How to Take Better Real Estate Photos

Many Realtors take their own listing and marketing photos. A few do an excellent job and most of you do not. In fact, I am frequently asked how to take good real estate photos. While I completely endorse using a professional, here are some helpful suggestions for those of you who take your own pictures.

Pick the Cell Phone HDR photo

This is a Zillow promotional photo used on facebook. Can you guess which one was done by the agent using way to much “HDR”?

First of all, I cannot say loudly enough: Stop using the HDR function on your cell phone! Seriously, most of these photos are hideous, like a cartoon version of a real photo. The top right photo is clearly not realistic, or attractive, and is a very good example of cell phone HDR.. While you can at times improve a photo through editing in an app (we pros call this post processing), you cannot convert a poor original into an appealing photo.

Whatever camera you use, the first thing you need to master is using the camera to its very best capability, and produce photos which do not need editing. This tip alone will improve many of the horrible pictures in the MLS today.

So how do you accomplish that? Well the old saying is “Practice makes perfect”. So you should  practice at your own house and find out what limitations your equipment has. Practice at different times of the day too, because lighting changes throughout the course of the day. The hardest shots for amateurs are those where the room is dark and the windows are open to a bright sunshiny day. To get your best shot, you have to make sure that the windows are not in the center of the shot. The center is where most consumer grade cameras and cell phones measure the light for automatic exposure. If the window is in the center, then your camera/cell phone will set the exposure for the outside. This produces a beautiful shot of the outside, but a dark and unappealing interior.

By keeping the window out of the center, you will properly expose the room. Chances are that the outside will be washed out and completely white. That’s ok, you are trying to get the best shot your equipment will provide, and this is how to do it.

Sometimes, it is impossible to get a shot without the windows in the center. In this case, pull the blinds shut so that the outside light is cut down. You may be wanting to get a beautiful shot of both the outside and inside, but that is often impossible for consumer grade equipment and skills.

A more subtle, but frequent, error is in how the camera is held. The vertical lines in the shot (wall corners, cabinets, doors, etc), should be straight up and down. If they are not, then the viewer of the picture may not consciously focus on the skewed lines (after all chances are every shot the viewer ever took is probably skewed in the same fashion), but she will not view your skewed photo as favorable as one that is properly formatted.

I can almost visualize some of you shrugging your shoulders on the vertical lines tip, but it is a big issue. Imagine a buyer that is trying to decide between two or three houses. All are similar in features, location and price. After the buyer tours the homes, he or she will try to pick the best house, and will likely make many returns to the listing photos of each home as they try to narrow it down. Do you want to be the agent that has poorly formatted or well formatted photos? Yes, it really does make a difference.

So how do you correct the vertical lines which are not vertical? You don’t. You make sure the lines are vertical when you take the photo. Professionals have software that can correct nonvertical lines, but only to a degree, and the software is both expensive and has a steep learning curve. Even though the pros have such software, we try not to use it. Instead we make sure the camera is straight and level – then there is no need for the additional step of fixing vertical lines.

The whole trick is to hold your camera perfectly aligned to both the horizontal and the vertical axis of the room. Do not tilt the camera at all. Camera tilt is what produces the skewed images.

Once you have mastered the two above tips (again practice in your home!), then you can look to some minor post processing using your camera’s editing capabilities. But be careful – postprocessing is exactly like spice – a little bit is good, and too much ruins things. You have all seen the photos that do not look realistic – the colors are too bright and vibrant, and the features have been transformed to a hideous caricature of the original. See the above group of four. By pure coincidence, Zillow posted that picture on face book the same day I was writing this article.

The problem is that when you are editing, you become desensitized to the effect that your editing is having on your photos. You want the photos to accurately portray the property. You are not trying to create art. Just please be judicious, and remember that a little bit makes a huge difference.

The last item is composing the shot. That is, deciding where to stand so that the rooms are attractive and well exposed (which can involve avoiding centered widows). In general, it is good to shoot from corners. Corners are not always the best shot, but they are most frequently the best shot. Finding an interesting angle is a matter of your eye. Some people can visualize the best shots moments after entering the room, others can never visualize them. The best thing to do, especially when you are still developing your skills, is to take multiple shots from multiple perspectives. When you are back at your computer, you can compare and select the best shots. If you have been yweaking colors, walk away from the photos for at least a couple of hours after you finish, and look at them again. If you do this, you can prevent yourself from being charged with photography while under the influence of HDR!

If you follow these tips, you will produce shots that are beyond most agents capabilities. But – the best way to get consistently good photos and increase your likelihood of selling the home is to use a professional.

When it comes to the photos, you should be a perfectionist. It will help you sell the current home and will give you one more reason why a prospective client should pick you for the listing. If you haven’t read it, you may want to also read my article on Using Real Estate Photography To Leverage New Listings.

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Mike Cartwright

Mike Cartwright

Mike Cartwright is the principal photographer and has many years of experience shooting mid-level and high end homes. His Father was also a Photographer, and Mike started shooting and developing while still in grade school. His photos are published, has won awards, and have contributed to the sales of many homes. When it comes to architectural photography, Mike is a seasoned pro who can get the right lighting and angles to make your project "pop"!

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