What Is The Best DSLR Setup For Real Estate Photography? – Q&A With Matthew Saville

Gear & Apps January 6th 2014 12:00 PM 13 Comments

What Is The Best Camera Setup For Real Estate Photography?

Here is another question I get asked quite often, both from friends who are Realtors and from friends who are photographers looking to branch into real estate photography.  What camera should you buy, to best photograph the average sized property / home?  Do you need any special lenses or other equipment?  Do you need a tripod?

slr-lounge-qa-real-estate-photography-6Nikon D200, Nikon 12-24mm f/4, Induro Tripod

slr-lounge-qa-real-estate-photography-3Nikon D300, Nikon 24mm f/2.8 Ai-S, hand-held

Answer

Only a few years ago, my answer to that last question would have been a resounding YES. The first piece of equipment you want to buy for architecture / real estate photography is a tripod!  However these days it really can depend on what your goals are.  In other words, because high ISO performance is so good now you can make images hand-held in many conditions.  If your images are only going to be used in very small print, or online property listings, your job is going to be pretty dang easy!

However we should probably raise our standards just a little bit, for the sake of this article. Because to be quite honest that low-end standard of photography (hand-held shooting for web use only) is SO easy to achieve these days, that a Realtor could probably get acceptable results on their iPhone!  Today, let’s talk about the type of photography that actually requires a competent, skilled pro who is moderately equipped for the task.

Case in point: a friend recently asked about full-frame versus crop-sensors with respect to real estate photography. The cameras in question- A Nikon D800 with the new Nikon 18-35mm G, versus the Nikon D7000 with the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8

The difference between these two cameras is about $1,500, and if you swap the Nikon 18-35 for the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8,  that difference jumps to over $2,500!

Do you really need to invest over a thousand dollars more, just to shoot a few side jobs or even to work full-time as an architectural photographer?  As usual, not entirely.  Honestly if you use a tripod and stay at ISO 100-400, that D7000 and 11-16 ought to work out amazingly well. In fact if I recall the D7000 still has the greatest dynamic range of any crop-sensor camera ever made before or since.  In fact DXO ranks the D800 as less than 1 stop ahead of the D7000 for dynamic range!  I bet all of the hardcore, D800-loving photographers out there didn’t know that a $700 crop-sensor camera is less than ~1 stop behind their $2,800 behemoth!

[Rewind:  Comparing the Nikon D7000 and Tokina 11-16 against the Nikon D600 and 14-24]

 

But I digress.  Once you get on a tripod, the playing field becomes a lot more level.  Pretty much any camera can deliver sharp, detailed images that are professionally acceptable. Any camera with 12-16 megapixels or more is enough for general work, even for publication if you shoot with good technique.

Of course the D800 is double or triple the resolution, and is certainly worth it.  Remember, I usually advocate minimalism and doing more with less.  However if you have plenty of money to spend, by all means go ahead and buy whatever gear you want!  You will not be disappointed, I promise that a flagship camera body with a flagship lens will not let you down.

However there are plenty of hard-working pros who are indeed on a budget, just like there are plenty of Realtors who just are only buying a DSLR because they absolute must.

Before we move on, I should mention Canon DSLR bodies as well.  While the Nikon D800 and D7000 are two of the finest examples of dynamic range on the market today, the Canon equivalents are still pretty awesome.  A full-frame Canon 6D or Canon 5D Mk3, or the crop-sensor Canon 70D or 7D, are incredible performers.

The Canon 17-40 f/4 L lens is a fantastic performer for full-frame, and the crop-sensor Canon 10-22mm EF-S is equal or even better.  So once again, we’re pretty even if you’re shooting at ISO 100-400 on a tripod.

slr-lounge-qa-real-estate-photography-2Canon 5D Mk2, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L, Induro Tripod

slr-lounge-qa-real-estate-photography-8Nikon D300, Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8 DX, hand-held

Lens Choices for Real Estate Photography

So far we have kept it simple with regards to lenses, but only because there were two specific lenses brought up in a question.  In reality, there are many other lenses out there and a lot more to consider for architecture and especially for interior photography.

Shooting an interior is all about shooting as wide as you possibly can, at least some of the time.  In which case if 18mm (FX) or 11mm (DX) aren’t wide enough, for example, we can also consider the Sigma 8-16mm for crop sensors or the Sigma 12-24mm for full-frame sensors. These two lenses are simply the widest lenses available that are not fisheye.  (And you don’t want to use a fisheye lens to photograph a property, trust me!)  True, both of these Sigma lenses can have field curvature that demands careful use. But when used correctly, they can be wicked-sharp!  The closest alternatives are ultra-wide zooms that go to 10mm on crop sensors, or the handful of 14mm lenses available for full-frame.

Do you really need the ~2mm difference?  Probably not.  I’m just explaining your options!  Personally, I would indeed pick my four favorite architecture lenses as the Nikon 10-24mm DX and Canon 10-22mm EF-S, (for crop sensors) …and the Canon 17-40 f/4 L and Nikon 16-35mm f/4 VR for full-frame.  If you’re getting bored of reading this article, just buy one of those lenses and get to work!

Anyways, if you are frequently shooting interiors in very confined spaces, there is simply no substitute for being able to go, well, “ridiculously wide”.  Just ask any of your realtor friends or clients if they would like you to make an interior look “spacious”, and they’ll say YES.  So the bottom line is that wide angle lenses give you the best possible way to make a room appear big, without actually using Photoshop to be deceptive.

slr-lounge-qa-real-estate-photography-5Nikon D200, Nikon 12-24mm f/4 @12mm, Induro Tripod

At the end of the day, chances are if you’re a professional photographer then lenses are just tools and you’ll probably wind up owning more than one.  You’ll have a “bread and butter” lens that you use the most, and then you may also have one or two specialty lenses that you only get out when you need them.  Either way, the more serious you are then the more you should be prepared to own two or three lenses in the long run.  Again, this adds up more for full-frame users than crop-sensor.

Tilt-Shift Lenses For Real Estate Photography

Of course once you get serious enough about architectural photography to become interested in tilt-shift lenses, then full-frame gains an advantage for obvious reasons.  The most common tilt-shift lenses on the market for architecture are the 24mm’s.  Since this gives you something like 36mm on a crop sensor, it is basically un-usable for all but the most spacious properties.

I have a hard time recommending the Canon or Nikon versions of 24mm tilt-shift lenses, because the Rokinon 24mm f/3.5 TS is such an amazing lens!  I would only consider buying the name-brand tilt-shift lenses if you are abusive of your lenses, and/or if you plan to resell them at some point.  Otherwise, the sharpness is incredible on the Rokinon.

Then of course there is the Canon 17mm f/4 L TS-E, an unparalleled lens with a similarly unparalleled price tag.  I really cannot say that much about this lens as I have not yet tested it myself, however the price tag will dictate whether or not you “know” if it is right for you.  Most pros, let alone hobbyists, are better off simply using a normal lens and then correcting their perspective in post-production, and/or using focus-stacking software for achieving greater depth of field.  At least in my opinion, that is.

Mirrorless Digital Systems For Real Estate Photography

While the quality and performance of mirrorless systems is indeed improving dramatically these days, their one current shortcoming is in ultra-wide lens options.  There just aren’t very many lenses that go much wider than 24mm or so.  In fact I can only think of two off the top of my head!  So yes, you could certainly use a mirrorless camera, however interiors are going to be a little more difficult.   It’s definitely possible to shoot an interior with a ~24mm lens as your widest option, it usually just involves a lot of cramming yourself back against a wall!

slr-lounge-qa-real-estate-photography-7Nikon D300, Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8 DX @ 17mm, Induro Tripod

Interior Lighting

What about all the lighting equipment that the pro architectural photographers use?  Architectural lighting is such a huge subject, unfortunately we’ll have to save it for a separate article.  Then again, if you’re just shooting a few properties here and there for some extra cash, chances are that there simply won’t be time to set up a bunch of lighting equipment anyway.  You’re better off simply using the dynamic range of your camera to your advantage, and/or using HDR techniques.

Conclusion

So, what are the take-home message here?

  1. Yes, having a tripod helps a lot.
  2. No, you don’t necessarily need the most expensive flagship full-frame camera, in fact for real estate photography it is all about the lenses and the shooting technique!
  3. Speaking of technique, do put a lot of effort into mastering your camera’s options for shooting steady and achieving the best sharpness.  You’ll want to get really good at gauging depth of field (DOF) and making sure your images are entirely tack-sharp.  Become comfortable shooting stopped down and at slower shutter speeds, even in moderate daylight or indoors.  Many cameras have a 2-sec. timer delay (both Canon and Nikon) or an auto mirror-shutter delay, (Nikon only) …for those who do not want to bother with a cable release.
  4. Having a circular polarizer is also really helpful for photographing everything from boring mid-day sun to wet rainy days.  A pretty blue sky never hurt anyone, plus polarizers can help most green things (plants, trees, etc) to look more pretty as well!
  5. Keep in mind that your equipment does say something about your own production value.  I might be suggesting a minimalist approach, but there are plenty of factors that can affect this.  In other words if you’re trying to hurry through a dozen foreclosure photo gigs in a single day for an internet listing, then the gear you use doesn’t really matter that much.  Just shoot visually clean, strongly composed images and you’re good to go!  However if you’re getting commissioned to photograph multimillion-dollar mansions you might not want to show up with nothing but a hand-held beginner DSLR. This sounds a little phony, however those who are actually in the business will probably agree.  It really does help to increase your perceived production value by bringing out the big lenses etc, even if you COULD accomplish the job with an iPhone.  ;-)

As usual, if any pros out there are currently working in this field, please feel free to chime in with your own experience!

Take care,
=Matt=

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About

Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge. Connect with him on Google Plus

13 Comments

  1. Steve Pellegrino

    We sold our house last year and I did the photos for the listing, which was the first time I’d ever shot real estate. The agent was just going to use a smartphone for the photos. While I shoot with a Canon, I didn’t have a wide lens for this, so I used my wife’s Nikon D3200 with the kit 18-55 lens and shot everything at 18mm. 18mm on a crop sensor worked fine, but I think you have to know how the agent is going to use the images. Depending on the listing, especially high-end listings, the agent is going to go beyond just sticking the photos on Realtor.com. They may feature the house on their site with higher quality images and they may want to have several choices for hi-res photos available for printing, like on a postcard for example.

    Our old house was a small 3 bedroom, 1 bath house and I submitted about 70 photos for it. I took photos of each room from every corner, plus the basement and exteriors. Only about 35 were used on the site.

  2. Mike

    Great information for someone thinking of this as an extra hat to wear aside from weddings and portraits. Thanks for the info!

  3. Matt Risinger

    Great article! I’m shooting a Canon 70d and trying to decide what ultra-wide to buy but I’m further complicated by needed a lens for video use too. Any comments or recommendations on the Canon 10-22 vs the Tokina 11-16 2.8? For video it’s better for me to have a fixed aperture lens, and I like the 2.8 on the Tokina. Would love any advice you have for me. Best, Matt Risinger

    • Matthew Saville

      Hi Matt! The Canon 10-22mm EF-S is better for general shooting because it has more range and is very sharp when stopped down a stop or two. The Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 is going to be superior only if you actually plan to use it at f/2.8, A LOT.

      If you don’t yet know how much you need f/2.8, then I do highly recommend renting either these two lenses, or simply any f/2.8 zoom and comparing it to whichever variable aperture zooms you might already have.

      For me, I’d love to own both and maybe some day I probably will, but for now I go with constant f/2.8 zooms because they’re better for night landscape photography and event photojournalism / video.

      If you’re shooting real estate photography specifically, I might go with the 10-22 instead though. The greater range is much more useful than the aperture. It just depends on what your main dedicated use of the lens will be. :-)

      Hope this helps!
      =Matt=

  4. Elizabeth Glorioso

    I have been shooting real estate on the side for 10 years. Your article is on point. I shoot with a d300, 10-24 tamron lens and a tripod. It is all about working fast. Realtors do not pay much per property so grouping several together to shoot on the same day in the same geographic area makes it worthwhile.

    This isn’t architectural photography- I am not bringing lights or my d800 and spending 8 hours shooting one house. I bracket exposures using existing light and will bounce a Metz off a white ceiling or wall for fill light. In and out and then I turn the images around to the agent fast.

  5. Pedro

    First of all thank you for the great insight over the subject.

    I just have to disagree with you on this: “There just aren’t very many lenses that go much wider than 24mm or so” o’really?
    Please check the internet. There’s tons of mirrorless lenses that go much wider then that. In fact, most kit lenses already do. many 16/18-50 ones around.
    Sure you would want a ultra wide zoom lenses but nowadays you already have great options that are even better than most full frame dslr ones.

    I mean, have you look at these? Samsung 12-24mm 4.0-5.6, Canon EF-M 11-22mm f/4-5.6 IS, Sony 10-18mm f4 OSS and the XF10-24mmF4 R OIS.

    In fact the last 3 are the only apc-s ultra wide zoom lenses that have image stabilizer. Even in full frame there’s only one the nikon 16-35mm f4 VR.

    So mirrorless is not an issue anymore. I was in the past do to focus but now the new sony A6000 is even a mirrrorless that is just the fastest AF camera in the world.
    imo apc-s dslr are dead. Even more with the new mirrorless full frame sony A7. It’s clearly the future.

    I previously owned a nikon D3100 and the kit lens that I was thinking of upgrading. It was stolen so I really need to get some new stuff.

    I’ve been thinking about this all the time but I am still puzzled about if I really should go full frame.
    A nikon D600 + nikon 24-85mm vr + tamron 17-35mm would cost around 1520€.
    A sony nex-6 + 16-50mm + 10-18mm would cost around 1065€.

    Ideally I would get the Sony A7 but it’s hard to justify the extra cost vs D600 and anyway there isn’t an UWA yet but probably a system would go for around 2500€.
    What you think about it?

    • Matthew Saville

      Pedro,

      You’re right that the mirrorless cameras with the same format of 1.5x crop will indeed have access to a better number of ultra-wide lenses that go wider than 24mm. However to the best of my knowledge, there are very few DEDICATED ultra-wide lenses for ALL mirrorless systems, especially any that go wider than 18-20mm and especially for the 2x crop or greater. Whereas full-frame and traditional crop sensors have a veritable smorgasbord of lenses that achieve the FOV of 12-14mm or at least 16mm. When I made that statement, I was kind of assuming that the most common mirrorless format was the micro four thirds format, but I might be wrong.

      BTW, I was also talking about equivalent focal lengths to 24mm on full-frame. So if a mirrorless system is a 2x crop, it would need a 12mm lens to achieve the same FOV. Or to achieve a 14mm FOV on a 2x crop, you’d need a 7mm lens. How many 7mm lenses (non fisheye) are out there? One or two. And none whatsoever that can compete with the likes of the Sigma 12-24mm (full-frame) or 8-16mm. (1.5x)

      So yes, you can get wider than 24mm with a handful of lenses, but not much wider than ~17-18mm which IMO is still kind of a deal-breaker for anyone who shoots more interiors than exteriors. Let alone the lack of tilt-shift options, for anyone who is that serious.

      You may be right that APS-C DSLR’s are “dead” but that doesn’t change the fact that millions and millions of them have already been sold and are readily available. (I had originally aimed this article at a friend who already owned a 1.5x crop Nikon DSLR, for example) It is easier to use the camera you have, than to re-buy an entirely new system from scratch. If you’re very concerned about size and weight then it might be worth a complete switch, (or if your gear gets stolen) …but I find that existing cameras like my Nikon D5300 are already totally small and light enough for the type of work I do. That, and optical viewfinders will always have a place in the market for certain types of shooters. But that would be an entirely different article, that I’ll have to save for another day.

      IMO, regarding FX versus DX, it really does come down to whether or not you need two things: Insanely high ISOs, and insanely shallow DOF. Otherwise, crop sensors deliver everything I need. Especially this newest 24 MP 1.5x crop Sony sensor, that has been proving its worth in many cameras including the Nikon D7100, Nikon D5300, and the Pentax K-3. (All of these without an AA filter too) I have tested / reviewed all three of those cameras personally, and I gotta say that both ISO and dynamic range are on par with (or superior to!) the full-frame options of just one or two generations ago. So really, there is just a 1-2 generation gap between FX and DX. Yep, I’m putting my money down: whatever FX is doing today, DX will do in 1-2 generations. (Aside from DOF, although with Sigma’s f/1.8 zoom, that might change too!)

      Bottom line: If you’re not obsessed with shallow DOF and if you find yourself shooting most of your critical shots at ISO 100, then there is very, very little reason to get full-frame.

      We’re actually going to review the Sony A6000 probably here at SLR Lounge, we’ve just got a lot of other stuff on our plate currently. :-)

  6. Sarah

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks so much for posting this! Even with all the technical language, you really broke it down to where a beginner such as myself can understand! I have a Nikon D5100 and am looking to venture into real estate photography. After much research, I have set my sights on the Nikkor 14-24 mm f/2.8G ED lens. First of all I want to get your opinion on whether or not this is worth investing in for the outdoor AND indoor aspects of real estate photography. And secondly, is there a similar compatible brand such as Sigma, Tamron, or Rokinon that would produce high-quality results but maybe be smarter as far as the money? Thanks in advance!

    Sarah

    • Matthew Saville

      Sarah,

      I think that unless a full-frame camera body and a SERIOUS pursuit of photography is in your very near future, the 14-24 would be extremely overkill for this type of work.

      Now before people jump down my throat about discouraging a beginner or amateur from buying such a nice lens, trust me I have many reasons.

      First and foremost, the biggest thing is that you can get an even better focal range for less than half the price, heck almost 1/3 the price, in the Nikon 10-24 DX. Like I said unless you plan to get a full-frame camera within the next year or so, this DX lens will be FAR better suited for your needs.

      Next, not only is the 14-24 less well-suited for crop sensors and incredibly expensive, it’s also much more cumbersome and annoyingly heavy for ANY type of work, professional or not. It does not accept front filters without expensive adapter apparatus, and the front element is so big and wide you will basically have to re-organize your entire camera bag just to find a place for it.

      Again I’m not saying this as some pro who is trying to discourage a beginner from buying such an amazing lens, I’m talking about the same exact things that I myself find to be huge inconveniences and disadvantages.

      Simply put, the 14-24 is really only a good idea if you’re utterly addicted to the ultra-wide focal range, AND if you need autofocus as well. Otherwise, for full-frame the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 is just as sharp, or for crop-sensors the Nikon 10-24 DX is a fraction of the weight and approximately just as sharp.

      So first and foremost, on the D5100 I would consider:

      If you’re not going to get full-frame soon…
      Nikon 10-24mm DX
      Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 DX
      Rokinon 10mm f/2.8 DX
      Tokina 12-28mm f/4 DX

      If you think t hat full-frame is in your near future, then…
      Nikon 16-35 f/4 VR
      Rokinon 14mm f/2.8
      Tokina 16-35mm f/4
      Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8
      Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8

      …and yes, in that order.

      Most people consider it un-acceptable to buy a crop sensor lens if full-frame is even a remote possibility in your camera bag some day. However I just don’t see it that way; mainly because I’m already very used to buying and selling used lenses, which is a great way to have almost zero “loss” in the long run. But also, simply because I find it is best to have the exact lens for the exact purpose I need at the time. Even if I buy a brand new Nikon 10-24 DX (especially with a rebate) …and then have to sell it in 9-12 months because I upgraded to full-frame, I’m still really only losing a few dollars. And to me that loss is just a small expense for the benefit of having the exact focal range I need at the time.

      =Matt=

  7. Ryan

    What about for someone looking to buy the cheapest new gear that will do the job with good wide angle?

    Canon T5i or NEX?

    Are there any wide angle compacts that do a decent job?

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  9. Derek

    I am a Real Estate agent that wants to have the option of taking the photos myself to save the client on marketing costs but I do want wide angle not just your basic digital photos. However I don’t want to lash out and spend a lot of money on new gear just yet. I will look for second hand models of what you mention but looking on Ebay for older sort of gear are there any suggestions in the lower end of the scale of cameras and lenses to look for.

  10. Cristina

    Great article Matt, thanks!

    I was wondering if you have any insight on optimal gear/lens when using a nikond3100? I’m just starting out in real estate photography and I have to work with what I have until I can upgrade so… every ounce of info helps!

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