Real Estate Photography Tips: Equipment for Shooting the Town – Part 1

Real Estate Photography is easy peasy point-n-shoot, right?

We get that question a LOT. Probably because we spend so much time taking and processing house photographs for our lines of business.

Cameras and Equipment for Real Estate Photography

The most basic categories of real estate photography are these: 1. Photographs for Real Estate Appraisals (interior and exterior)
The primary purpose of this type of photography is to show the characteristics of the home being appraised. Each appraisal will include a photograph of the street the home is on, the front, back and sides of the home as well as the major areas inside the home (bathrooms, kitchen, living areas). The additional photos in the report are photos of the comps. A typical number of photos for an appraisal report is under 20, and the camera can be kept to record jpegs at a low resolution which do not need additional processing before being inserted into the report. A standard point-and-shoot works great for these shots. We use a Canon PowerShot SD1200IS (10 MP Digital Camera with 3x Optical Image Stabilized Zoom and 2.5-inch LCD).
2. Photographs for Real Estate Listings (interior and exterior)
Real Estate Listing photos are taken with all types of cameras, from low-end point-and-shoot models to high-end DSLRs, with varying degrees of success. Interior photographs, if they are to be used for listings will look better if they are either taken by a pro, or if you use a better DSLR and have a lighting set-up that will allow you to shoot interior photos at a lower ISO and smaller aperture (meaning, crisper photographs that are in focus from the front to the back of the room), without ending up with the "flashy" look that comes from using the built-in or pop-up flash on the camera.
3. Photographs for Other Purposes, such as Historical Research, Photo Journalism or Neighborhood Profiles
Although photographs for documenting the ebb and flow of neighborhoods, cities and towns can be taken with any type of camera, the most pleasing images are likely to be taken with a good-quality DSLR and by someone who has taken the time to learn about good composition and exposure (lighting). Taking photographs of streets and houses is not difficult, but capturing the character of the area is harder and takes a little more effort to find the subjects, angles and compositions that tell a more compelling story.

Focus on The Bigger Picture

Today we're going to talk about #3: Photographs for Other Purposes, such as Historical Research, Photo Journalism or Neighborhood Profiles. More specifically, we're going to talk about the basic equipment that will give you better results.

Camera Choices: We Shoot Canon

Comparison of 20mm Sigma lens on Canon 5D Mark II and Canon Rebel T2iAlthough we take our appraisal photos with a point-and-shoot, we use Canon DSLRs for everything else. Specifically, we use a Canon 5D, a Canon 5D Mark II, and a Canon Digital Rebel T2i. The first two are full-frame cameras and the last one (the T2i) is a "crop body" which means the image sensor is smaller which means each photo has less in the frame at the same focal length as a full-frame camera. This has it's advantages and disadvantages. The two photos at right illustrate the difference between the two body styles when using the same 20mm lens. We almost always take all three when we go out for an afternoon or weekend to document an area, although a single camera can certainly handle the job. If you want to read up on these cameras, you will find a wealth of information in the reviews on For very detailed technical reviews and comparisons of the major camera brands, the best source is Digital Photography Review. We try to buy either from Amazon or from Austin's local camera store, Precision Camera and Video.

Wide Angle Lenses

We usually keep a Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM on the T2i which is the equivalent of a 16-35mm zoom on a full-frame. This lens is called an ultra wide angle and is perfect for sweeping street scenes, photos of Golf Courses and other times when you want the widest angle possible. This type of lens introduces some distortion to the image, some of which can be desirable as an artistic element and some not so much. Some of the distortion can be minimized "in post" which means when you are processing the images in ACR (Adobe Camera Raw), Lightroom, Aperture or DPP (Canon's software) when you get home. This camera and lens combination is great for interior photographs that are *really* hard to take, such as inside a laundry room, small bathroom or small bedroom. I sometimes joke that the angle is so wide, you'll get your ears in the photo if you're not careful. You'll most certainly get your shoes unless you're really paying attention! One thing to note: if you plan to shoot Canon, and you are considering upgrading from a crop body (the Canon Digital Rebel series (XT, XS, T1i, T2i) as well as the 20D, 30D, 40D, 50D, 60D and 7D) to a full-frame (the 5D Mark II and pro-level bodies), you need to know that the lenses marked as an EF-S mount will only work on the crop bodies. Lenses marked as EF will work on all Canon EOS cameras. Make sure to read up on this before you press the BUY button!

Zoom Lenses

I keep a EF 24-70mm f/2.8L on my Canon 5D Mark II because I can almost always capture photos where the house completely fills the frame from the street (even from the car!). I can also get a nice close shot of an interesting front door or architectural element in areas with smaller lots (i.e. shallower front yards). This one also works well inside stores and restaurants because it can handle lower-light conditions than some other lenses (due to the constant maximum aperture, or lens opening, of 2.8 across the length of the zoom). Comparison for 100mm focal length between the Canon 5D Mark II and the Canon Rebel T2i Crop Body CamerasOrlando usually has a 70-200mm f/4 L IS (Image Stabilization) lens on the Canon 5D, and focuses (no pun intended) on getting the shots that need to be taken from a distance for best effect. Frequently, these photos are of architectural elements and details on houses or buildings that are farther away. I use this lens to take photos of houses in the distance - such as across a canyon, or to take photos of buildings from much farther away, to reduce the effect of shooting up at a building which gives you an image where the building is tilting away from you. The example photos at right illustrate the difference in images taken at the same focal length (100mm) on a full-frame camera vs. a crop body. These have not been edited and we weren't trying to take "good" photos, but instead wanted to show the differences you will encounter with camera of differing sensor sizes. Because our 70-200mm lens has a maximum aperture (opening) of f/4, it is less suitable for low-light conditions than a zoom with a maximum f/2.8. The EF 70-200m f/2.8 IS is about $2300 which is why we don't have it, despite having an actual need quite frequently!! Next year if I'm lucky!! We plan to add a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM lens this Spring, to give us more flexibility. Zooms lenses are usually not as sharp as prime lenses, meaning lenses that have a single focal length such as 50mm. (Primes are heavily favored for portrait photography and for when you can zoom with your feet. They are less fun when you're walking long distances and don't want to have to walk over to, or away from, every building, which may mean crossing the street too many times)! Although the EF 24-105mm f/4 and EF 24-70mm f/2.8 have obviously overlapping focal lengths, we find ourselves swapping lenses between cameras too often and would like the option of each having one of these on each full-frame camera, and only swapping out for the longer zooms when it's time to shoot details with fewer strange angles, water towers in the distance, or stuff far away in fields. We also have wild fantasies about the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4 IS lens, which will be perfect for close-ups of stuff far far away, like the longhorn in a field in Bastrop that I just can't forget. The 70-200mm just couldn't get close enough and I wasn't about to hop the fence!! I consoled myself by taking photos of the fence, which was nice and rusty, the way an old fence in Texas should be.

Keep it Steady: a Tripod

Every where we go, we drag along a Manfrotto 190XPROB 3 Section Aluminum Pro Tripod. We like the quality and stability of the Manfrotto products. When you're researching tripods, note that most of the better ones do not include the head - you'll need to make that decision and purchase separately. The head we currently like is the Manfrotto 322RC2 Joystick. The head comes with a quick-release plate that attaches to the bottom of the camera to make putting the camera on and off the tripod much faster. For added stability, our 70-200mm lens has a tripod collar, which enables the tripod to support the lens instead of the camera body (with the body hanging off the back) which adds stability to the lens, which reduces blur from movement. Other premium tripod brands are Gitzo ($$$$$) and Giottos. You can easily spend $250 to $400 on a tripod and head, but that sure beats having a cheap one tip over and smash your camera and lens on the concrete.

Wearing Your Camera

I hate the standard strap that comes with most cameras - the attachment points on the upper left and right of the camera body just put the strap in the way, and is a nuisance when the camera is on a tripod (way too easy for someone to get tangled up in it and pull the whole rig over)! We replaced ours with Black Rapid straps, which have a single attachment point on the bottom of the camera and are designed to be worn messenger-style. When the camera is on the tripod, the attachment point easily screws off to be replaced with the tripod quick-release plate. You often see Wedding photogs with the dual Black Rapid rig which lets them carry two monster cameras at a time! The Black Rapid straps run between $53 and $65.

Get a Grip

When you hear someone say their camera is "gripped" you might be thinking, "of COURSE it is gripped - how ELSE would you hold it!!". What they actually mean is that it has an additional battery grip which screws on to the bottom of the camera, and hold two batteries. In the case of our T2i, it can hold either one battery, two batteries, or 4 AA batteries. More importantly, the grip has additional controls which put a shutter button where you need it when you're holding the camera in the portrait position (instead of landscape). Once you've held a gripped camera, an un-gripped one will feel puny in your hands. I have small hands but adjusted to the grip very quickly and now never take it off.

Let Go

If you're shooting under conditions where you need the camera extra extra steady, such as in low-light, or with a long zoom, you'll also want to get a shutter-release cable. This cable plugs into the side of your camera and allows you to press the shutter without touching the camera, which can cause camera shake and prevent tack sharp images. These are inexpensive (under $30) and really do make a difference.

Become a Better Photographer: The Tale of a Realtor – Part 1

The Turning Point: The Need to Become a Better Photographer

A while ago, I had an epiphany. Well, more like a fit. A big one. We dragged our kids out for an entire afternoon to photograph a subdivision in Round Rock, Texas. We were in and out of the car, stopped for lunch, stopped for dinner, played at a park, all in between taking hundreds of photos of houses, streets, the golf course, trees, limestone retaining walls, hike and bike trails and so on. When I got home, I loaded the digital photographs onto the computer and almost had a heart attack. The images were terrible. I messed up the exposure on almost every one: the white balance (color) was off, the skies were "blown" (white, no details), facades were too dark to see, all were crooked to some degree or another - every mistake that was possible to make I managed to make. I started to "fix" the photographs using the methods I was familiar with - mostly in Photoshop. After a few hours of making bad photos into less-bad photos, I realized I needed to admit defeat, toss the set and ask for a do-over. It was not at all the way I had expected the day's work (and then, the night's work) to turn out. Hence the fit. Followed by a funk, followed by some serious contemplation.

What NOT to DO

If you've read THIS far, you want to see some photos, right? Here are three that show what NOT to do!

Making a Decision

We take photos of houses almost every day. That said, were we people who take pictures of houses, or did we want to become actual photographers? You know, the kind that actually know how to use a camera on something other than "Auto", that have a better understanding of composition and can spot the elements of a home or town that are a little more interesting, to share with others who might also find them to be interesting? I decided on the latter: become "a photographer". In doing so, I realized I could do something fun, enhance our business, AND scratch some other itches at the same time, by documenting neighborhoods and small cities and towns all while building a repertoire of artistic skills that would serve other areas of our lives as well. Orlando decided to stick with his own type of house photography, which I characterize as perfectly functional: each photo shows just what is necessary, and 99.99% are for appraisals where the photos that are included in an appraisal report are well-defined: street scene, front back, bathrooms, kitchen, main living areas. Happy with our choices, it was time for me to get out of the funk and dig in!

It Doesn't Happen Overnight, Sweetie: Learning Photography Basics

I spent the better part of 4 MONTHS getting a grip on the basics of photography, and that was only the beginning, the part that got me to the point where I started to get a clue and my photos gradually started to improve. I'll share a few resources with you now that will help you learn digital photography, in case you've been contemplating improving your own photographic skills. Because this is but Part 1 in what will hopefully be a many many part series, this is just your starter list.

Photography Resources

Want some good night-time reading? Dig through the digital photography training books on and you'll find a treasure trove. My favorites include anything by Scott Kelby and Bryan Peterson. Christopher Grey also has many excellent books on studio photography. Read the reviews and you'll find a multitude of links for other digital photography books that are worth your time.
Adobe Software makes some amazingly powerful software for creating and processing digital images. The best of the best, and most essential of these are Adobe Photoshop CS5 and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3. The latter, Lightroom 3 (LR3) is for overall image management - keeping track of catalogs of images as well as anchoring the post-processing of images. Photoshop CS5 (Creative Suite 5) is for image manipulation and enhancement.
$25 a month may very well be the best money you ever spend if you're looking for training videos for almost anything that has to do with the on-line world, from digital photography, to website development to the Adobe Creative Suites (CS5, CS4, CS3). No minimum commitment, pay monthly. The first series on Lightroom 3 (image management) includes over 12 HOURS of lessons, broken down into segments that are a 45 seconds to 5 or 6 minutes - just enough to teach you something that WILL improve your skills, without overwhelming you with too much information at a time. This site was recommended by a Pea, a phenomenal photographer named Rachel, who with her partner Crystal run Pure Photography and Pure Photoshop Actions. To get a strong foundation for your digital photography training, is THE place to start!
What is a Pea?
I re-joined a photography forum from years ago that was still going strong. Google "Two Peas in a Bucket" and navigate to the photography forum. The site is dominated by women, and much of the conversation is about photographing babies, children, families and family life. The members range from pure beginners to seasoned pros and every time I visit I find something that was worth the time and energy, including links to very valuable on-line resources for photographers. This is a low-key, pleasant way to learn digital photography if you're not in a hurry.

Setting a New Standard

My pix are getting better, but there is HUGE room for improvement. Check out these three recent photographs of a green redevelopment area in Austin that included homes, apartments, businesses and mixed-use buildings as well as ample open space:

Join us and Become a Better Photographer, Too!

Please come back and visit - we'll be posting a TON of photos and articles on improving your real estate (and other) photography in the next few months, and will be trying a lot of new techniques, lenses and post-processing software to try to bring better and better images to our site, and hopefully to YOURS as well.

Your Home as Art: Good Idea or Not?

Your Home is your Castle, Should it also be Your Art?

Photograph of a home in Behrens Ranch styled as a painting We all love our home, some of us so much we want to turn them into our own canvas for artistic expression. Is that a good idea? I've been getting a wee bit tired of taking photos of subdivisions lately, even though we see interesting homes every single time we go out. Sometimes I just want to see a little more spark. That got me to thinking . . .

How much art can your home handle?

At dinner tonight, Orlando and I were discussing how much art a homeowner can reasonably get away with without adversely affecting the market value, or the appraisal value of the home. We weren't discussing art hanging on the walls, even though that is what sparked the discussion - we're planning a gallery of photograph of homes in Austin for our own walls. We were talking about what happens when the homeowner views the actual home as their canvas and goes to town, so to speak.

Admit it, you've seen these, too

We've all seen them: homes with wild colors on the outside, murals on the inside covering walls beyond the typical kid room murals, heavily stenciled borders, faux painting and Venetian plaster on the walls. Some homes also gain walls made from crushed soda cans, garden walls made from green beer bottles, or yards full of whirligigs made from rusted out sheet metal or old farm tools. How about the banisters made from intricately carved logs, smashed ceramic-tile-turned-back-splash, or a home styled as a fairie garden or as a vampire castle? What have you seen lately that made you go, hmmmm?

The Purple Wall

We have a purple wall in our home. Dark, almost black-purple. We think it is gorgeous. Some friends, visitors and neighbors apparently do not. I lived in a beige house once, and don't plan on doing that again. We understand, however, that if, or when, we decide to sell, we should probably paint the purple wall, and, well, the orange entry, and the lavender office, and the palladian blue other office, and the black bookshelves flanking the fireplace, and and and. In our neighborhood of homes built in the 1980s, homes for sale come in two primary flavors: updated with granite, stainless steel and travertine, or homes that need to be updated, which includes those that have out-of-date updates, inconsistent updates, or DIY sub-par renovations. The market typically penalizes the latter because buyers factor in the cost of their desired updates when they are deciding how much to offer for a home. In other words, in our area, the super-artistic home would most likely be categorized in buyers' minds as a home that needs to be updated, and penalized accordingly. Which of course, begs the question:

When Does Your "Home as Art" Impact Market Value?

The simplistic answer is: When it veers so far from the norm that is sticks out. If you have a subdivision full of standard builder homes, with similar characteristics, the super-artsy house may not sell as well as one that is presented for sale as typical for the area. It may not sell at all. Some buyers will be able to add up the costs to bring the home closer to their own tastes, but others will be so focused on the "art" that they are unable to see the bones of the home itself, and that makes it hard for them to see how they might live in the home once it is theirs. And THAT is key to getting the home sold. In an area when artsy homes are much more typical, such as areas of South Austin, or SOCO (South of Congress), the market tolerance for the artistically-rendered home is generally greater. Some buyers actively seek out homes that are unusual, perhaps as their part of Keeping Austin Weird.

Our Advice Regarding Your Home as Art

Your home is YOURS. Do what you want to it, but do it with the awareness that you might need to re-do it if and when you decide to sell. In a seller's market, you can "get away" with more, but in a buyer's market, the odd-home-out is going to be harder to move. Paint is easier to fix than structural modifications. Plan to take your Yard Art with you. For the determined artistic spirits, make sure you understand any applicable HOA rules before you buy because purple and teal on the outside may not even pass the review of the Architectural committee and you'll be stuck with beige, even if it isn't your favorite flavor. MY purple and teal are on the INSIDE, and that is just the way I like it.