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Powerful Pictures Made Easy

Woman taking photo
You don’t have to be a professional photographer with a high-end camera to take fantastic photos of your listings.

Are you frustrating buyers by posting poor-quality listing photos to your Web site or to As sales associates, you have an opportunity to create photographs that help market yourself and your properties. Here’s the challenge—recognizing that a picture is worth a thousand words, what is the quality of your photography, and how does that affect the marketing of your properties?

Play customer for a moment and visit Do you notice how the listings with outstanding photography garner interest and desire? How about those listings with poor photography? You be the judge. As a marketing professional, you should demand the highest standard of photography in your marketing efforts, regardless of who creates the images. The good news is that you can easily raise the quality of your own photography.

As a professional photographer turned real estate sales associate, let me share a few tricks of the trade that will help you improve your skills:

Quality is vital.
I’ve been in the trenches long enough to know that everyone’s on a deadline. I’ve heard sales associates say, in a rushed manner, “I’ve got to go out to 123 Main Street and grab some images for the MLS.” Speed often trumps quality. But that will only cause you problems when consumers want to view the home online.

In this market, with a plethora of homes for sale, it’s extremely important to spend the time to take and post high-quality images. You’re the photographer who answers to you, the “marketing director.”

Educate your eye. I once asked Dan Carp, past CEO of Eastman Kodak, for his definition of a professional photographer. He said, “They see things that others don’t see.” You too can do this. Educate your eye by carefully analyzing professional images in real estate and design magazines.

For example, many magazine covers use home exteriors that were shot during early morning or early evening “sweet” light. Notice also that in these pictures, every light inside the home is turned on. Why not pick a morning or evening, grab your camera along with the magazine photograph and work to create an image that is just as pleasing? The same holds true for interior images. Designer magazines demonstrate great camera angles and staging. Sure, it may take a little longer to do these things, but they will help get your online listing noticed and that will translate into a quicker sale.

Learn your camera.
The least-read book of all time is your camera’s instruction book! If you want better photography, then learn the functions of all those buttons on your camera. Study these particular areas:

  • File size. Remember that the output or final use of the photo determines the picture file size you’ll want to create. If you’re printing an advertisement or a Just Listed card, you’ll want a larger file size like 6MP (megapixels). The MLS requires a smaller file size, such as 1MP.

    You can make large files smaller, but you really lose quality when you make small files larger. Therefore, capture and save photographs as larger files, and later resize the images downward for the MLS, using software like Photoshop® Elements. Caution: If you set your camera for small files (such as 1MP) to achieve an easy upload to the MLS, you will have a file that is not large enough for a major advertisement that demands a bigger file.
  • Focus and exposure. All cameras have auto settings for focus and exposure. The great news is that the auto-exposure and auto-focus features work very well on most cameras. Your instruction book will help you understand how the viewfinder’s focusing spot functions. Exposure (an image’s lightness or darkness) is critical with digital photography. Many consumer digital cameras have three modes—overall or pattern, center-weighted average and spot metering. If your camera has these modes, consider using the spot-metering mode. My experience is that in this mode, the camera is far less confused by bright skies and interior lights like chandeliers.
  • White balance. Most users set their cameras to AUTO white balance. This technology is designed to make a white shirt white, regardless of the color of the lighting—be it a sunny day, a cloudy day or inside incandescent lighting. It’s not a perfect system, so most cameras allow you to select a cloudy day white-balance setting or an incandescent light setting for interior photography.

These manual settings allow better-quality color than you will be able to achieve using software to vary the color later. Caution: If you choose one of these “custom” white-balance settings, don’t forget to reset the camera to AUTO when you’re done.

And for those of you who are saying, “I’ll just always use AUTO,” I remind you that on many cameras, it’s far too easy to press the wrong button and accidentally switch your white balance from AUTO to a custom setting. Should you do this, your color images will be “off color” until you discover your error.

Understand outdoor lighting. Lighting is everything for exterior photography. Here’s a very simple way to understand the quality of light for home exteriors and smaller areas, like pools. Select a home and photograph its exterior at five different times during a sunny day—early morning, late morning, noon, early the evening and the late evening. If the home faces east, west or south, you’ve probably noticed a time of day where the sun beautifully illuminates it. You also probably noticed that when the front of the house is in major shadow, it simply isn’t very pleasing. The old rule that you should have the sun coming over your shoulder can work quite well for exterior home photographs. You’re looking for even lighting with nondramatic shadows.

When a home faces north, you’ll need to work a little harder to get even lighting, as the sun never shines directly on its front. On full-sun days, the front appears to be in deep shadow. North-facing homes are often best shot just before the sun rises or sets—or on a cloudy day.

When in doubt, photograph that important listing at different times of the day with different quality lighting. You’ll be sure to find one image that just looks special—and it’s all because of the quality of light.

Understanding interior lighting.
You’re always safe to begin your interior photography by turning on all the lights in the home. There’s a natural tendency to simply set the camera on AUTO and let it create an image using the camera’s flash. Sometimes this works quite well. Other times it looks like you fired a brilliant flash, with things close to the camera over-lighted, the exposure at 10 feet away nice and everything 20 feet away getting dark. This is not very pleasing.

After you take a flash picture, turn off the camera’s flash and take a natural-light image. While not using the flash, the camera must be held very still.

Since most cameras have an LCD preview area on the back, you can often tell if you have a bad motion blur; if that’s the case, you can simply take another exposure. I’ve often found that the enlarged first frame really wasn’t sharp and that the second or third exposure was much better. You can also get creative by using a painter’s work light [see “Mission: It’s Possible,” on page 44.]

Think Like an Art Director
Once you get the basics of photography down and take the time to really stage your photos, you’ll be pleased with the boost in the quality of your marketing materials.

Here are a couple of other tips to consider:

Try one image with your camera’s widest lens setting and another with a more telephoto lens setting (you might need to ask permission to shoot from the neighbor’s yard across the street). You’ll probably be surprised that the telephoto lens setting shows less of the homes on either side of your subject, has less distortion and is often the best option for exterior home photographs. Secret: When you’re shooting the outside front of the property, you’ll find that a high camera angle can make the front yard look larger, but be careful if you stand on a ladder!

Interiors. You may have noticed that your digital camera may not photograph as wide an angle image as you’d like. To make the rooms look as large as possible, set the lens at wide angle and back up as far as you can. Wide-angle lens attachments are available for many cameras and they’re often a great investment. Use the lighting suggestions we discussed earlier. Think like an art director and frame a beautiful image. Secret: If you want the interior exposure to match the outside, for example a situation where a great room looks out onto a caged pool, shoot the interior at a time when the day light is at a lower level, like early morning or late evening.

Upgrading your photography skills is easy, if you make it a priority. Remember that a picture truly is worth a thousand words and that image quality can have a tremendous effect on the marketing of our properties. 

John Frank’s photography has been featured in USA Today and on the cover of TV Guide. He is currently a real estate sales associate with ResiCore Realty Group Inc. in Lakewood Ranch.