A Response to SL Realtor's Article About Taking Better Listing Photos
A Response to: "Four Surefire Tips for Better Listing Photos"
Published in Salt Lake Realtor Magazine, June 2017. Reprinted from Realtor Magazine Online, May 2017
I really enjoy reading the Salt Lake Realtor magazine. As an associate member of the Salt Lake Board of Realtors, I get the benefit of a new copy in my mailbox once per month. There is great information about industry news, safety, awareness, tips, and the great section "Housing Watch" that talks about the home sale trends along the Wasatch Front.
Every once in a while, however, there are "tip" articles that don't provide useful or accurate information. This is one of those cases. I want to provide further detail, as a photographer, about this article that has some tips for getting better listing photos. Some of the things said in this article are just flat out wrong.
My goal here is not to puff up my skills and knowledge and discourage anyone from every trying photography. I have quite the opposite opinion. If you want to take better listing photos and don't have it in your budget to hire a professional, I encourage you to pursue quality education. Photography is fun (that's why I do it for a living) but it can also be challenging. I want to help you understand photography better through this blog post so you can be better prepared if you want to pursue photography on your own.
This article was written by Erin Vaughan, who says about herself on her bio: [I'm] a blogger, gardener, and aspiring homeowner. She doesn't mention anything about photography so I'm guessing she doesn't pursue it as a hobby.
"Don't turn toward the light"
Erin first talks about how to avoid blown out windows. This is the section I had the hardest time reading. Nothing said in here is correct. Erin mentions that you can adjust your camera settings by taking over manual control but the right settings depend on what kind of camera you have. This is wrong. Camera settings (shutter speed, ISO, and aperture) are tool agnostic meaning it doesn't matter what kind of camera you have, the right settings will work.
Next, she says that getting properly exposed windows is simply a matter of adjusting the aperture to f/2.8 and turning up your ISO to 800 or more. Wrong, and wrong again, and here's why. The aperture is the size of the hole in your lens that light comes through (also called an f-stop, hence the letter 'f' in front of the number). Just like the iris in your eye, the aperture can be adjusted to let in more light or less light. The smaller the number, the larger the hole that light comes through. This comes with a caveat, though (doesn't it always). A smaller aperture (f/2.8 in this example) means a smaller depth of field (DOF). The DOF is the area of what will be in focus in your image. At f/2.8, you'd only have a small sliver of the room in focus and the rest would be blurry. So setting your camera to f/2.8 and thinking you'll get great photos just isn't realistic.
Next is ISO. This is the camera's sensitivity to light. You may recall back in the film days different film speeds of 100, 200, 400, 800 and so on. Believe it or not, but I am actually old enough to remember those days. I shot black and white Kodak 200 film as my favorite. Film speed refers to how sensitive the film is to light and in turn how much action (or speed) it can handle before the image gets too blurry. The same general idea applies to digital cameras. ISO tells how sensitive the camera sensor is to light; the higher the number, the more sensitive it is. Changing your ISO doesn't change the way the camera takes pictures, it just makes it more sensitive to light. Erin suggests that a higher ISO will allow you to get a better balance between low interior lights and bright exterior lights. This simply isn't true. ISO just changes how sensitive the camera is to light; it can't selectively be more sensitive to dark areas or bright areas. If you turn it up, your darks will be brighter and your brights will be MUCH brighter (over exposed, really).
Lastly, Erin mentions adjusting the shutter speed to allow less light to reach the camera sensor. While this true, it isn't helpful in this instance. The shutter speed refers to how fast the shutter flashes across your sensor. It happens in fractions of a second. Think of shutter speed as a stopwatch. This is how much "action" you will record from a scene. A faster shutter speed will take a fast snapshot (think of getting hummingbird wings that don't look blurry) and a slow shutter speed will gather an image over time (think of silky smooth water in a waterfall). The shutter speed will control how much light hits the sensor, but again, is isn't a magical feature that cameras have that allow you take amazing photos. Shutter speed, ISO, and aperture are all part of what's called the exposure triangle and they all have to work together to produce good images. When used alone, they won't do much to make a bad photo look good.
"Try HDR Tonemapping"
Next up, Erin talks about HDR tone mapping. She makes it sound way more serious than it actually is. HDR, or High Dynamic Range is when a camera takes multiple photos at different exposures and blends them together. Some cameras can do this all inside the camera while others require external software (like Photoshop) to do it. HDR is a good option for basic, no-frills photography. You can capture the highlights and the lowlights and blend them together for a pretty OK image. The problem with HDR is that you can get crazy, exaggerated colors and hues if you don't know what you are doing. Or you can see absolutely no difference because the camera exposure settings weren't set correctly. Erin does mention having to play around with this to get the right settings and that is true. Each room, each situation is different. There is not really a one-size-fits-all solution for this.
"Buy the Right Equipment"
The right equipment will definitely help take better photos. Erin mentions getting a solid tripod (an absolute must, I agree) and a camera with a lens that has "a large focal range" (an unclear suggestion). While the right equipment will definitely help, knowing how to use the equipment will give you the best results. Anyone can go out and buy $5,000 worth of camera equipment, software, and a computer to power through post processing. But just having the gear won't give you amazing photos. The camera, the computer, the software...they are just tools. It would be like going to Home Depot and buying a hammer, some nails, and a truck full of 2x4s and expecting to be able to build a house. Your understanding of how to use the tools is what will produce good images.
All of my camera gear is probably in the range of $5,000. My custom built computer cost over $2,500. All the software I have costs me over $300/mo to run. But that would all be worth nothing if I hadn't paid well over $2,000 for training and classes and dedicated hundreds of hours to developing my skills and knowledge on how to put all that fancy gear to good use.
Let's take sky replacements for example. It takes me anywhere between 5-15 minutes to do a sky replacement on a photo. But the first time I tried to do a sky replacement it took me over 4 hours to do 1 single replacement. I was up until well after 2am with trial and error, watching YouTube videos, and adjusting my settings in Photoshop. Let's take editing as another example. I can edit most of my real estate photo shoots in about 60-90 minutes. But the first real estate job I did, it took me over 5 hours to edit 35 photos. That's crazy! Add all this to the more than 10 years I have taking photos, developing my eyes to see great composition, and interpreting lighting situations.
I don't say this to brag about how expensive my gear is or how great I am at photography. Rather, it is just to give you an idea of what it takes to produce exceptional images. It is just like when people say, "Why hire a real estate agent? All they do is fill out some paperwork. Why should I pay them 3% of the sale of my house to do that?" They are completely wrong. You have to attend tons CE classes, you have to know the ever-changing real estate laws, you have to be familiar with ethical dilemmas, you have to know where buyers are and how to reach them, you have to know how to represent your client's best interest and how to negotiate on their behalf. It is much, MUCH more than just filling out some paperwork and making a couple phone calls. So while it is entirely possible for a homeowner to sell or buy a house without agent representation, they would be better off to call up an agent who will make sure everything is done right.
I'm getting a little preachy again so I'll restate what I've said before. Taking good listing photos is possible for ANYone to do by themselves if they are willing to do the research and practice. But at the end of the day what do you want to spend your time doing? Do you want to spend 3 hours learning how to create luminosity masks in Photoshop, or do you want to spend that time developing relationships with your current and potential clients? Personally, I didn't want to sell my house by myself. I wanted an agent to do it for me because my time is better spent working on my business and spending time with my family.
If you have the time and money to spend learning how to be a great photographer, there are tons of resources out there to help you. But if you'd rather hire someone to deliver to you an excellent marketing product that you can carry with you to all your future clients, consider working with a professional photographer such as myself.
Keywords: marketing, professional real estate photographer, real estate agent, real estate marketing, salt lake city real estate photographer
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