Perhaps you've thought about making a few bucks on the side by taking photos of homes. I know what you're thinking (because I thought it once before as well), “How am I supposed to get a real estate gig if I don't even have a real estate photography portfolio?” Great question. We are going to walk you through how to build your real estate portfolio in just 1 weekend. That's right, a few days of prep and then 3 days of nonstop action. It will be like marathoning Lord of the Rings Extended Edition Director's Cut.
First off, don't think you need to go out and buy fancy gear for this; go ahead and use what you have. All you will need is a tripod and a camera. No flash required (but if you have one and want to use it, great!). The idea behind this portfolio weekend is just to get you out there and shooting photos; taking action is what's truly important. If you are reading this on a Monday you can easily get started by Friday.
How I Got Started
A little over a year ago I decided that I wanted to make a business by taking pictures of homes. I didn't much like the idea of taking photos of babies, or pets, or seniors, or weddings. I come from a background in landscape photography and dabbled in some architectural photography here and there. At this point in my life, I had shot only 1 thing that wasn't a landscape or building: my niece's 11th birthday party at a fully decorated studio (yeah, rich parents). It was my first time doing “event photography” and I probably didn't do a great job but I had a lot of fun because there were low expectations. But aside from that, I feel that I best perform when I'm not in front of people (hence my affinity for landscape photography) and shooting real estate seemed like a great way to accomplish my goals of getting paid for photography.
When I got started I was much like everyone else just starting out: I didn't know anyone or anything. I had no friends who were real estate agents and had no connections whatsoever to the real estate industry. So I was starting completely from nothing. But I was up to the challenge and I'm going to walk you through many of the same steps I took to create a real estate photography portfolio. What took me a few weeks (because I wasn't organized) will only take you a few days.
The Biggest Questions
The most asked questions in real estate photographer circles are:
- How do I price my photography?
- What gear should I be using?
- How do I build a portfolio?
- How do I find clients?
We'll talk about the third one today (obviously). Stay tuned to the Improve Photography network as I'm sure we'll talk about the other ones. In fact, a couple weeks ago I wrote an article on what lenses to use for real estate photography. You can find it here.
There are three action items to build a portfolio that will be good enough to call yourself a real estate photographer:
- Shoot your house, a friend's house, or family's homes.
- Shoot an open house.
- Shoot a model home.
Now, time to bust out your calendar app and schedule your next Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (or Monday). That's right, we are going to get you a portfolio of at least 12 great shots in 1 weekend. Let's start this weekend! Cancel your plans. We're going to be busy so get out your Red Bull and fill up your gas tank because we're going on an adventure.
Monday – Thursday: Research, research, research
Note: The purpose of this article isn't to walk you through how to shoot real estate photography, but rather how to build your portfolio. So I won't be talking about shutter speed, composition, etc. You will need to know all of that already. But because we are just practicing, now is a great time to figure it out if you haven't done some reading up on it.
Before we even take the camera out of the bag you'll need to review the basic principles of how to shoot real estate. You can learn more about it with these articles from the Improve Photography network:
There are articles on more advanced techniques like using a painters pole and sky replacements that we aren't going to worry about for now. But if you do a search for “real estate” on Improve Photography, you'll get an entire list of articles to read.
The important thing is to know what camera settings to use, how to level your camera, how to process HDR (if you want to shoot that way), how to use a flash to light a room (hint: bounce it off the wall-wall-ceiling joint behind you), etc. There are tons of articles and YouTube videos out there to give you a basic understanding of these principles. Starting Friday we'll put them into practice.
Friday: Shoot your home, a friend's home, and a family member's home
Here we go, day 1 of shooting! Almost everyone has access to a home you can shoot. This is also going to be the best place to start because every kind of photography requires practice and you'll want to get that done in a “safe place” first. You won't have to worry about an agent tapping their foot while you adjust the camera for the fourth time or having people walking in and out of your shot constantly during an open house. This is where you are going to apply the basics and see how the photos come out. You also don't need to worry about the house being clean and organized because for this first day of shooting you will be more worried about camera settings and composition than you will be about cleanliness.
For Friday, you'll want to have 3 shoots scheduled: your home, and 2 others (friends or family).
Time to shoot your own house. Let's start in the bedroom which is by far the easiest room to shoot. Stand in the doorway, zoom out, aim across your bed, and take the shot. Now, look at your preview. Are your verticals straight up and down? They should be. Is everything in focus? It should be. Did you catch the doorknob in the corner of the frame? Is it too dark? Too bright? Is your composition attractive? Did you zoom out too far? Does it show what's important and leave out what's not important? If you are shooting with a flash, can you see hot spots in the frame? Is the flash too strong or not strong enough? Are there bad shadows from ceiling fans or other fixtures? Recompose, refocus, adjust your exposure, and take the shot again. Take as many photos as you need and take as much time as you need right now. What you learn here will follow you to your next homes this weekend.
Real estate photos need to be bright and airy. You aren't shooting for a design magazine or posting these on Instagram with moody filters. These photos will be used to sell the home, so don't worry about getting too fancy or edgy. I strongly recommend that you adjust your camera to +.3 or .7 EV (exposure value) when you first get started. One of the common mistakes that beginning photographers make is their photos are TOO DARK. Adjust your exposure value to help brighten things up a bit until you get a feel for the correct exposure (this comes with practice. Don't worry, you'll get there). Shooting in bracket mode and merging in Lightroom or Photoshop is a good way to shoot as well. There are a number of great photographers who shoot in 3 or 5 brackets and produce excellent images.
Alright, now move on to your living room, then your kitchen, then your bathroom and repeat the same process we used in the bedroom. Finally, take a photo of the front of your house. That's all we are going to do for now; just 5 photos. Next, import all these into Lightroom (be sure you are shooting in RAW as well). Post processing is just as important as shooting when you are first starting out. Play with the sliders. Is it too dark? Bump up the shadows. Is it too bright? Kill the highlights. Add some contrast and clarity. Are you getting some blue glow from the window? Knock down the blue saturation slider a bit. How are your verticals? I like using the “auto” button in the Transform section because it does a pretty good job at getting everything straight up and down if I'm off by a bit.
Now that you've seen what the final product looks like, go back and do a couple reshoots. Was the bed in a bad position? Was your camera too high or too low for the bathroom? Can you see yourself in a reflection from a picture hanging on the wall across the room? Redo a couple shots, bring them back into Lightroom and work on them again. Do this as many times as you need to be confident you can shoot these types of rooms well.
Alright! That was pretty fun, wasn't it? Let's take everything you learned and move on to your next house. I hope you called up someone ahead of time. Perhaps offer to clean their house in exchange for some photography practice. You'll need to work on your on-location skills for you next 2 homes today because you'll have to step up your speed and confidence for Saturday and Sunday. Do everything that we practiced this morning. Try to get the verticals straight, the exposure correct, and the focus on point. It doesn't have to be on your first try, but try not to stare blankly at your camera, examining the image for 10 minutes before figuring out what to do next.
Your second house is going to offer you the next step in your learning: good compositions and exposures on-site and then going home to edit the photos. You no longer have Lightroom in the next room acting as your training wheels. You'll have to shoot several rooms then go home and edit the photos (just like a true real estate photographer!).
Now that you've edited your second set of photos, go to your third home and do it all over again. “But what if none of my family or friends have nicely decorated homes?” It doesn't matter. You just need the practice shooting a room. They could have yellow wallpaper from the '70s and a zebra print floor rug. You just need to get comfortable getting the shot, getting interesting compositions, and getting practice shooting first then editing offsite. After your third home, bring the photos back and edit them again. By now you'll have seen some pretty good improvement from your first attempt. Now it's time to go out and party (or keep practicing in your own house) because tomorrow the real fun begins. But don't stress, you're doing a great job!
Don't you love the smell of flash bulbs in the morning? Today is the day you are going to go out into the real world (the real real estate world) and get some shots of houses of COMPLETE STRANGERS. Don't stop reading. You can do this.
Step 1: Research all the open houses in your area. “How do I find open houses?” you ask? Great question. Realtor.com has an “open house” check box under their “more filters” tab. Search for reasonably priced homes in your area and find the ones that have an open house today. Saturdays are the big days for open houses in my area and probably across most of the United States. I'm not sure how this works overseas, so adjust accordingly. Don't search for homes on the low end because they probably won't be very pleasing to photograph. Don't search for homes on the high end because most Realtors might give you the cold shoulder and say, “Get outta here!” In my area, the average home price is about $300,000. So I would look for homes in the $300-400k range.
Step 2: Most open houses run between 10 am and 2 pm (again, in my area). So you'll have to plan your trip for the best route. You'll want to hit 5-7 open houses and aim to get 1 usable photo from each location. That isn't to say that you only take 1 picture. You'll have to play around with settings and composition and everything else, but your goal is to walk out of there with ONE really good photo.
Step 3: This is the hardest part of all, at least it was for me (my hands are starting to get sweaty just thinking about it). Grab your camera and your tripod and drive out to the first home on your list. Grab your gear and walk inside. Locate the agent (he or she will probably approach you, bright-eyed and over-caffeinated). Here is where you play “choose your own adventure”:
You say: “Good morning! My name is [awesome photographer]…” and then,
A: I'm a photography student working on a real estate assignment. Would it be alright if I took a photo of the (kitchen, master bed, living room, etc)?
B: I'm building a real estate photography portfolio for my photography business, is it alright if I take a couple photos of the kitchen?
C: I'm learning how to take real estate photos, could I take a quick photo of the living room?
D: Make up something else.
The camera and tripod in your hands should help sell this idea. The agent will respond in one of three ways.
- “Uhh, I don't think my clients would appreciate that.”
- “Sure, but if some “real buyers” come through you'll need to wrap it up.”
- “Absolutely! Here, come do this kitchen it so amazing!” (and then they hover over you the entire time you are there which is not the worst outcome).
I have never shot an open house before when I was building my portfolio but I have talked to many other photographers who did it this way and they found success. Most agents, I've heard, are happy to let you take a couple photos as long as you don't get in the way (open houses are pretty boring for a real estate agent, from what I understand). In an ideal situation, the agent will be super interested in what you are doing and might even ask for your number to hire you to shoot another listing (this has happened to a few of the photographers who have done this).
So why are we doing this instead of shooting more friend's and family's home? Well, starting a business (that's why you are doing this, right?) will require you to work out of your comfort zone so we are getting great practice doing that. Also, these homes have been prepped for showings so the carpets are clean and the furniture is staged (usually). The home might not be professionally staged but it is neat and tidy.
You won't be graced with much time to shoot in each of these homes so you want to only focus on one area. Get some good kitchen shots at one house and get some bedroom shots at the next house. And we have to assume that a couple agents will tell you to buzz off, which is totally fine. They don't know you, they aren't going to call the cops. If they say no, you say “Ok, thank you” and you go to the next house on your list.
Now that you've hopefully shot at least 5 different houses, you'll have to import those photos into Lightroom and start editing. Taking what you learned from Friday's shoots, you'll have some pretty OK shots. This is great! Look at you being a real photographer. Pick the best 2 or 3 shots and put them aside for your portfolio. The learning doesn't stop here. You'll still need to see what you did wrong and remember to fix it for tomorrow's shoot. Was your focus off? Are you still shooting too high for the kitchen? Would it look better if you stood on the other side of the room? Lots of things to talk to yourself about. The weekend isn't over yet.
Now go out and party! You've just turned a lazy Saturday on the couch into a productive and important step in developing your portfolio! Sunday is going to be a real killer, so get some sleep.
Every day is Saturday night, but I can't wait for Sunday morning! This is where the real fun happens because today we will be shooting model homes; all professionally staged and ready for you to gobble up their photons.
Note: Model homes may or may not be open on Sunday in your area. If they are not, move this day to Monday.
You'll want to do the same thing today that you did Saturday morning: schedule a road trip. Most home builder websites have a list of all their model homes and the hours they are open. If you don't know any home builders in your area, simply Google “home builders [city].” In my area, we have Ivory, Brighton, Candlelight, Holmes, McArthur, Garbett, Woodside, and on and on and on. You will want to plan out NO LESS THAN 10 homes on your real estate photography tour today (ideally 12). Model homes are usually open from 10 or 11 am to 5 or 6 pm so it shouldn't be hard to plan this out. And it doesn't matter if you go to all homes of the same builder because they will all be staged differently and with different layouts. Find homes close together so you can hit all 10 in one day (which is totally doable).
Now, create a bingo chart of your shot list. Or you can just make a boring bullet list, it's up to you. You want to get 2 shots of each of these areas:
- Living room
- Master Bedroom
- Master Bathroom
- Facade (that's the front of the house)
2 shots of 5 areas equal ten photos, that's why we have at least 10 homes on our list.
Gas up the car, grab a Slurpee, and let's hit the road! Shooting model homes was exactly how I built my portfolio. I remember the very first model home I shot, it was just down the street from my day job office. I had packed my camera gear and tripod in my car and I repeated in my mind for an hour exactly what I was going to say:
“Hi, my name is Kirk Bergman, I'm building a real estate photography portfolio. Is it alright if I take a few photos of the kitchen?”
Over and over and over. After I got off work that afternoon I drove down there, still repeating that in my mind, scared to death. I pulled up to the house with the big flags and giant “OPEN HOUSE” sign and got out. I grabbed my bag and my tripod and walked up to the front door. Palms sweaty, knees weak, tripod heavy. I was nervous, but on the surface I looked calm and ready, to drop flash bombs… I opened the door and saw the salesman sitting at his desk looking over a map of the community, he didn't look up. “Hey there!” I said.
(wow, he's grouchy) “Uhh, my name is Kirk Bergman, I'm a student working on a project and I need to get a few photos of interior spaces. Is it alright if I take a few pictures here?”
“Umm…” (oh crap, he's going to tell me to get lost) “Yeah I guess that's alright. Just don't take forever.”
“I won't, thanks.” (exhale internally)
Student working on a project? It just popped into my mind. But hey, it worked and I was off to the races.
When you approach a model home, it will say something like “Please come in!” on the door. You'll walk right in and usually, the sales agent will be sitting close by. Introduce yourself and use whatever script worked on Saturday (or mix it up!). I shot 10 model homes this way and I was only rejected from 1 of them. Almost every agent said something along the lines of “Come on in! Please take as many photos as you like. Feel free to move stuff around if you need to.” Most sales agents are BORED out of their minds sitting in an empty home all day long. Some might chat you up, some might leave you alone. Be friendly, respect their space, and thank them when you leave.
When you are shooting model homes, there will be a number of pamphlets and displays that you might have to move out of your shot (usually in the kitchen). Set them aside, take the shot, then put them back how you found them. The last thing we need is for a rookie dirtying the reputation of photographers by leaving a mess for the sales agent to clean up.
Go from one house to another and just focus on the shot on your list. Get a few different compositions at each house so you have lots of photos to work with. You'll be shooting 10 houses in a row so remember to bring your lunch money. At the end of a very long day, import all your photos into Lightroom and do all your post processing.
You should have at least 10 killer images from today's shoot. Add these to the 2 great images you pulled from yesterday's open houses and bam! 12 images to start your real estate photography portfolio. That was so easy! You are amazing.
The photo at the top of this article is from a $5 million mountain lodge in Montana. I shot that twilight image only a few weeks after learning how to shoot real estate in practice homes and model homes. I still use it on my website as part of my main portfolio. In fact, I still have many photos in my portfolio from the model homes I photographed.
Real estate photography, just like every other kind of photography, requires practice. However, getting practice shooting real estate is much simpler than trying to convince 4 friends to put on wedding dresses and do fake bridals at the park (or maybe that is super easy, I don't really know). You have an almost unlimited number of practice homes around you if you know where to look. Using this guide you'll be able to create a great portfolio to show real estate agents as proof that you know how to take great images.
And if you're really interested in learning more about real estate photography, be sure to check out Improve Photography's Real Estate Starter Pack. For just $15 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/