4 Easy Ways to Improve Your Real Estate Photography Compositions

Real estate photography is a relatively simple way to make money off your photography. That said, there are some very common compositional mistakes that I see lots of photographers making on a regular basis. Fixing these four things can greatly improve how your real estate photos show off a property!

Before diving into the tips, some background information is in order. My time overseeing the photography department for a large vacation rental company and subsequently freelance editing for that company has given me the unique opportunity to see an excessive number of real estate photographs. While I was working in-house, we edited over 30,000 images per month, and while I obviously didn't see all 30,000 photographs, I did see my fair share of those. The problems listed below are the issues that I see most frequently and also ones that can have the biggest negative impact on the images. 

One thing worth noting upfront is that real estate photography is a bit different than architectural photography, both in terms of its purpose and style. Architectural photography is to highlight architecture and design. Architects, interior designers, builders, and more look for architectural photographs to document their projects for use in portfolios or publications. They are most frequently used for very high-end properties. Because they are for portfolios and publications, the photographs are expected to be around for longer and thus are expected to be a bit more polished. They can be a little bit more creative than real estate photography for this reason as well.

Real estate photographs (and by extension vacation rental photographs), on the other hand, exist to serve one main purpose: to give potential buyers or renters a solid understanding of the home so that they are enticed to buy or rent. A key part of that is being able to see the layout and flow of the property. It is less about creativity and more about documentation. That is why how you compose your real estate photographs is so essential. If listing photographs are done well, it should almost feel like you are walking through the property when scrolling through images. Your images should also highlight the features and finishes of properties, which are at times dependent on how you compose your shot as well.

Tripod Height

In this example, the low tripod height on the left cuts out the ceiling fan, which is a big selling point for both real estate and vacation rentals. Raising the tripod to show that there is a ceiling fan is, therefore, a better decision. 

How does tripod height impact composition, and how, by extension, how you highlight a property? There are a few ways. First, as mentioned above, real estate images are intended to be more or less a walkthrough in still image form. To aid in that, the tripod height should feel natural. If the tripod is too high or low, the images can feel really awkward and can turn people off.

Second, and more importantly, having your tripod too high or too low can cut off important features that need to be shown. This is where it is really about finding a happy medium. If your tripod is too close to the ground, you may cut off ceiling fans, recessed lighting, high ceilings, or any other features that may be towards the top of the room. Low camera height in kitchens or bathrooms can also be a very negative thing, as it will keep the surface of the counters from being visible, and countertops are generally a big deal. But, if the tripod is too tall, the floors may get cut off, not allowing potential buyers or renters to see that very important feature. Extremely high tripod height can also make the space look a lot smaller than it actually is, which is definitely not a good thing.

Having the tripod too low in the kitchen can result in just the edge of the counter being shown. The surface of the countertop should be visible as it is an important selling point.

There isn't necessarily one height that works for every property or even every room within one property, so it is something that you need to adjust as you go. Generally speaking, between four and five feet is best. Kitchens and bathrooms will benefit from the slightly higher end of that spectrum, while bedrooms and living rooms will be on the lower end. The key is looking at your images while you shoot and adjusting if you are cropping out or hiding important elements. 

Shoot Level

The downward angle here cuts off the ceiling fan, which again, results in missing an opportunity to show an important feature. 

In the same vein as tripod height, another common mistake that I see is photographers tilting their camera down or up, resulting in converging vertical lines (as in the example above on the left). A downward angle is the more common issue of the two angle problems, and the result is much like having your tripod too high. Important features on the ceiling get cropped out, which then misses an opportunity to show potential buyers or renters why they should choose this particular property.

Another reason converging lines should be avoided is that they can create distortion, which isn't good for selling a property. While you can correct perspective in editing, if you are making too drastic a correction, the distortion will get extremely bad, throwing off the scale of things and just looking all-around strange. You will also need to crop significant portions of the image out, as seen below, if you correct harsh downward (or upward) angles. Parallel vertical lines just look much more polished and professional, which is never a bad thing, so just shoot with your camera completely level. Most cameras these days have a built-in level when using live-view, which is extremely handy. You can also use the level on your tripod or get a level to go on the hot shoe of your camera. 

When perspective issues are corrected in editing it can result in severe distortion as well as significant cropping.

Shoot From Corners

While shooting straight-on creates nice lines, it fails to show that there is a doorway leading through to another room (and then the hall) behind the fridge.

One common style in more high-end architectural photography is straight-on angles. While those images can look very nice and serve their own purpose, overusing straight-on angles in real estate or vacation rental images is not beneficial. As mentioned at the start of this article, one of the main reasons for real estate images is to make a buyer or renter feel like they are walking through the property. Being able to see that there is a bathroom off of a bedroom, or that the kitchen is open to the living room, and so on, is extremely important. Home layouts can be deal-breakers for people, and if the layout isn't shown well in the listing photographs, they may not even take the time to look further. When only shooting squared up to walls you miss the opportunity to show the full layout of the home or will at the very least need to take more images to do so. We have limited time to capture the attention of viewers, so getting more information in fewer images is important. 

Shooting straight-on in this instance hides both the air conditioner and ceiling fan.

Don't Block the View

Perhaps the most common mistake I see in all of the real estate images I come across is using all sorts of objects to frame the shot. While in other types of photography, framing your composition with something on the edge can create a visually pleasing image, in real estate photography it just gets in the way. There are three main categories of this that I see on a regular basis: doorways, lamps, and miscellaneous objects.

Doorways

The door frame on the right of the left image takes up nearly a third of the composition without adding anything useful.

Doorways framing the image is probably the number one culprit. Often, this is a result of someone not having a wide enough focal length or an attempt to problem-solve photographing a very small room. The issue is, framing the room with a doorway is going to make the room seem even smaller. Also, as mentioned above, we have a limited time to grab the attention of viewers; if a door frame takes up a third of an image, you will need more images to cover the same information, which may result in people checking out before viewing everything. Simply make sure that you are stepping just past the threshold of a room so that the door frame isn't in the image, but you are still capturing as much space as possible.

Lamps

Sticking the camera right next to a lamp is another all too common issue. This does nothing but block the view of the room, leaving the potential buyer with a significant portion of an image showing lampshade, which doesn't tell them anything about the property. Instead, step away from the lamps and let the room do the talking. Let buyers or travelers see what the room is like as opposed to hiding it behind a lamp.

Miscellaneous Objects

In this instance, framing with the bookshelf on the left-hand side prevents us from seeing that the entrance to the house is there, which is an important thing to show. 

Miscellaneous objects act essentially the same as lamps (and doorways), but I thought it was worth pointing out. Often, I see bookshelves, pillows, or other random objects used to frame the scene. Instead of creating a pleasing composition, however, they take away valuable real estate (no pun intended) that could be showing the room, layout, and features that people may want to see. In both of these examples, key aspects of the layout of the home are hidden by objects on the edge of the frame. By stepping forward just slightly or moving the camera in a bit of a different direction, the composition drastically improves and travelers are able to get a much better understanding of the home. Instead of having a large part of the image taken up by insignificant information, I am adding information that matters.

By moving the camera over to the left, I am able to show more of the room and layout of the home, and less of the unimportant wall and pillow.

In Summary

At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember with real estate photography is what the purpose of the images is: showing potential buyers or renters what a home is all about. If you take photographs with that purpose in mind, it will likely help you create much more successful images that will therefore make the sale or rental of the property much more successful as well. And if you are looking to create vastly creative images, real estate photography probably isn't for you. 

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10 Comments

Sébastien Tarnowski's picture

Thanx for the tips!

M C's picture

How may of us have looked at real estate photos where there are clothes, toys, open closet doors with clothes in disarray, cluttered kitchen counters etc visible? It amazes me how many homes are never staged before shooting. That to me is the biggest turnoff when viewing homes for sale.

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

Oh definitely agree with you! And as a photographer, it is extremely frustrating to show up to a property and find it like that. Luckily, in the vacation rental world that doesn't happen as much!

Raul Dederichs's picture

I'd maybe add turning off the ceiling fans for the photos, I know some think it adds motion, I'd say it just adds blur...

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

I agree with you! 99% of the time I turn them off, though I did leave the living room fans on for this property. Toilet seats left up is another one that drives me crazy, ha!

Mark F's picture

I’m in the opposite camp. I realize they may be a selling point, functionally, but I think ceiling fans are eyesores. In all the pictures with static fans they seem to dominate the room. It’s always the first thing I notice in the image. At least with it moving, it’s less a dominating focal of the room while still being recognized as a feature of the room.

Ken Hilts's picture

Great article - thank you.

Josh Corrigan's picture

Great article! Some really good tips in here. As a full time professional real estate photographer, I would differ a bit in a few areas, primarily on the subject of the purpose/function of the photos. Depending on your market, one point perspectives, vignettes and otherwise more "architectural" photos, can help you stand out as a photographer, broker or property manager. If we can help foster an emotional connection with a potential buyer/renter by creating a story about a property, we find we can bring more attention (and better prices!) to a listing. Sometimes, "documentary" photos, while important, can get lost in the mix of all the other real estate listings. In fact, we think there is something to the idea that if you document the property too well, you may lose the opportunity for the potential buyer/renter to inquire further. After all, if they feel like they have the whole layout of the home, why would they need to schedule a showing right away? All this premised on the idea that people make emotional choices when thinking about their home buying and vacationing- especially in the first stage of the buying process. Your strategy should be market specific and depend on a photographer's target market segment. Thanks for the great article!

Abby Ferguson, MFA's picture

Thank you for such an in-depth comment! I definitely agree that the strategy should be market-specific. Certain homes just call for different approaches as well. My perspective comes primarily from the vacation rental world, where getting an understanding of the house is extremely important since you aren't going to get a showing before renting it. While vacationers obviously don't have to live with the layout of a house or other features for the long term, certain things are extremely important to show in the photos or travelers simply won't book. At the company I work for, we found that if things aren't shown in photographs people assume they aren't actually there and generally won't take the time to inquire about them. Within reason, the more you can show in photos for vacation rentals the better! I can see how that isn't necessarily the case for real estate specific images, however!

Spike Hodge's picture

Great article - thank you.