What Tripod Head For Real Estate Photography – Shooting Small Half Baths

November 16th, 2014

SmallBathroomRichard Asked the following questions:

Question 1: I’m upgrading my tripod and am looking at the popular brand legs (Dolica, slik, Manfrotto) that will allow me to mount the camera up to at least 72″. It seems ball heads are popular, and levels are a must. What kind of head do you recommend for RE work, ball head or a pan and tilt head like the Manfrotto Pro 3 models?

Question 2: While I’m here with you, have you ever run a column on how to best shoot a small 1/2 bath? Camera inside shot via remote or lean in just enough to avoid reflections (my usual way to do it)? High vs eye vs low-angle? Best way to light?

My answers:

To question 1:  Tripod heads – Pan and tilt heads are better for video than still shooting. I used a ball head on my tripod for many years until I met Scott Hargis and saw the Manfrotto 405 Pro Geared Head that Scott uses. I started using the 405 Pro head for real estate and I love how it can quickly be adjusted accurately in all three dimensions with a bubble level in each dimension. Yea, I know, it’s pricey, but the Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared Head is very similar but less expensive than the 405. What heads do others recommend?

To question 2: Shooting a small 1/2 baths – Yes, I know what you mean, with these little bathrooms you and your camera always end up in the mirror! Here’s how I do it:

  1. Stand in the doorway… for these little bathrooms there is usually no other choice.
  2. Use a small flash on top of the door pointing back at the wall/ceiling joint or corner of the room set on 1/16 to 1/3 power depending on the room. Or shoot a few brackets if you are using Enfuse. In my example above my flash is a little hot (upper right corner of the mirror). I should have noticed this and backed off on the power.
  3. Height of the camera should be the standard 36″ to 48″ (slightly above the counter). This means your camera will be in the mirror. Don’t try to get out of the mirror by dropping down low! This looks really wacky. It isn’t that hard to just remove yourself and/or camera from the photo.
  4. While doing post processing, remove yourself and or your camera from the photo with Photoshop. Note, if you plan ahead when shooting you can make sure there’s a clean background so Photoshop removal will be easy. If you’ve planned ahead content aware fill works nicely for this.
  5. This same technique works if the bath has a tub and or shower… sometimes this style benefits from another flash the tub/shower area.

Anyone have more advice for Richard?

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28 Responses to “What Tripod Head For Real Estate Photography – Shooting Small Half Baths”

  • I switched from a Manfrotto Ballhead, which I thought was excellent, to the 410, and I am quite happy with it. The disadvantage of a medium priced ballhead is that you have to hold the camera with one hand during adjustments and when you take off the hand after tightening the ball, it will move a bit with the front lens down due to the weight of the cam-lens-combo. This causes you to re-adjust again. This will not happen with a geared head. I will complete mine with an L-bracket for portrait format, but I am still looking for a sturdy set of parts.

  • I switched to an induro ball… locks down tight with no lens twist or drop. A little grease and oil makes it smooth as butter. Adjusting three geared knobs for each and every shot, not my cup of tea.

    I typically shoot small baths at about a 45 angle thru the doorway with just a sliver of the lens hood reflected at the edge of the mirror. I then frame and zoom to avoid shooting the typical hanging towel on the edge of the mirror and that sliver of the hood. It gives me a clean mirror on one edge of the composition which is then matched by another clean edge on the other side of the frame (tub surround, shower curtain or wall).

    Bouncing the flash from the top of the cam is simple enough if you just shoot it straight out the door (backwards). A little play with the angles and power adjustments off my black shirt gives just enough fill without bouncing hot spots on the open door, ceiling, wall, etc. Sometimes no flash works if the lighting isn’t too whacky and you can avoid blowing out bulbs over the mirror!

  • Forgot to add the most important part. I used to use a nice set of gitzo carbon legs, but the were really too light, flexy and the locking knurls were kind of rough on my paws. I now use a great induro set with an extending column. Hard to believe it, but the blow the gitzo set out of the water. Really solid, perfect weight, no flex. The locking knurls are the best.

  • I own both the Manfrotto 405 & 410 jr on various sizes of Gitzo carbon sticks. Geared heads are the only way to go in shooting real estate.

  • When I started shooting real estate I had to shoot the 360 degree images which meant leveling your tripod quickly. I used (and still do for panoramas) a beautiful Berlebach ash tripod with a leveling column and Manfrotto pano head. it was fast to level and adjust the legs. later when I started to shoot the Ken Burns tours, I switched to a Manfrotto Carbon tripod with quick release legs and a Cambo ball head. Anything made by Cambo (and Linhof) is top notch and will last for years.
    Now, I’m trying to switch to a Fuji X-1 Pro mirrorless system from Nikon, and am using an Oben carbon tripod with quick release legs and a Linhof ball head. I think you will see a big switch from DSLRS to smaller mirrorless cameras.

  • Thanks I needed to know this. Tough time shooting small bathrooms indeed. Still I must learn more about photo shop and quickly. To me it is very complex or I just lack patience with it… lol

  • Larry – Any good YouTube videos on how to remove yourself and the camera while leaving the background intact for this kind of shot? I found one that removes a highway sign to improve the panoramic view but would like one more specific to this purpose. I’ve checked the Adobe help forums a bit but always find them a bit trying in terms of navigability and getting to a spot-on answer.

  • Thanks everybody. This site is very helpful.

  • When I mounted my first geared head (410) to my tripod the clouds parted, the sun was shining upon me and all was well with the world. Never going back to ball head. No way

  • I just use a monopod with a quick release Manfrotto ball head, the 70D, 10-22mm Canon lens and the 550 or 430 Canon flash (bounce).
    The camera is connected to a remote and I then sits on the floor in the door opening. I do the above especially when I have problems with a mirror. The 70d has the rotating back mirror, which is very handy.

  • If you’re just starting out a geared head may seem like a luxury. But believe me, they are with their weight in gold for real estate photography. And Oliver’s suggestion of an L bracket is good since the 410 head unfortunately doesn’t have a level for portrait orientation.

  • I don’t know of a single serious interiors photographer who DOESN’T use a geared head. If you’re working so fast that you believe a couple of extra seconds to level the camera is a problem, then frankly you have way bigger problems than any tripod head can solve. Leveling a ball head to the precision required by interiors work is nigh-on impossible without an awful lot of trial-and-error fussing.

    Also, my video series does discuss how to shoot directly into a mirror and then remove the camera in Photoshop. The basics are that you want the camera superimposed against the plainest, most easy-to-rebuild backdrop possible. Hide the camera in plain sight, in other words.

  • This is a timely post for me because I’m in the market for a new tripod/head. Has anyone used the Manfrotto 460MG head? It seems like a less expensive alternative to the geared heads. And I’d also like to know if anyone else has a specific tripod that they really like.

  • I use a ball head and it’s the bane of my existence!!

  • Greetings,
    Have to admit, this is an uncannily well-timed topic. I’ve just recently started researching tripods and heads. It’s a challenge since, even at my relatively well-stocked local camera shops, none have had the right combination for me. And none have had a geared head in stock to boot.

    The most immediate driver is an anticipated harware change and the current tripod’s not going to be sturdy enough for the heavier gear.

    Thanks for the mention on specific heads.

    Cheers!

  • Nice addition to the Manfrotto 410 is the Hejnar Photo extended Arca-Swiss style plate not cheap but it gets the camera on rotational center line and mount an Arca plate.

  • I purchased a Welt PT-3 Tripod around 40 years ago and to this day it has served me well. Back then I would mount a Hassy system on it along with hanging a huge over the shoulder battery pack that would power the Norman flash system. Shot well over 1,500 weddings that way. It is simple to use with a flip lock at the top of each leg. Simply flip, and leg drops down to any height you want, flip back and it is locked. Legs (2 sections) extend to about 4′ and the center post (two sections can be raised to well over 7′. Made of aluminum it is light and steady.

    After I read Scott Hargis’s book (Highly recommend to any serious RE photographer), I purchased a 410 gear head and like Joseph Standford, I had a work flow changing moment that simplified my composition efforts greatly. Now I have a great tripod, great gear head and I challenge anyone that thinks a ball head will be faster, more precise and consistent through out the hundreds of photos that I shoot in a day.

    The Welt PT-3 Tripod is no longer in production, but you can find them on Ebay. Each to their own thoughts, but one thought I would press is that if you spend the time, effort and research on a good tripod selection, you only need to purchase once. Although myself, I have a couple of backups just in case.

  • Scott – Thanks…got your book awhile back but haven’t read that far, yet.

  • I gear head on a very sturdy set of legs not only make your photography easier, but in my opinion are a necessity. I used Gitzo carbon fiber tripods with either an Arca Cube, or Manfrotto 405 gear heads. I use RRS L-brackets on all cameras so that I can switch from horizontal to vertical without needing to re-level the setup.

    TS lenses sometimes allow you to “shift” yourself and camera out of mirrors when shooting in cramped bath/powder rooms while still capturing a nice squared on image. Most of the time though, you got to fix it in post

  • Not picking a fight here, …just my opinion and my own logic. I’m pretty serious, and seems to me that any good quality ball head is sufficient for stills if you don’t want to spend the bucks for a gear head. I used to use the Manfroto two way tilt with the individual tilt handles pan handles. There was always one in the way or sticking in my throat, so I changed to a Studioball head for my middle weight Gitzo. It was the setup I used for 15 years in the field doing travel and nature stock and magazine work. About the same weight as the Manfroto, but it cured my sore throat. The lens you use is going to likely cause some distortion requiring editing, anyway. While you are there if the viewfinder edges didn’t provide enough reference, make the tweak while you are removing what barrel distortion is present. I don’t trust bubbles on a 2″ level. If I had a gear head, I would be always looking into the viewfinder or tethered screen even if the head levels were showing bubbles centered. So breaking the ball loose and lining up edges in the viewfinder, and ignoring bubbles seems like at least one step less to me.

    In tight quarters like baths, I set the camera above the counter level to show it’s surface, crowd the doorway tightly one side or the other and shoot with a remote trigger as I stand or crouch out of the photo if I am in the mirror. It’s easier to remove just the camera in PhotoShop than my big old head and shoulders.

    Some of you will go to my site and see some old examples of images that don’t have straight verticals. I should take those off the site. I did those before I read here that you shouldn’t charge if you don’t have straight verticals. They are there because my best agent client likes them. So please don’t write me about “giving opinions before practicing correct techniques”.

    For video, I have the reasonably priced Benbo S8 fluid head. I do use the bubble to set it for panning. However, since I don’t trust bubbles, I pan to 3 or 4 places 90 degrees apart to see if the horizontal lines are level before I begin. It usually requires a slight tripod leg adjustment. The bubble is a good quick start, though.

    Again, my opinion; I’m a Realtor and when I look at listings for my buyers, I imagine them doing the same and I see vertical bathroom images as being a potential annoyance. While scrolling the MLS, the screen is full 25 times and then a vertical pops up and you only get to see 55% of what the previous image detail showed. When I shoot baths for my listings and for other agents, I shoot horizontal for flow and consistency purposes. I actually like the door, doorknob and the latch catch plate in the shot, especially if it is a pocket door. Also, I like low angles. I see myself through the eyes of a 7 year old child viewing the house at that eye level. The result is many shots with very little converging vertical lines and low barrel distortion. The only time I am higher is while shooting exterior shots and kitchen counters,…and over the rail of a second floor landing overlooking a great room. All the rules are out the window on that shot,.. except my shoes are not allowed to show..

  • The Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared Head was one of the best purchases I made 3 years ago, makes leveling so much easier than a ball head.

  • I’m use a Sony A65 camera with a built in level in the viewfinder/LCD screen for my RE photos and my tripod is a 25 year old Bogen 3001 with a 10 year old large ball head from Gadget Infinity. On top of the ball head I have a $15 focusing rail from Amazon and I place the camera on top. With this method I can perfectly balance the camera and lens so there is no drift. Also, I tighten the ball head so there is enough tension to move the camera around and still hold the position. It takes me an average of 10 seconds to lineup the camera. I’m sure I would like a geared head and fancy CF tripod with all of it’s super smoothness and at the same time can’t see how it would save me much time to justify cost.

  • Using anything other than a geared head is like watching a one arm wallpaper hanger! As Scott said above, impossible for any kind of serious interior work! I purchased one before I ever shot my first room! I believed what what others said…and guess what? The are right!

    Small bathrooms; pray for a white/solid wall behind the door (remove any wall hangings)! The rest is then easy! Light, shoot, remove camera! Done.

  • @Chet – How long does it take to lineup a photo with a geared head? I keep hearing it’s unbelievably fast, like in the blink of an eye, but nobody says how fast in is.

  • @Jerry – I just returned from a shoot to my studio. Since I read your comment this morning I tried both methods in a real life scenario. Lining up with a ballhead is easier and feels to be quicker at first. But for me it isn’t. Since you have to adjust all three axes at once with one hand on the camera grip the failure rate is higher and you need to re-adjust often. With a 410 geared head where you usually adjust every single axis twice (once for general direction and once for finetuning) without touching the camera body it was always spot-on, it didn’t need any correction. At an average (22 different subjects) it took about 14 seconds per image to line up the camera for both methods for the first try. Luckily I had a freelance assistant who did not ask why he should measure such stuff 😉 . The ballhead needed another 5 seconds to re-adjust. Summed up this was short to 2 minutes for an average sized shoot. Finally using the right gear is actually not about speed but about precision, handling and avoiding additional work in post.

  • @Oliver – Thank you very much for your reply! My Sony A65 camera has a built in level for horizontal and vertical alignment, although there is a degree or two off, it gets me in the ball park. My camera is perfectly balanced on the ball head and it does not drift down with the lens weight and because of this I do not need to have the tension on the ball set tightly. My flip down live view LCD is set to turn off at ten seconds and I use both hands, one on each side of the camera, to adjust it all at once. About 75% of the time I can do it before the LCD turns off. In post processing I set ACR to fix the lens distortions automatically because the two Sigma lenses I use, 10-20 F4(for houses with small rooms) and 17-50 F2.8( houses with larger rooms), have quite a bit of curvature built in. Along with that, I have it set to fine tune the verticals too. It sounds like to me, this method of using a ball head works about as quickly as it would using a gear head and hundreds of dollars cheaper too.

  • So what I have taken away from this thread is that the gear head on a good tripod is just about as fast, more precise and cost more than a simple ball head. For pros, these are the tools of our trade and as we all know to run a profitable business, you need to weigh the cost vs benefit when purchasing your tools. The average cost of a 410 is around $150 on Ebay and does a great job. The 405 is pushing $500 and if any out there have used both, I would be interested in what you think about the two and what if any you would recommend. For me it was a no brainier, start with the 410. I found it a huge step in making my workflow go smoother from the point of shooting to the post production. If I see/understand that the 405 will help even more, than I will invest in one. When you think about it, it is only the cost of a couple of shoots, yet will give you many years of service….

  • I personally would love to have the very best camera, lights, tripod and gear head to do my photography. But I don’t. I do the best I can with what I have. Here in Albuquerque, NM, the economy is so-so (NM has gone from 49 to 39 in the nation so it is getting better) with cheap agencies that think more than $69 is too much to pay for a photo listing. I’m getting $150 for a 3,000SF or smaller house and $250 for one over 4,000SF. I have one agency, the second largest in the state and four independent agents who will pay me because they like my work. I photographed five houses for the third largest and they told me my prices are too high and will not pay more than $100. The very largest agency has their own photographers and they pay only $69 and no more. The fourth largest agency has the owner’s wife does the wild HDR garbage which they love. In the springtime, I average six to ten houses a week and for the last four months it’s been three per week. I’m updating my sales presentation and I’ll be going out to open houses to meet more agents for the next couple months.

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