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?

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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.

[Related Article: How to Become a Real Estate Photographer]

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!

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=