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How to Get Great Real Estate Photos Using a Cellphone

Published: 09/05/2018

Marilyn in Michigan, who is a Realtor's assistant who shoots listing photos asks the following:

What do your readers think of high-end cell phones for real estate photography?

I usually use a Canon 450D and a 70D with various lenses and then use Photoshop, Camera Raw, and HDR for the resulting 15-20 photos which I end up posting on the syndicated real estate website. It takes me quite a few hours in Photoshop to get the final effect that I want. I get a lot of compliments from other realtors, that they felt my photos were helpful, attractive, and accurate.

So it bothered me recently when my boss's son, who owns several apartment buildings, told her that it's possible to take beautiful photos with their cell phone and it only takes five minutes.

I don’t want my boss to think poorly of me. So far, she has been sympathetic when I tell her I need the extra time at home to work on the photos. I have explained to her that the HDR processing uses up computer time.

I feel that when I go into various properties with unknown and unpredictable lighting conditions, it is different from taking photos of your own properties. For example, I have gone into a large basement, where it was pitch black because the property had no electricity, and still got a good shot because I have a $500 flash.

Maybe my boss's son is right and for putting up listings, all anyone needs is a good cell phone, like the Google Pixel 2. On DP Review, it gets very good grades; especially for its HDR abilities. Should I just shoot real estate with a high-end cell phone?

This is a question that many Realtors are asking these days because cell phone cameras are getting better and better. I think Nathan Cool has the perfect answer which he explains in this video tutorial. Nathan's answer is, "Yes, you can use your cell phone to call a professional real estate photographer. That's the best way to get great photos with a cell phone."!

Seriously, when shooting real estate, there are several essential things you need to do to get great interior photos:

  1. You need a wide-angle zoom lens. In this context, wide-angle means an effective focal length of between 17mm and 24mm. So for your Canon 70D, this means you should have a lens like the Canon 10-18mm. This will give you a 16mm effective focal length at the 10mm end and 28.8mm effective focal length at the 18mm end. This kind of lens gives you the flexibility you need to create a good composition in all situations.
  2. You need at least one manual flash, preferably more used off-camera and triggered by an on-camera trigger.
  3. You need to be able to put your camera on a tripod and control the camera in full manual mode so you can shoot multiple images that are aligned pixel for pixel. These multiple images can then be used in Photoshop to get the results you want.

While smartphone cameras are getting closer and closer to having the ability to do these things, they are not designed for doing the above 3 things quickly and easily.

There may come a day when professionals will be able to shoot great real estate photos with a cell photo but in the end, the thing that matters most is what the photos look like; not what gear was used to create them.

Larry Lohrman

19 comments on “How to Get Great Real Estate Photos Using a Cellphone”

  1. Don't waste your time, regardless of manufacturer, the camera function ist just a gimmick. You have no control over the camera ín a cell phone. Stick to a "proper" camera. BTW, by carrying out such an action you are not doing our community any good.

  2. Editing does take a little time but it is well worth the effort. You can speed up the process by using some of the techniques you'll find in tutorials by Scott Hargis, Nathan Cool, Rich Baum and a few others. While I'm sure your boss's son can shoot an apartment in only a few minutes his cellphone photos will not compare with yours if you're doing things correctly. On the other hand if your boss is happy with cellphone photos......nah don't do it. Stick with the correct method - it'll pay off.

  3. I don’t mean to be harsh, but if your results don’t clearly show a difference, then your boss’s son is right. Phone cameras don’t have the dynamic range, the wide angle capability, the lighting controls, multiple exposure blending capabilities, and the list goes on. If you’re using a high-quality camera, professional grade lenses, proper lighting, and know how to shoot and edit, there will not be a phone camera image that comes close.

    Rather than argue, or try to educate them, you need to provide results that are so visually superior they squash the discussion. Jason Lanier makes the point clearly.

  4. I have a Pixel 2 XL, just for the camera. It is ASTOUNDING how well the thing shoots. I can use Snapseed to pull out shadows and darken highlights. There are some manual modes and the HDR+ Enhanced mode uses an additional processor JUST for HDR. It shoots nine shots quickly and then compares grids of the images to adjacent grids to give you in camera HDR that looks amazing.

    So one cold evening I am sitting behind the D700 on a tripod waiting for golden hour with the realtor next to me in her car keeping warm. While we are talking I snap a photo with the Pixel 2 then I used Snapseed to do a couple of tweaks including a little perspective edit. The realtor saw the resulting image and thought that I had linked my camera to my phone and downloaded an image from my Nikon. I admit, the image was very nice but nothing to what my DSLR could shoot.

    Like Larry says above though, the limitations for shooting with the cell phone don't make it a good canidate for shooting RE. There isn't an easy way to control flash and I haven't found a lens adapter for the phone that produces acceptable wide angle. There is no way I could have used my phone for interior shots.

  5. Seriously folks... it is possible.

    Those that think it's not possible have never used a Pixel 2 with an 18mm Moment lens in HDR + mode.

    1) It's a great WA lens with very little native barrel distortion. Don't like that you can take it off for more narrow shot. Easy Peazy number one debunked.

    2) No you don't need a flash. I have been shooting for years without a flash using natural light and all of my client love it and no I do not take bad photos. The Pixel 2 in HDR + mode does some amazing things in lo light. number two debunked.

    3) No you do not need a tripod. I have been shooting great images hand held for many years and my clients like that I can shoot from many different angles that a tripod could not get into, and shoot fast and still come up with great images. Using the Pixel 2 you can enable HDR + enhanced which does use multiple images to produce the final image with enhanced shadows and highlights. It is amazing. Now this does not work well on moving objects but in my world houses don't move. The camera actually does have optical image stabilization that helps make up for the shake induced by slower shutter speeds or movement between frames when hand held. Number 3 debunked.

    Now of course using a full frame camera on a tripod and shooting multiple images and a lot of post processing will result in better images. That was not the claim. The claim was "It's possible to take beautiful photos with a cell phone..." the claim was "It's possible" not "the very best" and it is possible. Keep in mind there is only one "best" on the planet and it's none of you. I would venture to say that any good professional here could use a Pixel 2 with an 18mm Moment lens hand held in HDR + enhanced mode and come up with some beautiful images that would be better than the boss's son.

    However with all of that being said, you all need to get you heads out of the sand and start to think about the actual value you bring to the table. It's not your equipment and it's not your tripod and it's not your flash. Now if you can't figure out what it is that you bring to the table you will not be in this business in a lot less than 5 years.

  6. My thoughts:
    .........."this must be a joke"
    .........."show clients that a simple cell phone is all that's needed, and work yourself right out of business"
    ........."If it isn't broke, don't fix it"

    Just my two cents

  7. Ask your boss to have her son teach you how to duplicate your images using a cellphone. Tell her you want to learn his secret. You after all you want to be a team player. The results will be obvious. Have him do the pictures and you just watch.

  8. Excellent blog post. Here at Josh Mak Photography we hire real estate photographers from across the country and it definitely is a unique skill that not any photographer can master. Some of the best portrait photographers many times are clueless about how to photograph a space.

    Brokers and agents also feel that they can simply snap a shot with their iphone and don't see the value in investing in professional real estate photography. However, this is very short sighted. A home buyer or renter spends seconds scrolling through MLS or another service before clicking on the most attractive listing. Professional Real Estate Photography makes any listing stand out.

  9. We created an entire service that is based around realtors using their cell phone cameras to take their own real estate photos. The company was co-founded by a professional real estate photographer, and there is no doubt that the absolute best results come from a professional. But, for $35 for 25 photos it's hard to beat. It's really geared towards listings that have to get on the market fast, and won't spend months active. It's perfect for those smaller listings.

  10. I'd love to see some examples of beautiful images of interiors taken with a cellphone - anyone have any they can show? Frank?

  11. There are issues with trying to pack a large number of pixels on a sensor that fits into a cell phone. Pixels interfere with each other and degrade the quality when packed too tight. Lenses are also a problem. It's very hard to work within a very small thickness of space available without making a lot of compromises. The front element on a cell phone camera is nearly flush with the backside of the phone leading to flare problems. The (hopefully) glass cover is subject to small scratches and smudges that show up as streaks from strong light sources. Replacing the lens or cover isn't always an option and replacing a $800 phone for a non-phone problem is expensive.

    First and foremost, a cell phone needs to be a communications device. A good camera is a selling point, but the rest of the functionality comes first. This means that the camera has to be built for a pretty small cost so the manufacturer can keep the phone within a targeted price point. A camera is meant to be a camera first and there is the leeway to build it to fit the planned functionality. There is also more flexibility to create lenses with excellent optical properties.

    For exterior images, some cell phones capture excellent images for use online. In less light they really start to show their limitations. Cell phones are also not supported by the vast array of lighting options. I recall seeing a product that would allow a cell phone to trigger external flashes, but hammering the square peg into the round hole when there are better options isn't a good use of time and money.

    If somebody is working for apartment owners/managers, saving money on photography should be less of an issue for them. Many times images are of a particular layout and can be used for years instead of a set of images for each individual apartment. In a medium to large complex, there could be room to have some images showing a view if the units in a building have a view or the difference between a layout on the ground floor vs. an upper floor, but stock images can work just fine to advertise the rest of a unit. (I'm envisioning a west coast apartment block and not an East Coast high rise). It's worthwhile to spend more time getting better quality images of apartments since those images are going to last a long time.

    Marilyn, one of the problems with HDR is the images often have a very flat look. It can also mean that you MUST spend (or your computer must spend) a longer amount of time processing each image. With flash, I can nail the exposure of a small room in one or two frames and have a deliverable image only using a LR preset to bump the image just a little bit. I spend far less time in post with flash then I used to when I just brought back brackets. Exposure blending was also a dead end in getting faster. It was as fast as it was going to get without spending significant sums of money on new computer hardware. It did take some time to get up to speed using flash, but it pays off in the long run. Don't worry about the cell phone photographer that snaps a whole house in 5 minutes. Those images often look every bit of the amount of time put into them and that's not a good thing. Shooting with a DSLR/mirrorless camera in RAW means having the greatest latitude in recovering from problems you didn't catch while on site. You are starting with a file that has come from a nice big sensor with far less pixel crosstalk and APS-C/Full frame is a good compromise between a large enough sensor to get very good images and a small enough size that the files aren't too massive to work with in a timely manner. Most of the quality in an image is coming from the photographer more than the gear, but that doesn't mean it's wise to consciously use equipment that has severe limitations. A good race car mechanic doesn't need Snap-on tools, but why would they want to buy inferior tools that might let them down when they are pushing them the most?

    YouTube is full of bad examples of "experts" that can image a house in 10 minutes with just any cell phone. Look at what they produce vs. what gets submitted here to the monthly contests from very talented photographers using quality equipment. Then imagine two real estate agents advertising the same home with a set of images from each of those people. If the home is priced correctly, it will sell with either set of images, but the better images are going to attract far more people. More people can mean a faster sale and the chance of an offer over the list price. An apartment advertised with high quality images is going to rent faster than another unit with very poor photos all other things being equal. Time is money. Every month a rental sits vacant can lose the owner 6 months to a year of profit over their mortgage and upkeep costs. The similar thing can apply for somebody selling a home. For an agent, better images can equate with better perceived marketing expertise in sellers' eyes. This can mean more listings and the chance to make more money.

  12. After reading through this discussion I was reminded of my wife, Carrie and one of her photos she took on her iPhone while waiting for me to rush her extra batteries to a shoot... it happens lol! #pleasetellmeididntforgettopackmybatts Anyway, I in NO WAY agree that recent cell phone photo technology should be in the hands of DIY clients but wanted to share as I was blown away by what she took... She takes AMAZING iPhone photos... she's a wizard with the thing and actually offers social media packages using her phone to take vignettes and design elements etc... makes collages instantly etc... really impressive stuff... but in no way is someone who is not trained and experienced going to be able to get through a day of shooting properties with only a cell phone ... besides all the above readers comments on why... it is most importantly about the photographer. Photographers own and know their gear especially Architectural photographers and above all, they have an "eye" for photos. No matter how cool your point and shoot is or how much you can figure out how to make it sing and bling... if you don't have an "eye" and "know how" for getting great images and great images in a sea of challenging situations that professionals encounter in just one day with the best of gear thats made for Architectural photography, you will eventually be calling a professional with that same phone. lol! Anyway, heres a link to her photo -

  13. Just had a look at the photos*, for an iPhone they are very good. However, one can see the phone was in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing and how to compose a picture. The images, which certainly have been post processed, could well be used by a realtor.
    Realtors want "cheap" photos. I found this out recently. When I sent my bill they refused to pay for post. I queried this and on the phone they stated they wanted the pics with no retouching straight out of the camera. Since then I have had a watertight contract drawn up by my media attorney, so the same misunderstanding will not happen again. What if they will not sign the contract? Simple, I will not work for them - end of story.

    *I am amazed that people are still posting images on social media. The cell phone photos I have just viewed have no watermark.
    Even "before" this escapade with Zuckerberg I stopped posting images on FB. Why? I wasn't aware of the small print one agrees to when you sign up for a FB account. FB and their associated companies may use those images as they think fit. That includes licensing, using them commercially as well as advertising. It even extends to the use of ones´ profile picture.

    The worse part of all this, is the fact they can use these images WITHOUT giving a dime to the copyright holder. BTW, this doesn't stop even if you delete your account!!

    Where did I get this info? From a US Attorney in New York;

  14. First... From Bruce Benson “Pixel 2 with an 18mm Moment lens in HDR”
    The sensor size on a mobile phone will make an 18mm like a 72 mm

    With all respect Bruce, I'm not making an argument here but I'm kind of obsessed with research and do research my technical statement. The 18mm moment lens does shoot a FOV equivalent to an 18mm full frame lens on a full frame camera. Before I made that statement I mounted the 18 Moment lens on my Pixel 2 and shot. I then picked up my 16-35 ZA Full frame lens on my Sony A99II. The field of view as seen in the VF while the lens was set right about 18mm was exactly the same as what the Pixel 2 shot with the 18mm lens.

    Furthermore when I looked at the raw barrel distortion in the EVF of the Sony it was slightly greater than the shot as presented by the Pixel 2. That blew me away.

    Now Matt Davis... asking for examples is a fair question. However beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. I never claimed that the images would be the same or as good. I made the point that this specific phone with that specific lens was capable of taking beautiful (but not the best) RE photographs. I'll take that challenge though because I'm also very curious. I always have that rig on every shoot I go on because I use it for Zillow WT videos. Next shoot I will shoot with my camera hand held of course with a single image and then duplicate that very shot with my Pixel 2 in HDR + advanced mode. I'll then take the shot right out of the phone and process the RAW one out pf the camera. That will give the FF Sony a99II the edge.

    I'll post them and let you be the judge. The point is not to show the Pixel is better but to show how much capability they have built into this phone without any Post Processing. That should be a concern to us. That is why I am saying you have to sell more than the technical capabilities of the equipment you bring. As others have said it is always the photographer and not the equipment.

  15. @Desmond, never itemize an item on your invoice that you are not willing to negotiate. I give my customers one price that includes travel, photography, post processing and delivery. They are inseparable. My very first paying customer refused to pay my trip charge and then went on to write me a bad check two weeks late. I've learned.

    BTW, watermarks are not required to preserve your copyright and I just saw a program where one of the features was it's ability to remove watermarks. It doesn't hurt to have a watermark since if you are suing somebody for infringing on your registered images and they have removed the watermark, judges can tack on "willful infringement" and award much more money in damages. Nearly all "Social Media" has rights grab language in their Terms and Conditions which is why I don't use them. Flickr is pretty good as they only take rights to display the images you post. Ed Greenberg, esq and Jack Reznicki have a Copyright lecture on YouTube from a presentation they did at B&H. I think that's the one where they review the terms of some social media sites. I could also be one of the Kelby One training videos by them.

  16. @Frank, sometimes it's the gear. No matter how good the cell phone is, if you show up to a job using a cell phone to make images, a new client may make note of the phone you are using and not call you again. Their client isn't going to be too impressed with you and the agent for hiring you either. There is a mystique to having pro looking camera gear. I can put on a laminate pass from anybody and get into all sorts of places if I'm swinging a DSLR with a big lens and a battery grip because with the right attitude, I'm assumed to be a pro. Looking the part has value.

    Tommy Lee of Motley Crue plays electronic drums, but they are built to look like a large acoustic drum kit. It's all show.

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