Finding the Right Real Estate Photographer
So you’re serious about being in real estate. Maybe you’re a broker, maybe you own a hotel or motel, maybe you list an apartment on Airbnb… bottom line, you make some or all of your living by renting out or selling properties. As you well know, having high-quality photography is an important part of marketing your property (if you don’t know, I have several reasons why you should here). A real estate photographer is trained and experienced in shooting photographs in tough situations, so hiring one is certainly going to help you out.
But how to choose? Many people think that photography is a commodity and you just need to go with the real estate photographer with the lowest price because they’re all the same. That couldn’t be further from the truth! Remember, photography is an art and that means that photographers are artists (the good ones, anyway). Just as with any other art, each artist is unique. Some are better than others and can create a higher-quality final result. A better image will catch the eye of more potential clients, which means more business for you.
So What Do I look For in a Real Estate Photographer?
Not price. That’s something that you can discuss later. First, you need to find photographers who are actually good. A real estate photographer can be really cheap, but that doesn’t do you much good if they give you flat, dark, distorted images with bizarre colours. You need to take a look at a photographer’s portfolio to see if they can offer the kind of quality that you need.
Ok, so what do I look for in a photographer’s portfolio?
Real estate photography (or architectural photography, really) is one of the more technical types of photography. It requires a high degree of control over lighting and composition. The reason for this is because the real estate photographer has to create an image that looks good, but also that looks natural and is a fair representation of the real room. Real estate photography is essentially product photography, where the product is the property. A certain degree of exaggeration is expected, but there’s a fine line between acceptable exaggeration and misrepresentation. You do not want the place to look like it’s the size of a mansion if it’s a cabin in the woods.
The first thing you should ask yourself is, “Do these photos look realistic?” If the items in a living room look really stretched out, that’s a sign that the room isn’t anywhere near as big as it looks in the photos. An easy way to tell is to look at an object in a room (a couch, for example). If the part closer to the edge of the frame looks much bigger than the part that’s closer to the middle, that should tell you something. Just about any couch in the world is the same size on both ends, right?
There will always be a certain amount of distorted perspective in any kind of interior photography because that’s part of the nature of wide-angle lenses and they are necessary to do the job. You simply can’t get a proper photo of a room without one. The key is to be able to make the photo look as proportional to the real room as possible. A good real estate photographer will understand how to minimize the distorted perspective created by wide-angle lenses in order to get a realistic shot.
This room probably looks larger than the one next to it, right? But does it look realistic?
You don’t want the room to look much bigger than it is, because it’s misleading. You also don’t want it to look like an inverted pyramid!
I’m with you so far… what else?
There are other ways that distortion can make a room look unrealistic. It’s very important that vertical lines look vertical. You don’t want a room (or the whole property) to look like it’s leaning or that it’s shaped like a pyramid, right? If the real estate photographer doesn’t shoot straight, then vertical lines will converge and you’ll have a room that looks like the top is smaller than the bottom. Doorways and windows will look very bizarre and the entire room will make you think that the architect who designed the place was quite drunk at the time.
But can’t you just-
Let me stop you right there. The answer is yes, you can correct your vertical lines in PhotoShop. In fact, it’s quite easy to do. So if the photographer whose work you’re looking at didn’t do it, that should tell you what you need to know. The first rule that any architectural photographer should know and follow is “shoot straight”. At the very least, the finished product should at least look like it was shot straight. If the real estate photographer can’t do that for their own portfolio, they probably won’t be able to do that for you either.
Architects don’t usually design crooked buildings. Shouldn’t it look like it’s not falling over?
Correct verticals look much better, especially since the building actually looks like this.
What about lighting?
This is where we really start to separate the mice from the men/women. Lighting can make a huge difference in the look and, more importantly, the feel of a photo. Real estate photography can be pretty challenging from a lighting perspective. Rooms can (and usually do) have different colours of light, and the light from the windows is usually so much brighter than the light in the interior that you can’t get details in both the windows and the rest of the room at the same time. In order to do that, the photographer has to use some sort of special technique to balance all the differences in brightness in the various parts of the room. Not all techniques are the same, though.
Probably the most popular technique these days is something called High Dynamic Range imaging, more commonly called HDR. It’s popular because it’s pretty simple to do and it’s what most real estate photographers have used at some point in their career (usually early on). It involves taking a few photos (usually 3) at different exposure settings to capture details in different parts of the room, and then using software to merge the 3 images into a composite photo with detail in all the dark and bright parts of the image.
This technique certainly works, but it’s not very predictable because you’re letting a computer program decide what the photo should look like. The results can be anywhere from flat, grey and boring to having horrible colours and unnatural details. If you do a search for HDR photos online, you can find some examples of horrendous photos. Most experienced real estate photographers eventually learn more advanced techniques that give far more realistic and natural results.
The walls in this room are white. Shoudn’t they look that way? Also, what colour is the runner on the bed?
Now we can see the real colour of the room. The white walls look white, and the runner on the bed is clearly blue.
Using Real Light
A much better technique for shooting an interior space is to solve the problem the old-fashioned way: if the room is too dark, make it brighter. If a real estate photographer lights the room up with a flash (or multiple flashes) then the results will look much more natural than HDR because they aren’t using a software program, they’re using real light. It makes a difference how you use those flashes, of course, but just the fact that the photographer is using them instead of the basic HDR technique (which is basically the photography version of fast food) will be a step up. It will also eliminate any of the issues that HDR creates with different colours of lighting.
As I said, however, it makes a difference how you use those flashes. Obviously you don’t just want to point the flash directly into the room because you’ll get reflections and harsh shadows everywhere. A good photographer will know how to control their lights so you don’t see harsh reflections in the windows or ugly, distracting shadows from light fixtures on the ceiling.
The best real estate photographers are the ones who have mastered the ability to blend natural light with their own artificial lights. Obviously working with flashes and balancing them with the natural light takes more time and the shoot takes longer as a result, but you need to ask yourself this: do you want a $4 cheeseburger or do you want a thick, juicy steak? They’re both cow, but that’s pretty much where the similarity ends. One costs more and takes longer to produce, but the result is far superior.