How To Improve Exterior Shots In A City Environment

March 3rd, 2014

PhillyRich in Philly sent me the following last week:

I live just outside of Philadelphia, most of my Real Estate Photography work is in the city. I shoot a lot of apartment condos and renovated row homes. Thanks to your blog and Scott Hargis’s tutorials, I am coming into my own as far as interior photography goes.

My big problem is the exterior shots. It’s really a big concern of mine, so-much-so, that I even decided to market myself as an “interior photographer”, simply because I find it very difficult to get compelling exterior shots in a city environment. Most of the time I’m dealing with parked cars, telephone poles, wires, high rises.. I was wondering if there were any tips or tricks out there to help improve my exterior city shots, or as I like to call em “shitty shots”.

One thing that i do try and deliver with every shoot is strong interior compositions, that way at least there is something that my clients can use to draw potential clients in.

Here are my suggestions for Rich:

  1. First of all whether all agents realize it or not exterior shots ARE important even in downtown Philly. Mostly because a thumbnail of the front exterior shot (that is usually the first photo on the MLS) is frequently what potential buyers have to scan when searching sites like Zillow.com or other real estate sites. That thumbnail is the lure that gets a buyer to click and look at the interior shots. It’s instructive to go to zillow.com and search downtown Philly like you are a buyer… You can see Rich’s problem, there are a lot of properties that have good looking interiors that are butt-ugly on the outside. But the point-and-shoot exterior shots on most listing are not very inspiring!
  2. I notice from looking at current listings in Philly, that there apparently is no rule on the Philly MLS that says you can’t have an interior shot as the primary (first) MLS photo… I see quite a few interior shots as the first photo. If this is true, make use of this and instruct agents to use the your best interior shot as the first MLS photo and put the butt-ugly exterior photo as the last photo. I think this would help.
  3. I agree, you aren’t going to be able to make many of these exterior shots breath taking. However, by just making the verticals, vertical, and having a minimum of cars and garbage cans you could make your front exteriors will  look better than 99% of the ones I see on Zillow.com in downtown Philly listings.
  4. I would not hesitate to remove superfluous temporary objects like cars or garbage cans but I would NOT remove telephone poles or power lines or satellite antennas or any thing that is a permanent object.
  5. My guess is that a twilight shot in downtown Philly would make a lot of power lines and telephone poles go away or be less noticeable while lit windows would be more noticeable. The biggest problem with this one is a twilight shot requires another trip back which agents are not likely to want to do. On the other hand a killer twilight shot could hide a lot of the ugliness.
  6. Giving your camera a little height (10′ to 20′) could help in some situations. A painters pole or just standing on your vehicle can help with this.

I’m sure readers can come up with more ideas.

13 Responses to “How To Improve Exterior Shots In A City Environment”

  • My first thought was to shoot twilight shots as well. Just like a nightclub, the subdued light can add perceived beauty by concealing flaws. (personal experience, but I don’t want to talk about it) Be sure to charge extra if you have to go back to get it. I agree also with Larry about adding some height to the perspective. A light weight step ladder (3-4ft) plus your height can easily elevate you above the parked cars allowing you to shoot passed them. This will also assist in correcting the verts as the angle won’t be as severe. Also, consider crossing the street and zooming in to just show the front entrance rather than the whole facade and “shitty” stuff around it. If you go the Pole route, be careful of the overhead wires and traffic. Easy to forget when trying to get a shot. (another personal experience) Good Luck

  • While it’s customary to have an exterior photo as the first image on a listing, there’s no reason why you can’t lead with a different view. With condos, walkups and high rise apartments, it’s probably better to put the exterior photo at the end of the list if it makes any sense to include one. You can be creative with the exterior shot by going tight on the front door and a little of the porch. Maybe have an open front door to suggest an invitation to come in with the interior properly lit so it isn’t a black hole. A night shot of the entrance to a high rise with streaked car lights might capture the feeling of downtown living. If it is a downtown residence, try shooting a neighborhood scene. Try to find some magazines dedicated to downtown city living and see if you can create a portfolio of photo ideas to try on your commissions.

  • Finally a chance to point out something that I notice in so many photos…even some taken by the most experienced photographers. I believe it would be considered part of “artistic acoustics” (heard and borrowed this term from Scott Hargis at Sunday’s Lighting Interiors workshop in Atlanta). WINDOWs… I look at windows on a house as eyes on a human face. If the shades/blinds/shutters are closed, in my opinion houses look unhappy, sleepy and or uninviting. First thing I ask the agents/sellers to do in preparation of my arrival, is please open the shades/blinds/shutters and try to have the windows consistent. Doing this will help make the exterior of the house “pop” and make it a happier and more welcoming house. Trust me, if the agent/seller is not there to do it for you and you take the time to do it, you will be glad you made the effort. If you are look online at a page with rows of listings or a magazine ad for a brokerage, your eyes are drawn more to properties with “open” windows. This image is a perfect example… Imagine it with its eyes open even if the neighbors are closed. It makes a huge difference and the agents/sellers appreciate the results!

  • My first thought when reading the article and viewing the photo is that pole photography, elevated to about the second floor level, would definitely help. By raising the camera, the verticals come around to where the building doesn’t look like it is falling over. Further refinement in post will also eliminate some of the attached residents. Sometimes I have had to step into the street…or even across the street, for townhomes with no or limited front yard, but rarely as far back when taking it from a non-elevated position. Another advantage of elevation is that many time you will shoot over the obstacle you otherwise would have to remove, plus you generally have more flexibility, assuming no trees etc, on the angle where many times at ground level the obstacle alignment dictates the position to avoid a major reconstruction of the space in post. With elevation you have to be careful of the – and know the difference – proximity to electric wires. I have one that I use in presentation (with a corresponding P&S requiring going across the street and showing car parked in front plus utility wires) where I stood on the curb next to the car and raised up just above the lower line which was telephone, but still 4 feet below electrical – and none of that showed up, nor did the realtor sign that beat me to the shoot.

  • I might add use a FF camera with at least a 16mm Lens. Then get close and off to an angle a bit rather than right on. This allows you to stand on the side walk missing most cars, poles an lines. I also allows you to feature the neighborhood a bit better in some instances. It also allows you to feature the front door a bit more prominently (provided it’s nice). Ditto on the verticals and the window blinds and shades. Keep them open and all the same if possible.

  • I am an agent who does all his own photography. Shooting large hi-rises in and near downtown Chicago is over 90% of what I do. A few suggestions. First, compile a list of the buildings where you thing you will be getting assignments. Then, go take exterior pictures of those buildings on a slow day when you don’t need them. Perfect angle of the sun; perfect blue sky. Keep them all for future access. Second, be alert when you are in those hi-rise bldgs for what you might see out the window. More than once, I have gotten great shots of other bldgs, and or common areas, much aided by the elevation I was at, that would have been impossible to get when I needed them as I would have no longer had access to the apartment where I took the picture in the first place. Finally, consider getting a ladder that folds up in sections. Available online or from Home Depot. They fold up to only about 3 feet tall for easy carrying, and extend to 10 feet or so when unfolded. Could give you the little height boost you need that can make a big difference.

  • And a few thoughts for the shot pictured above. As other posters have mentioned, a little elevation, even 5 feet or so, could go a long way. Probably would have allowed you to shoot over the car in the foreground. Second, a different time of day might have allowed you to have the front of the bldg lighted by sun, yet not have had the shadow cast by the telephone pole. There is an app called LightTrac which allows you to plot the direction of the sun to a specific location by time of day which could help on that issue, too.

  • The easiest way to get exterior shoots in the city is to have the home owner park their car in front of their house prior to the day of the shoot. On the day of the shoot they move the car while you are taking the shot. New construction is easier. Have the builder obtain temporary no parking permit prior to the shoot. The problem with this method is it requires planning in advance. It’s my experience that it’s almost impossible to get Realtors to do this. Home owners and builders will. I wish you the best Rich. You are o good photographer.

  • Larry, I understand and agree about not removing telephone poles. But what about putting the telephone pole out of focus? Is that over the line? It would still be in the picture but hopefully it would not be as prominent.

    BTW, some MLS’s such as ours will not allow you to put an interior shot first.

    “The front exterior photo or rendering must be entered in the 1st photo slot on all property types
    unless the 1st slot is an aerial photo or an exterior photo of a water view from the property (unit), in
    which case the front exterior photo must be in the 2nd slot.”

  • Felix,
    Given that we’re in an urban environment, we can assume that the photographer is shooting wider than 50mm, probably MUCH wider. How do you propose getting the telephone pole out of focus?

  • I sometimes have this problem since I’m near NYC and sometimes shoot in the Bronx and Queens. Westchester also has some hard-core urban areas.

    1. Twilight shots do indeed help with a very urban landscape. It gets rid of power lines, de-emphasizes the lack of anything “green” and even calms down the impact of cars, garbage cans and general density. As mentioned in the post, you are NOT supposed to take out things like power lines. (At least not in NY).

    2. Sometimes, emphasizing a simple feature or molding of the building (for example, if it has a really nice front door) is worthwhile. Yes, you still need an entire exterior shot, but going less wide-angle to emphasize good features also really helps.

    3. If the building is really ugly, I try to find a nice street shot to add in as well. I generally dance around the power lines and cars and just look for an angle that includes the building that is somewhat flattering.

    4. If there are decent local landmarks they can help paint a nicer picture. I had this one shoot in the Bronx about 3 months ago. NICE condo, but the immediate area was deadly. It wasn’t a bad neighborhood, but just urban and UGLY. But it was about half a block from a great view of the Throggs Neck Bridge. So I walked that half-block and took a photo of the bridge. The agent was really happy that I did that.

    There are areas where not much is going to help…it can be really challenging. But I’ve found that moving my feet around and trying angles that I would normally not consider as well as getting a bit away from the full wide angle shots helps.

  • Scott – I think Felix was asking about using pp techniques to cause the telephone pole to be out of focus. At least that is my take on the question. I’m not sure I could do it and have it look realistic, but I haven’t really tried either. I guess anything is possible with enough photoshop skills…..

  • Thank you all for the great advice!!!

    It’s really the small row homes on the tight, crowded streets that I was struggling with. I’ve started using my monopod as my “pole” and am working thru the kinks, but it seems to be working out pretty well, that along with some of the other tips!

    @ Bruce, great idea about shooting other buildings from the vantage point of inside shoots that I’m at! Love that!

    @ Drew, thank you! Being in the Philadelphia market, your work has inspired me!

    @ Scott Hargis, thank you for all of your hard work and great advice! (OT) I did a little modification on the cheap light stands that you use. Instead of drilling holes for the eye hooks to hold an umbrella, I just use a Umbrella Swivel Adapter. http://strobist.blogspot.com/2006/03/lighting-101-umbrella-adapters.html I attach the stud (E) to the quick release of the cheap tri pod. Then slip on the adapter and tighten. Holds the flash and the umbrella and no drilling needed!