Real estate photography, while not the sexiest of photography genres, is quite accessible and a handy way to earn some cash, especially if your starting out. Many interior design and architectural photographers cut their teeth taking photos for estate agents and holiday home companies, but much of the high volume stuff looks way too flashy. In this article I'll show you a relatively easy way to get natural looking light without blown-out windows.
I don't use much gear for these jobs. I started with a Canon T6i and a relatively cheap wide-angle lens, the Canon's EF-S 10-18mm. This "enthusiast" DSLR and plastic, non-L-series lens made me enough money to pay for themselves and an upgrade to a Canon 6D plus Canon's 16-35mm f/2.8. I have two Yongnuo YN-565EX speedlights with Hahnel triggers, and a Manfrotto tripod with their junior geared head.
One of the most important requirements for interiors, or any architectural work for that matter, is to get your verticals perfectly straight. The geared head saves so much time in the field and at the computer because it's able to make micro-adjustments. Before I purchased the geared head I was just using a ball head, and let me tell you, upgrading to the geared head made a huge improvement to my leveling accuracy and really sped up my workflow, both on site and in Photoshop. Oh, and I nearly forgot: a trigger release. This is very important when you're bracketing. Any little movement of the camera when taking multiple exposures will cost you time (and money), so get one. They're super cheap and also very useful for landscapes.
For real estate, it's best to include as much information about a room as possible (e.g., lighting fixtures, power sockets, and adjacent rooms via doorways) but holiday homes can be a little more idealistic. It's up to the client how much they want to include. As a rule of thumb, 24mm is the ideal focal length (naturally, because I started with a cropped sensor and a wide-angle EF-S lens, I shot at the equivalent focal length of around 15mm). Anything wider and everything starts to become distorted. Some estate agents might ask you to make a room look bigger, so in this instance I might go as wide as 18-20mm. I would try to convince the agent to let me stay around the 24mm mark, but how you approach this is up to you. Personally, I don't like having my name attached to images that are obviously shot at super wide angles, which distort the truth as well as the room. Depth of field will differ depending on what's in the frame. If I want my room sharp front to back, but the view a bit soft, I'll go around f/5.6–f/6.3. For pretty window views I'll stop down to f/7.1–f/11. All the time I'm focusing on either the center of the room, or the most prominent feature.
I start off by exposing for the outside (if I'm angled towards a window), then I'll take four more brackets, increasing the exposure by one stop each time, just to get as much information as possible. If there is some crazy dynamic range going on, I'll keep going. Most of the time I don't need the extra shots, but I like to cover myself in case something goes wrong (note: things will go wrong). I'll then decrease the exposure, once again exposing for the outside, but this time I'll pop a flash or two. If it's a small room with a white ceiling, great, I can just fire off a frame while pointing the flash, with my free hand, straight up to be bounced off the ceiling (BOC). If I'm feeling a little saucy, I'll try and get more directionality by moving to either camera left (CL) or camera right (CR). Remember, this is easily achieved with the wired trigger release, and it's often necessary to avoid reflections. When the ceiling is a funky color, I'll use a white umbrella instead of BOC, because one of the most awkward things to do in post is remove weird color casts. This can also add some nice directionality. Word to the wise: if it's a sunny day and there are loads of green trees and grass outside the window, take some exposures with the curtains closed. Trust me, you don't want be removing blotchy green from a cream yellow wall in Photoshop. I found that out the hard way.
If the room is quite big, I'll set up a speedlight on a stand in another corner of the room, also BOC, but either CR or CL depending on where I'm positioned, and set it to slave mode. When the room is bigger again, I'll need to position a speedlight at the opposite end of the room. A lot of the time this speedlight will be in the frame, but I can mask it out later in Photoshop because I've taken so many exposures. One of the most important things for me is to get a decent exposure of the window frame with the flash, because if all else fails you can just mask in a nice view without having dark and dirty window frames.
After I import all of my raw files into Lightroom, I'll one-star all the shots that I think I'll need. Then I'll go through each angle and balance the color temperature between the flash frames and the regular exposures. I open all the files for a particular angle as smart objects in Photoshop because if I need to tweak the color balance or exposure, this way is non-destructive and I can go back an forth without worrying. I'll blend the properly exposed window frame with some natural light, and If I've done a good job at complementing the ambient light with my speedlights I can just use the brighter ambient frames to mask out any nasty, hard shadows caused by the speedlights. When everything is blended together, as needs be, I'll brighten up certain areas by adding a curves adjustment layer and masking it in where needed. Then all I do is add some contrast, make sure there are no weird color casts, and make sure all my verticals are straight by using the transform tool and "skew." When I roundtrip back to Lightroom, I usually add sharpening and a touch of clarity before exporting.
If you want to earn some money with these skills or are looking for experience in architectural photography, then real estate is the place to start. The methods I've outlined above might be more than is needed for a lot of real estate jobs. You could just go the HDR route for quick and painless edits, but the results are not as natural looking. If you want to learn more about this type of photography then I would strongly suggest investing in Mike Kelley's fantastic "Where Art Meets Architecture" series. I have purchased the first two and they have paid for themselves multiple times over.
Do you shoot real estate? How would you do things differently? Feel free to tell us in the comments below.