Camera and Photography Equipment for Realtors

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 when you have limited photography experience?

We've asked a professional photographer to give us his tips on camera and other equipment for estate agents, 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.

Choosing a Camera for Real Estate Photography

There are four main types of digital camera on the market:

  • DSLR
  • Mirrorless
  • Compact
  • Smartphones and tablets

Digital single lens reflex cameras (known as DSLRs), and mirrorless cameras are the ones professional photographers use, and which are also widely used by amateur photographers. These are the only types of camera you should buy to get the quality you need for real estate photographs that sell.

DSLRs and mirrorless cameras perform much the same but work differently. You can find out more about the differences between DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras in this article

Compact cameras (don't confuse these with compact system cameras) tend to be smaller but are limited in what they can do. Also known as 'point and shoot' cameras, they aren't suited to real estate photography because they have a fixed lens and allow little or no control over exposure settings.

Some high performance or specialist compacts give you more control, but choose carefully while bearing in mind the information contained in this article. Basic point and shoot, compact, cameras won't give you enough control.

Why not use smartphones?

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. Let me explain why.

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, and you don't have the option to zoom in on décor details without losing image quality.

Worse, the lens is usually plastic and not designed for high-resolution images. Unlike lenses made with optical glass, plastic lenses scratch easily and, as they're hard to replace, a single scratch ruins the entire camera.

Smartphones don't cope well with high-contrast scenes, such as a dark room with a bright window. They also take quite small images that you cannot enlarge or edit easily.

Smartphone cameras just aren't good enough for serious real estate photography, though you could use one in an emergency.

Characteristics of a good camera for realtors

1. Inter-changeable lenses

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.

2. Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB)

Imagine a typical room with very bright highlights at the windows and dark shadow areas in the corners. The range of brightness is too large for any camera to capture everything in one photograph. The professional technique used to cope with this sort of problem is exposure merging, or HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography.

Automatic Exposure Bracketing is an important camera feature in HDR photography.

What is AEB for?

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 shutter speeds. Each photograph captures a different part of the lighting and, when combined in specialist software, the final image looks well-lit throughout.

You could take the different exposures manually, but AEB makes it easier and faster.

What cameras offer AEB?

Most modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have an AEB function. Some compact cameras do too, but the AEB capabilities of compacts are often insufficient.

What are the AEB features for real estate photography?

The least number of shots offered in AEB mode is three, but when you are working in a dark room with a bright window, you need at least five bracketed shots. Ideally you want to take seven or nine shots. Otherwise you might not be able to capture the full range of lighting levels in the room.

In addition to the number of shots in a bracketed set, cameras offer different EV (exposure value) spacings between shots. Some cameras allow you to choose between 1-stop and 2- stop EV gaps, while others are set at one or two giving no option to change the spacings. Some more advanced models allow you to choose from a wider range of settings.

For most high-contrast interior work, you need at least five shots in a sequence, spaced 2- stops apart, or nine shots spaced at one-stop intervals. It's not recommended to use a wider spacing than two-stops because this reduces the quality of the final images.

Which camera offers the right AEB settings?

When you are considering buying a camera for real estate photography, check this list of camera manufacturers and models that compares their AEB capabilities.

3. Continuous Shooting Mode

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.

4. Spot metering

Spot metering is a useful way of measuring how bright a part of the scene is before taking a picture.

Cameras normally average the light across the scene, so they can find the best exposure for the entire view, but spot metering allows you to also investigate the brightest and darkest areas. This ensures that you've captured the lighting extremes in the image.

5. Image Stabilisation

Image stabilisation makes hand-held photography possible in darker situations where slow shutter speeds would normally result in blurred images. It's a feature that's very useful for real estate interior shots.

When you hold a camera, your body is always moving slightly as you keep your balance and breathe in and out. This, in turn, makes the camera move. The combination of slow shutter speeds and movement causes 'motion blur' in images; something you really don't want.

With image stabilisation, tiny motors in the camera lens or body sense your body movement and compensate accordingly. This makes it easier to get sharp images in poor lighting. Note, though, that this is not a substitute for a good tripod.

6. You don't need built-in flash

Cameras at the amateur / starter end of the range often have a built-in flash gun, but you don't need this. The built-in flash units are never particularly powerful and certainly not bright enough to use for interior real estate work, so don't worry if you choose a model without it.

Takeaways: Camera for realtors

  • A DSLR or a mirrorless camera
  • Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB)
  • Takes at least 3 frames in two EV steps or 5 in one EV steps
  • Continuous shooting mode
  • Image stabilisation
  • Built-in flash isn't needed

Choosing a Lens for Real Estate Photography

One of the big challenges with real estate interiors is getting enough of the room into your shot. The standard 50mm lens that often comes with the camera as part of the package is rarely the right one for this type of photography.

You need a lens that can 'see' almost all the room, no matter how big or small it may be. Called a wide-angle lens, this is the ideal real estate photography lens.

Wide-angle Lens

Imagine looking forwards down a narrow tube. Your field of view is just a small area directly in front of you.

Now imagine looking down a broad open funnel. Your field of view is wider, and you can see things to your left and right as well as directly in front of you.

This illustrates the difference between a typical lens that comes with your camera and a wide-angle lens. A wide-angle lens gives a much wider field of view so you can get more of the room into your photograph.

The 'wideness' of the view is linked to the optical length of the lens, which is described in millimetres. In simple terms the smaller the value in mm, the wider the view.

For real estate interiors, a lens between 16mm and 30mm is usually fine, with 16mm giving a wider view than 30mm.

Anything wider than 16mm is a 'fish-eye' lens and can give a 180-degree view or more. However, lenses wider than 16mm distort the image and are not suitable for real estate work.

Check this interactive tool on Canon's website to see how the view changes with different lenses.

Prime or Zoom Lens?

Prime lenses have a fixed optical length, such as 16mm or 50mm. Zoom lenses have a rotating dial that changes the optical length. For example, a 16 to 35mm zoom can be set to any optical length between 16mm and 35mm.

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.

Lens Speed

Having selected a focal length for your lens, you need to decide on its speed - whether to buy a standard 'slow' lens or pay a little more for a 'fast' lens.

Here, slow and fast refer to the amount of light the lens lets in. The speed of the lens is shown by the f/number on the lens, with smaller numbers indicating faster lenses that let in more light.

Why a slow lens is good

Some photographers argue that you should use a slow lens. This is because higher f/numbers such as f/11 and f/16 give a good depth of field, so most of what's in front of the lens is in acceptably sharp focus.

The down side is that higher f/numbers also need longer shutter speeds that create a greater risk of blur caused by the camera moving during the shot.

When the camera is mounted on a solid tripod, slow shutter speeds don't matter so much. However, even a professional quality tripod can move occasionally.

But a fast lens is good too

By contrast, faster lenses let in more light, so they use faster shutter speeds. That reduces the risk of the camera moving during an exposure and causing blur.

However, the depth of field, what's in acceptably sharp focus, drops as the f/number becomes smaller. In theory that means that less of the room is in focus and, obviously, that's not a clever idea.

So, which lens should you buy?

Choosing a camera lens for real estate photography is often a compromise.

A lens rated at f/4 is not the world's fastest, but it's reasonably priced and lets in a good amount of light. It is also capable of rendering everything from three or four feet away to infinity in acceptably sharp focus.

If you can afford it, and you are likely to be doing a lot of shooting in dark interiors, go for a fast lens rated at f/2.8.

If you want a more reasonably priced lens, or you won't be working in really dim rooms, look for a wide-angle rated at f/4 instead.

Takeaways: Lens for real estate photography

  • A zoom lens is better than a prime lens for real estate
  • A focal length of 16mm to 24mm is a good start
  • Buy a fast lens if you can afford it
  • Don't buy a lens slower than f/4

Tripod

A tripod isn't essential as you can take photographs without one, but no serious real estate photographer is going to! It enables you to keep your camera totally still and level. You will certainly need it if the room is very dark or your camera doesn't have AEB capabilities.

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 for real estate agents, you tend to get what you pay for when buying a tripod. A professional, carbon-fibre tripod 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, but they will need more love and care to make them last.

So, what does a top of the range tripod look like? Take a look at the top two tripod manufacturers' websites, Gitzo and Manfrotto.

Features to look for when buying a tripod

Rubber Feet

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!

Solid Joints

The leg joints should be easy to loosen and tighten up again. Avoid anything overly complicated or fragile looking.

Sensible Weight

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, so you need to take more care of it. 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.

A Fixed or Interchangeable Tripod Head?

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.

What Sort of Head is Best?

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 don't need these for basic real estate interior work.

Takeaways: Tripod

  • Strong legs
  • Rubber feet
  • Easy to use leg joints
  • A ball head
  • Make sure it can support the weight of your camera and a lens

Using a Spirit Level

Real estate interior shots that show lopsided rooms, or rooms with vertical lines that seem to bend, 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. This distortion is called 'converging verticals'.

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' bubble level
  • Digital level

The 'traditional' bubble level

The traditional solution is to use a small Perspex block with two spirit-level bubbles, one for each axis. These cost almost nothing and clip into the flash hot-shoe on top of the camera.

Just adjust the camera until the spirit level shows that the camera is level. It's as simple as that.

Note that some tripods also have a spirit level. So, this is another feature you could look for when choosing your tripod.

Digital Level

Many modern digital cameras have an in-built level, displayed on the back screen. This ends the need for an actual spirit level. 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.

Of course, you can correct sloping rooms and converging verticals in post-production, but it's always better to avoid the problem in the first place.

Avoiding Camera Shake with a Remote Release

The purpose of a remote release is simply to trigger the camera without touching it. This is especially important when taking longer 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.

Choose the Right Type of Remote Release

You need a remote release designed to work with your camera. Different makes and models have different connections, so getting the right one is important. Check your camera manual for the sort of connection your camera has, or look it up on a reputable website.

A Basic or a High-Tech Version?

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.

Takeaways: Choosing a Remote Release

  • Check for the right connection for your camera
  • Make sure it's easy to use
  • Choose a long enough cable so you can stand away from the camera
  • A basic model is fine

Understanding Memory Cards

Memory cards are essential but choosing the right ones can be confusing. There are several types, makes, sizes and speeds. Your camera will probably take just one type of card, although some cameras, such as the canon 5DSr, can take two different card formats.

Generally, lower end cameras tend to use SD cards, whilst professional models tend to use larger Compact Flash (CF) cards.

What type of memory card should you use?

This varies from camera to camera. If you don't recognise the card type, the only sure way to know is to check your camera manual to find out.

Once you know the correct type, choose the right memory size.

What memory size?

Use a card large enough to hold all the images from a shoot. Swapping cards while you work is inconvenient and you risk losing one of the cards - and half your images!

Both 16Gb and 32Gb cards are popular choices for real estate shooting. They have enough space to record hundreds of photographs without the hefty price tag that goes with the larger 64Gb cards.

Memory speed

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 situations 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.

Takeaways: Memory cards

  • The right type of memory card to fit your camera
  • 16 to 32Gb or larger
  • Faster is better, but not essential

Other Useful Items for Real Photography

In addition to the important kit, there are a few extra things that you shouldn't be without.

A lens cloth

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 lens hood

This helps to cut flare (bright lights) 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.

Gaffer tape

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.

Summary

These are the five key considerations to bear in mind when you're preparing to take interior real estate photos:

  1. Use a DSLR or mirrorless camera.
  2. Use a sturdy tripod. Lightweight models are easier to carry, but tend to be more expensive.
  3. Use the AEB (auto exposure bracketing) function on your camera for a sequence of either 5 shots at 2-stop spacing or 9 shots at 1-stop spacing.
  4. Use a wide-angle lens. Something between 16mm and 30mm gives a good, wide view.
  5. A zoom lens helps with composition without having to move the tripod, and cuts down on equipment (as you only need one zoom lens compared to several prime lenses).