How to Shoot and Edit Natural Looking Holiday Home Photos

How to Shoot and Edit Natural Looking Holiday Home Photos

Real estate photography, while not the sexiest of photography genres, is quite accessible and a handy way to earn some cash, especially if your starting out. Many interior design and architectural photographers cut their teeth taking photos for estate agents and holiday home companies, but much of the high volume stuff looks way too flashy. In this article I'll show you a relatively easy way to get natural looking light without blown-out windows.


I don't use much gear for these jobs. I started with a Canon T6i and a relatively cheap wide-angle lens, the Canon's EF-S 10-18mm. This "enthusiast" DSLR and plastic, non-L-series lens made me enough money to pay for themselves and an upgrade to a Canon 6D plus Canon's 16-35mm f/2.8. I have two Yongnuo YN-565EX speedlights with Hahnel triggers, and a Manfrotto tripod with their junior geared head.

One of the most important requirements for interiors, or any architectural work for that matter, is to get your verticals perfectly straight. The geared head saves so much time in the field and at the computer because it's able to make micro-adjustments. Before I purchased the geared head I was just using a ball head, and let me tell you, upgrading to the geared head made a huge improvement to my leveling accuracy and really sped up my workflow, both on site and in Photoshop. Oh, and I nearly forgot: a trigger release. This is very important when you're bracketing. Any little movement of the camera when taking multiple exposures will cost you time (and money), so get one. They're super cheap and also very useful for landscapes.

Create mood by taking advantage of natural light.


For real estate, it's best to include as much information about a room as possible (e.g., lighting fixtures, power sockets, and adjacent rooms via doorways) but holiday homes can be a little more idealistic. It's up to the client how much they want to include. As a rule of thumb, 24mm is the ideal focal length (naturally, because I started with a cropped sensor and a wide-angle EF-S lens, I shot at the equivalent focal length of around 15mm). Anything wider and everything starts to become distorted. Some estate agents might ask you to make a room look bigger, so in this instance I might go as wide as 18-20mm. I would try to convince the agent to let me stay around the 24mm mark, but how you approach this is up to you. Personally, I don't like having my name attached to images that are obviously shot at super wide angles, which distort the truth as well as the room. Depth of field will differ depending on what's in the frame. If I want my room sharp front to back, but the view a bit soft, I'll go around f/5.6–f/6.3. For pretty window views I'll stop down to f/7.1–f/11. All the time I'm focusing on either the center of the room, or the most prominent feature.

I start off by exposing for the outside (if I'm angled towards a window), then I'll take four more brackets, increasing the exposure by one stop each time, just to get as much information as possible. If there is some crazy dynamic range going on, I'll keep going. Most of the time I don't need the extra shots, but I like to cover myself in case something goes wrong (note: things will go wrong). I'll then decrease the exposure, once again exposing for the outside, but this time I'll pop a flash or two. If it's a small room with a white ceiling, great, I can just fire off a frame while pointing the flash, with my free hand, straight up to be bounced off the ceiling (BOC). If I'm feeling a little saucy, I'll try and get more directionality by moving to either camera left (CL) or camera right (CR). Remember, this is easily achieved with the wired trigger release, and it's often necessary to avoid reflections. When the ceiling is a funky color, I'll use a white umbrella instead of BOC, because one of the most awkward things to do in post is remove weird color casts. This can also add some nice directionality. Word to the wise: if it's a sunny day and there are loads of green trees and grass outside the window, take some exposures with the curtains closed. Trust me, you don't want be removing blotchy green from a cream yellow wall in Photoshop. I found that out the hard way.

One flash pop and an ambient exposure combined in Photoshop.

If the room is quite big, I'll set up a speedlight on a stand in another corner of the room, also BOC, but either CR or CL depending on where I'm positioned, and set it to slave mode. When the room is bigger again, I'll need to position a speedlight at the opposite end of the room. A lot of the time this speedlight will be in the frame, but I can mask it out later in Photoshop because I've taken so many exposures. One of the most important things for me is to get a decent exposure of the window frame with the flash, because if all else fails you can just mask in a nice view without having dark and dirty window frames.


After I import all of my raw files into Lightroom, I'll one-star all the shots that I think I'll need. Then I'll go through each angle and balance the color temperature between the flash frames and the regular exposures. I open all the files for a particular angle as smart objects in Photoshop because if I need to tweak the color balance or exposure, this way is non-destructive and I can go back an forth without worrying. I'll blend the properly exposed window frame with some natural light, and If I've done a good job at complementing the ambient light with my speedlights I can just use the brighter ambient frames to mask out any nasty, hard shadows caused by the speedlights. When everything is blended together, as needs be, I'll brighten up certain areas by adding a curves adjustment layer and masking it in where needed. Then all I do is add some contrast, make sure there are no weird color casts, and make sure all my verticals are straight by using the transform tool and "skew." When I roundtrip back to Lightroom, I usually add sharpening and a touch of clarity before exporting.


If you want to earn some money with these skills or are looking for experience in architectural photography, then real estate is the place to start. The methods I've outlined above might be more than is needed for a lot of real estate jobs. You could just go the HDR route for quick and painless edits, but the results are not as natural looking. If you want to learn more about this type of photography then I would strongly suggest investing in Mike Kelley's fantastic "Where Art Meets Architecture" series. I have purchased the first two and they have paid for themselves multiple times over.

Do you shoot real estate? How would you do things differently? Feel free to tell us in the comments below.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Mike is a landscape and commercial photographer from, Co. Kerry, Ireland. In his photographic work, Mike tries to avoid conveying his sense of existential dread, while at the same time writing about his sense of existential dread. The last time he was in New York he was mugged, and he insists on telling that to every person he meets.

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I shoot real estate in NYC and I'm using a 16-35 f/4 and pretty much always staying at 16mm with my FX sensor because inside your average NYC apartment, shooting at 24mm from one corner pretty much means all you'll get in the frame is half of a bed and a wall. :P

I've been seriously thinking of getting Sigma's 12-24 because even 16mm is not wide enough for a good number of the rooms that I shoot.

It's nice to have that little bit of wiggle room. Just try not to have anything too close to the camera, or else e.g. you'll end up with a giant vase at the edge of your frame and a tiny armchair in the far corner of the room! :)

Yeah.. I learned that the hard way early on. :P

just use DxO Viewpoint to correct that... ;-)

I had the v1 version of the Sigma 12-24 and it made me a ton of money. Sure you need to be careful but so what? Either the picture looks good or it doesn't. Practice lets you master it and learn the limits.
I now use a Canon 11-24 and it has been a gigantic benefit. It is super sharp. Keep it level and your lines are straight.
It will get you shots that border on magical in the AOV. Use it poorly and you will look a fool.

My first tripod had a 3-way pan/tilt head. When I replaced it, I was looking for tripod/head combos that had a 3-way pan/tilt head; by that time, I haven't tried a ball head, but it looks like mounting a camera on a joystick. The gearing of the head provides more precise control, but for me, a pan/tilt works well for me.

Ball heads are great for landscape. They're compact, and if you're photographing, for instance, high energy waves or something rather unpredictable, they're quick and easy to recompose with. However, for precision work, they suck. Pan-tilt heads are also a good option for precision jobs, and tend to be much cheaper than geared heads.

I could rent a tripod with a ball head to see how it works, but when I needed a replacement, I stuck with familiarity. I've used my pan/till for landscapes, panoramas, and the recent solar eclipse. I had a year long project where I photographed the full moons and for that I used my pan/tilt head.
The tilt of the pan/tilt may have a limitation of how far upward it can go, but a journalism photographer suggested that I mount the lens "backward" on the tripod where the tilt handle is under the lens.

At the end of the day, we have to work with what we've got. You could pour endless amounts of cash into this hobby/craft and still yearn for more gear.

Yea, that's why I rented a Caon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L lens twice; the I and the II version for The Masters (first time, practice round was cancelled). I also rented an EF 300 f4L for the solar eclipse. Renting is great!

Good tips, but seem like it is a time consuming post process, do you really get that good paid for real estate photography in the US?

When I did Real Estate in Norway I had to do 4-5 estates a day, never less than 15 images for anything with more than 3-4 rooms...
Ending up culling 500-1000 or more images a day, and the result must be delivered the day after... editing 100-150 images every day...
Only way to manage that was using a combination of Fotostation Pro and DxO Optics Pro with Viewpoint... the less I needed to use PS, better it was...
Lightroom and Photoshop could never compete with either speed nor quality of the result.

And I quickly learned that hiding the flashes so that I didn't need to remove then post was alfa & omega for a fast workflow...

I burned flashes as if they was wood in a camp fire...
I switched from Sigma flashes back to Nikon flashes after I burned my 5th Sigma flash in less than 2 month...

I live in Ireland, and no the money is not good, but if you want to shoot higher end stuff (interior design or architectural) and charge the big bucks, this is the best place to start. The post is aimed more at people who want an in to this genera or people who are looking to start earning money with their camera.

In Norway where I live, Real Estate Agents doesn't understand things like that... so here its all about fixing as much as possible before post process... just because of time... the money is less than good...

But for high end architectural/High End Real Estate, where the client just want the best possible result, this tips are gold...

Used many of them myself "back in the days", except I always hide my flashes... and often added some of the interior light and candle lights when ever possible for a "moody feel"...
Even had one client that saw one of my B/W photos and wanted a real estate job all in B/W... it took him less than an hour to sell the house he told me... but the big bosses didn't like the idea... hahaha

Black and white Real Estate?! Haha! That's a new one to me. Pretty impressive of the estate agent to recognize your skill and it's potential value to his business.

Yes, the blending in PS is tedious, but there is so little opportunity in real estate photography in Ireland at the moment. We're going through a housing crisis so houses are not on the market for very long, and agents don't need photos, they just use their phones! That's why I'm mostly doing holiday homes for now. I want to put in the extra work in the hope that my work will be noticed by potential higher-end clients. I also brush in some warm glow from interior lights, if I'm feeling generous :)

It really depends on your market. For architectural gigs, you generally have a lot more time and the pay is better, but for practical real estate gigs, unless they're working really high end, most people around me are making between $100-$150 a job and a real estate agent will probably crap all over you if you are standing there setting up multiple flashes or fiddling with a tilt/shift lens while the homeowner is standing behind you and wondering why the entire affair is taking more than 15-30 minutes for the entire property.

If I get to set up lights or spend more than 30 minutes at a property, it's a rare treat. LOL!

Just for some context, it's not uncommon in my area to see a $3,000,000 home for sale with only a few iPhone pictures for the listing either (and the houses still have no problem selling). I imagine that things might be different in a market that requires real estate agents to actually do some work to get homes sold.

Same here. I shoot 1-4 houses/appartments a day depending on the season and I would never have time to open/close curtains, move around flashes, pull out umbrellas etc. I also sketch the floorplan. I would spend the entire day in each home working like that :P

Nope, no different anywhere. R.E. shooting is only good to get your chops up so you can pursue some better paying clients.

Same as in Norway...
But when I got some exclusive clients I got a more decent payment of 250-300 each, still managing to get 4-5 a day, 5 days a week... but then the crack come and the competition come with large companies selling their photographic services for nothing, just to force everyone out of business...
With them having their editing services in low cost countries, it was not possible to compete in price anymore...

Great article but that's a lot of time for a house listing, it seems. I allocate an hour to shoot a hour of 2,500 SF and 45 minutes of total post including combining exposures when necessary for 25-30 final deliverables to the client, or it just doesn't pay out for me. I do confess that I fly through the post processing because I've done it so much and I have shortcut keystrokes built into everything. I have a FF but more often use a crop sensor for RE because at even 4.5 with such a short focal length your entire room will be in focus. Thanks for sharing your process.

Thanks, Paul! I will concede that it's overkill for regular real-estate, but like I said in one of my comments above, the market is very small at the moment here in Ireland and I'm trying to stand out to prospective high-end clients. No bites yet. but I'm getting plenty of work from holiday home companies, who require more than just some run and gun shooting. My PS workflow could definitely do with some speeding up, though, so I think I'll take your lead and start assigning some shortcuts :)

Geared head? Overkill for RE, in my opinion. Correcting verticals in Lightroom is a one click job. Or, if you are really anal about it, use the guided corrections by drawing lines along the lines that should be straight.

When I'm backed right into a corner, the geared head is invaluable. And some clients are very particular about verticals. Lightroom doesn't always get the job done. In fact, it rarely gets every vertical straight, in my experience, unless I've used a geared head, but even then it's hit or miss. I like to get as much done in camera as possible. If you think I'm being anal about it, have you ever shot interior work for 500px?

I shoot interiors for realtors, decorators and holiday rental businesses. 500px? Who are they in the bigger scheme of commercial realty photographer's lives?

I don't believe that you can't get it right with Lightroom. It works.

Maybe I'm doing it wrong? I dunno. Who are 500px? In the grand scheme of things, I've only been in business for 9 months, the housing marking in Ireland is very bad at the moment, and I'm taking jobs where I can get them. 500px pays, and they required perfectly straight verticals. If you read some of my above responses, I mention that I'm putting in extra work to try and land high-end clients.

I don't believe 500px are going to bring you any business for RE photography. Your clients (realtors, investment letters, etc) are very unlikely to be looking for photographers on that platform. You will need to contact them directly and offer them a good price/service.

High end clients will require a similar approach. But maybe you need to investigate the monetary value of that market before you waste a lot of time and effort chasing after it? Your top end clients will be dealing with advertising agencies, not photographers. So, your client will be an agency and they will probably already have a panel of creatives that they use. The chances of them being on the lookout (specifically on a site like 500px) for a commercial property photographer is pretty slim I reckon. You should pitch yourself to them directly.

500px pay photographers for interior shoots. The photos are for Trivago. So yes, I do get real estate work directly from 500px. The money is not great, but beggars can’t be choosers.

I am working on building a portfolio of “nicer” interiors. But I find it difficult to find clients who are willing to pay full price. They seem to think they’re taking a chance with me. I have approached interior designers directly (especially those who I feel could do with better imagery). I have never even considered an agency, I’ll definitely try to get in front of a few, now that you say it. I get what you’re saying about investing my time in something where the market might not be able to support my. I’m branching out into different genres to see if there’s a market. Nobody knew me before last March so I’m doing okay for myself, really.

I will take on board what you said, though. I’ll have to be mindful and know when to cut my losses.

Another fairly lucrative market for property images is the travel industry. Here in Africa there are hundreds and hundreds (actually probably thousands) of lodges who rely on stunning photography of their establishments. Most of them are owner run, so it is generally easier to deal with them than it is to deal with corporates (like hotel chains who will use ad agencies).

In my experience there are good agencies and bad agencies when it comes to photography. The good ones are hard to find and most of the time you will find yourself dealing with agencies where they are all about cutting your price to the bone. The main reason for this is because there are simply so many talented photographers out there. Like everything in the commercial world, pricing is a matter of supply and demand. Over supply results in lower prices and since the agency exists to make a profit they will go for the cheapest capable suppliers they can find.

I do wish you good luck in your endeavours though. If you are determined enough, nothing will stop you.

Thankfully, I am getting more confident in charging my worth. It’s a tough one starting out. Thanks for you’re comments and kind wishes.

My issue would be how many real estate jobs it would take to pay off that geared head... One of the major reasons I'm still using a ball head. :/

Hi, new here, just came across the article and have too much time on my hands....sorry for the long post....I have 17 plus years shooting all kinds of RE/architecture and thought I would share....

The market for different types of photography differs hugely. Some countries have not taken to real estate photography so it is unlikely you could base a career around it, however the housing market is such in Australia that many photographers make a very good living from shooting RE. The very busy guys send their images off to processors and sometimes the time zones can work out very nicely. For instance at the end of your work day you can send off the images to a processor in Pakistan and when you wake up in the morning they are ready for you....

I like your ambient/flash mixture, it is similar to the way I shoot RE/architecture. However there is no way I could get away with shooting at 24mm for 90% of the interior shots for the my clients.
In another life I spent 15 years shooting high end (and low end.....) RE/commercial in the super competitive Sydney market. When I started there in 2000 there was still a mix of film and this new fangled digital gomajiggy...

Now I've moved to a small town in the country and things are much slower and the agents/property owners not quiet as demanding. Generally I shoot a couple of ambients and flash and then layer them up ambient/flash/ambient. Same as you I can then fill in the windows and then remove any harsh flash marks. I don't bother with a stand for the flash - way to cumbersome for me, I generally set the flash on the floor behind the counter (kitchen) or on top of cupboards etc. I use those little feet the flash come with. I also carry a strip of Velcro to hang it some awkward places.... a ball of prestick/blutack also comes in handy.....
Tripods, I use manfrotto 055 Pro series (same tripods now for over 10 years, good stuff), with manfrotto joysticks. I have a couple of versions. The joystick is superfast to use and for me easily (by far) the best solution. I've tried ball heads (nightmare), three way head (agonisingly slow), never tried a geared head but that seems like over kill and slow.

Flash wise, I carry 3, one Nikon SB900, two Yongnuo yn560 IV's and a combination of the Yongnuo YN560-TX and YN622N (for the Nikon). The Yongnuo's are cheap and do the job.

As I'm in the country (4 hours from Sydney in the sticks) there is a stack of rural farms that I get to shoot. Some over 2000 acres but most around the 100-200 acre size and it is becoming increasingly necessary to use use a drone for aerial shots as well.

I take my time over a shoot, most times here I get the keys or the owner will leave the door open or meet me. A normal 4 bedroom house in town will take me 45 minutes to shoot, I could do it faster but I'm in a relatively small town (pop10 000) so you need to get everything right. Rural properties naturally take longer, the house plus walking around the immediate area/paddocks etc and sometimes even a drive to the other end, contending with gates/cattle/sheep, browns snakes etc;).
Add in the drone (10-20 mins) and you can see some shoots are easily 2 hours.

I also do floor plans but unlike Sydney where nearly every shoot had a floor plan attached here I only do a couple a month.

I've been using Nikon FX (and loving it!) for the past 3 years after using Canon gear since 1990....

I've never really been that enthralled with Lightroom, I use PS/Camera RAW exclusively and sometimes use "Authentech Perfectly clear" for exterior shots. Using the shortcuts and planning your own keyboards shortcuts for PS can save a stack of time. Also with your own presets in camera raw you can batch process similar images.

I generally supply as many photo's as I think is necessary to cover the job. Exteriors take very processing time so I'm fairly generous with them.

One thing I haven't covered is the presentation of the property but that is another whole story.......

My advice for anyone thinking of doing RE is to take it slowly, do an excellent job (on the job and at your computer), over deliver (charge for 10 photo's, give them 12-15), be on time every time and you will pick up more business.
Most bodies are adequate for RE, spend money on the lenses, APSC or full frame is fine.
If you read all of this...thanks for your time.

Thanks for this great insight into your RE work, Derek. The way I work, it usually takes about 2 hours per house. This might sound like overkill but most of work is for holiday home companies, so I want the shots to look better than regular RE. This has actually gotten me extra work from those who have noticed that my photos were better than others on the same site. You’re the second person to say that the geared head is slow, but I really have to disagree. I can get it almost perfectly level, with very little effort, even when it’s backed into a corner. I haven't tried a joystick, but I will try to rent one now that you mention it.

I’m not saying that people need a geared head. I use it because I earned the money to buy it from RE work, and it has sped up my workflow. And like you say, you don’t need a full frame, but with higher dynamic range they do come in handy later on. At the end of the day, gear just makes work easier, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll take better photos, that comes with practice and experience in a variety of different environments.

Absolutely Mike, you've got to work with what is comfortable for you. I used the older style Manfrotto 222 joystick for over 10 years and more recently have been using the 322RC2 with you can use as a joystick or on it's side if you are working with a really heavy lens etc. The 322RC2 seems to be better built and also has a built in level - I had to repair the 222 a few times over the years.