How to Photograph Real Estate: Lessons Learned

Anyone who has read Improve Photography for a while knows that I’m not a real estate photographer, but this week I had the chance to do a real estate photography shoot and I learned a lot of tips and tricks that I hope to share.

My parents are selling their home, and I couldn’t bear to let the real estate agent take the photos of the home I grew up in. I am firmly convinced that real estate agents intentionally make houses look terrible in MLS listings.  Terrible, and terribly small.

When I purchased a home a year ago, I wasted a tremendous amount of time looking at homes that I would have known weren’t a fit for me if the photos had done a better job of showing the layout of the home. Also, the home we eventually bought wasn’t even on our short list of homes we saw online because the photos made it look very small.

I set out to accomplish three things in this shoot: (1) I wanted the home to look large. It is a large 5 bedroom home, but the layout is not open. (2) I wanted to capture photos that were unique from what most real estate photos look like so as to grab attention of potential buyers, and (3) I wanted the home to look bright and clean. This home has many large windows, so I wanted to show off the lighting in the home.

The following are some of the photos I took in the shoot and a step-by-step guide of how I made the photos. I don’t claim that any of them are perfect–after all this was the very first time I shot real estate–but hopefully it will provide you with helpful pointers if you are asked to do real estate photos at some point.

Bright and clean living room in a real estate photo

Living area photo

Photo of the Main Living Area

The living room photo is probably the most important photo in a real estate listing. This is where people spend most of their time in the home, so they want to see that it is open, attractive, and functional.

I walked around the room for a few minutes looking through the viewfinder until I found the best angle for making the room look as large as possible.

TIP: I found that placing an area of carpet closest to the camera (instead of furniture, a wall, etc) made the room look extremely large because the super wide angle lens distorts distances to make things closest to the camera look larger than they appear in real life.

To avoid distortion from the wide angle lens, I avoided putting the intersection of the vertical walls and the ceiling anywhere near the edge of the frame. On wide angle lenses, the areas nearest the edges of the frame distort far more than the center of the frame.

Last, the lighting. I opened all of the windows to let in bright clean light. Since the light bulbs in the room were warm incandescent lights, it produced ugly competing color temperatures in the areas further away from the windows. To fix this problem, I used a YN-560 flash pointed at the ceiling that matched the daylight from the windows. This illuminated the darker areas of the room and made the room lights look like small warm accent lights while still leaving the room with a neutral daylight color temperature.

The photo of the back yard shows a little distortion, but I think the advantage of seeing the entire yard in one photo is more valuable than avoiding the little bit of distortion.

The photo of the back yard shows a little distortion, but I think the advantage of seeing the entire yard in one photo is more valuable than avoiding the little bit of distortion.

Photo of the Yard

To make this photo, I used the typical real estate photography recipe: Smash yourself up into the corner so as to take advantage of every inch of the space, set your lens to the widest possible focal length, and fire the shutter.

The area in this photo was a bit too wide even for the real estate recipe, so I shot three photos in vertical orientation overlapping them by about 30% and later stitched them together in Photoshop. The wider the lens you shoot, the more overlap you need to overcome the distortion.

The sky was quite overexposed in the original photo, so I used the HSL tool in Lightroom to bring down the luminance of only the blue colors in the photo. This brought down the exposure of the sky to bring out more color and more closely match the exposure of the rest of the scene.

Aerial photo of Idaho home at sunrise

I must admit that the sunrise lens flare was an accident, but I really like it.

aerial-real-estate-photo

This high view shows the neighborhood. Taken with a DJI Phantom and GoPro Hero 3.

Photos of the Neighborhood

One of the main selling points of this home is that it is in an established neighborhood with large mature trees, a park, and wide streets.

I chose to capture this selling point in a photo using the DJI Phantom, an RC helicopter that is strong enough to lift a GoPro Hero 3 camera. In the United States, the FAA prohibits the use of RC helicopters for commercial purposes, but this shoot was not a paid shoot. I only use the helicopter for aerial photography when doing non-commercial projects.

I shot this photo early in the morning so that it would benefit from the sunrise lighting. I set the GoPro to time lapse mode so that it would take a photo every two seconds. Then, I simply flew around at different heights and distances from the house until I got the shot I wanted.

The GoPro has a lot of distortion, so I usually try to point the camera up so the horizon is in the middle of the photo. This is terrible for composition, but it minimizes distortion. I reduced the distortion in this photo using Photoshop, but I didn’t completely straighten the horizon because I actually like the “small world” look in this shot.

Last, I put text on the photo to show which house was the one in the listing.

Conclusion

Shooting real estate or architectural photography is a real skill. I learned quite a few tips, but I’d like to do a few more shoots before I could call myself proficient in this area of photography. I don’t have any interest in pursuing it as part of my business, but it was a fun challenge.

To see the MLS listing with more photos from this shoot, check it out here.

Gear I Used for this Real Estate Shoot

tinyCamNikon D800 – Honestly, any DSLR or camera with manual exposure controls would capture photos of excellent quality for a real estate listing, but I’m most comfortable with this camera so that is what I used.  View my camera recommendations here.

 

14to24TinyNikon 14-24mm f/2.8 Lens – This lens is extremely wide on a full frame sensor, but it definitely distorts the edges of the frame. Still, it did well and the resulting photos were acceptable. View my lens recommendations here.

 

phantomSmallDJI Phantom – I used this RC helicopter to capture the aerial photos of the home.  The DJI Phantom has GPS in it, so if it loses contact with the controller or goes out of range, it goes to the initial GPS location where it took off and then lands itself.  It’s an amazing innovation in aerial photography.  Read my review of the DJI Phantom.

goProTinyGoPro Hero 3 Camera – This camera was used for photos from the aerial rig.  The GoPro Hero 3 is very lightweight and good for mounting in small locations to get some footage.  It had a lot of bugs in the camera when it was first released, but a recent firmware update made it much more stable.

 

tripodTinyInduro AT-313 Tripod – This is an extremely sturdy tripod that has extra long legs for achieving a high perspective in some of the photos.  Induro Tripods are incredibly sturdy and very fairly priced.  View my tripod recommendations here.

 

ballheadTiny Vanguard SBH-300 Ballhead – This ballhead costs about $99 and is strong and durable.  This one has lasted me many years and still does the job.  View my ballhead recommendations here.

 

flashTinyYN560 II Flash – This is my favorite flash. It only costs $60, is simple to use, and in my opinion is just as good as the expensive Canon or Nikon brand flashes.  There is a new version of this flash available now (YN560III) that has a built in radio receiver.  View my inexpensive flash gear list here.

 

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. says

    Exactly what I’ve been looking for. I’m considering real estate photography and am excited to try it out. :) Looks fun and you don’t have to jump around to get smiles or run around for hours. Thanks for the tips Jim!

  2. says

    Really interesting aproach, although, I must say, as a interior photographer, color balance would have been better as less warm, also, fixing some of the lens distortion with photoshop, especially if shot in RAW, and for some of the pics I saw in the listing, also with photoshop a little skew in post-editing would made better pictures, looking more professional as well. But in general, really good tips. I also use sometimes to create better light, a couple strobes with softboxes posted around some angles hidden by a hall or something similar to avoid really dark shadows.

  3. says

    As a real estate architectural photographer, I thank you for recognizing it take some skill. I’ve gotten a little bit if snobbery from other photographers who felt real estate photography was not worthy of them. I LOVE my job! I feel lucky to be able to do this every day!

  4. Linda says

    As an amateur photographer who has been looking at real estate photos for months planning a future cross-country move, I would LOVE to see more pictures like yours in listings. I am all too tires of the agent reflections in bathroom mirrors, & storm doors while they have closed all the curtains & blinds due to poor timing. Hopefully, they will take note, or invest in someone who wants more from a listing.

  5. Nancy Lones says

    Love the aerial shots! Considering this was your first time doing real estate photography, I’d say you did an exceptionally fantastic job. Well done, Jim!!!

  6. Bari Baskin says

    You are correct in that taking Real Estate photos is a skill and I’ve started to do quite a bit of it over the past year or so (in addition to my main focus of kids and families). I agree that you want to make the rooms look large and spacious but you have to be careful not to make them look so large that when the clients walk in, they are disappointed by the size because, in reality, it’s smaller. It’s a fine line to walk.
    I do take issue with your statement that Real Estate Agents intentionally make the houses look terrible and small. My mom has been a Realtor for almost 30 years. Realtors want the houses to sell, not sit on the market forever. It makes no sense that they wouldn’t want to showcase the house in the best possible light. But, more often than not, photography is not their skill so that’s why they choose to hire a professional. Or, if they don’t, it’s simply not in their budget. You also have to have a client who is prepared to make the house ready to photograph – removing all clutter etc.

    • Ron says

      I believe that every seller no matter what the price of the home deserves to have their home shown in the best possible way. Nearly every buyer looks online to find a home even before they have a real estate agent. If an agent doesn’t take listing photos well than they need to hire a photographer that can. If the agent can’t afford or won’t hire a professional than that person should not be an agent. If I hired an agent that took bad photos and wouldn’t hire a professional to take the photos I would fire that agent immediately.

  7. says

    New to real estate industry but realizing photography will be playing an important role. (Some sellers go all out and ensure home is looking great for listing, while others, sadly give no thought to this. Attempting a photo in the inside of a beach pad that is stashed with boxes, clutter, clothes, personal items such as toothbrushes and undies … presents it’s “challenges”. Nice article – thanks. Nice industry. Here we deal with people’s dreams, there budgets, their lives. xx

  8. says

    Great posting, Jim! I agree with you that Real estate/architectural photography is a skill of its own. I have been a professional photographer for many years, however, I was surprised to learn so much more about photography when I started shooting real estate. Keeping lines straight, controlling mixed lighting and giving a feel for the space/layout. The major thing I learned was how to work with realtors.

    I believe the reason you see so much bad MLS photography is not just a realtor’s lack of appreciation for professional photography, but because photographers do not know how the real estate industry works and alienate themselves from the market.

    Three things I learned from shooting real estate 1) realtors have a very limited budget 2) the photo you take have an expiration date i.e. when the house is sold (which plays into the budgeting in a realtors head)3)realtors are extremely busy and under tight deadlines. Many of my clients I have never met in person, not because I wouldn’t like to but because many of them do not have time to meet with me. They call me up, schedule a time within 2-3 business day and I shoot the house independently with a next business day turnaround for less than a 1-hour portrait session. This is what realtors want/expect, but most photographers do not know this (my past self included) so realtors will just take shots with their iPhones. :)

  9. says

    This was a great post Jim. A tip I learned is to bring a broom with you so you can sweep the carpet with the nape. I looks more even that way, almost as if you ran the Rubber Stamp tool on it.

    I’m disappointed about the FAA thing. I was all set to buy one till you blew the wind out of my sails. That said, isn’t your photography of your house “commercial”?

    • Jim Harmer says

      @Mark Gilvey – This isn’t my house. I was doing the shoot for my parents who are selling their home.

      Good idea about the broom!

  10. heretikeen says

    Sorry to be the bad guy, but I don’t see the “great post” people are raving about.

    What’s the lessons? “Make everything look bigger by using UWA”?

    Seems more like it’s “Look guys, I got a helicopter I can shoot aerial pics with.”

    I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, but I just don’t see any lessons to be learned here.

  11. says

    Hi Jim, thanks for sharing this awesome post. Really great photography of the house. Very useful tips for the real estate photography. Awaiting for more blogs like this.

  12. says

    This is amazing! Anyone have any tips on how to get into real estate photography and market yourself to actually make more than $15 per house.

    Also, it sounds pretty disappointing that you can’t use the RC Helicopter for commercial purposes. Any reason why not? It seems like an incredible tool that could really create some amazing images.

    Thanks for this awesome post!

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