Just like shooting weddings or landscapes, real estate photography has it's own set of requirements to get the best images. And the lens you use for shooting portraits or the Milky Way might not get you the best results if you are shooting real estate. I know, like you need another reason to go out and buy more photography gear. Thankfully, the range of lenses that will suit you well is vast and comes in at almost any price point. Let's break down what focal lengths work, which probably won't work, and get you prepared to take the best kitchen photos of your career.
First off, let's start with what focal lengths probably don't work and why. Real estate can be tricky. At first you may think, “Well I'd want to shoot super wide to capture the entire room in one image.” And you wouldn't necessarily be wrong. However, a real estate photography veteran, Scott Hargis, said in regards to shooting too wide, “It's better to have 2 concise sentences than 1 long run-on sentence.”
This means that going too wide will be detrimental to the photo's ability to tell the story of the home. The resulting image will contain a foreground that unrealistically dominates and a background that disappears into the distance. It won't tell the true story of how the room looks or feels. You can easily make any room look like a bowling alley when shooting too wide. Therefore, it's better to have 2 neat and clean photos of a room instead of one really wide one.
Opposite of that is shooting too tight. Obviously homes are big. Even a small living room is much larger to a camera than it is to your eyes. Shooting too tight, say 50mm or more, will not help a potential buyer get a feel for the space. Let's save those focal lengths for some fancy detail shots of the very expensive Viking stove or the custom hardwood cabinets.
Now let's talk about what focal lengths do work. For the majority of real estate photos, somewhere around 20-25mm is what many professional interior photographers use (myself included). On a crop sensor that would be about 14-17mm. This will produce photos that give the best feel for a room and also challenge you to find interesting compositions instead of simply standing in a corner, zooming all the way out, and clicking the shutter (that usually makes for uncompelling photos). However, because photography is an art not a science, shoot at the focal length that best represent your style. I've shot rooms at 17mm before and I've shot at 35mm before. It will vary quite a bit.
What about fast lenses? The overwhelming majority of real estate photos need to be in sharp focus from the front to back. This means you'll be shooting somewhere between f/7.1-11. No need for fast f/2.8 lenses in this line of work. This is great news because f/4 lenses tend to be much cheaper than their faster brothers and sisters. If you are wanting to get some slick shallow DOF shots of that fancy kitchen sink, don't worry. F/4 will be shallow enough to achieve that. But if all you have is an f/2.8 lens, use it and it will work out great.
What about fish eye lenses? No. Never for real estate. The distortion from a fish eye is unbearable and most real estate professionals won't accept images like that.
Now that you are all jazzed up and ready to make yet another deduction from your daughter's college fund, here are the best lenses for real estate photography at various price points:
For crop sensors:
For full frame sensors:
$449 Tokina 17-35mm f/4 (for Canon & Nikon)
$1,199 Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 (for Canon, Nikon, & Sony a-mount)
$1,599 Sigma 12-24mm f/4 ART (for Canon & Nikon. Sony gets a non ART version)
$1,097 Nikon 16-35mm f/4
$1,099 Canon 16-35mm f/4L
Sadly, native Sony lenses are few and far between. Fortunately, Sony shooters have the ability to purchase a Metabones (or equivalent) lens adapter. This means you can use Canon lenses on your Sony bodies.
I can't speak to all these lenses because I'm not a millionaire. But I personally own the Tokina 17-35mm and a Rokinon 24mm tilt/shift, which we'll discuss in a moment. The Tokina produces a perfectly viable image for almost all levels of real estate photography. I've shot a $130k listing with it and I've shot a $5.5M VRBO mountain lodge with it and both clients loved the photos. It is my main workhorse when doing real estate photography. It also doubles as a great landscape lens and I've even used it to take photos of the Milky Way at f/4. If you are looking to save a few bucks on a lens that will serve a number of purposes, the Tokina is good choice.
What I don't like about Tokina is the clutch mechanism for the focus control. You have to slide a clutch back and forth to engage or disengage the autofocus. What happens about 90% of the time is the little gears inside the clutch get mashed and you have to jiggle it to get them to line up. It's super annoying. As far as image quality goes, it is a bit soft when zoomed in at 100% (in Lightroom) but it's nothing a client will ever notice, especially when the images are compressed into oblivion by the MLS.
Now let's get into some really exciting parts of real estate photography: tilt/shift lenses. T/S lenses have a wide variety of specialty uses in almost every type of photography, from portraits, to weddings, to cityscapes. They are most well known for being able to give an image that special miniature look. For real estate application, the ability to shift the image cast on the sensor makes them great for maintaining straight verticals while achieving the desired composition.
Wait, maintaining straight verticals? That's right. Lesson number one in real estate photography is to keep your verticals straight. The camera needs to be perfectly leveled (or perfectly corrected in post) in order to deliver the most pleasing image. Walls should be straight up and down, windows or doorways shouldn't be tilting or falling backward. They way a T/S lens achieves this is by casting a large image circle on the sensor and allows you to literally move that image circle up or down (or left or right) so you can keep your camera level but still get the desired composition. It may be hard to image that but once you start playing around with a t/s lens it really makes sense.
This works perfectly when taking photos of rooms with tall ceilings or when shooting the exterior of the home. I shot the photo at the top of the page with a Rokinon 24mm T/S lens. The lens was shifted up to achieve the proper composition while keeping the camera level. I was actually well below the house and left my modified painter's pole at home so I improvised by putting my tripod on the roof of my car. The T/S lens saved me by getting the right composition that would have been impossible with a traditional lens.
And yes, you can correct verticals in post (as I mentioned before) but lesson number one for photography in general is get the image right in camera first, don't let post processing be a crutch. A T/S lens takes your real estate photography to the next level by allowing you to get the image right in the first place (and allows you to keep all your pixels intact). There is somewhat of a learning curve when using T/S lenses for real estate, something we'll probably cover in another article. And then there is the added cost of having to buy yet another hunk of glass.
Is a Tilt/Shift lens worth it?
A T/S is well worth it if you decide to be serious about your real estate photography. You'll be able to get the same professional results that high end photographers use for shooting content for expensive clients. And you get the added bonus of wowing your clients with a lens that has knobs and dials. While on a architectural shoot this past winter, I had a photographer approach me and ask to take a photo of my lens because he had never before seen one quite like it.
Luck for you, there are 2 options for T/S lenses: inexpensive ones and expensive ones.
Rokinon makes very reasonably priced ($730-$780) T/S lenses for Canon, Nikon, Sony (a- and e-mount), and Pentax. I personally use a Rokinon 24mm T/S for my Nikon D750 and it is very good for the price. The images are sharp and it is easy to use. The downside is that they are fully manual lenses and the knobs can be a bit tricky to maneuver because they are kind of small. I've heard from other photographers that the Canon and Nikon T/S lenses are easier to maneuver and produce exceptional images.
Nikon and Canon have their own versions of T/S lenses that are not surprisingly much more expensive. Canon offers a 24mm and a 17mm. Nikon has a 24mm and a 19mm offering. But don't go smashing your son's piggy bank just yet. The Nikons run $2,200 and $3,400 new. The Canons are $1,899 and $2,149. That Rokinon coming in at $730 isn't looking too bad, now is it?
Do I have to buy all new gear (again)?
Finally, now that I've wet your whistle for trying out real estate photography, I know you're asking, “Well, I want to give this a try, can I use my kit (or 24-70) lens?” You absolutely can. Try to stay on the wider end of the focal range and you'll be just fine. If you have never done real estate photography and only have a kit lens or a general purpose lens, give it a try on your own living room. See what kinds of compositions you can come up with and if you think those images are good enough to tell the story of your home.
Real Estate photography doesn't need to be another expensive photography hole you dump money into (although who are we kidding, it probably will be). You can take great images with even the most basic gear. Another well respected real estate photographer, Mike Kelley, shot a home twilight exterior using a Canon Rebel t1 and an 18-55mm kit lens. He proves that it's the photographer who makes the image, not the camera.
How to get started
We've talked about the best lenses to get the best real estate photographs. Maybe you've seen one you want to buy right now or maybe simply put on your Amazon wishlist. The right gear will make your job easier but by no means do you need all the expensive glass to get the job done. And if you are just starting out, give it shot with the gear you currently own. If you think real estate photography is for you, consider stepping up your game with more specialized gear.
And if you're really interested in learning more, be sure to check out Improve Photography's Real Estate Starter Pack. It's really inexpensive and yet you get:
- The real estate photo contract Jim uses for all his real estate shoots (a $250 value)
- 10 Lightroom presets to help you make bright, clean, and airy images
- The pricing template that Jim uses for his real estate shoots
See all the details here: https://improvephotography.com/real-estate-photographers-starter-package/