First Things First
If you have not already read DIY Real Estate Photography, The Basics, and DIY Real Estate Photography, Shoot and Edit – Part 1, read them now.
Light it up –
When we shoot a home we light every room. At the very least, you need to open window shades or blinds and turn on all the lights. This will make the room feel open and welcoming, but most rooms need more light than open windows and the lights in the room can provide. Rooms that are too dark will produce noisy images. This is because you have to raise your ISO to properly expose the photos when there is not enough light. This is where extra lights come in. I carry two large fixtures with me that add around 800 watts (incandescent equivalent) of light to the room. I place these fixtures out of my shot and try to light the room evenly, minimizing shadows. I would love to carry even more light, but usually it is tough to keep two fixtures out of the picture, and being able to move freely and work quickly outweighs the desire to have more light.
You may be wondering why you would need 800 watts of additional light in a room that already has the windows open and all of the lights on. Besides just lighting a room to properly expose the room, if you are shooting a room with open windows, you need to really light up the room so that the windows aren’t over exposed. Even if your room seems bright, any shot with an open window is liable to have blown out highlights if the room is not significantly bright.
I use daylight balanced CFL (compact fluorescent lamp) lightbulbs for a few reasons. First, usually the easiest way to get a lot of light in a room is to open the windows. The light coming in will most often be a cool blue color (daylight balanced), as opposed to tungsten balanced (yellow). When I add light to the room I want to match the color of the light in the room as closely as I can to make color correction as quick and easy as possible.
The second benefit to using daylight balanced bulbs is more subtle. I will normally turn on all the lights in a room to make it feel a bit more welcoming. Most often, the bulbs in people’s homes are tungsten balanced. When I light a room with sunlight and daylight balanced bulbs, these practical lights are only acting as accents, rather than the primary sources of light in the room. When I white balance my camera for daylight and shoot these tungsten practical lights they have a really nice yellow tint, while the room is still bright white. It all adds up to make the room feel warm and cozy, while still providing the brightness to see details in the room.
Why CFL and not LED, or incandescent? There are several reasons why I have settled on the lights I have, but they boil down to four main factors – CRI (Color Rendering Index), price, availability, and energy efficiency. We will look at these in order.
CFL lamps offer pretty good CRI (especially for the cost). While they don’t render colors quite as accurately as Incandescent bulbs (which offer the best CRI of the bunch), they render colors well enough that your images will look natural and you won’t have any problems with color correction. I have shot thousands of pictures and many hours of video using this lighting setup and have never run into color problems that couldn’t easily be fixed in post. That is not necessarily the case with LED’s, especially when you use inexpensive LED’s. Even good LED’s tend to have very spiky color profiles, which can make color correction very difficult and can result in very unnatural colors.
CFL Lamps are relatively inexpensive. The lamps I buy are around $13 (for a set of 4) on Amazon, and around $14.50 at Home Depot. Even cheap LED’s are more expensive than that, and when you factor in the awful CRI of cheap LED’s, it just makes no sense to buy them. Good LED’s with better CRI (usually still not as good as CFL’s) are MUCH more expensive than this. Any benefit you would gain from using good LED’s (long life, energy efficiency) is far outweigh by their extremely high cost, and if I need them right away I can walk into any Home Depot or Lowe’s and pick them up.
Incandescent bulbs may seem to be a better choice on several of these fronts, so why not incandescent? While incandescent bulbs offer the best CRI of these options, and are usually less expensive than CFL’s, there are three issues with incandescent bulbs that make them impractical for real estate photography. first, while incandescent bulbs tend to be inexpensive, they are becoming harder to get because of environmental laws. You can’t use bulbs you can’t buy, and the supply and selection are getting smaller by the month. Second, while the CRI of incandescent lamps is very good, they are usually only available in tungsten balanced colors. This creates color correction and white balance problems when mixing them with sunlight. Finally, incandescent lamps are much less energy efficient than either CFL’s or LED’s. This means that they tend to run hotter and require much more energy to use. While I can plug several CFL’s into a single outlet, only a few incandescent bulbs can be plugged into a single outlet. I run the equivalent of 800 watts of incandescent bulbs when I light a room, but they only draw 184 Watts (around 1.7 Amps on a 110 VAC system).
Light the Room Behind as well
Many times when you shoot a room you will see the room directly behind it, through an open door. Don’t forget to light that room as well. You don’t want the house to look like a foreboding cave or haunted house, and nothing gives that impression quicker than a pitch black space behind an open door or down a hallway. Because of limitations in the dynamic range of cameras, when you light a room and expose your camera for that room, even rooms with a bit of light tend to look really dark in photos.
Scan every room for clutter and out-of-place items. Remove any distracting items from the room, but don’t take out items that help the room to feel homey. Remove cat and dog dishes, trash (and trash cans), magazines, clothes, cleaning supplies.
Remember, you are not a maid or a housekeeper. Have your clients clean the house before you get there. While you shouldn’t be doing the majority of the cleaning, you will still need to scan each room carefully before you shoot it and move or discard any items that will detract from the photos.
Stage the Home
If the home you are shooting is empty because the sellers have already moved out, or because the house has never been occupied, it may be necessary to stage the home. This will not make financial sense for every listing, but in cases where the commission will cover the expense, you should stage every room. Empty rooms tend to look unwelcoming and many times buyers find it difficult to picture themselves living in an empty home.
Even if the home you are shooting is furnished, you may still need to move items or add touches to present it in an appealing way. Open window shades, turn on lights, and move decorations or furniture if necessary. Do whatever you need to do to make the home look welcoming and bright.
Compose, Expose, Focus
Remember the fundamentals of good photography. While every shot of every room of every house can’t be a work of art, every shot needs to be carefully composed, properly exposed, and in focus. While composition and focus are relatively straightforward in real estate photography, your understanding of the exposure triangle (ISO, aperture, and shutter speed) will be critical in capturing indoor shots without extra noise and sufficient depth of field. Even with additional lighting, rooms are still relatively dim, and understanding all the elements of exposure will allow you to shoot with the an acceptable f-stop to achieve appropriate depth of field, without raising the ISO to overly noisy levels. Sometimes this requires relatively long exposures and consequently a good tripod is a must.
I don’t think focus requires much discussion here, but I will say that unless there is a very good reason to do otherwise, you should try to put as much of the room in focus as possible. Real estate photography is not shallow depth-of-field portraiture. luckily, your wide-angle lens is going to offer deep depth-of-field and will usually work fine on autofocus. Just don’t forget to check periodically. Review photos and zoom in to check that focus is tack-sharp. This is especially critical on long exposures.
Composition requires a little more thought than focus in real estate photography. Normally, eye-level shots look most natural. However, sometimes you have to raise or lower your camera to keep the walls looking straight and plumb. As you compose, try to accentuate the positive features in the room, while minimizing distractions. I find that if possible, shooting the room from an angle will usually yield more pleasing results than photos taken straight on. A few simple composition tools can be used to add interest to your photos and draw buyers in. The “rule of thirds”, leading lines, diagonals, natural frames, patterns and repetition, and symmetry can all be used at different times to make your photos stand out.
Take three minutes to watch this excellent video to familiarize yourself with the basics of composition.
Not warranting its own section, but correlated to composition, exposure, and focus, is white balance. You need to pay careful attention to the white balance when move from exterior shots to interior shots and as you enter every new room. You can not simply “set it and forget it”. Varying amounts of sunlight from windows and skylights, the number of practical light fixtures in a room, and your ability to augment the room light with your own fixtures will mean that white balance settings will drift and if you are not careful you will have to try and fix yellow or blue tinted photos in post. While this is not impossible, it will add time and effort to post-processing.
Tripod and Ball Head
Real estate photography requires a very specific tripod setup. You need a sturdy, relatively light, tall, tripod and a fast and solid ball head. This is one area where you might be tempted to skimp, but in the end buying a good tripod will save you time and energy, and will offer the flexibility you need to get every shot. In my opinion, only one type of tripod and head setup is really appropriate and I will explain why.
Your tripod needs to be sturdy but light, because you will be moving it A LOT! I usually shoot a few pictures of every room in a house and can shoot over 100 outside, if the lot or landscaping warrant it. In a typical shoot I may move my tripod 300 times. This requires a tripod that will not fall apart, but will also not wear me out from moving it constantly. It should also go without saying that your tripod must be built to support the weight of your camera package. Don’t expect to go to Walmart and buy a $30 tripod.
Your tripod needs to be tall. While you will rarely shoot pictures from above eye-level, sometimes a tall tripod is necessary to get eye-level shots on uneven ground or stairs. Just as important, your tripod needs to be easy to lower. Sometimes the only way to capture a room and keep the walls straight is to lower the tripod.