So You Are Thinking of Getting Into Real Estate Photography… (Part 2 – Gear and Objectives)
Disclaimer: Everything that I say here is from my own experience. I did not learn how to do this from a mentor or a company that was already established in the business. It is a role that I transitioned into naturally through other work. My learning process has been a combination of reflecting on failures and doing a lot of online research. The conditions that I describe are my own and not everyone goes through the same experiences. Every market is different, and you will likely encounter your own unique challenges. If you are reading this, be mindful that my words are not gospel nor are they intended to be. They are simply the honest experience of someone who is working in this field. I am sharing this to give you all an unfiltered look into my world. You can pick out good things for yourself and try to identify things that you might want to potentially avoid. Beyond sharing my thoughts, I can offer no guidance because you are not me and I am not you.
Are you equipped for real estate photography? One of the common questions that comes up in any genre is about gear. Gear, gear, gear, gear. Ask one hundred people and you’ll probably get one hundred different answers. Before I get into the issue of how you need to equip yourself, let me get something straight here:
Real Estate Photography is NOT Architectural Photography.
They are similar in that in the sense that both involve photographing buildings, both interior and exterior. The differences between the two are purpose and allotted time. Architectural photography is generally considered a higher-end, more artistic endeavor where you are normally given a space, given significant resources in terms of scouting time and time on location, and you are expected to highlight the details that make the space or structure stand out. Many architectural photographers will spend some time to scout the location beforehand, check the lighting situation, determine an ideal time to shoot, and come in with a structured game plan and shot list to approach the property. Architectural shoots also nearly always involve a perfectly staged property that is clean and aesthetically appealing from an interior design standpoint.
Real estate photography, by contrast, is far more functional. The objective is to display the space in a pleasing way to get people into the door so that the real estate agent can talk them into buying it. Unless you are dealing with a vacant property that is a lockbox situation, it is extremely rare that you will be given much time to do your job. Every minute spent in an occupied home is a minute that you’re inconveniencing the homeowner, tenant, or even the real estate agent. Taking too much time can potentially damage the relationships and lead to the resident no longer being willing to cooperate with the agent in terms of showing, which is bad. When it comes to real estate photography, you want to approach each job with a game plan that lets you get in and out as quickly as possible and thus, you will often find yourself relying on post processing far more than an architectural photographer who can take time to make sure that the shot is right in the camera.
Entering an occupied home also puts you at the mercy of the interior design decisions of the occupant as well as their hygienic decisions. Peeling paint, lighting fixtures missing bulbs or with mismatched bulbs, cracks in the wall, a foot of clothes covering the entire floor “Hoarders”-style, these are all real-world situations that you can walk into and you will be expected to solve the problem quickly because many real estate agents are afraid of potentially offending the homeowner (or tenant).
Real estate photos, unlike architectural photos, are also likely to only appear on the web as part of the listing on sites such as MLS, Zillow, Trulia, etc. and printed small in flyers handed out at open houses. Architectural photos may make it into print in high end magazines, be featured in portfolios, or even printed large to hang for display so there is also a difference in output to consider.
For full disclosure, I am currently a Nikon shooter so for the sake of simplicity, I will be referring to Nikon products. You can shoot real estate with just about any system as long as you find equivalent gear. Don’t focus so much on the specific models, but focus on things like focal length because you’ll probably have to look for whatever the closest thing is that your own camera manufacturer (or third party brand) offers.
In order to get into real estate photography professionally, you are going to need a camera, a lens, and a tripod. The camera should ideally be some sort of interchangeable lens camera such as a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) or MILC (Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera). Your bread-and-butter lens will be a wide angle zoom lens. The tripod should be sturdy enough to hold the camera still without shaking. The basic principles on which all of these recommendations are built are as follows:
Real Estate Photography does NOT require high resolution images.
Real Estate Photography is done on a tripod.
Real Estate Photography employs a deep “Depth of Field” (high f-stop).
Corrections and compositing can be done in post-processing.
It’s important to note here that as of this writing, you will probably be presented with 3 major options in terms of the sensor size of your camera: Full-Frame, APS-C, and Micro 4/3. The difference in sensor sizes results in the same optical focal length having a different “field of view” depending on the sensor. This phenomenon is often called the “crop factor” of the sensor. If you would like to learn more about this, please refer to this video by Gerald Undone, which I think does a pretty good job explaining the phenomenon:
As of this writing, I would recommend getting either a Full-Frame camera or APS-C camera since the current wide angle options for Micro 4/3 bodies seem to be a bit sparse.
The Camera Body
Remember how I mentioned that real estate photos generally only appear in web-size or fairly small print (like 8.5”x11” max)? That’s your blessing if you are getting into this because you don’t need to worry about shelling out for a high-end camera body with tons of megapixels. Even the most basic entry-level cameras today such as the Nikon D5600 DSLR Camera have more than enough resolution to satisfy any real estate agent and you can even go back to purchase an older used model such as the Nikon D300 for $200 or so and have a serviceable camera for real estate photography. If you are just dipping your toes into this, I would highly suggest that you do exactly that and buy yourself an older APS-C camera body used and take the little bit extra to spend on a good lens rather than the other way around. As long as your camera has 12 Megapixels or more, you’re going to be just fine for 99% of real estate work.
Of course there is much more to a camera body than just megapixels. If you do some reading, you’ll read all sorts of stuff about dynamic range, low-light performance, autofocus, etc., but frankly, most of it is not of real concern as you will be working on a tripod. This allows you to keep your ISO setting low so that you don’t run into any noise issues associated with high ISO shooting and there are plenty of ways around the dynamic range problem in a controlled shoot like a real estate job.
You might be asking here why I even bother bringing up the more expensive Full Frame cameras if they are clearly not needed and my answer would be simple: Quality. The truth is that most companies are currently treating their APS-C line as their lower-end “consumer” line. This means that the better quality lenses tend to be released for their Full Frame cameras. If you really want to get into this, then eventually you’re going to want to impress your clients with every bit of quality that you can draw from your equipment so that’s when I would say that Full Frame becomes a factor. Of course you can also opt to go with Fuji who do not have a Full Frame camera line and thus release absolutely amazing lenses for their APS-C cameras.
I am not going to lie. This is the single thing that has always caused me the most grief because there is just so much conflicting information. Some people will argue that you NEED a Tilt-Shift Lens to photograph real estate properly (bullshit) and plenty of people will preach about not shooting “too wide”. In short, the smaller the focal length number, the wider your “field of view” is—this means that you will capture more in your frame. Being the practical person that I am, I am going to give some very practical advise here.
Make sure that your lens is “rectilinear”. That means avoid anything that is labelled a “fisheye” lens.
Buy the widest rectilinear zoom that is available for your camera body.
For the Nikon APS-C system, a good entry-level lens for real estate would be the Nikon AF-P DX NIKKOR 10-20mm f/4.5-5.6G VR Lens. You could go even wider by paying a bit more with the Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM Lens. At the wide end, these lenses translate to 15mm and 12mm on a Full Frame camera. Yes, these lenses are not the most impressive specimens nor are they going to be able to open up very wide to let tons of light in, but most of your photography is probably going to be done around f/8 anyway so the aperture limitation is of little concern. I’m sure that there will be people who want to crucify me for this advice, but let me tell you a few things.
First, this is a business and you want to treat it as such. Once you make the minimal investment in gear, it sets you up to make profit, which you can then CHOOSE to invest in upgrades later down the road. The $276.95 hit on the Nikon 10-20mm is made up pretty much immediately while it will probably be more stressful to pay off a purchase such as the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED Lens for their Full Frame system even though that’s a far better lens. Don’t worry. There are eventually good reasons to shell out for those much better lenses, but focus on creating a viable business and getting the basics down before you start worrying about the differences between cheap lenses and expensive lenses. I’ll discuss upgrades in a future entry because not all upgrades are equal in terms of their return on investment.
A short word on Tilt-Shift lenses before we go further. Tilt-Shift lenses are essentially lenses that allow for movements that are not possible with a standard lens. They permit you to alter your perspective and change your plane of focus. One of the most visible uses of this that you may have seen is the “miniature effect” where a person can taken a photograph of a real landscape and make it look like toys.
Tilt-Shift lenses are actually very valuable tools in the architectural photography sphere, but they are expensive and the time it takes to fiddle with one is probably more than you want to be spending on your average real estate shoot. Tilt-Shift lenses are also “prime lenses” as opposed to zoom lenses, meaning that they only have a single given focal length. This makes them a lot less versatile in terms of adjusting to a given space. They are also likely to be complete overkill since we can apply software corrections instead. The argument for Tilt-Shift is largely to “get it right in camera” and not waste pixels, but remember that real estate photography does not require high resolution to begin with. This doesn’t mean that nobody uses them for real estate, but it is less common than standard wide angle zoom lenses. If you want to buy one, make sure you get familiar with its use before going out on a shoot because there is definitely a learning curve.
The Tripod (and Ball Head)
We have arrived at the last major piece and I will not pull any punches here. Get the sturdiest tripod and ball head that your budget can afford because these three little legs will be responsible for keeping your camera still and stable while you photograph. This doesn’t mean that you need to go out and buy some $1500 outfit from Really Right Stuff, but get a solid offering from a brand like Feisol, Manfrotto, 3-Legged Thing, etc. A good entry-level tripod will probably run you around $200-$300 (assuming you don’t go for weight-saving carbon fiber) and it will last you a LONG time as long as you care for it properly. In general, I would recommend that you get a ball head that is “Arca Swiss Compatible” since that is more or less the industry standard for accessories such as tripod plates and L-Brackets. If you just want to “Buy Once and Cry Once”, then my recommendation at this time would be the Feisol Tournament CT-3342 3-Section Rapid Carbon Tripod along with an Acratech GP Ballhead with Lever Clamp. For the price, it’s difficult to get a more solid setup than that.
Note: One quality-of-life thing that you might want to get yourself is a wired or wireless shutter release for you camera. You can get around this using you camera’s self-timer so it’s not strictly necessary, but it just saves a huge pain in the ass.
Anyway, that’s it for now. I’ll see you guys in Part 3 where we’ll get down to some “Quick and Dirty” real estate photography (before we work our way up to something more refined).