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How to Shoot Very Small Spaces with a Wide-Angle Lens

January 16th, 2018

David in New York City says:

I have to shoot some model apartments in NYC and they are extremely small. Wherever I put the camera, while still trying to get the whole room in the shot, whatever is close to the camera looks HUGE and the other things look tiny. Also, straight lines are curved or leaning back and generally just not straight. Rough shooting… Do you have any content or resources (or just plain advice) to address these challenges? I’m shooting with a Canon 11-24mm on a 5DMKIV.

Yes, shooting small rooms can be a challenge but using an 11-24mm on a full frame camera is not a solution as you’ve found. It’s important when shooting interiors that you keep the perspective distortion to a minimum (see the video above). Also, verticals must be kept vertical. This is done by leveling the camera or in post-processing. As illustrated in the video, all wide-angle lenses have perspective distortion but when you get wider than about 16mm, it gets very bad.

So the solution is:

  1. Stay between 16mm and 24mm.
  2. Keep the camera as level as possible.
  3. Don’t try to get the whole room in the image.

Using this restrained composition is the best you can do in very small rooms.

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16 Responses to “How to Shoot Very Small Spaces with a Wide-Angle Lens”

  • Best advice was point 3. Don’t try to shoot the whole room. This is very true, yet agents will request to “make it look as big as possible” especially if you are shooting an overpriced tiny apartment.

    What I did to overcome shooting too wide was to get back as far as possible, compose the shot I would getting all the room, then zoom in a bit. Not only is it easier to keep your verticals straight when you zoom in a bit, but also gives you a better feeling of what its like to be in the room. I think a way more pleasing photograph. The image also looks better if it is staged.

    If you are shooting vacant small apartments, I would just go wide, try to keep your verticals best as possible, and then straighten them out in post. I use a 10-20mm wide angle lens. I use to use the Tokina 11-16mm. Even at 11mm, if the room isn’t too small, you can still get straight lines.

    There are a ton of places online that will show you how to straighten your verticals in post production. Lightroom has the easiest way. In the Development module, and use the Lens Correction tab. It doesn’t get it right 100% of the time, but pretty close. You can also use the “manual” selection in the tab to straighten verts better.

    The best option I have found is to go ahead and edit your whole session. When you are done with all of the editing, open the images you want to straighten in photoshop. Duplicate layer > View tab, show selection, turn on the grid. From there click the Edit tab, Transform, and then Skew. Using your mouse, you can pull at the corners of the image and line your verticals up to the straight lines on the grid.

  • Shoot one or two horribly wide photos to show how things flow, and then move in and shoot tighter.

  • On your full frame camera, Canon’s 16-35 would probably be preferred if for no other reason than wouldn’t be tempted with the 11. But given what you have, let’s practice verticals to get right in camera as personally, I think an UWA is one of the hardest lens to use correctly compared to shifting from a normal to telephoto. In your own home with a room like a kitchen with a large number of verticals, don’t take photos, just use viewfinder/lcd to learn and become consciously aware of the setup. First, with horizon approx. level, tilt camera up and down and note impact on cabinets, doors, etc as you are doing it. Next intentionally tilt the horizon raising and lowering the corners of the camera, noting that impact. Finally, particularly if you are pushing 6′ with 8′ ceilings squat up and down, noting that change – generally, you will find a tripod height of about 4-5′ (just above half) in an 8′ ceiling room is ideal – which means you may have to bend over to view if you are tall. Now repeat the above exercises at the 11, 24 and some mid marking on the lens, like 16 to note the difference focal length has. After you get that down, begin working on composition which is a whole different subject, but briefly, chop compose known objects, such as refrigerators, if on framing edge as people know what a refrigerator looks like and won’t be expecting the stretch ‘industrial size’ fridge. Also, avoid 4 point composition in a small room as will appear very deep. There, all of the above was done without taking a single photo, but focuses on the setup itself to get it correct in camera.

    Finally, all is no lost with the 11mm, as in portrait mode would be good for panoramics. While I haven’t looked at it FOV, guessing after subtracting the 20% for overlap control points would still be above 90 degrees and a 360/180 could be accomplished with 4 shots plus zenith and nodal shots, Even at partial panos, may only have to stitch 2 frames for 180 degree. At least that works with my 12mm Rokinon, but it is a full frame fisheye (not circular – images fills frame) rather than a rectilinear designed lens. The larger issue with a zoom is to make sure at desired focal length for overlap as I discovered my 16-35 was set at 24 when intended 16 for the 60 degree rotation and nothing overlapped. You only do that once where with a prime you don’t have to think about it.

  • I shoot every room with the Tokina 11-16mm and have discovered a tool that does a great job correcting verticals. DXO’s Viewpoint (with a Photoshop plug-in) is wonderful in making verticals more vertical! I also process all RAW images with DXO’s Photolab which has the ability to correct for lens and camera distortion. You can download a 30 trial of each of these products to evaluate.

  • In small spaces try focusing on the details that make the space special. A lot of agents want you to make the space look as big as possible. Talk up how you’re going to feature the architecture, the lighting and details of the space that will get the right buyers in the door. It’s a waste of time to try to deceive people about the size of a space – they’re going to see it and be disappointed. I tell new clients that it’s important to get people to view a property through beautiful professional photos, but it’s better to get the right buyers to come see it in person. Those will be folks who aren’t expecting an 800 sq ft. apartment to look like 1500 sq ft. Numbers don’t sell real estate, getting the right buyers to walk through the door does. Straightening converging vertices is RE photography 101. You can see crooked lines in the viewfinder before you press the shutter. Train your eye and your brain to straighten it as much as possible then tweak it using your software in post to make the verticals perfect. I can get it almost 100% perfect in camera most of the time.

  • Something that I try to keep in mind is: don’t try to shoot it how it is, try to shoot it how it feels.

    Another thing is, you don’t need to see the whole object to know what it is, i.e., a TV, a couch, a window… Don’t be afraid to cut them while zooming in.

    Anyway, it could be good to cover yourself with a couple of UFWA shots like Andrew said 😀

  • One of the problems is people are buying as wide as possible for the smallest rooms THAT REALLY DON’T MATTER. Ultra Wide zooms – unless the very expensive ones, are pretty mediocre lenses. Why so much attention to rooms that the agents say ” I just want to able to show it”?

  • There are times when you do need to go UFWA and when that’s the case, avoid having things in the close foreground and common items such as a couch or fridge near the edges. If you can’t line up a composition that avoids those issues, “just say no” and go tighter. Really wide images look especially bad on phones and small tablets. Any more than one or two and people are not going to make the effort to zoom in and may just move on to the next listing.

    You don’t necessarily need the camera in the same room to make an image. Get the camera off of the tripod and see if you can move back, zoom in and get a composition that works with a longer focal length and if you find one, move the tripod and get leveled up. Lighting can be much easier with tighter shots so it can be faster to make two images than to try and light a wide shot on site or composite a series of exposures in post. Having a higher shot count on a small property is going to please the agent if they are solid high-value images.

    Buyers don’t always look at the area of a home or will still think a place is palatial if the images make the space look huge even if the square footage says otherwise. That’s a big problem if the buyer thinks they can fit their four post king bed in the master and in reality a queen size would be a tight fit. The agent winds up looking bad and it’s good to point that out to them when they ask for those UWA images. Some people ARE looking for a small and cozy home that’s less work to clean and cheaper to heat and cool.

  • What about shooting with at 17mm or 24mm Tilt Shift lens for small rooms…anyone have any thoughts or experience with that?
    David

  • David du Puy, assuming you are the David who as the question of Larry, you are a very capable professional photographer…of people. There is nothing in your website to show that you have any professional capabilities for architectural subject matter. It is hard to give advice about this kind of technical and compositional issue without knowing your level of ability. There is no simple answer to this question. Different clients will have different needs and their are vast differences in their level of visual sophistication. Also, some spaces will afford more options for composition than others. In addition, their will be technical considerations involving control of the lighting, whether that be all ambient or using some degree of supplementary lighting. One simple rule is that all wideangle lenses create various kinds of distortion, and the amount of distortion increases the wider you go. So, one guideline might be to use the longest focal length you can get away with, if you want to minimize distortion. However, some clients may insist upon shooting as wide as possible, to try to provide as much visual information as possible in one shot, and also sometimes to exaggerate the size of the spaces; and they may not care about the resulting distortion, in which case you have to choose how you will respond to this, which will depend upon your business model, your personal brand, and your goals as a professional photographer.

  • I shot almost a full year with just a 28mm tilt/shift, including a couple of 800 sq ft homes, many under 1500 sq ft. Clients seemed happy and I sure learned a lot doing that. Including the v-e-r-y few times that shooting any wider really helps. These days I have a camera with the 28mm, another with a 50mm and that’s good 90% of the time. For big homes with big views I have a telephoto, and for very rare occasions a 17mm.

  • I do most of my image captures around 14mm on FF, but I often go all the way to 12mm. That can make an attractive presentation of a big room, IMHO, if you aim squarely at the long wall and not down the length of it. And if 12mm is what it takes to show how the bathroom features fit, I’ll go wide and square everything up.

    For most rooms, I shoot 14mm or so, then go back and crop each image as needed. It’s so much easier to crop a photo than to stretch it! Size distortion is troublesome, but careful cropping can help. If I just show the edge of the nearby fridge or picture window, its exaggerated size is less defined.

  • Interesting to hear the opposite view, Dave. Have you ever tried using a wider lens? I’ve certainly done it your way. My early RE efforts were limited to a 28mm-eq lens, and it gave me constant frustration. I could only work with 2 1/2 walls of a large room, or 1 1/2 walls of a small bedroom. In bathrooms, I couldn’t do much more than show each fixture!

    With a mid-wide lens like 28mm and up, you can get some of the prevalent style of home and interior magazines. It’s elegant and realistic. But think of their different priorities- they are showing furnishings and decor in a non-specific home environment. It’s like product photography, in the field. We, I think, are more motivated to show the specific architecture, interior volumes and relationship to the site. That’s a big-picture view, and it makes me reach for my ultrawide.

  • @John Mcmillin I shot the first year in this business crazy-wide. Now when I look at my photos from then it makes me flinch. The ‘make it look big’ agents? They’ve gone on to other photographers I guess 🙂

    I think D Eichler’s post (above) say’s it all; “…in which case you have to choose how you will respond to this, which will depend upon your business model, your personal brand, and your goals as a professional photographer.

  • I once did a study of my own images, and discovered that the smaller the room, the longer the focal length I used to shoot it. I’ve removed all my “legacy” real estate photos from my Flickr stream, but here’s a discussion thread where we were talking about focal length and small rooms:
    https://www.flickr.com/groups/photographyforrealestate/discuss/72157627677375063/

    That’s from a few years ago but luckily physics and optics and how-humans-look-at-things haven’t changed!

    Ask any real estate agent and they’ll tell you, in their own way, that people don’t “buy houses”…they “fall in love with homes”. The buying decision starts out all analytical and calculating, but that only lasts long enough to determine how many bedrooms, pool/no pool, which school district, etc. After that, it’s 100% emotional. Otherwise, why have photos at all? Ask that same real estate agent if they’ve ever worked with a buyer who wasn’t willing to break their own budget when they fell in love with a home. IT’S AN EMOTIONAL DECISION.

    If you can accept that premise, then it seems clear that the advertising photography you should be producing should speak to the emotional side of the equation…your images should be more on the “evocative” side and less on the “informative” side. The shelter magazines at the grocery store are perfect examples of how to appeal to human beings, and I don’t think you’ll find too many 15mm “here-are-all-the-things-in-the-room” photos.

  • @Scott, it’s also telling to see that the magazines only print 8-12 images for a given home. A few great compositions is all it takes to get somebody to call.

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