Picture Perfect: Tips and Tools for Better Photos

It's a fact: Listings with pictures sell faster. Here's an overview of some key photographic principles, as well as photo editing tools, to help you visually present a home.

January 1, 2010

Every real estate professional is now a photographer. Creating virtual tours is part of your job—an essential service you are expected to provide both buyers and sellers. Unless you have the budget to farm this chore out, you'll have to put in some time behind the lens taking pictures to make listings shine and highlight all the selling points of a home.

Whether you consider yourself the novice snap-shooter or a serious amateur photographer, there are simple techniques and an abundance of software tools to help you achieve a perfect shot.

It all starts with a good picture.

Tips for Better Photography

Get the Right Camera. For real estate, select a camera with a wide-angle lens so you can capture an entire room, or an entire home, in one shot. Wide angle means a lens "equivalent to a 28mm lens" on a 35mm camera, or lower. You'll also want at least a 4X optical zoom (rather than a digital zoom) to highlight specific features of the home. Fortunately, there's now a good selection of wide-angle/zoom cameras in all categories, from compacts to digital SLRs.

Learn a Camera's Features. Today, all digital cameras boast automatic features and presets that help ensure a good picture, whatever the subject and setting. But you need to understand why and when to use each and switch them on.

Think Before You Shoot. Don't just snap away as you walk through the house. Scout each room, and think in terms of how to capture its appeal. That may mean removing clutter, clearing tables and shelves, or rearranging furniture to better convey the possibilities in that space.

Compose Your Shot Use the camera's viewfinder or monitor to visually compose your picture before shooting. See how the image changes when you move closer or away from your subject, or when viewed from different angles.

Use a Tripod or Monopod. When shooting in any poorly lit setting or using zoom, there's always the risk of the picture blurring if you hold the camera. With the camera mounted and stationary, the potential problem is easily eliminated.

Step-Up. Use a stool or step ladder to take a picture from a slightly higher perspective than eye level. Otherwise, your pictures can highlight too much ceiling, rather than what's on floor level.

Turn Up the Lights. For interior shots, turn on all the available lights, even when using flash. If your camera's built-in flash range is too limited, invest in portable lights or an auxiliary flash (if available for your camera). Or, plan to shoot during daytime hours, and take advantage of ambient light.

Avoid Backlit Situations. When the background is bright, the subject can get lost in the shadows. Inside, you can avoid this by drawing the curtains; outside, by tightly framing your subject. Some cameras have specific settings for shooting against a bright background.

Shoot Like a Pro. Take lots of pictures—professional photographers fire away because they know the more they shoot, they more likely they will get that perfect shot. Zoom in and out, shoot interiors with and without flash, move around, and take several pictures of the listing in every room.

Get It Right Before You Leave. Use your camera monitor, netbook, or notebook to review your photos while you're still on site. It's better to make sure you have all the pictures you need than discover later you have to return for that one shot you missed.

Software Tools

Even if you've mastered the art of photography, there are always situations where you can improve your photos with imaging software. For real estate purposes, you'll typically use this software to organize images, crop photos, pull details out of the shadows, and adjust the exposure level. Shy away from making significant changes to a picture—erasing unwanted details, changing colors, or rearranging elements within a picture—and, if you do, always let viewers know how the image has been edited.

There are three types of imaging software to help you improve your pictures:

Tools You Already Have

Every camera comes bundled with software you can use for organizing pictures and basic image editing. Some cameras actually have this software built in, so you can make minor improvements to pictures while they are still stored in the camera's memory card.

Digital photography is so popular that imaging software is also one of the essential programs included with your computer's operating system. For Windows Vista users, the Windows Photo Gallery provides tools for organizing and improving pictures. On the Mac side, iPhoto is included as part of the iLife suite bundled with Mac OS X.

Aftermarket Imaging Software

Mention imaging software and most people think of Adobe's Photoshop first, part of the Adobe Creative Suite. Apple's Aperture, $199, is also a professional-level imaging solution for its platform, with tools that more than cover the needs of the typical real estate professional.

For Windows or Mac users who aren't satisfied with what's included with their systems, one good place to start might be with something like Adobe's Photoshop Elements, $99. Also, there's Google's free Picasa, which combines imaging software with a Web-based image gallery.

Other Windows options include:

On the Mac side, some of the aftermarket choices include:

Web-Based Solutions

As with every other software category, there's a growing selection of Web-based tools for organizing and editing photos. With the exception of Windows Live Picture Gallery, most are platform independent. Bandwidth and available online storage space should be a consideration if you plan to work with large image files. Some of the many choices include Adobe's Photoshop.com along with FotoFlexerPicNik, Pixlr, and Sumo Paint.

Remember, whether you install software or use an online package, all of these tools provide the same basic functions for improving pictures. Where they differ is in their sophistication and the actual user experience. Therefore, you may want to sample several programs before deciding which one you'll be most comfortable using.

That may be the toughest part of getting those perfect pictures for your tours.