Does Real Estate Shooting Require A Full Frame Body?

August 18th, 2009

John Gilder, posed a great question after reading my bare essentials post. John says that, “over the past year I have slowly built the starter set you described a few posts ago (Canon Rebel, Sigma 10-20mm, 580EX and tripod). Now my question is why and when should I upgrade to a full frame DLSR camera and what benefits will my clients see from the upgrade?

First step is to look at what would it cost for John to take the jump to a full frame body. Since he’s a Canon shooter the logical choice would be a Canon 5D MkII with a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II. That’s essentially $4,200. Note that he has to get a new lens because the image circle of the Sigma 10-20mm lens is designed for a cropped frame sensor and doesn’t cover a full frame sensor. The other alternative is he could get a used Canon 5d. There is one on Ebay with the current bid at $920.

Next consider what you get for that $4,200 upgrade and do those upgraded features contribute to your real estate photography. Here’s my take on this question:

  1. Difference in the lens: The Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 LII is clearly a better lens than the Sigma 10-20mm but will the difference blow you away? Probably not, considering that most real estate images are in the are around 800×600 for use on the web. In fact, you may not be able to see the difference in web images. It would be easier to see the difference in the two lenses in large high-res brochure images. The effective focal length of the Canon lens on a full frame sensor comes out almost identical to the Sigma on the Rebel.
  2. Difference in the sensor: Here is the comparison between the Rebel 350D and the 5D MkII. This shows that the dynamic range and color depth of the two sensors are not all that different, but the biggest difference is in the low light sensitivity. That is, you could shoot at higher ISO values with the 5D MkII with out loosing image quality. This is definitely a plus for shooting interiors and effect your use of lighting. Although, this wouldn’t eliminate the need for flash, it would just make it seem like your flash got more power since you could shoot at higher ISO values.
  3. Difference in the file size: In the example we are using the D350 has 8 megapixels while the 5DMkII has 21 megapixels. This difference isn’t really a factor in real estate photography. 8 megapixels is more than enough for any real estate application.
  4. Sensor dust: One unpleasant surprise you will encounter when upgrading to a full frame sensor is that you have to work much harder to keep dust off the sensor on a full frame body. The newer full frame bodies have much better technology to help keep dust off the sensor but they aren’t perfect. It will still take work on your part keep the sensor clean.
  5. Bigger and heavier: Full frame bodies and full frame lenses are generally bigger and heavier although the 5D MkII is smaller than most.

Even though in our hypothetical example of John upgrading to a  Canon 5DMkII body the three factors above would be roughly the same of a Nikon upgrade to a D700 or D3. Here is the dxomark comparison chart for 5DMkII and D3. This shows that the D3 is better in the area of shooting at high ISOs than the 5D.

Summary: For ordinary real estate shooting I don’t feel there is much of a business case for moving up to a full frame sensor. In John’s case, he’s not going to feel like he’s getting $4200 worth of benefit from the upgrade to a full frame body. On the other hand if John wants to start getting into video this upgrade may make more sense. However, that’s a different cost benefit analysis since there are cheaper ways to start shooting video.

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10 Responses to “Does Real Estate Shooting Require A Full Frame Body?”

  • Although you don’t need the resolution of a full-frame body for real estate photography, I would say there is one big advantage here with the latest full-frame cameras and that is very low noise, which gives you more latitude and more dynamic range. That is, they offer a little more leeway if your exposure is not perfect; and if the exposure is perfect they offer greater ability to record a wide contrast range without having to resort to special processing techniques. That is, you can bring up the shadows more without having to worry about excessive noise.
    There is also the excellent low-light performance (also noise related) of these cameras that Larry cites, which can be quite useful in real-estate, particularly if you don’t use a lot of lighting equipment or if you do HDR processing.

    As for the lens, with Canon wideangle zooms at least it seems to be more about finding a good copy than which model. Canon’s quality control in this area is not great, at least as far as their full-frame ones go. I have seen widely differing quality in their 17-40mm, one sample being quite sharp all the way to the edges and another being pretty mushy there. The only sample of their 16-35mm SerII I tried was not very sharp at all on the edges, though others in the pfre forum report excellent results with this lens. (Of course I am evaluating their performance at their best aperture ranges.) Others have noted this wide variance in quality as well. Nikon seems to do better in this department.

  • I agree. We have been shooting real estate with the Rebel cameras for about 5 years, and have looked at full frame cameria off and on during that time. I never could get the number to work to justify the upgrade.

  • I shoot with a Nikon d700 and the 14 to 24 mm lens which is similar to the Canon set up you mentioned. What I notice the most is that the images take very little extra processing compared to my other cameras. Often all it takes is a quick check on the verticals, run the noise and sharpening filters and I’m done. It was expensive but I think it was worth the difference.

    Also I use the camera in my marketing. Believe me when I take it out of my camera bag and show it a realtor, they are impressed. It just screams professional because an amateur wouldn’t carry that heavy thing around.

    Could I have done without it? Yes, but now that I own one I won’t go back.

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  • Brian- Your point about using your hardware to market and dazzle prospective clients is a great one that I forgot to mention. When you show off your professional camera and lens be sure to mount the outrageous looking lens shades that come with these pro lenses… they scream PROFESSIONAL.

  • Re photography while still in it’s infancy is blossoming as it moves forward. I enjoy a full frame for the fact that it often allows me to take crops from the wider frames. A lot of my clients are now requesting some tighter more intimate shots as well as the standard wides. By not having to actually make a new frame it saves me a fair amount of time. Of course not everyone is going to need tighter shots and justifying the expense is tough to do. Of course not all photographic purchases are made with a lot of thought.

    M. James

  • I also looked at the costly upgrade to the 5D MarkII since I am a Canon user. My old 20D with it’s tiny LCD is showing it’s age. Going full frame has it’s appeal, but I just can’t justify the cost. If I were going to invest $4200, I think I would rather get a Nikon D300S system, mainly because of the 9 stop auto-bracketing. Having to manually crank through 5 stop HDR shoots is very time-consuming and too vulnerable to camera shake. Canon still only offers 3 stop bracketing on any model. As for the FX vs DX issue, I think your reasoning is very sound. If I decide I can’t afford to switch to Nikon, I may ‘go cheap’ and get a new Rebel that seems to have all the other features I want rather than wait for the 50D replacement that’s supposed to have video.

  • The 1DS MKIII will do 7 bracketed exposures.

  • “Up”grading to a 5DMk2? I’ve been shooting a 1DsMk2 for a few years and just added the less expensive 5DMk2 as a backup body, lol 🙂

    Also wouldn’t necessarily need to replace the lens. I use an old crop-sensor Tamron 11-18 on my FF cameras when I want a certain focal length…. just make sure to zoom out past the point where the lens is showing in the frame and voila!

    @DaveHarris – While the 5Dmk2 cannot currently bracket more than three shots the 1DsMk2 can be set to bracket more than 3 shots using the software that comes with it. (You have to connect the camera to your computer and change the settings there).

  • Actually, if I recall correctly, the Canon 1-series will autobracket something like 11 or 12 frames. My Nikons will autobracket 9 & I know that’s not the most of any body available.

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