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Getting Started with Real Estate Photography – Exteriors

One excellent way for a photographer to get established in the local market is to consider adding real estate work to the portfolio. While real estate photography can certainly encompass large commercial and resort-scale projects, here we’re going to focus on the more common kind of residential MLS (Multiple Listing Service) imagery we’re all used to seeing in the grocery store entrance.

MLS Photography is not fine art photography, it is a practical service provided to homeowners and listing agents that, when done well can have a positive impact in our client’s bottom line and provide a solid revenue stream to an established or aspiring photographer’s workflow.

Today we’ll focus primarily on exteriors and make our way to interior shooting in the next post. Let’s dive in and explore a few basic tips, tools and techniques to producing a quality virtual tour that our clients can display and market with pride, starting with a few basic gear suggestions.

Equipment

Camera & Lens: My standard MLS shooting kit consists of a Canon T3i (600D) body mounted with a Sigma 10-20mm f/3.5 EX wide-angle lens, packed alongside a Sigma 24-70 f/2.8 EX and circular polarizing filters for each. On a typical shoot, the 10-20 will do the heavy lifting and the 24-70 is used primarily for details and features in need of a tighter focal length, such as custom casework, gardens, water features and any unique fixtures. It’s a good idea, if possible, to bring along a GoPro and monopod for any properties showcasing water features with aquatic life. Including these unexpected details are a welcome addition to any tour that clients appreciate.

A wide-angle field of view is ideal if not mandatory for real estate work. The Sigma 10-20mm (17-35mm full-frame equivalent) is wide enough to get a full exterior view in close quarters if needed, and more than able to grab both opposing corners in most interior spaces with minimal distortion. If you’re searching for the ideal lens, a minimum focal plane of 24mm is recommended for best results.

Exposure Settings: Starting at f/10 in full-sun, I prefer work my way up or down a stop or two, depending on available light to maintain a deep depth-of-field across the site. In overcast light, f/8 is a good place to start. I find shooting in Aperture Priority (Av) mode with Auto ISO is ideal for keeping time at a minimum, especially if the owner or agent is on-site.

For standard site elevation shots, a sharp image with deep depth of field is preferred. Very rarely do shallow, artistic depths-of-field occur in MLS work. In other words, fine-art photographers: avoid getting bogged down in shallow shots of fixtures and appliances. Here our creativity will shine most in attention to framing, and being able to convey a flattering sense of space, dimension and overall aesthetic. Not so much an issue when shooting the outside, but inside it’s all about getting the space, making it look as awesome as possible and rolling to the next shot.

Lighting: Flash fill is a necessity in MLS work. When shooting DSLR, I find the Canon 430EXII Speedlight coupled with a Gary Fong Lightsphere an ideal solution for on-and-off camera fill. The Canon 430 is tall enough to get over both the 10-20 and 24-70 lens hoods without casting a shadow and is an ideal application for a balanced E-TTL result. Nothing fancy here – just good, even lighting to accent color and show the space clearly to a prospective buyer.

Fixed-lens and mid-level DSLR: pop-up flash will aid significantly in recovering color and contrast when shooting in full sun. If you feel like you’re not getting enough pop, many cameras offer a Flash Compensation feature in the camera settings menu, allowing the user a few stops of (+/-) control over output flash power. While you’re there, (if available) experiment with the 2nd Curtain firing option, which causes the flash to throw a little light into the scene up front to help initially expose the image, with another pop as the shutter closes. Not a necessity outside, but a reliable way to go when heading into the more light-challenged Interiors portion of the shoot.

Off-camera: I keep a pair of inexpensive but very capable Yongnuo Digital YN-622C E-TTL (Canon) wireless triggers on hand, along with a lightweight stand and two umbrellas, one shoot-thru and one reflective. But my usual go-to combination is a monopod-mounted trigger and flash extended by hand, propped in a stable place or hidden out of view somewhere in the scene (if required).

Unless otherwise agreed upon, these are not commonly budgeted tools for conventional MLS work. That said, having these tools around can definitely put us in the best position to get the shot, exceed client expectations and help secure future work.

Recommended: for any shooters in search of an exceptional camera for real estate work, you might consider taking a look at the Sony RX10 stabilized 24-200mm (f/2.8) fixed-lens system powered by an oversized 20.2MP Exmor-R CMOS sensor.

Image courtesy of LensRentals.com

Not only will this all-in-one option sufficiently cover the necessary focal lengths, the new RX10 offers full 1080p video at 60fps and includes both pop-up and multi-interface hot shoe for off-camera E-TTL flash connectivity. Having spent a lot of time shooting properties with this camera’s 10.3 mega-pixel predecessor (DSC-R1), this is one serious upgrade to a proven workhorse in the field. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the RX10 via LensRentals.com and putting it through the standard tour paces.

Tripod/Monopod: Okay, this one should be first on the list. Without stabilizing the camera, an upscale virtual tour is relegated to a pile of mediocre snapshots. A reliable light to mid-weight tripod or monopod is the single best immediate investment we can make in regard to image quality, regardless of the camera we use.

Naturally, the more stable the shot, the sharper the image. Another equally important reason to use a tripod for real estate work is, having successfully framed and established the settings for our first shot, we’re now able to quickly move this setup from position to position, adding a consistent look and flow to our image tour. Attention to this single detail alone can make a property stand out and distinctively set your work apart from the competition.

One of the keys to efficient MLS tour photography is to quickly get the camera, flash and tripod (or monopod) height dialed-in so we’re free to start moving and shooting with minimal adjustment. Having located a good starting point, framing is now our primary concern.

Scheduling a Time

While photographers are downright picky about light in general, MLS work (in my opinion) offers a much wider shooting range in regard to time of day. Morning and afternoon light have appealing angles and tones, but can also be low enough to blow our sky out when shooting in that direction.

I personally find it safest to schedule MLS work when the sun is positioned just high enough to leave the background, leaving the sky a more consistent (albeit sometimes washed-out) blue for ground-level shooting at all angles. While not always convenient, this approach tends to produce the most consistent background that requires the least amount of work to recover in post.

Certain properties will budget a higher degree of attention to these details, depending on the size and scope of the project, and will call for a more involved lighting or HDR processing scenario, such as a twilight or golden-hour view from both inside and outside a residence or business. If I may reiterate, typical MLS photography is not fine art photography; yet a good photographer or listing agent can make a maximum impact in the display and sale of a given property with relative ease by applying even the most basic of composition and processing skills.

Approaching the Site

On our first MLS tour projects, it’s quite easy to overlook the initial shots we need as we nervously drive right past them on the way in. Every tour needs a good neighborhood entrance shot or two (or more, depending) to anchor the flow, especially with newer developments ordained with attractive signage and landscaping.

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As an avid landscape shooter, I’m somewhat notorious for over-shooting these areas. The more emphasis developers place on creating this kind of appeal, the more effort I tend to place in capturing their aesthetic. Here are a few things to look for when approaching a site:

  • Formal signage, custom landscaping and garden works
  • Community recreation facilities (swimming pools, golf courses, tennis courts, clubhouses etc.)
  • Appealing views of (and along) the entrance drive
  • Neighborhood trails and greenways

I find it’s a good idea to arrive a bit early and hit these features on the way in for two reasons: a) sheer convenience, and b) because the client always values and appreciates this kind of professional foresight and initiative. If our goal is to exceed expectations, this is one simple and effective way to make a professional impression and establish a healthy confidence and trust in our service(s).

Shooting Exterior Elevations

Front Elevation

Moving on to the site itself, it’s time to kick into high gear. Let’s take a look at a few things to keep in mind:

On approaching the property driveway, be sure to park out of view. Ideally, no vehicles should be parked in the drive or in front the home. A good listing agent will have the owner prepped for these concerns. When asked, owners are usually more than accommodating and gladly willing to move any cars into the garage or temporarily out of view for the best result.

Scan the layout and note any extreme grading or sloping present around the property. For instance: if the front yard is steep, a good approach would be to back away, shoot more from a distance and zoom in to frame the shot, thereby leveling the scene a bit. Good MLS photography is all about the center-line, especially the vertical plane. Anything that can be done to avoid looking up at our subject is ideal, and occasionally impossible to reconcile without budgeting specialty gear.

Work the perimeter, covering all available angles. Starting with the front, move to the left-front corner, then to the left side, then to the left-rear corner, then to the rear and so on; making sure to grab two or three exposures of each angle, moving forward or backward as required for the most flattering view. While many of these images will not be among our final selections, having them guarantees the best selection for a quality tour.

Remember the vertical plane: Be sure to play around with camera heights keeping in mind that the taller the subject, the higher we need our lens to minimize distortion. I prefer to use a minimum 6′ monopod for speed and mobility when combing the perimeter, taking full advantage of the camera’s tilting LCD display to frame and shoot. Whether an inch or three feet, being ready to reposition as high or low as required to level a scene (to the extent that we’re able) will reward our images with a distinctly cleaner look, and especially so for interior work. More on that later.

Showcasing Exterior Features

mark-morrow-photofocus-mls-exteriors-015

Having successfully worked the perimeter and acquired our elevation views, we can now turn our attention to exterior detail work before heading inside. Here are a few keys to highlight along the way:

Garage and Outbuildings: While attached garages are generally covered in the perimeter walk-around, a couple of closer shots of the driveway and garage door(s) help anchor the tour and provide a good transition toward the property. I prefer to shoot one straight-on and one angled, selecting the best of the two in post. Likewise for carports, sheds and other outbuildings.

Landscaping: Any and all custom landscaping, including pools, play areas, water features, solar panels and garden works (etc.) should be well-covered from all angles. Creative license is a winner here. Be sure to draw attention to any nicely landscaped beds and walkways leading to property entrances.

Porches & Decking: Making our way back to the main entrance, be sure to capture a closer view of any back or side porches and decking. It’s a good practice to get a few shots from the ground level, then walk onto the porch or deck and shoot it’s general layout along with any attractive views.

I recommend shooting a frame or two straight-on and a couple of angled shots showing the porch connection and rear (or side) entry, highlighting any custom features along the way. Porches and decks can also provide a great vantage point for back or side yard views, an obvious but easily overlooked shot on the first few outings.

Main Entrance: Having covered all side and rear porches, decks and entrances the last stop is the front door. On the way, take note of any walkways connecting the driveway to the home. These shots tend to create a smoother visual transition from the perimeter to the front door.

All that is needed now to complete our exterior session is to shoot the front door itself. A single straight-on shot from medium range (about 15-20 feet out) with the 24-70 is generally the best option. Going wider will work but usually gets us close enough for serious flash reflection issues, especially in the presence of a full-glass storm door. Here, we find ourselves again shooting at an angle to avoid reflection and glare.

To cap the exterior shoot, step onto the front porch or landing, turn around and shoot any front views of the property that stand out. I also like to turn and get a final angled shot toward the driveway, if applicable. We can now confidently kick off the shoes and head inside.

And we’ll pick it up there in the next post.

Final Thoughts

Having worked with realtors of all kinds, I’ve grown to appreciate the hard work successful agents put into their properties. Every good realtor is skilled in engaging the seller, and sparing no small expenditure in preparing a property for a shoot.

In today’s economy, busy agents might have dozens of properties on their hands in different stages of need to be better prepared for market. As that window can open and close quickly, understanding and exceeding these practical shooting needs can earn you a positive reputation, and land you on a fast-track to a wealth of future work.

Please note that the equipment and technique expressed here are my own, and given from my own limited perspective in regard to the field of real estate photography. I look forward to catching you next time with a closer look at Interiors shooting, as well as selecting, processing and publishing a completed tour.

Thanks for stopping by. If you’re planning to attend the Photoshop World conference next week in Las Vegas, be sure to swing by and say hello, or join us for the Photofocus.com Reader Breakfast Friday, Sept 5 @ 8am at the Mandalay Bay Hotel.

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