Architectural Photographer Breaking into Real Estate Photography?

April 13th, 2016

TooMuchgearTerry in Georgia who has been doing architectural photography for 20 years says:

I am an architectural photographer, and would like to break into real estate photography. When I shoot a property for an architect I might spend all day shooting 5-6 images, but with RE photography, I know time and speed are of the essence. I’ve seen RE photographers’ websites that promise 25 pictures shot and processed in one day. How is that done? I know they’re using HDR and multiple exposures, but is there a good program to use? I’ve heard Enfuse, the plug-in for Lightroom is good. Any advice is greatly appreciated.

The reason I want to get into the RE market is because I’m tired of schlepping tons of gear around. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and sometimes a girl needs a break. I still do my regular architect/designer shooting but would like to slow that down a little and supplement with the RE shooting.

Since Terry is looking to travel light to interior shoots, I pointed out Wayne Capili’s Sony A6000 kit to her. But Terry sounds like she doesn’t even want to carry small flashes.

Yes, using the LR/Enfuse plugin for Lightroom is a very workable technique. I would suggest that if you shoot brackets that you also use a single flash on one or more frame of the bracket sequence, this eliminates a lot of the undesirable artifacts that will show up in post-processing.

I also recommend that you have a look at either Simon Maxwell’s book that I publish on LR/Enfuse and or Simon’s video series on the same subject (if you subscribe to the video series Simon’s book is included).

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11 Responses to “Architectural Photographer Breaking into Real Estate Photography?”

  • I use a Sony A6000 with two lenses, the kit 16-50 or Sigma 10-20 when I need to go wider. Also a hand held flash bounced off a wall. It’s very easy to make 25 images of an average house in one hour and process them in Photoshop in one hour. I do not use HDR or Enfuse, only one RAW file processed in Adobe Camera Raw and a quick finish in PS. I could spend more time but the broker/agents don’t want to pay anymore for that.

  • RE photography is Architectural photography sped up a bit. You have to take things such as light and the decoration of a home as you find them. Gone is the luxury of waiting for an hour until a certain shadow moves to create a more pleasing composition. Compositional choices need to be made very quickly and executed just as fast. Customers are far less professional and may not have scheduled a photo session as soon as they had a contract with the home owner and may need to have images right away to meet MLS requirements on posting the listing. Since many agents take photos with their phone taking no time to compose or post process, they don’t realize that quality images take time to craft.

    The merits behind choosing between techniques such as Expose Fusion, using supplemental lighting or a hybrid approach have been thrashed out here many times. Personally, I find that it takes about the same amount of time per image for me whether I use flashes/strobes or bracketed exposures. Lighting a scene takes me more time on site and less time in post and an Exposure Fusion workflow is the opposite. I prefer the color balance and contrast of lit images overall and prefer to spend the bulk of my time on site rather than sitting behind the computer. I also feel that customers perceive they are getting better value for money if I spend more time on site since they don’t see the time I spend post processing images. It’s good to be versed in both workflows. The optimum technique could vary from room to room in a given home even if you have a bias towards one workflow.

    I guarantee delivery in 48 hours and typically deliver by the next day. Occasionally I will be able to deliver the same day, but I’ll charge a rush fee if a customer requires faster delivery. Part of my thought process is to underpromise and overdeliver as much as possible and to give myself some cushion so I can also have a life. I’ve never lost a job because my standard delivery is 48 hours and not 24. Another factor is perceived value. If I photograph a home a home in 45 minutes and deliver 25 finished images the same day, many people will assume that it’s such a simple thing that anybody can do it and not credit the speed to skill and experience. Services that take longer are expected to cost more. Never expect that customers will understand that you are bringing thousands of dollars to equipment and software to do their job along with years of experience and need to charge a fair rate to make a living doing it. What many think is that the camera is doing all of the work and $10/hour is a fair wage. The best agents do “get it” and will spend the money.

    Having a background in Architectural photography is a perfect place to be coming from for RE photography. You will already understand perspective, leading lines, composition (as applied to buildings) and that vertical lines need to be vertical. Since homes are smaller than commercial buildings, it isn’t often necessary to schlep in a ton of gear to light a room. We all also get in a rut with our workflows. The advances in camera/sensor quality means that we can push and pull images much more in post so we don’t have to nuke a space with light to get a good, low noise exposure. This can mean smaller and lighter flash kits instead of a trolley loaded with strobe packs and heads. Another good aspect of your background is that you are able to tell the story of a building with just a few images. Not falling into the trap of delivering dozens of finished photos for every job will benefit your bottom line. Some RE photographers will deliver or show 50+ photos of a standard middle class home to a customer. This is often done by taking an image from each corner of every room instead of finding the one or two best compositions. I find that around 18 images are enough to highlight a standard middle class tract home. Smaller homes will require a few less and larger properties a few more. Estates are in a class of their own and the best gallery size might be a dozen images or well over 50 depending on the location and features. Super high end homes will often times only need a, counter-intuative, small gallery. The market for $20million and up homes is very small and many people that would buy one have probably already been to a party held at the one for sale or it’s location will be a major selling point.

    The practice of allowing a customer to choose their images from proofs is tricky to do in RE photography. This just adds time to each job that isn’t paying too much to start with. I’ve been able to get my customers to trust my judgement and have only had to reshoot one image in 3 years. It’s also hard for agents to see what an image will look like until it’s finished. This would mean having to post process an entire overshot job to make the proofs. At that point, you may as well deliver all of the images.

    My gear load: One case with cameras, lenses, batteries/etc. One case with flashes, brackets, do-dads, tape, batteries, small tools and remotes. One case for stands and umbrellas. One more bag holds my tripod. This is what will go in for every job.

    I have a case in the car with a JTL Mobilight 300W/S battery powered strobe and accessories. Another box has white and black sheets/material with some Pony clamps and tape and 5in1 collapsable reflectors in several sizes. And, my painter’s pole with tripod mount for Pole Aerial Photography. If I don’t need any of this stuff, it stays in the car. One of the downsides of RE photography is that you will go blind into most jobs where you may have the chance to advance an architectural job.

  • Thanks to the help of ” Photography for Real Estate” site I went from all day to 2-3 hrs to deliver about 35 photos for a Realtor to post in the MLS. The big secret is in the Preset…. I shoot raw and use Lightroom cc import as DNG and use a preset to bring WOW into the photo and a little tweaking and pick 35 photos from the 100-200 photos depending on the size of the home. Done.

    A big thank you Larry,

    Peter Leon Broker

  • Try as I might, I can’t seem to shoot a house in under 2 hours, longer if the house is huge, needs staging tweaks, or the owners and I get chatty. My first paying job in 2012 (for a house flipper) took me 5 hours, so I consider only 2 hours great progress. Thank goodness I was alone that time so I could drag my lone flash on tripod tethered with a 16′ TTL cord in one hand, camera on tripod in the other, and all the associated entrails up and down the stairs in privacy, freaking out all the way. Talk about gear overload– I felt like I was wrestling a giant squid all day. I also did a twilight shot of the exterior even though I didn’t know what I was doing because the February rainy day was so dark and ugly. Now I see my photos were borderline hideous, but the seller loved them, and the house sold quickly. Go figure. I’ve tried every method since (no more TTL cord): multiple flashes on video tripods, Enfuse alone, brackets, brackets and flash, various masking techniques and/or Enfuse, and lately, brackets with flash and Lightroom HDR with Photoshop if necessary. I guess I’m on the OCD spectrum somewhere because I have to force myself to STOP tweaking images and remember they are not going to be billboards, but that’s my problem. I’ve come to accept my personal peccadillos are what contribute to taking me longer. Clients do not need to know how long I spend in processing. It’s my learning curve, not theirs. But every 6 months I look back on what I’ve done and see mistakes I’ve since learned to correct, and I’ve learned to see most problems in a room before I hit the shutter so I don’t spend hours in Photoshop taking out magically appearing dog bowls and liquefying uneven bedskirts. If I rush at the house, I screw up and end up in Photoshop Hell. (I’m an awesome retoucher now because I screw up a lot!) I’ve taken time to comfort a sobbing homeowner who had to sell and didn’t want to. Last week I shot a basement triggering the shutter with one hand, flash on a stick in the other, with the purring family cat draped over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes because she sneaked in from nowhere after two hours and wouldn’t get out of the shot. I may never shoot a house in under 2 hours, but I am who I am. And it seems many of my colleagues are shooting around this timeframe too, so I feel vindicated. Thanks to Larry and all who have provided their valuable advice along the way. I would not be here without you.

  • In answer to the question about a program to use, I shoot with bracketing and then do batch processing in Photomatix Pro. I can go about other things while its running, this has sped up my post processing by about 2 hours.

  • Terry:
    I think its great that you want to ease up a bit on the equipment and the level of shooting/processing required for commercial architectural photography. However, keep in mind that in real estate photography, unless you have the high end clients – it will actually take a lot more sales in REP than in ARCH photography to earn the same income – which means – a lot more individual clients and photoshoots.
    This world needs more real estate photographers that understand architectural photography, but keep in mind the point of view and what you are trying to accomplish with REP is a lot different than shooting for your commercial clients.
    Brad and I wish you the best of luck in your changeover and remember – this group is a really, really great place to hang out and get advise and bounce ideas around.
    Suzanne

  • Hi Terry,
    Really great question for the perfect forum since many of the photographers here are the top of their field! I have found that realtors hire photographers because they like one particular quality better than others. Frequently… price, friendliness, turn-around-time, features such as tours etc…, quality. Yes, I intentionally left quality last because here in NM where I shoot it’s about how far under $99 you can go and how far your saturation slider moves to the right. People tend to hire me because I spend about half the time there moving shit around… oh sorry, re-staging! Please don’t flame me here because I totally respect all the amazing photographers here who subscribe to not taking on the liability of touching stuff in the home… but honestly, how else can I get any use whatsoever out of my 1,000,000 liability policy. Just kidding! Oh yes, software., lots of good ones including Lightroom with the enfuse plugin. But DO NOT TRUST the LR auto HDR Photomerge (unless they have updated it to allow you to apply presets and manual tweaks to each bracket before you merge). Sorry, rambling here. The point is a good balance between RE photography and architectural photography would be ideal. But to make your mark in RE photography choose your niche and develop it well.

  • It is possible to do architectural photography at a high level with minimal or no added lighting, although it requires doing much more Photoshop work, as well as substantial control of the ambient lighting. I would suggest Terry investigate that first, if she would really prefer to find a away to remain largely an architectural photographer. Another way is to use one or two small lights, light the scenes in sections, and then piece those sections together in Photoshop, which still means considerably more Photoshop work.

  • When I started shooting real estate in late 2013, I used exposure fusion by way of a custom batch script in Photoshop that converted my bracketed shots into 32-bit TIFFs, which could then be re-imported to Lightroom and edited. Most of the photos currently on my website were produced using that technique. It made things super-fast on site and I didn’t have to carry any lighting equipment. That said, the initial processing script hijacked my computer for the better part of an hour for two average shoots, so not only could I not use my computer during that time, I couldn’t even start editing for at least an hour after getting home. Most of the editing could be done with presets, but depending on the sources of available light during the shoot, there were often issues with view preservation and color casts. Additionally, I’d often have to do a lot of adjustment brushing to even out the lighting. To Ken’s point above, when I used that technique, I’d be in and out quickly, but I’d get requests to shoot all four angles of the room and random shots of things like a tiny pantry “while we’re here” or “just in case,” which obviously indicated the client did not understand how much editing was involved with each shot after I went home. Since you are used to having lots of lighting gear at your disposal, you will probably have to re-evaluate where you want to reside on the quality-speed-price spectrum, and how much time you’re willing to spend in post in order to save the trouble of lugging equipment around.

    My Pelican 1510SC rolling case fits all my camera bodies and lenses, as well as at least two speedlights. If you’re willing to spend a little extra time in Photoshop, you can generally shoot an additional frame to light rooms in a home that are adjacent to the room you’re shooting, and quickly composite those in with the main image. Two speedlights will go a surprisingly long way on most shoots, and even though I now spend more time on set, I’m so much happier with the results I get using flash. Even if you use Enfuse and use a single flash to “boost” the exposure, it’s worth having one or two speedlights in your gear bag.

  • When I first started my first property looks me many hours, now for an average place its 20-40 minutes on site if I go the enfuse route with delivery same day. Some may flame me for the quick time but my background has been sports and covering live events where I had to hustle and deliver 150+ promo quality shots same day, so 16-25 images is way easier. With the DR of modern cameras like the D810 as long as the composition is good and brackets in the can your good to go. Often you see the same floor plan that you’ve done many times before so homes like that become muscle memory.

    More recently I’ve started lighting interiors as I prefer the end result and thats slowing me down for sure and I haven’t found a happy medium yet but actively working on it.

  • Terry, I can commiserate on the photo equipment load. For over 30 years in advertising and commercial film photography carrying multiple 2000 watt strobe packs, multiple heads and even more stands, booms, sand bags, Polaroid backs, 4×5 view camera not to mention boxes of clamps of all styles, I felt like a one man film crew and developed the bad back to go along with it. So when I switched to RE photography it was when digital had come into its own and HDR had been refined enough to be practical.

    So I leave all my lighting from large strobe packs to little battery flashes in my studio storage and just bring a small case with a couple quartz lights, 2 stands, 2 umbrellas and some color jells. And this small kit has yet to see the light of day but reassuring that I have it if I needed it.

    Perhaps I am lucky with several income streams so I don’t have to rely on my RE photography for my entire income and don’t have kids that need to be fed, bedded, doctored and educated, so I can indulge myself in the pure joy of loving photography. I tried to impose some business driven rules like how long I would spend on site, how many shots to supply but I found it was taking the joy out of the final product I was supplying to my clients. I am my first client and if I am not happy with each shot then I have no reason to expect that my clients are either. Fortunately they are and they are less demanding of quality but appreciative of what I bring to the marketing efforts. So I shoot (so to speak) for fewer, larger shoots that bring in more money rather than many small ones which would overwhelm my enjoyment of photography. It’s a luxury I know but one I treasure.

    So you can ditch all that equipment if you wish and trade it for bracketed exposures and HDR using such applications as Photomatix or AuroraPro. I like Photomatix for interiors and AuroraPro for exteriors but they both have different strengths. But others here have mentioned many other types of software which I am sure all work really well for post. It comes down to what works best for you.

    What I have found is that RE photography pays about 1/4 of what I earned on a daily basis than the advertising/commercial photography I was doing back before the crash of 2008 while the camera equipment is much more expensive and so is the necessary computer equipment and the updates for the software not to mention the time taken to keep up with the version changes to the work flow with each new “improvement” added to the software if you are using the lease program like Adobe has instigated. I still have not had enough spare time to learn how to use Lightroom effectively and I have had it for 8 months.

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