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10 Things I’ve Learned Photographing Luxury Real Estate

An Essential List for the Serious Luxury Real Estate Photographer

“When photographing a large project, take a point and shoot of mirrorless system and create images from different points of view and elevations. Then create a proof sheet to use as a story board for the client.”

1. Ask lots of Questions. Communication is key: Short Story: Recently I photographed a large luxury commercial architectural project. My out of state client, wanted it done on the spur of the moment. Even though we discussed doing it weeks earlier. However, it was rushed to bring to market. The photography was rock solid and I followed the architect’s directions to the nth degree. But, when the project was finished the client who was not the architect did not have the images that they needed for marketing. Moral of the Story: When going into a large project, take a small camera and create possible images from different points of view. Then create a proof sheet or story board for the client. This way you can both agree upon what needs to be captured and what angles and elevations. In the end the client agreed that I did exactly as directed. And I went back for a 2nd shoot at a reduced price and worked off of the story board to create precisely what my client needed.
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2. Super Wide: I’ve recently come across some realtors who like to see their luxury real estate listings shot super wide. Even though I’m using my Canon 16mm-35mm 2.8 L for allot of my super wide stuff it just not wide enough for them. What’s a guy to do? The fix is using a Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM Lens. I don’t own one, so rent it from Samy’s. Its an expensive lens at $2250. What’s super cool about the lens is that it offers 114 degrees of view with little to no distortion. The Rectlinier aspect of the lens corrects for distortion. What you end up with is a fisheye type of view without the bowing and distortion. Plus is doesn’t hurt that the lens is super sharp too.
3. Essential Questions to Ask Any Realtor: 1) Is the home owner occupied? 2) Is the home staged or vacant? 3) What are the essential shots you need? 4) How many square feet is the home? 5) Is there a view? 6) How do I get access? Is it a gated community, will a realtor be there, will the home owner be there? 7) What time do you have the shoot scheduled for? This is a loaded question. I use the iOS App LightTrac to see exactly where the sun will be at any given time of day. This is essential if you are photographing luxury real estate that looks out onto the water of has a killer view. You don’t want the sun glaring in through the windows or blowing out the ocean or bay. It’s essential as a professional real estate photographer to advise your clients, realtor property owners on the best time of day to photograph their homes. The same is true with the exterior facade. If the sun is setting behind the front exterior you could have a photographic conundrum brewing. The front of the house will be very dark and the sky will be lit up. 7) How soon do you need the images? In order for a realtor in California to list the home without a stiff monetary penalty, the listing must be accompanied by a photograph. Some companies like Berkshire Hathaway, require their realtors to only use professional photographers.
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“A lot of people think HDR is the equivalent to lighting, but no amount of software can make up for the crappy, flat light we sometimes encounter. At best, HDR can mitigate, to some extent, the dynamic range we’re sometimes confronted with (bright windows and dark interiors, for example), but it can’t produce the sense of 3-dimensionality and mood that good lighting provides. Lighting is integral to my images.” ~ Scott Hargis – Author, Teacher, Photographer – Scott’s photographs have appeared in numerous publications including This Old House , Better Homes & Gardens, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, & Women’s Day Magazine.

4. HDR just Doesn’t Cut It: Here’s a quick story for you. I recently heard about a real estate photographer who only shoots HDR { High Dynamic Range: an image made by sandwiching multiple exposure together by capturing a range for over exposed to underexposed to capture both all the highlights and shadows. Then in post production, the images are blended together with special software.} He uses no auxiliary lighting whatsoever. Everything is shot in HDR. He then sends his files to Finland to be post processed. They come back and look nothing like the real estate that was photographed. All the colors are wrong. Marble imported from Italy is a different color. Walls and furniture are different colors. Looking at his photography, its flat. No depth or dimension. There is a distinct color cast to his images. There are halos around all the windows, halos around the sky, the trees and the outline of the home. Overall the properties photographed look cartoonish. What I typically see is the overuse of HDR, no restraint. I use auxiliary lighting techniques on each and every luxury real estate shoot. Be it bounce off a wall or bounce into an umbrella. Lighting a room kills color contamination from tungsten and even LED lights and breathes life into color and the textures of furnishings and creates a sense of depth and dimensionality. In some cases I use up to 5 lights to light a single image. I’ll hide lights in corners and behind objects. I’ll bounce them off foam core and into dark wood cabinets. Yes it takes longer. Yes it takes practice to master it. But for me and my style, HDR simply doesn’t cut it. Lighting images creates a natural look, clean and crisp color and clean and crisp images with proper contrast, not flat and cartoonish like HDR. From what I’ve seen, most HDR real estate photographers are in and out in about 30 minutes to and hour. My shoots typically take 3+ hours at a minimum. There are no short cuts to quality luxury real estate photography. Take a look at my portfolio, you won’t see ANY HDR in it {shameless self promotion}.

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This International Luxury Commercial brand image is both a composite and photographed with multiple lights: an umbrella hidden behind the PANERAI wall and in the Cartier Salon {red carpet}, a gridded-flagged speedlight is focused on the PANERAI wood grain wall logo and a flash bounced into an umbrella illuminates the foreground of the image. It seems complex but once you’ve done this enough times, it becomes second nature. There is absolutely NO WAY and HDR image would cut it for this composition. There are four different light sources including daylight. To neutralize the different colored light sources {LED, Tungsten Spot, Overhead Tungsten and Daylight} CTO gelled additive lighting and post-production masking is needed to create an image that is a clean and crisp. This can only be made by compositing and utilizing auxiliary lighting techniques, not HDR. Finally the silver bezeled cabinet featuring the watches was flagged with black foam core and shot as a pano and composited together to prevent glare and reflection. HDR is not at all capable of this type of sophisticated commercial photography.

5: Get it in Writing: This applies to having a solid contract and getting the must have shots in writing from your client. Getting the must have shots in writing from the realtor insures that they will be getting everything they need covered. And that’s important. Because a happy realtor is a happy client. It your job as a real estate photographer to not only nail the shots but to also deliver the product to the realtor that will help them sell their listing. And often times, in luxury real estate the client-home owner is also involved and wants certain aspects of their property showcased and highlighted. A happy listing home owner = a happy realtor.
6: Rush Jobs: Every rush job I’ve ever had resulted in poor communication. Its not that either party is a poor communicator, its just that the communication part isn’t there. The eye is on the prize…getting to market rather than carefully crafting a careful strategy of how to get there. A little time spent planning always equals proper execution. Poor communication on the part of a client results in them typically not getting what they want. If you go into a rush job that the client needed yesterday {which is typically the case on rush jobs}, be extremely clear with all channels of communication and charge 100% more for the rush job. A 100% rush fee is a common practice.
7: The Best Speedlights I’ve ever Owned: I put all my Canon speedlights on the shelf and only use them for wedding receptions now because they are TTL. At $104 each, these flashes are amazing. The Newer flashes are completely manual and take 1 lithium ion battery that gets 600 pops. The battery takes about an hour or two to recharge depending on how depleted it is. No more AA batteries! Let me tell you this is huge win. Charlie Sheen would be jealous. They are built solid. For me they are built 2x as sturdy as the Canon flashes and cost 1/4 of what a Canon speed light costs. The head swivels 180 degrees to the left and to the right and swivels from a right angle to completely vertical. Each flash comes with a solid plastic foot that has a 1/4-20 on the bottom so you can put it on umbrella swivel, and some light stands {see below} have a 1/4-20 stud. Some reviewers of the Neewer flash have complained that the synch port is a 2.5mm mini instead of a 3mm standard headphone jack. Personally I don’t give a crap. A mini to stereo plug is only $10. Get over it! Your still only at $114 for a world class flash. I own 5 of these flashes and use them on every luxury real estate and luxury commercial architectural photography shoot that I do. NEEWER® TT850, LI-ION BATTERY, here is the link. I have had some issues with the lithium ion batteries not holding their charge properly. However, both the distributor and Amazon stand behind their product and have replaced 3 of the batteries for me. Problem solved.
jpeg9: The Best Light Stands For Me: I use two different light stands for my luxury real estate and luxury architectural photography. Manfroto Avenger light stand. This is a light weight light stand with a max height of 7.8 ft. And that’s important when you want to bounce off a wall or into a corner and get the flash up hight to light the entire room. Its a bit pricey but worth the dollars. The light weight Photoflex LS-2210. With the Photoflex stands, the legs fold up towards the head of the light stand instead of down towards the bottom. This makes them very small for transport. Also, the legs are flat instead of tubular with no lateral support struts unlike most light stands. This allows for a very small foot print if you need to hide the base of the stand around a corner or put it on a table top. The down side is the light stand is that it only extends to 6.5 ft. I own two of them. I also like the fact that the head stud is fixed in with a 1/4-20 male threaded screw. Makes it easy to attach one of my Neewer flahes on its flash foot-stand. Here’s the thing, buying the best equipment possible is a smart investment in your craft. You’ll buy these light stands once and they last you for 15-20 years if you take care of them. I’ve had my Manforto’s for over 10 years now and they still look brand spanking new. Since I light all my interiors, its critical for me to have top notch light stands. It just makes my job easier. I love going into any job and having equipment that I need not worry about and that just works each and every time.
10: Foam Core Bounce: This is a simplest and lowest cost photo accessory that every real estate photographer should have in their bag of tricks. I take two, 2’x2′ pieces of foam core with me to each shoot. One side is white and the other is black. Here’s the scenario: I’ll place a piece of foam core behind a kitchen island and bounce a flash into it at about anywhere from 1/32 – 1/8 power depending on the color of the cabinets to illuminate them. The darker the cabinets….the more light they’ll need. Its also useful in bedroom shots, to say, illuminate one side of the bed or pop a bit of light into a dark corner. I’ve taken to adding two Home Depot spring clamps to the bottoms of the foam core boards so that they can stand on their own. Simple DIY stuff. And very, very effective.