Real estate agents know how important good photographs are in attracting buyers. But how do you go about choosing the best camera and photography equipment to get started?
We've asked a professional photographer to give us his tips on camera and other equipment for realtors, and the features to look for when choosing photography gear for real estate.
Let's start with the most important bit of kit, the camera.
There are four main types of digital camera on the market:
Digital single lens reflex cameras (known as DSLRs), and mirrorless cameras are the ones professional photographers use, and are also widely used by amateur photographers. These are the only types of camera that give you the best quality for real estate photographs that sell.
DSLRs and mirrorless cameras perform much the same but still have significant differences. You can find out more about the differences between DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras in this article
Compact cameras tend to be smaller but are limited in what they can do. Also known as 'point and shoot' cameras, they are usually mostly automatic and allow little or no control over exposure settings.
You may be thinking, "What about smartphones and tablets?" That's a fair point, they do take pictures.
Smartphones, however, don't offer the features needed for good real estate photography.
The lens is a fixed size and you can't change it. You're stuck with the field of view the lens is fixed at, so you can't swap lenses to capture a wider view of the room.
Some clip-on lenses are on the market but these are just another layer on top of the existing lens that are likely to reduce quality.
The small sensor sizes in smartphones don't cope well with interiors where there is a high contrast between the room and the outside view. Unwanted effects can occur such as flare, and something called ‘noise' which looks like little spots.
Smartphone cameras just aren't good enough for serious real estate photography, though you could use one in an emergency.
Your camera must be able to use different lenses, and the images it takes should be crisp and well-focused. DSLR and mirroless cameras allow you do that.
Imagine a typical room with very bright highlights at the windows and dark shadow areas in the room's corners. The range of brightness is too large for any camera to capture in a single one photograph.
Many professional photographers solve this problem with exposure merging, or HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography.
Automatic Exposure Bracketing, or AEB, is very useful for HDR photography because it allows the camera to automatically take a series of pictures with different exposures.
You could take the exposures manually, but AEB makes it easier and faster.
Most modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras have an AEB function. The AEB features to look for are:
For most high-contrast interiors, you need at least three shots spaced 2 EV apart, or five shots spaced 1 EV apart.
Make sure to check the number of shots and EV spacing for exposure bracketing when buying a camera for real estate photography.
If you are buying in store, don't hesitate to ask the sales person for the camera's AEB capabilities. You can also check this list of camera manufacturers and models that compares their AEB settings.
Continuous shooting mode means that you don't have to press the shutter button after every shot. You press it once and the camera keeps taking shots until you let go of the button, or until the AEB settings tell it to stop.
Cameras normally average the light across the scene, but spot metering allows you to deliberately measure the brightness of a specific area.
Spot metering helps choosing the right shutter speed when photographing interiors with large brightness differences between the room and the outside view.
Cameras at the amateur / starter end of the range often have a built-in flash, but you don't need this.
The built-in flash units are never particularly powerful and certainly not bright enough to use for real estate interiors. So, don't worry if you choose a model without it.
One of the big challenges with real estate interiors is getting enough of the room into your shot. A wide-angle lens allows this, making it a vital part of your camera bag.
For those who wish to photograph sports and wildlife, a zoom lens is great. However for real estate, a wide-angle lens is needed.
This 'wideness' of the lens is known as the 'focal length' and it's expressed in millimeters.
In simple terms, a lower number of millimeters, the wider the view. A very wide-angle lens for interiors is around 14mm.
Lenses that are extremely wide might be a 'fish-eye' lens but this isn't what you're looking for.
Prime lenses have a fixed focal length, such as 16mm or 50mm.
Zoom lenses have a rotating dial that changes the focal length. For example, a 14mm to 24mm zoom can be set to any focal length between 14mm and 24mm.
Most real estate photographers prefer to use a zoom rather than a prime lens. This is because a zoom gives a wide range of focal lengths for a lot less money than an equivalent set of prime lenses.
One zoom is also easier to carry than three or four primes. Additionally, zooming in and out makes composing your shots easier than swapping between different primes all the time.
In addition to the focal length of your lens, you'll see that lenses are described by an f-number such as f/2.8, f/4, etc. Zoom lenses can have a range such as 10-18mm f/4.5 - 5.6 which changes as you change the zoom.
This f-number describes the largest possible opening when light is allowed in to take a shot.
For our real estate purposes, we don't set a wide open aperture because it reduce the depth-of-field (how much can be in focus).
Setting the camera to f/8 is a good rule-of-thumb. So, just keep in mind that, generally, a lower f-number indicates a better overall quality lens.
While photographs can be taken without a tripod, no serious real estate photographer is going to do that!
A tripod enables you to keep your camera totally still and level. And you will certainly need it if the room is very dark or your camera doesn't support AEB.
Since the purpose of a tripod is to hold your camera steady so it can't move, buying a cheap and flimsy one that wobbles is a waste of money. Look for one with solid construction, rigid legs and tight joints.
Like buying a good camera, you tend to get what you pay for when buying a tripod. A professional, carbon-fibre tripod with a ball head is going to cost you $1,000 or more, but it will last a life-time.
At the other end of the price range, there are good tripods for under $100. The trade-offs might include more weight for good stability, and it might have no ball head included, or the included head could be more basic.
Photographing property interiors means using the tripod indoors, so firstly make sure it has rubber feet. Nobody will thank you for using a tripod with spiked metal feet on their expensive wooden floor!
The leg joints should be easy to loosen and tighten up again. Avoid anything overly complicated or fragile looking.
If you will be carrying the tripod between locations, then weight becomes an issue.
The best strength-to-weight choice is carbon fibre, but it's expensive.
A light-weight alternative is aluminium. It's less expensive but not as strong. Be wary of very thin aluminium legs as they can buckle or snap.
Camera and lens combinations can be heavy. So look for a good compromise between strength, weight, and portability.
Cheaper tripods often come with a fixed head: the bit that attaches your camera to the tripod. It's important that this is strong enough to support the combined weight of your camera body and lens.
If your camera is too heavy for the model you are considering, choose a different tripod.
More expensive tripods often take interchangeable heads which offer more choice and tend to be much stronger. Whilst this is good, you need to remember to budget for the head too.
Ball heads are a good place to start. They are mounting plates attached to a large metal ball that's free to rotate in a socket.
This allows you to freely rotate the camera and swap it between landscape and portrait orientation.
When the camera is in position, you tighten the ball joint by twisting a knob or lever. For versatility and price, a ball head is an excellent choice.
There are many other styles of course, with precision gearing, gimbals to allow smooth, flowing movement etc., but you shouldn't need these for real estate photography.
Real estate interior shots that show lopsided rooms, or rooms with vertical lines that lean to one side, don't do justice to the property. They don't look professional either.
Often the root cause of both problems is simply not levelling the camera before taking the photographs.
A camera leaning to the left or right makes the room slope one way or the other. When the camera is tilted upwards, especially with a wide-angle lens, straight vertical lines converge towards the top.Ensuring the camera is perfectly horizontal in the left-right and the front-back axis resolves both problems.
Real estate photographers use a spirit level (also known as "bubble level") to accomplish this. There are two main types of spirit levels:
The traditional solution is to use a small Perspex block which attaches to the hotshot of the camera. This little box contains two spirit-level bubbles, one for each axis.
Just adjust the camera until the spirit level shows that the camera is level. It's really simple, especially if you are using a tripod with a ball head.
If there is too much ceiling in the shot, lower the entire camera rather than tilting downward.
Note that some tripods also have a spirit level. However a level tripod doesn't necessarily mean the camera is also level.
Many modern digital cameras have a built-in level, displayed on the back screen. This ends the need for an actual bubble level even if it's slightly less convenient.
Consult your camera manual to find out how to activate it, then move the camera around until the display shows that it's perfectly level.
If you're still weighing up options on buying a camera to take real estate photos, the digital level is a feature to look for.
You can correct sloping rooms and imperfect vertical lines in software after the shot, but it's always better to avoid the problem in the first place.
Also, extreme problems might not be fixable in software, so you can use a level to at least get close.
The purpose of a remote release is simply to trigger the camera without touching it. This is especially important when shooting dark interiors, because you will need long exposures where camera movement may cause blur.
Simply put, if you don't touch the camera you won't move it. If the camera doesn't move, you won't get movement blur in your images.
You need a remote release designed to work with your camera.
Different makes and models have different connections, so that of course has to match. Check your camera manual for the sort of connection your camera has, or check with a reputable store or website.
Remote releases come in various levels of complexity, from a simple button on a cable through to more expensive control units featuring timers, delays, and digital displays.
For real estate interiors you don't need anything more than a simple button on a long cable.
A basic cable release is fine. Just make sure it's got the right connection for your camera and that it is long enough for you to stand a few feet away from the camera.
See this article for more information about remote releases.
Memory cards are essential but choosing the right ones can be confusing. There are several types, makes, sizes and speeds.
Your camera may use just one type of card, although some cameras, such as newer DSLRs, have two card slots formats of two different types.
Most cameras that you will consider use either a Secure Digital (SD) card, a Compact Flash (CF) card, or one of each. If it isn't clear when buying the camera, just check the manual.
Use a card large enough to hold all the images from a shoot.Swapping cards while you work introduces possibilities of losing the card or other kinds of mistakes.
With prices of memory cards continuing to fall, a high capacity card, such as 32Gb, is an attractive option for real estate shooting. Having one or two of these in your camera means you shouldn't have to worry about running out of space during a shoot.
A memory card's speed determines how quickly the card can save one image and move onto saving the next one. For most real estate interior memory speed is useful but certainly not critical.
Go for the fastest card you can afford, but don't worry too much about it.
To know more about the types of cards available, check this guide from What Digital Camera.
In addition to the important kit, there are a few extra things that are useful for real estate photography.
It is inexpensive, small, and very handy.
You never know what conditions you will find when you shoot an interior, and accidents like finger marks or rain drops on a lens do happen. The property may be dusty, damp, or knee-deep in pet hair.
Keep the cloth in a small case or bag and don't forget to keep checking your lens for dirt. Always use the cloth when you need it.
A great cheap professional cleaning tool is called the Lens Pen.
This helps to cut flare (bright light effects) from windows or interior lighting that can spoil a shot.
You need a short lens hood for a wide-angle lens. Anything bigger will stick out too far in front of the camera and show up in the edges of your images.
A hood also can partially protect the lens agains "knocks" and minor bumps.
This extra-stick tape is a life-saver when things break or want to flap around in a breeze. Strips of it remove cat hair from furniture and hold curtains back against the wall.
Little squares of it can even mark where your tripod legs should be; very useful if you need to temporarily move it, then replace it in the same spot. All manner of small challenges can be overcome with a little tape.
What separates gaffer tape from other kinds of tape is that it leaves no residue behind.
These are the five key considerations to bear in mind when you're preparing to take interior real estate photos: