is probably out of the question, both as a matter of budget and just for convenience (setting up a tilt-shift lens’s movements properly is much slower than a regular lens). Then there are times where you just can’t step back any further, either because of an obstruction or something else.
Instead, a good option in these scenarios is to shoot a wider-than-necessary composition, while trying to keep your vertical lines as straight as possible. Then, in post, you can crop the image and/or use a tool like Lightroom’s Transform panel to fix any issues that remain. Again, it’s really important that you shoot wider than necessary, as any correction via Transform will result in the image being cropped.
If budget is an issue, and you still need something wide, two of my favorite options are Venus Optics’s line of lenses and Rokinon’s. Both companies make a variety of ultra-wide lenses in a wide range of mounts. The only downside for these lenses is that they’re typically manual-focus only and sometimes can’t have their aperture controlled via the camera, but neither of these are significant problems for real estate use. It’s easy to focus manually with a non-moving subject.
3. Efficiency Is Key
There is a wide range of techniques you can employ when photographing real estate. Among the options just for lighting, there’s natural light, HDR, flash photography, and “flambient”, which blends natural and flash exposures. Each of these comes with it’s own look, benefits, and drawbacks, but underneath all of them is the need for efficiency. Time is money, for both you and your client, so developing an efficient workflow is important. Furthermore, each property can be quite different. What works for an open floor plan with light walls might not work for a dark, 70’s ranch-style.
If you’re just getting started, I’d suggest first developing a strong competency with photographing natural light, and get comfortable adding flash when necessary. Flambient is the most popular look, but it also requires dedicated skills for setting the camera, configuring your flashes, and editing your photos. It can be a great skill to develop, but it may be overkill and overwhelming when photographing lower-end properties and when you’re just getting started.
Whatever your choice of lighting, being efficient with it can make a huge difference in how your shoots go. If you’re photographing HDR stacks, understand how to set your automatic exposure bracketing and burst mode to quickly grab each stack of photos. Across 50 stacks, taking an extra minute to set your camera each time can double the amount of time you spend at the property.
4. Develop a Workflow
Efficiency applies to all aspects of your shoot, beyond just shooting and lighting. A good workflow is essential to making sure you’ve captured all the photos you need for each room and angle. This workflow might look significantly different depending on what type of property you’re photographing.
For all properties, however, I like to start by grabbing just a quick photo of the front of the property and the number plate. This makes it easy to organize each shoot, and serves as an easy reference point when communicating with your clients. This is also when I decide whether to photograph the exterior or interior first. Pay attention to the lighting conditions, the traffic/activity level outside, and how you anticipate the light to look later in the day. The answers determine whether you should keep photographing the exterior or circle back to it later.
Having a workflow doesn’t mean you always need to follow an exact checklist, but you should at least have a plan to make it through the property efficiently. Ideally, you’ll shoot in a logical order, covering the entry, main living spaces, kitchen, master bed and bath, junior bedrooms, and utility spaces. This means that when it’s time to export, your files are already in a logical order and ready to upload.
There are also little optimizations to be applied when approaching each room. You’ll typically want all the interior lights on, so walking through the property once to turn them all on can give you the opportunity to scout the best angles for larger rooms. It’ll also give you a feel for what order to go through the house when shooting.
While it’s best to have the property to yourself to photograph, sometimes agents and their clients will still be present. They may even be going from room to room, as agents may be taking notes for their written listing descriptions. If you pleasantly communicate with your client and let them know what rooms you’re planning to shoot next, you will maintain your professional appearance and can avoid interrupting each other’s jobs.
5. Find a Pace of Shooting That Works for You
Depending on what you’re trying to get out of real estate photography, as well as the market you’re operating in, the pace at which you book and complete jobs can be quite different. Shooting a high volume of jobs could mean covering a number of houses in a day, prioritizing quantity over all else. This can work great in a more price-sensitive market, as agents listing lower-end homes won’t have a significant marketing budget, but also won’t need flambient images and a twilight shoot showing off the yard.
On the other end of the spectrum, a high end property could require all that and more, meaning you may only get through one of these listings in a day, often with another day dedicated to post-processing the images. Neither approach is necessarily better than the other, but each does require some different skills as a photographer and businessperson. Figure out your strengths and weaknesses as a photographer to get a good sense of which market works better for your desired pace.
6. Expand Your Offerings
Creating great photos of the interior and exterior is no longer the entire job for many shoots. Many clients are looking for drone photography (see our guide), videography, 3D tours, and other offerings. While you might not want or be able to offer all of these, having a broader skillset can help you secure more jobs and earn more for each one.
Regardless of which offerings you add, consider the impact that each one will have on your business. A wider range offerings means more equipment to buy, maintain, and insure, but each of these should allow you to charge more for the actual shoot and work at higher-end properties. It’s also important to consider the broader business necessities associated with each offering. Going to video may require you to change how you handle delivery, while drone photography in many countries will require commercial drone licensing, as well as other considerations for each shoot, like checking the suitability of airspace and getting authorization.
How to Edit Real Estate Photos
1. Too Much Editing Can Be a Bad Thing
For many uses of real estate photography, especially including images that will be used for property listings by realtors, the photo has to realistically represent the property. This doesn’t mean you can’t work as hard as possible to make the property look nice, via smart angles, lighting, and more, but it does mean that you can’t Photoshop out an entire neighboring house. Understanding the standards that your client has to follow for listing images is important, so consider checking with them on what those standards are, as well as where they intend to use the images.
There are a number of edits that have become more popular that may or may not cross this line, depending on your use of them, as well as the specific rules in your area. Some that come to mind are replacing the grass, compositing in new paint colors or creating virtual staging without indicating it as such. The use of these techniques significantly changes the look of the property, and may be a problem from the viewer’s perspective. It’s important to keep in mind that your potential future clients are also viewing your work, as the agents searching properties are often your exact client base, and they may view the legitimacy of these techniques differently than your existing client. You will need to balance between making the photos look as good as possible while not losing track of the property’s actual appearance.
2. Streamline Your Edits
Smart use of shortcuts and presets can massively reduce the amount of time you spend editing. I perform about 80% of my edits in Lightroom, with 20% requiring more work in Photoshop. Within Lightroom, almost any edit can be done to multiple images, and this is where a large chunk of time can be saved.
Consider a series of shots of spare bedrooms with similar lighting, flooring, and paint color. These images will probably all need a similar set of adjustments, making them a perfect candidate for editing one, and syncing the adjustments across the rest. In Lightroom, this is easy to do with the “Synchronize Settings” menu option or with the keyboard shortcut Control+Shift+S (Command+Shift+S on Mac).
The same goes for your use of the Adjustment Brush. If you’ve found a setting you often use, like a soft-edge, warm color temperature brush for reducing that blue spill from windows, save it as a preset! There’s no reason not to customize your software to your needs.
3. Don’t Be Afraid of HDR
HDR has gotten a bit of a bad reputation, owing to the trend of garish, crunchy HDR that was so common a few years ago. Today’s implementation of HDR, however, can appear quite natural. I particularly like having the HDR bracket available for use in Lightroom. Lightroom’s HDR functionality is quick and easy, with the blended file appearing as just another raw file, albeit one with an extended dynamic range.
HDR’s main benefit is that it’s far faster than shooting flambient, and it is essentially as fast in field as shooting available light. If your camera supports it, you can shoot a bracketed HDR burst with just a button press (by the way, this is a great option for reducing movement when shooting handheld HDR). This burst is very rapid, and a simple 3 or 5 shot HDR stitches quickly on modern computers. Taken together, this can reduce your time at the property significantly, compared to shooting flambient or flash. This makes it a perfect fit for jobs with a quick turnaround time, or those where the client has a lower budget. The results may not be as polished, but again, understanding your client’s needs and the market could dictate that this speed advantage is worth it.
If you’re planning on HDR, there are a few things to watch for: movement, color temperature differences, and framing. The first big issue is movement of any kind. Movement of your camera will prevent the frames from precisely overlapping, while movement in frame will cause the same issue, but in a localized area. While some HDR software claims that it can reduce this ghosting, it’s never perfect. Instead, try to eliminate any movement like ceiling fans before taking the shot, and avoid shooting the bracket at all if it’s windy (HDR and waving trees are a bad combo).
Mismatched color temperature is another significant issue. The view through the windows will typically be much bluer than the warm yellow of interior lighting, and this difference might only be exacerbated by HDR. While you can edit around this, some houses just won’t work for this style.
Framing is the final issue, but it’s definitely a smaller consideration. If you’re shooting handheld, your software may have to crop your images to align the frames, and this can mean a significant difference in composition. Either use a tripod or frame the image a bit wider than necessary in order to give enough breathing room in the HDR’s composition.
4. Don’t Prioritize Your Style Over Your Client’s Preferences
Real estate photography, unfortunately, is not the best place to work on your artistic style. While creating visually appealing images is important, this is more like cooking at a restaurant, rather than hosting a dinner party for friends. What I mean by that is that you should emphasize consistency and client satisfaction, rather than trying new things that you find interesting.
This focus on consistency should also include image-to-image consistency. As much as possible, photos from the same shoot should have the same feel. Having one room dimly lit, while another has all the lights going can leave the house feeling disjointed.
The biggest challenges to maintaining this consistency come from lighting choices. Some houses will have a different color temperature of light bulb in every room, along with a mix of CFLs, incandescents, and LEDs. Trying to unify these can require some smart editing. If you’re looking to take extra care, consider using a product like the ColorChecker Passport, or even just a gray card to set white balance – relying on auto white-balance can lead to minor color variations that will slow down your editing.
I’ll mention “Synchronize Settings” again here, as I find that this helps me maintain a consistent look between shots with less effort, while still being more adaptable than a dedicated preset.
5. Outsource Editing
If you’re shooting at a high volume, it’s worth considering outsourcing your editing. Whether this means hiring an editor, or turning to a service that provides outsourced editing, spending less time editing can mean spending more time shooting and making money. I’ve not personally used any of these services, so I don’t feel comfortable recommending them. However, I know there are wide range available. If you find that you’re more productive behind the camera, the added cost can be worth it.
Real estate photography can be much more complex than it first appears. Thanks to the proliferation of “good enough” cameras, many clients expect that you offer both a high quality product and a high level of service, at a very low cost.
This isn’t an impossible standard to meet, but instead requires that you thoroughly understand both how to photograph a property and how to run a business – just having skills behind the camera may not be enough to succeed. When shooting, you have to be flexible, and understand the wide array of photographic skills you’ll need to make a property look good.
Whether your market requires you to be comfortable shooting and lighting complex “flambient” lighting setups, or instead requires you to have the ability to churn through a number of properties in one day, real estate photography can be an exciting challenge and a great learning experience as a professional photographer. I hope the tips in this article gave you some good ideas to make the process smoother.
There are many bad MLS photos out there, they can be helpful to review and learn from. On the topic of HDR. I do use HDR for some of my shoots and often I have found that using 4 of a 5 bracket set can be helpful to avoid the “highly HDR” look. Great points here!
My inspiration on what to NOT do comes in any photo posted on badmlsphotos.com. I choose to use a Lumix G9 with a Lumix 8-18mm wide-angle when I shoot various properties. I also choose to use HDR, and very conservatively applied. Tim’s comment that one should not be able to tell if a photo has been HDR-processed is right on target. Many RAW processors have a perspective correction module. Use it wisely to eliminate converging lines.
Brilliant thanks for that link lol
Finding the right place for shooting is so important, the place can look totally different if photographed from another angle. After working with software like Interior design 3d and other programs I learned that pictures taken from the right angles are really important to build a true to life model.
Interesting article. I’ve been interested in this for some time as something to do when I retire. What I typically notice from most listings I look at, is that they reveal poor photography skills and look to be taken by the agent and their cellphone. But the worst I’ve seen are always over processed HDR. My philosophy is that I should not be able to tell if it was processed HDR.