Aloha! I’m Kathy’s husband, Peter.

By day, I’m a WordPress developer, but I’m also a professional photographer and Kathy often asks me to shoot her listings.
Outdoor Pool Area, 2850 Kamaile, Wailuku
Real estate photography has been evolving in the age of digital. Many photographers still use large softboxes, reflectors, umbrellas, diffusers and the like, as I did when Kathy first became a REALTOR® several years ago, but I’ve since moved to HDR exclusively. After watching me shoot her listing in Wailuku for almost 6 hours (a sizeable property consisting of a 5500 sq. ft. home and a 1000 sq. ft. ohana) then spend more than 12 hours at the computer producing the images, Kathy asked me to write a guest post to explain how I did it.

Looking out to the pool area from the entryway, 2850 Kamaile Street, Wailuku, HI 96793

Interior exposed correctly, but all exterior details are blown out.

Here’s the dilemma. The human eye is capable of seeing about 20 stops of light, so we can see fine details in highlights and shadows at the same time. A camera is only capable of half the number of stops, so a photographer usually has to choose between the highlights or shadows, sacrificing one for the other.

If you want to incorporate the gorgeous views from inside through the big bay windows, your interiors end up in silhouette. If you want the interiors, your windows end up being all white (or “blown out” as photographers say.)

Looking out to the pool area from the entryway, 2850 Kamaile Street, Wailuku, HI 96793

Exterior exposed correctly, but the interior is in silhouette.

You can compensate for this with the lighting gear mentioned above, placed strategically around the room to light up the interiors. This can get expensive, and each shot can take a long time to set up as pieces of equipment are moved around the room to get the light levels and shadows just right.

Another method is to use Photoshop to blend two shots together, one that exposes the scene outside and one that exposes the interiors correctly. This often requires a lot of skill in selecting the windows within Photoshop so you can combine the two shots without giving the finished product a “cutout” look. Often, you can end up with the shadows looking a little contrived, because they look different in the two exposures.

Enter HDR, or High Dynamic Range, my preferred method. This is a technique that combines several photos taken with the highlights and shadows exposed correctly into software that blends them into an even composite from dark to light. The photographer can then make further refinements in tonality and color manually to produce the best image possible.

Outside View From Entranceway, 2850 Kamaile Street, Wailuku, HI 96793

Nine exposures including the two above, combined and processed in Photomatix Pro and Lightroom to produce this HDR image.

Many recent camera models, including those in smartphones, now have an HDR function built into them, and they do a fairly good job in situations where the lighting isn’t too complicated. If you’re in a pinch, turning on HDR if your camera has it can be better than nothing. For software, Photoshop does a fairly good job processing HDR, but I tend to use Photomatix Pro or Nik HDR Efex Pro for finer control.

In addition, here are some extra tips for better real estate photography:

  • 2850 Kamaile Street, Wailuku, HI 96793

    Camera pointed down to capture all the details in the room. Cabinets and doors are crooked.

    Use a wide angle lens to encompass more of the room. I like the Nikon 12-24mm f/4. If you shoot Canon, the 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 does a great job. This is especially handy when shooting small bathrooms or closets. However, while you can take in more of the room, the trade-off is more distortion and “bowing” in your photos. Some ways to compensate for this:

  • Keep your lens level. If you point your lens up or down, your walls, cabinets, etc. will be crooked with respect to the frame. If you’re shooting from your normal height, not doing this can cause you to lose detail, particularly in small rooms.
  • To compensate, shoot from a height of 3-4 feet. If you need to compensate further in software, the Lens Correction tool  in Photoshop does a good job, or I sometimes use PTLens for finer control.
  • 2850 Kamaile Street, Wailuku, HI 96793

    Camera at a height of about 4 feet, lens pointed level. The slight distortion from the wide angle lens can be corrected in software.

    Use a tripod. To reduce noise, you need to shoot at a low ISO, and to get as much depth of field as possible, your f-stops can range between f5.6-f/11 or so, depending on the situation. This means slow shutter speeds. And if you’re shooting HDR, it’s always best to have the elements in the frames line up as exactly as possible from one shot to the next.

  • Get a good white balance reading if you can. Most modern cameras do a pretty good job with white balance when set to “Auto,” but it’s best to set it as precisely as you can, especially in complex lighting situations. There are many ways to do this, but my favorite tool is the ExpoDisc. If you’re shooting HDR, you’ll still need to compensate a bit in software later, but this will give you a good start.