Boaz Meiri - Architectural and Real-Estate Photographer, San Francisco Bay Area | How to Improve Your Real-Estate Photography

How to Improve Your Real-Estate Photography

March 29, 2015  •  Leave a Comment
Living RoomLiving Room



Many Realtors photograph properties by themselves sometimes, even though they work with a professional photographer. So let's see how I can help you to improve your results.

This guide begins simple and gets a little more advanced towards its end.

Some of these examples may not apply to the cameras that you use, especially if you shoot with a smart phone.

Here below are some basic guidelines to help you improve the quality of your photos

1. Parallelism:

Keep the camera parallel to the floor, in order to get the vertical lines as they should be - Vertical! Unless you are shooting inside a pyramid, all wall-to-wall and windows vertical lines must appear vertical. See examples below (click images for full size):

Shooting Parallel - Too HighShooting Parallel - Too High Shooting Parallel - Too LowShooting Parallel - Too Low
1.1 Wrong - Camera is pointed too high 1.2 Wrong - Camera is pointed too low
Shooting Parallel - TiltedShooting Parallel - Tilted Shooting Parallel - CorrectShooting Parallel - Correct
1.3 Wrong - Camera is tilted 1.4 Correct- Camera is parallel to the floor

2. Wide Angle and Distortion:

I often get requests to shoot the widest angle possible. I can't argue with a real-estate agent about what brings more buyers, but I do have my opinion as a buyer.. Shooting too wide makes a room look much larger than in reality and buyers will notice that, even if they don't say so. I remember when we were our house-hunting, seeing properties that were much smaller than in the photos and the property didn't leave good impressions on us.

When possible, simply take a step back and zoom in with your lens. You will maintain almost the same amount of information in the room and the size and proportions will look much more realistic. See examples below of a living room shot in different focal lengths. See how the sofa and the couch look so distorted in the 10mm version. Look at the window on the left, how stretched it looks. On the 20mm version these distortions are much less noticeable while we still maintain all the important information.

Living RoomLiving Room Living RoomLiving Room
2.1 Too Wide - 10mm lens 2.2 Good Proportion - 20mm lens and 2 steps back

In the example above I have plenty of room to step back and zoom in but it is not always the case. In bedrooms you usually have 4 walls around you so just shoot from the doorway and take a small step back and shoot from outside the room. You don't need to show all walls in the room. It is enough to show two walls and a little bit of the third wall to show the dimensions of the room. See example below:

Bedroom - 3 WallBedroom - 3 Wall Bedroom - 2 WallsBedroom - 2 Walls
2.3 Too Wide - 3 walls 2.4 Good Proportion - Just a little of the third wall

When it comes to smaller spaces such as bathrooms or really small bedrooms then sometimes there is no other choice but to use a very wide angle. Yet, you can still control the level of distortion by re-composing. Check out the example below. The photo on the left I shot with the widest focal length and the one on the right I zoomed a little and took half step back. But I did one more thing - I allowed to see some of the wall on the right. The most distorted objects are those on the sides of the frame, as you can see the right-sink in the left photo. By rotating the camera a little to the right I positioned the sink a little away from the edge of the frame and zooming-in just a little I reduced the distortion of the sink dramatically.

Wide Angle - Too WideWide Angle - Too Wide Wide Angle - Just RightWide Angle - Just Right
2.5 Too Wide and distorted (10mm) 2.6 Good Proportion and less distortion (13mm)


3. Ambient Light:

Shooting interior usually involves low light conditions. To overcome that we need to either use a flash (see section 4) or allow more ambient light in. With automatic cameras and cell phone you can't control this but with cameras that have manual controls you can do that by doing one or more of the following:

  • Increase ISO: This will increase the sensitivity of the sensor to light but will result in some digital noise. Unless using a high-end camera, anything over 400 ISO might be too "noisy".
  • Open the Aperture: The maximum aperture (lowest value) depends on the lens. The lower the aperture value the more open it is the more light it allows into the sensor but this will also result in a shallower depth of field. Meaning that if you focus on the faucet then the shower will be a little blurry. F2.8 for example will give you more light but more blurry areas in the photo. F11 will give you a better depth of field but less light.
  • Reduce the Shutter Speed: A shutter speed of under 1/60 will give you more light than 1/180 but it may result in motion blur due to shaky hands. Using the image stabilize option (available in some basic cameras as well) will help a little.

So, which of these 3 parameters should you change? This is simple. If you have a tripod then use it and allow for a longer exposure (1/30 and even 1/15 if needed). This way you will still be able to shoot in low ISO values and and aperture values of 5.6 - 8.0, which are the most recommended.

So, let's say that you have a tripod, you use a longer exposure and your room is exposed beautifully. But since you shoot in broad daylight then the view outside the window is white as on a snowy day in Lake Tahoe. (see example below):

Living RoomLiving Room Living RoomLiving Room
3.1 Window is exposed correctly but interior is too dark 3.2 Interior is exposed correctly but window is too bright


Why is this happening? Digital cameras have a much lower dynamic range than our eyes. In simple words: Cameras don't handle well extreme range of contrast. So what can we do? Well, we have a few options:

  • Timing: Shoot in early morning or late afternoon to avoid the brightest time of the day.
  • Image Processing: You can expose your photos in a way that they will look a little darker on the interior and a little bright on the outside, and adjust that using a photo editing software (see example below):
Living RoomLiving Room Living RoomLiving Room
3.3 Average exposure 3.4 Corrected exposure, using editing software
  • Flash: Using a flash we can under-expose so that the outside view will be exposed correctly and then fill-in the interior with light from the flash. Even with automatic cameras, using a flash will help to get a better overall exposure. However, there are some drawbacks and limitations when using a flash. See section 4.

4. Added light (Flash):

Using a flash helps us to get a better exposure of the interior while keeping also a good exposure of the exterior. But there are some limitations to consider:

  • Shadow from the Lens: A built-in flash is too low and this will often result in a shadow from the lens (see image 4.1 below). This is less of an issue with compact cameras that have a smaller lens.
  • Vignetting: When using a wide angle lens then the beam coming from the flash may not be wide enough to cover the entire room. This will result in vignetting (darker corners) (see images 4.1 and 4.2 below).
  • Multi-Rooms: In multi-rooms shots (such as the ones above, in section 3), using a flash will help to illuminate one room only, unless you use multiple flashes but then you are becoming a professional photographer rather than a Realtor..
  • Harsh Shadows: A direct flash will apply harsh shadows, especially if the property is furnished or staged. Ceiling fans and light fixtures will also have shadows (see images 4.1, 4.2 and 4.3 below).
  • Reflections: If you use a flash then you may come home later and see a bright spot reflecting in windows, mirrors or some stainless steel appliances. To minimize that avoid shooting directly towards reflecting objects and open all the windows. If necessary then change your position or remove shiny pictures and mirrors from the walls.
  • Bounce Flash: You can use an external flash with a tilt, to bounce if off the ceiling. However, in case of very high ceiling or dark/wood ceilings this will not help much. Also, in case of reflections, they will look much larger than when using a direct flash (see image 4.4 below). If you shoot from a corner of a room then pointing the flash backwards to the wall-wall-ceiling joint may provide even better results.

The examples below demonstrate the differences between 4 scenarios:

  • Using a built-in flash
  • Using an external flash pointing straight ahead
  • Using an external flash pointing straight ahead, with a built-in wide-angle diffuser
  • Using an external flash bouncing from the ceiling
101.Flash, Built In101.Flash, Built In 102. Flash, External102. Flash, External
4.1 Built-in flash 4.2 External flash straight ahead
103. Flash, External, Wide103. Flash, External, Wide 104. Flash, External, Bounced104. Flash, External, Bounced
4.3 External flash straight ahead, with wide-angle diffuser 4.4 External flash bouncing from the ceiling


5. High-Dynamic-Range photos (HDR):

As I mentioned in section 3, the reason for white-out exterior while the interior is exposed correctly, is the low dynamic range of the cameras (and this includes even professional cameras).

Another way to overcome this limitation is to use a technique called HDR. This technique requires shooting several photos of the same composition but in different exposures. Combining the different exposure photos together will give us a more balanced exposure.

Some cameras have a built-in option for HDR shooting. Refer to your camera manual to see if yours can do that. In this option the camera will take anywhere between 2 and 7 photos (depending on the camera) and will blend them together to a result of one HDR photo. It is recommended to use a tripod for maximum quality results.

The final result of an HDR may look similar to what you see in image 3.4 so you may feel more comfortable using the technique described in that section but in some extreme situations it may not be good enough. The dark area which you brighten up will have high digital noise.

Note: Many smart-phone applications have built-in "HDR" but this is most likely a "fake" HDR and it will look more like a drawing rather than a photograph. In some cases also a try HDR may look "flat" and with very little contrast. Check your camera setting and use either high, medium or low HDR and check the results of each one of them


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