Imaging Focus: Picture Perfect

With a little homework, you can find the right digital camera for all your real estate photography needs.

March 1, 2006

A digital camera is one of today’s essential real estate tools. By now, you’ve likely owned one or had some experience using one. Unless you bought your camera in the last few months, it may be time to trade up to a new model.

Your timing couldn’t be better. The Photo Marketing Association International’s 2006 International Convention and Trade Show, the imaging industry’s annual convention, held this week in Orlando, Fla., unveiled some exciting options for the latest digital cameras available this year.

Determine Your Needs

Before you glom onto the flashiest camera, consider what’s best for your real estate needs. I get a lot of questions from readers asking about this. There’s no single answer; it depends on your personal priorities and preferences. Here are a few tips to help you find the right digital camera:

Ask yourself these preliminary questions:

  • What have you learned from past experience with a digital camera?
  • Did you make many prints of your photos of homes? If so, what size?
  • Would wider-angle photos more effectively convey the appeal of listings, inside and outside?
  • How easy was it to move photos from the camera to the computer?
  • Was the camera’s display monitor large enough?
  • Do you prefer a full-bodied camera, or one you can slip into a pocket or purse?
  • And, what’s your budget?

Use the Web. The best place to begin your search is online. All manufacturers highlight the features of their digital camera options on their Web sites. This information will give you an overview of your choices and pricing. Many vendors either sell directly or provide a search function to locate a dealer near you.

Popular digital camera brands include Sony, Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Hewlett-Packard, Kodak, Fuji, Panasonic, Casio, and Pentax.

Once you’ve identified models that interest you, read the reviews. CNET, Digital Photography Review, and Popular Photography Magazine thoroughly test the latest cameras as part of their review process. Retail sites such as Amazon, Yahoo! Shopping, and Circuit City let customers post reviews of models they’ve purchased. Their comments often provide insights you won’t find elsewhere.

Head to stores. Although the initial temptation may be to find and buy your best deal online, spend some time in-store for a hands-on experience. You can’t really get an idea of the feel of a camera until you actually handle it. Your best resource when buying can be the camera or electronics specialty store with a broad selection. Explain your specialized real estate needs and the in-store salespeople should be able to point you to the best digital options and explain their operation. If you ever have a problem, need an accessory, or encounter some challenge in using the camera, you can turn to that store again and again for expert advice. That’s something generally not available through Web-based retailers.

Now, what features matter most for real estate? Here are the ones you should pay close attention to:

  • Optics. The lens determines the type of pictures you can take, as well as the quality of shots. Optical zoom is key, with a 3X optical zoom being the minimum you should consider. Higher zooms — 6X and even 12X — make it easy to highlight a home’s features. Wide-angle capability also is important, either built into the camera or as an accessory lens. If you’re considering a model that requires a wide-angle adapter, look at sample images captured with the adapter to make sure the quality is acceptable before deciding on that camera. And if you want to create 360-degree images for virtual tours, check with vendors first to see what cameras their virtual tour programs support.
  • Megapixels. Every camera rated 1 megapixel (MP) or higher captures digital images that look fine on the Web. So an MP rating — which is the sensitivity of the camera’s image sensor — is more important in terms of your printing needs. The higher the MP rating, the larger the prints you can make without any discernible problems with the quality of the images. For typical real estate needs, a 3MP camera is sufficient.
  • Monitor size. The display monitor lets you accurately frame images before shooting, review photos, and set many camera functions. Make sure the monitor is large enough for comfortable viewing.
  • Flash. Built-in flash is rarely enough to fill a room with sufficient light for a good picture. If you plan on shooting interiors, you’ll want a camera that can connect an optional, auxiliary flash.
  • Ergonomics. Designs range from ultra-slim cameras to point-and-shoot compacts to full-bodied digital single-lens reflex cameras (SLRs), which are used by most professional photographers because they offer more shooting options. The right camera is the one that feels the best in your hands, with features and buttons conveniently and comfortably located.
  • Durability. Your camera will get banged around, and some models are extremely fragile. To protect your investment, consider paying more for a model with a metal or hard case.
  • Ease of use. Digital cameras come with automatic settings for taking pictures under a range of lighting situations and settings. These should be easy to understand and set for consistent results. If you know enough about photography to want greater control, you’ll also want a model that lets you manually set all functions, as well.
  • Image transfer. Once you take the photos, you want to move your images from the camera to your computer and then to the Web as easily as possible. Choices include simple cable connections, camera docking stations, and wireless image transfer — a relatively recent advance.
  • Memory. Internal memory lets you capture images when your memory card is full. As far as Flash memory — the camera’s reusable digital film — look at the format. There’s been a trend toward increasingly smaller memory cards, some so small they could be easily lost.
  • Portable power. Anticipate situations where you’ve drained all battery power. If the digital camera can operate on standard AA or AAA batteries as well rechargeable batteries, that problem can always be easily remedied.
  • Compact or digital SLR. Ultimately, your choice comes down to deciding between a self-contained camera with a built-in lens or a digital SLR. Most real estate professionals will find a compact camera adequate. A digital SLR makes sense for those who are more serious about their photography and want the creative options of a system that takes accessory lenses.

As you can see, there’s much to consider when buying a camera. With a little homework, you’ll find a digital camera that should serve all your real estate needs and more than pay for itself over the course of its useful life.