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If there's any single aspect of a real estate listing that has the power to grab the attention of every buyer in your market and sell properties fast – it's high quality photography.
Take a look at the most successful real estate professionals (realtors, agents, investors and the like) in your market. What's the one common element that causes their listings to stand out from all the other boring, monotonous real estate ads that nobody cares about?
These people take their property listings seriously. They know that getting great pictures can make all the difference in the world when it comes to properties that sell overnight vs. properties that sit on the market for months-on-end while being overlooked by every would-be buyer that passes by.
Are your real estate photos doing the selling for you? They should be! With a basic understanding of the elements that go into a great photograph, your properties can STOP getting lost in an ocean of listings and START selling – fast. In this blog post, we're going to cover some of the key factors that go into great landscape photography.
Why Landscape Photography?
When you look at the whole of real estate photography, landscape photography covers a very important part of the overall puzzle. We're talking strictly about the outside/exterior portion of a property (and in the case of vacant land – this encompasses the ENTIRE property because there's no “interior” to speak of).
This is everyone's first impression of a property – some might call it “curb appeal”, and it can go a LONG way in shaping a prospective buyer's opinions of a property (and if you drop the ball here, it's going to be an uphill battle).
For most people – the first question that comes to mind in the realm of photography is, “What kind of camera do I need?”
It's a valid question because getting good photos starts with a good camera – and in today's world, there's a VAST sea of options to choose from. Most of them will work just fine, but they definitely aren't all created equal, and not every option is appropriate and practical for what every individual is trying to accomplish.
Let's take a look at the two basic options and what each of them bring to the table.
DSLR / Mirrorless Cameras
For the hardcore professional photographer, there's the DSLR or “Mirrorless” Camera. For our purposes, the differences between the two are relatively minor (and beyond the scope of this article), but there's a good overview of the differences right here.
When used correctly, both cameras can accomplish the same general purpose of getting breathtaking pictures. The camera body of a DSLR Camera is constructed a bit differently than that of a Mirrorless Camera (and the lenses of the two usually aren't compatible between body-types and brands without the use of some fairly expensive adapters).
If you choose to invest in one of these cameras, there are a few clear pros and cons to be aware of.
- Capable of extremely high quality, high-resolution images.
- Can handle widely varying light and show the maximum depth of field.
- Compatible with many different interchangeable lenses that can be switched to fit the setting and achieve the desired look of a picture.
- Capable of full HDR photography (more on that later).
- Camera prices are moderately-to-extremely expensive.
- Higher maintenance devices that can be costly to maintain.
- Easy to overcompensate and overspend on features you don't need and won't use.
- A bit bulkier and cumbersome to travel with (won't fit in your pocket).
- More steps required to get the images in a workable format on your computer (though some of the newer cameras are now wifi enabled, which makes transferring pictures to a computer much easier).
DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras are great for getting awesome images in almost any environment – but they are also significantly more complicated than what most people are used to (I had to take a course to learn how to use mine – it wasn't something I could have done without some help).
On the same coin, if you ever decide to start a part-time or full-time gig as a professional photographer, this kind of camera will be instrumental in your ability to get great pictures.
Smart Phone / Point & Shoot Cameras
For the common person (i.e. – 80% of the general population), a smartphone or point-and-shoot camera is the most efficient and practical way to get the job done. These cameras may not be fully capable of hitting the top-tier in professional photography, but most of them are sufficient enough to deliver the goods in a way that will “check the box” for a good real estate listing.
If you're resourceful enough to use the right apps and get creative with your photography, you can pull off some great pictures with one of these cameras. Just like with a higher end camera, the quality of the end product usually has a lot more to do with the user than the actual equipment.
- Extremely easy to use (requires nothing more than the push of a button – all the fine-tuning and adjustments are done for you).
- Very easy to travel with (fits in your pocket).
- Today's smartphone cameras are now highly sophisticated devices that compete reasonably well with higher-end cameras (that is, in most of the areas that matter for real estate photos).
- Easy to take pictures, edit them and email/upload/transfer them to wherever they need to go.
- Most people already have one built into their phone (so there's no additional purchase necessary).
- Limited in many aspects – mainly in the depth of field, contrast, color, lens options and getting good images in low light conditions (however, these gaps have been closing rapidly in recent years).
Differences in Sensor Sizes
What is it about higher-end cameras that gives them such an edge on the entry-level cameras of the world? They're just designed to handle a higher complexity on every level.
In addition to their ability to work with interchangeable lenses, they have a HUGE sensor when compared to that of a camera phone, as illustrated below.
The camera's sensor is the point at which it takes in light through the lens. The bigger the sensor, the more detail it can process in an image – so it only makes sense that devices with larger sensors will have an advantage that smaller sensors just can't compete with.
Which One Is Best For You?
So which one is a better fit for you? The answer depends largely on your background with photography, your willingness and desire to learn the mechanics of taking great pictures and what your ultimate priorities are.
Both can work great. I'm not going to tell you there's only one right way – because it's just not true. When it comes to taking great photos for a real estate listing, you can definitely do the job with an entry-level camera, but it will require a bit of creativity and attention to detail on the photographer's part (which we'll discuss below).
Regardless of the type of camera you're using, there are a few aspects of landscape photography that, if handled right, will VASTLY improve the quality of your pictures.
To control these areas, it requires some attention to detail and an overall awareness of what looks good in the final product of a well-framed picture. Most of the time, the best way to control these variables is to use your legs, use your head, and use the natural props you have at your disposal. Let's explore this a bit…
To put it simply, contrast is the difference in light or color that makes an object distinguishable against its backdrop (or against another object). In almost all respects of photography, contrast is your friend. It helps your camera to focus, it gives the viewer something interesting to look at, and it helps us understand what we're looking at.
For example, here are some pictures with medium-to-high contrast:
And here are some pictures with low contrast:
When a picture has low contrast, it doesn't necessarily make it a “bad” picture (though they certainly can be), but it doesn't do the best job of informing – especially when the viewer has no pre-conceived idea what they're looking at.
As you can see from the pictures above, low contrast images can be beautiful – but can you even tell what you're looking at?? How much clarity do these photos really give you? If you're trying to thoroughly understand what a property looks like and what features it has to offer, these are not the best pictures to go by.
Is good contrast a necessity for good property photos? Not necessarily – but when you consider the true purpose of a real estate listing, these images need to go beyond mere beauty, they need to inform.
Buyers need to understand what they're looking at. They need to have a feel for where the shot was taken in relation to the rest of the property and they need to know how the objects in the frame contribute to the overall value of the property.
Considering the intended use of these images and what good contrast contributes to a picture – try to use your surroundings, lighting and natural props to get good contrast in your pictures.
Depth of Field
This is one area where a higher quality camera (and more importantly, its lens) can absolutely CRUSH the capabilities of an iPhone or Android. There's a term called “Bokeh” (where the image focuses on one object and blurs out the background) – and it's very difficult to achieve this with today's smartphone technology (it's not impossible, but it's also not easy).
For example, let's look at a side-by-side comparison. Here are four pictures I took with the camera on my iPhone 5S:
See the difference a good camera and lens makes?
It's not that the images from my iPhone are bad per se, they're just very “matter of fact” and forgettable. There isn't much about them that would make a person say, “Wow, gorgeous.”
On the other hand, the pictures from my DSLR camera bring a new level of quality to the picture. With the right controls in place, it can take the most ordinary objects and make them look dreamlike – and this is something that can be used to make any property look WAY better than it would with a basic, run-of-the-mill camera.
I should also mention (in case it wasn't already evident) – I'm not a professional photographer. I'm a total amateur (which is being generous) and the images you see above are just scratching the surface of what's possible with a DSLR or Mirrorless Camera.
When you're using the right equipment, it doesn't take a boatload of talent or years of experience to get pictures that look amazing. It can happen pretty easily, but only if you're willing to pay the higher price up front and learn how to use your camera the right way.
Weather & Lighting
I don't care what kind of pictures you're taking – at the end of the day, lighting is everything.
This should go without saying – but most of us don't realize this, because our eyeballs and brains do an exceptionally good job of compensating for almost any mixture of light we encounter on a regular basis. Most people have no idea when they've encountered a scene with bad lighting, but cameras aren't nearly as forgiving as our eyes are – and when it comes to landscape photography, bad lighting can be detrimental to the overall quality of our pictures.
Since landscape photography happens almost entirely outdoors, it is greatly beneficial to take your pictures under good weather and good lighting.
Josh Cripps does a great job of explaining how to pull it off in this video:
If you can get your pictures in the early-mid morning or mid-late afternoon (when the sunlight is softer, more colorful and spread evenly), it will result in images that don't have some of the harsh shadows that come when the sun is high in the sky.
Even though it's not a necessity, it's still a great asset to have at your disposal, because it can deliver an unmistakably higher quality image when it's utilized the right way.
I have a Canon Rebel T3i (Canon's updated version of this camera is the Canon Rebel T5i). The primary benefit of this particular camera is that it's relatively inexpensive (as far as DSLR cameras go) and it can be used with dozens of different interchangeable lenses – and when it comes to a camera of this caliber, the lens is FAR more important than the actual camera itself.
A good lens can add all sorts of new elements to an image. Outside of the stock lens that comes with a standard DSLR or Mirrorless Camera, there are two lens types I would recommend for the specific purpose of landscape photography.
50mm Fixed Lens
The lens I use with my camera is the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II. Most professional photographers will agree, a 50mm lens is a must have for any DSLR camera because it takes some incredible looking photos with ease and these lenses generally aren't that expensive (I got mine for less than $100 on Amazon).
50mm lenses are known for their ability to take shots with stunning “Bokeh”, which can give your images a professional look that simply isn't possible with today's smartphone cameras. Since this is a “fixed lens”, it doesn't allow for zooming (if you want a closer shot of something, you'll have to walk up and get your camera closer to it). All in all, I really can't say enough good things about this lens. Ed Gregory from Photos In Color did a pretty good overview about the benefits of a 50mm lens in the video below. Check it out…
Depending on what type of camera body you're using (Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Sony, etc.), there are several different types of 50mm lenses to choose from. Some are cheap, others are very expensive… but they all do the same general thing. If you get one for yourself, you'll see what I mean!
Wide Angle Lens
This type of lens can capture a FAR larger field of view than any other standard lens from a point-and-shoot camera. These are particularly helpful for taking pictures of wide areas and fitting everything into the frame (you'll see these used quite often with interior photos of houses – because there's no better way to fit everything from a small space into one picture).
The lens I use with my Canon Rebel is the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 (note: this lens isn't compatible with some of Canon's more expensive, full-framed cameras – but it works great with the Rebel line). I used this lens to shoot the scenes of my home office tour a couple of years ago and while it may be hard to notice, it wouldn't have been possible for me to get such a wide view of the room I was shooting without this lens.
Dave Dugdale from LearningVideo.com did a great review of this lens a few years back (see below), which is part of the reason why I bought it – and I haven't been disappointed…
There are several other wide-angle lenses to choose from (most of which are more expensive than this option), but I've found that this particular lens is actually used by a lot of real estate professionals and has a long-standing good reputation.
HDR photography is something you've undoubtedly encountered before, whether you've realized it or not. Ever see a dazzling image with amazing colors that almost seem to jump off the page? Chances are, it was an HDR photo.
For example, take this one from Trey Ratcliff…
Pretty impressive, right?
Once you understand the mechanics of how these images work (and you have the right tools to create them), they're actually not that hard to get.
High-dynamic-range imaging (HDRI or HDR) is a type of photography that produces a wider range of light and color that is possible with a digital camera all by itself.
When these images are processed correctly, they actually end up looking more like the scenes we're familiar with in everyday life. Why? Because the human eye and brain are constantly adjusting to the broad dynamic changes we see in our environment. A standard camera isn't nearly complex enough to do what our eyes and brain are capable of doing, and that's where HDR photography can help bridge the gap.
HDR images take a little bit more work to produce – but the end result is an image that is pretty much impossible to ignore. It literally takes the best lighting from multiple images and combines them into a sort of hybrid image that leaves out the bland and accents the beauty.
HDR photography is fun because you can take any shot (even if it's not an impressive image by itself) and make it look MUCH more beautiful through image processing.
Some professional photographers look down on HDR photography because in some ways, it's sort of like cheating. It's a way to compensate for a picture that wasn't all that great well, to begin with (and when you overcompensate with HDR imaging, your pictures can end up looking really weird – so this is also an area to be cautious in).
However, when it comes to real estate listings, the primary goal is to get noticed and captivate prospective buyers in an honest, ethical way, without leading them on with false expectations. We can do this by using good photos in our listings – and my personal opinion is that HDR photography falls well within the range of acceptable because we're simply accenting the qualities that are already inherent in the property (not fabricating lighting and color that never existed in the first place).
If HDR Photography is something you want to get into in a big way, be sure to check out Trey Ratcliff. This guy is one of the current authority figures in this niche.
If you choose to forego a high-end DSLR or Mirrorless Camera – that's perfectly fine (and this is what most people do, because high-end cameras simply aren't practical for everyone).
While there may be some limitations, you can still get some awesome pictures that are sufficient for the purpose of creating a great real estate listing.
If you're using a smartphone, there are a few apps that can make a HUGE difference in the quality of your images and you'll want to arm yourself with these tools to make sure you're creating the best pictures you possibly can.
- Horizon Level (eliminate crooked shots)
- Digital Zoom (Up to 6× zoom with advanced digital processing)
- Stabilizer (Steady your iPhone and get the sharpest images possible)
- Touch Exposure & Focus (Control which objects to focus on and decide how light or dark your shots come out)
For the laughably low price of $2.99 (and there's also a free version) – this app will open up all kinds of possibilities you never knew existed in your camera phone.
Pro HDR & Pro HDR X
There are several apps that try to mimic HDR photography by layering filters over images (Instagram is one example). These can do a halfway decent job of making certain colors “pop” (greener grass, bluer skies, more accented shadows, and lights), but very few of them actually combine multiple images together to create true HDR images.
I've tried SEVERAL different apps on my iPhone and was disappointed by most of them – but I did find one called Pro HDR (also available for Android Phones) that does a pretty good job of taking two images (one light, one dark) and automatically stitching them together to create a much better picture.
Most professional HDR photographers will take 3, 5, 7 or even more images for every single HDR image (so this is a toned down version of that), but even so – it's still using true HDR technology by pulling the best light and color out of two different images.
There's also a paid version of the app called Pro HDR X. It does basically the same thing, but it takes pictures much faster and is less clunky than the free version (I've used both and I definitely prefer the paid version).
This app is awesome. Especially when you're taking pictures of a sunset, or of objects that have stark contrast or harsh lighting. Rather than being stuck with ONE unimpressive image with dark shadows or blown out lighting (the kind of stuff that ruins most pictures), it will pull out the darks and the lights from two identically framed pictures and mold them together into one stunning image.
For example, take a look at these pictures I took on a solo camping trip last year by Lake Michigan. These first two shots show how my pictures would have looked (light and dark) if I had been limited by the regular camera on my iPhone 5S:
As you can see, both pictures are fairly underwhelming (and since I was there, I can vouch for the fact that these pictures clearly didn't do the place justice).
When I switched over to the Pro HDR app and took a few more pictures of the exact same sunset, this was what came out:
Who would've thought an iPhone 5S could put out these kinds of images?? Heck, I'm partially colorblind and I'm STILL amazed when I look at these!
And do you know what the best part is? All the color adjustments, light corrections, and image editing was done automatically by the app. All I had to do was save it to my phone's image gallery (rather than spending hours with some complicated software combining images together) and it was done in seconds. It was almost too simple!
Third Party Services
In the past, when I've bought and sold properties remotely, I've had no other choice than to handle my property images by hiring a third party to visit the property an take some pictures for me. I've done this a few different ways…
This is usually the cheapest option. Simply find a nearby realtor on a site like Zillow, give them a call, explain your situation and ask if they'd be willing to swing by the property and snap a few pictures for you. The downside is that because you're not paying them anything (i.e. – they're doing it out of the goodness of their heart, or because they think you'll enlist their services at some point in the future), you never know if/when you'll get the pictures and/or what kind of quality you'll get.
My results have been mixed. Sometimes I'll get some awesome shots, other times I'll get images that are completely unusable. Nevertheless, if you adamantly refuse to pay any money for this kind of service, this is pretty much your only option.
Another option is to hire someone from Craiglist. This comes with similar issues to the realtor approach – because you never know what kind of person you'll be dealing with, if/when the pictures will come back and/or what kind of quality you'll get (I've had more than one Craigslist hire flake out on me and it's very frustrating).
In my experience, I'd say this is a less desirable approach, because with most realtors – you can at least expect SOME level of professionalism. With Craigslist, you could literally get anything (and on top of that, you'll have to pay them too).
Another approach is to hire a company like WeGoLook to get the job done. As I explain in this blog post, it's a pretty cost-effective and reliable service, and the “Lookers” that take these pictures understand how to get pictures that inform. While the pictures may not necessarily be “professional grade”, you will still get several images of the property from several different angles (and you can even pay a little more for a video and additional pictures if you want).
When you get the property inspection report, you'll also get a detailed description of what was observed at the property, along with full resolution copies of every picture taken (which can then be used as part of your property listing when it comes time to sell).
If you're looking for images that ARE of the professional grade, another great service is Pretty Instant. As I explain in this review, they will contract with a local pro photographer to show up at your property and get some great pictures of your property. I've only used the service on one occasion (so I can't say if the results are always fantastic), but in my experience with them, the photographer they sent out to my property did a great job.
If you choose to outsource this job to a third party, the unfortunate truth is that you won't always have control over the quality. As a general rule, the more you pay, the more you can expect – but oftentimes it's just a matter of luck. Sometimes you'll get some awesome pictures and sometimes you'll just get the minimum viable product. Unless you're lucky enough to find a professional photographer or a naturally gifted picture-taker, it's not uncommon to get stuck with some pictures that aren't stellar (but even so, they're still better than nothing).
At the very least, what you CAN do is give your photographer some basic instructions on what you're expecting to see and how they can get the best possible images for you. For that matter, feel free to send them a link to this blog post! They may just learn a thing or two about how to get better pictures for you (and every other client they serve in the future).
It isn't always easy to stand out from your competition, but when it comes to your landscape photography, this is one of your biggest opportunities to blow everyone else out of the water.
In the end, your pictures can absolutely mean the difference between selling your property now at a higher price vs. selling your property later at a lower price.
Most people don't take their images that seriously – but if you take the time to do it right, you'll make everyone else in your market look like total amateurs when buyers see the value you're bringing to the table.
Granted, photos usually won't do ALL of the work in selling your property (if the property just isn't desirable on any level, it'll be hard to make it look amazing), but they can certainly do a huge portion of the heavy lifting for you by catching attention from buyers who otherwise wouldn't have even seen your listing in the first place.
In case it wasn't already evident by the content in this article, I'll just take a second and say this very clearly – DON'T use any stock photos in your listings.
Like this, for example:
or an even more shameless ripoff, like this…
For the most part, people aren't stupid. If they see a real estate ad filled with images that clearly aren't legit, they won't think your property is awesome – they'll just assume you're a fraud and move on.
Also, DON'T steal any images from Google Images or Flickr and call them your own. There are serious legal issues that can come up when you try to take this kind of shortcut – so while it may seem like an easy way to get the job done, save yourself a lot of potential trouble and don't do it.
When you're running a business where properties turnover fairly quickly – it's not always easy to get good pictures of each property in a timely fashion. In many cases, there are some fairly generic images that can be used again and again, because the properties you're selling are in the same general area, with similar local landmarks and amenities and/or similar property attributes that apply to pretty much ALL of the properties within a 100-mile radius.
For example, let's take a look at this picture I took in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
In this picture, I can see plenty of pine and maple trees (both young and mature) – two types of trees that densely populate 99% of the surrounding area. If I buy ANY other properties in the near vicinity that also qualifies as “vacant land”, chances are – this picture from Property #1 will be just as adequate to convey the types of trees that exist on Property #2.
When you get good pictures that are sure to apply to other, nearby properties – save these generic images (leaves, trees, nearby landmarks) and use them again when you know they apply. Of course – you'll need to be careful with this, because if you get pictures of a setting that clearly doesn't exist on both properties – you could get into trouble, so make sure any reusable pictures are more generic in nature and apply to every property within a 10 – 20-mile radius.
Also – when you're dealing with properties that are difficult to locate (vacant land is a perfect example), always be sure to include a parcel map (or two, or three) of the property, so your potential buyers will understand where the property is located.
As I explain in this blog post, these parcel maps aren't difficult to get and they do a GREAT job of helping inform potential buyers about the specifics of your listing.
Here's an example of a series of parcel maps you could include with your listing:
When I got these pictures, I simply started with a closeup of my property and took sequential screenshots as I zoomed out. As you can see, this helps give a good perspective of where the property is situated in relation to the surrounding area.
The good news about today's camera technology is that it's continuing to advance at break-neck speed. In some ways, today's smartphone cameras are already more advanced than the best DSLR cameras were just 5 years ago, as evidenced by this video…
At the time of this writing, smartphone cameras are extremely capable devices that are more than sufficient to accomplish what most people need.
Only time will tell if smartphones will ever kill off the DSLR and Mirrorless camera industry (in my opinion, this is highly unlikely – because interchangeable lenses will probably never be a thing for smartphone cameras), but my point is – don't feel the need to spend a fortune on a professional grade camera. Will it help? Certainly… but it's just not a necessity to getting the job done.
At the end of the day, the skill of the photographer has a much greater influence over the quality of a picture than any camera, lens or app ever will. Focus on improving yourself, and you will see a significant impact in the end product of your photography.
And don't forget that pictures are a very important part of a great real estate listing, but they're not the only part. They may get the lion's share of people's attention, don't underestimate the added power that comes from executing every other aspect of your listing well.
If you're looking for some further direction on how to get better pictures in the field and make your property photos stand out from the crowd, be sure to check out Photographing The World: Landscape Photography and Post-Processing with Elia Locardi.
This is a phenomenal educational course that can bring any aspiring landscape photographer's skills to the next level. If you're looking to create the best possible images for your property listings, there's a lot you can learn from this resource.