The past four months I've been staying in many Airbnbs and hotels while traveling through Portugal, Costa Rica, and Panama. What I noticed while looking for accommodations were the often unprofessional photos those places use for their listings. Some were so bad that I directly skipped to the next listing, not even looking at the reviews. And it's so easy to create better real estate photos, even just using a cell phone, which I'll show in this article.
Now, I'm not saying you should head to a professional real estate photoshoot with just your cell phone. I use it here for simplicity and to show that equipment is often not the limiting factor. More important are the right preparation, proper light, a good eye, and some compositional considerations.
I also prefer the cell phone for this type of photography, because the reason I currently capture real estate photos is to document the places I stay for my travel blog. This means that when I arrive at a place, tired from my travels, I don't have hours to walk around with my tripod and the Canon R5 documenting it. I usually take those photos in less than 10 minutes before I unpack my bags. Take this into consideration when you look at the photos in this article — aside from some minor color, contrast, and perspective corrections they are straight out of my Google Pixel 5. I will also point out what worked in the photos and what I could have done better. Mistakes are after all a great way to learn, if identified.
Ingredients for a Solid Interior Photo
The photo above, for example, shows the porch of one of the places I stayed in Costa Rica. I instantly loved this area because it's very open, it's bathed in nice soft light, there is a hammock in the background and most importantly a lot of greenery and vegetation close by. As a consequence, I wanted to show a lot of this in the photo.
Now, ideally, I would have closed the doors in the background and shot a darker exposure for the white patch of sky. The first fix would have been easy if I had taken just a bit more time and properly prepared the shoot. And this is in general something you should do in real estate photography. Before starting to take your photos, do a full tour of the place you want to photograph, and make the adjustments you have to make right away, so when you later walk into the different rooms with your camera you can focus solely on photography.
And about the sky: Well, I didn't want to involve a tripod in my cell phone photography but bracketing your photos is certainly something you should do for a more professional result.
Now, let's contrast this photo with another interior photo I took some years ago in Vietnam, back then using professional gear as I was on commission. Although the second photo looks more professional because of the way the room was prepared and lit for the shoot as well as due to the post-production applied, there are similarities. And identifying those will give you the right tools to create solid real estate and interior photos.
It might be a bit of a cliché, but in my opinion interior photos and also many exterior real estate photos look better when taken with a wide angle lens. While in other types of photography I regularly use normal and longer focal lengths to compress a scene for more interest, with real estate photography my goal is to create space and give the elements in the photo room to breathe. And with a wide angle lens like the Canon RF 15-35 f/2.8 I can do just that. There's certainly also a place for detail photos taken at longer focal lengths, but you lay the proper foundation for those in your series by going wide first.
The great thing is that even with most modern cell phones it's possible to achieve this sense of space, because they often include a wide angle lens. The widest my Google Pixel 5 can go, for example, is 15mm.
With the photo above I also want to directly point out a flaw, which could have easily been fixed before taking the photo. I should have taken a minute to remove some of the wrinkles from the pillows in the bed as well as flatten the little carpet next to the bed. But as I wrote above, those shoots happen quickly and I was tired after a long drive. So for a professional shoot, you certainly want to be rested.
What you'll also notice in the photo above is that it was not taken from eye level. It usually helps for interior photos to choose a perspective somewhere between waist and chest height to create a good balance between floor and ceiling in your photos. But make sure to avoid the worm's-eye view. You still want to see the top of the furniture in the frame.
Stay True to the Place
Sometimes I would like to go even wider than 15mm, but care has to be taken. While I want the places I photograph to look large, I don't want to create photos that are completely removed from reality. This is a problem I sometimes see with hotel photos, where the photographer went a bit too far to make a 10sqm room look like a loft.
Finding the sweet spot is important and for me, it's mostly somewhere between 15mm and 18mm. For some rooms, 14mm or even 12mm would be nice to have to avoid cutting of furniture as you see in the photo below. But as I said in the beginning, equipment is usually not the limiting factor. Sometimes it can even further your creativity, if you have to work within certain limitations. You will be forced to find different perspectives, which you can make work with your equipment and this can lead to more interesting photos.
And if cutting of furniture is required, do so intentionally and avoid the few pixel cut. If you cut properly, you can give the viewer the impression of standing in the room instead of outside looking in.
There's one thing that will make most architecture photos look unprofessional and that's keystoning. While there are exceptions where it can be used to create very dynamic perspectives and give the photos a more artistic look, there's no place for perspective distortion in professional real estate photography in my opinion. So, to create professional-looking photos make sure to either avoid or correct those.
My main camera has a level meter, so I use this to prevent perspective distortions. On my cell phone, I use the edges of the frame as well as a 3x3 grid to guide me while composing my photos, ensuring that the lines created by walls, windows, doors and furniture are straight. In the feature video I show you how I do this.
Occasionally the perspective I want to photograph doesn't allow me to get everything distortion-free in camera though. If I manage to keep the distortions minimal, there is usually no problem to correct them in post-production.
As a little side note: There are lenses that give you more flexibility in the perspectives you can create when shooting architecture and real estate photography. And those are Tilt-Shift lenses as, for example, the Canon TS-e 17mm. The shift mechanism of those lenses can be used to change the perspective while keeping the camera straight and thus the image free of perspective distortions.
Use the Right Light
Light is a great tool for real estate photographers and I like to use natural light for my shoots or, if I use artificial light, I work with the available light installations to keep it realistic. You can also do light painting to take it to the next level. But that depends on the type of shoot you are doing.
For the examples taken with the cell phone, where I wanted to keep it simple, this wasn't an option. Instead, I tried to wait for proper natural light as much as I could despite my sometimes tight travel schedule. As a rule of thumb, early morning or late afternoon light usually provides the most flattering conditions, if the goal is to create an inviting atmosphere. For a clean, minimalist look you might not want the directional light though and an overcast sky could provide the proper softbox for your shoot.
But once you know what your style is, you should time your shoots accordingly, which is what I did for the following photo. In such lighting situations, you can often see the technical limits of a cell phone because of the huge dynamic range. The Google Pixel uses some HDR algorithm in their camera app, which does quite a decent job though.
Prepare the Space
Remember the photo above where I didn't remove the wrinkles from the pillows and the carpet. Those tiny things make a difference and they often take just a few minutes to fix. If you have read my article on retouching, you know that this falls under the category of the things you can do to either avoid retouching at all or at least make it easier.
In the photo of the kitchen below, I made sure to properly prepare the counters and arrange the items so it doesn't look too cramped. This didn't take long and makes the photo more balanced. For some properties, you might even want to rearrange some furniture like chairs to properly position them in your frame. But if you are on commission make sure to double-check with the owner or real estate agent first. It's possible that they want the furniture arranged a certain way and hence this is how you have to photograph it.
In the feature video of the article, I show you how I completed the shoot for this apartment. It's a walk-through of the points I mentioned above.
Mix it Up
By mixing it up I mean two things. First, you should get a good mix of perspectives, showing the rooms you photograph from different angles. You can also move closer into the rooms for certain photos, while photographing from the doorway for others. While you are on location make every minute count and don't shy away from taking many photos, of which you might only be using a small selection in the end.
In addition to getting different perspectives, I usually also mix in some vertical frames. Most of the photos I take with a horizontal orientation, but since I like to do little collages of my real estate photos for my blog, it's good to also include vertical photos. Depending on the shoot this might even be something you have to do. Just think of a shoot for a magazine, where they certainly need some variety for their layout and maybe even a cover. And yes, editorial photos should better be taken with a proper camera using a tripod. For my travel articles though the cell phone is sufficient.