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Image Sharpening For Real Estate Photography

Published: 12/05/2015

LR5SharpeningThis weekend Greg asked:

I study photos on Houzz frequently. I notice how sharp many of these photos are and wonder how they achieve that level of sharpness. I'm using a 5D3 and a Canon 17-40 and I'm not even close to these. Are they using large format, fixed lenses, some special sharpening software, or all the above.

I had a conversation with Rozelle in South Africa about why her photos were not as sharp as some of her local competitors. She was ready to get a new camera and lens but after some discussion about her workflow, it turned out she was bracketing but not being diligent about ensuring the camera didn't move.

I think what you will find is that even if you shoot with a great lens and quality DSLR, images need a little sharpening for the specific device they are being displayed on. For real estate images that device is a computer display. Images intended for printed media require different sharpening than a computer display.

Sharpening is a fairly complex subject and is related to noise reduction. Anthony Morganti goes through in the accompanying tutorial. Anthony's tutorial covers the basics for any image but it all applies to real estate work. A classic resource for sharpening is Real World Image Sharpening with Adobe Photoshop, Camera Raw, and Lightroom, by Bruce Fraser and Jeff Schewe.

Here are some sharpness considerations specifically related to shooting real estate:

  1. Shooting and processing brackets is prone to resulting in a final image that is slightly soft (not sharp). Here are some ways to maximize sharpness when shooting brackets:
    • Use a remote shutter release and don't touch the camera
    • Use mirror lockup and timed shutter release
    • Keep your ISO as low as your camera will go.
    • Avoid using really over-exposed brackets.
    • Use a fill flash when shooting brackets.
  2. Shooting with flash in general will produce a sharper image than processed bracketed shot.
  3. Camera movement when using slow shutter speeds will cause soft images.
  4. The Clarity slider in Lightroom/PS/ACR appears to sharpen an image. It's really changing the mid-tone contrast.
  5. As a final step in post processing sharpen your image.
  6. On1 Perfect Photo Suite 9 has some great built-in aids that sharpens for the type of display the image is intended for. Greg ended up using the HighPass sharpening in On1 Perfect Photo Suite 9 and got results he was pleased with.

Have I missed something? What do you do to keep your real estate photography results sharp?

Larry Lohrman

11 comments on “Image Sharpening For Real Estate Photography”

  1. 1 I always use an electronic wireless shutter release.
    2 I can't lockup my mirror because it doesn't have one, it's a mirrorless camera and I use electronic first curtain so there isn't any shutter movement. I believe the 5DII and 5DIII have this feature too.
    3 I usually use ISO 200.
    4 I don't bracket.
    5 I use bounce fill flash.
    6 I always move the clarity slider.
    7 I always use Adobe Camera Raw for my image processing and I have it set to apply sharpening when saving.

  2. I bracket my images and then apply the Interior sharpening setting from the Topaz Detail plugin to the final image. It does a pretty good job.

  3. Use sharpening as little as possible when delivering photos for MLS. The resolutions they convert to are low, and over-sharpened pics end up with heavy aliasing lines. It's especially true of images that have an abundance of lines, like cabins with log or wall seams. Those same pics look great full-res on the monitor when sharp, but that doesn't translate well to low-res images.

    When I sharpen for sites with full-screen possibilities, I re-import the images into LR, then use the Export dialog to 'sharpen for screen' as well as re-size for the specs on the site.

    But, there isn't a one-size-fits-all method for sharpening. It's absolutely dependent on the viewing size.

  4. In addition to what everyone else said - Youll also find that many of the higher end images were not shot at wider aperatures. These photographers are charging more, and bring more light power to the shoot. I own several 2400 w/s speedotron packs, and when you have that kind of strobe power available, shooting at iso 100 or 200 (160 being my "standard " go to iso) AND f9-f11 isnt as difficult.. Just remember the power difference needed to go from f8 to f11 is DOUBLE everything you have in the shot..

    I know a lot of RE photographers who shoot f7.1, f6.3, even 5.6 on some shots.. thats fine for a tight vignette where you want selective focus but in an overall room shot, even with the perceived assistance from the wider focal length having more DOF, when the front and rear of shot are falling out of focus fast, it will also contribute heavily to the overall sharp appearance.

    I strictly manual focus too. using live view on the back of the camera at 10x magnification ensures the focus is TACK sharp and where you want it. EVERY single photographer I personally know who is successful at shooting interiors does this. I (and they) do not trust AF on a wide angle lens because they have a hard time with it. It can get close, but its random, and will always look good on the camera LCD until you get home on a 27" monitor at even 50%, much less 100%.. Its rare that I shoot not tethered to a laptop or ipad (depending on job) with cam ranger..

    Glass is everything too.. I cant believe the difference going from a supposed top end third party wide angle to the nikon 14-24.. Sharp took on a new meaning.

    One last thing to consider, this fallas in line with the stacked images coming out softer.. If you dont get verticals close in camera (again, when using live view to focus, use grid overlay and level that camera!), and have to correct for a lot of distortion, it comes with a price. It will soften the image and I see this mostly with people not using a big enough tripod or pole for a 2 or 3 story exterior. They just "shoot up" and correct later. It comes with a trade off. everything does..

  5. I think Jason is overstating the DoF issues at apertures like 6.3 and 7.1, particularly when shooting wide angle, but overall he's spot on. The sharpness you see in professional photos is driven by the field technique and the glass. Bracketing, by itself shouldn't inherently cause problems, but bracketing with a cheap tripod/cheap head, and with careless or clueless technique will create all sorts of headaches. As one example, unless you're shooting on a poured concrete floor, you can assume some floor movement (think about carpet pads and creaky floorboards) while you're shooting. So stand still!

    So many people fall into the trap of thinking, "My photos suck, what software am I missing?"
    There's still a role for photography in this business!!

  6. As I go back to the days of film, whenever transparencies were scanned for printing, they lost sharpness. So the scan techs always sharpened them back up using what they called "unsharpen mask" that you will find on Photoshop to this day. Sounds like the opposite of what they are doing. So when they started scanning digitally and output digital files for making the 4 color negs, they also had to do this. I have found that digitally recorded images such as digital cameras produce, all need some "unsharpen mask". And the detail sort of fogged over by the digital capture is all recovered.

    But as is always the case, what you do to a full res image on your computer will be different for where ever that image has to be reproduced whether on the internet or in print. I think only experience will give you that sense of what is right. Remembering that computer images are created in blocks of tiny square pixels all of one color, tone and exposure while on 4 color print, they will be reproduced as round dots of the Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black otherwise known as CMYK. On a computer or back lit device, the light shines through the images while in print it has to shine through the inks, hit the paper and bounce back. So the density of the ink and the space between the dots that usually are overlapping, control the image you see. So if you are preparing images for news print which has larger dots and soggy paper, you have to realize that all that lovely detail and visual subtlety will be mostly lost while in a glossy magazine printed on fine paper with a fine dot screen will show well.

    All this to say that it is the medium for which an image is intended that determines how you process your images. Unlike my fellows above, I never use flash on RE. I don't like the changing of the nature of the light inherent in the structure. So I have to be especially careful about post processing and unsharpen mask is just one of the elements to consider.

  7. Peter, regarding this quote: "I don’t like the changing of the nature of the light inherent in the structure."

    As I suspect you know, people who light (at least those who know what they're doing) don't do it to change the nature of the light. They do it to:

    A) enable the camera to render the scene the same way the eye/brain combination does (cameras do not see the world the same way your eyes do)


    B) To create depth and texture when the existing light isn't doing it adequately.

    Here's an example of an image that's receiving a great deal of supplemental light:

    When I say "a great deal of light" I mean several thousand watt-seconds of strobe, plus whatever continuous lighting I added. This is very much what the "eye" experienced in real life. Unfortunately the camera is nothing like your eye, and didn't see it this way at all! The camera thought the window was a blazing blob of white light, and it thought much of the interior space was solid, rich, inky black. It also thought that there were at least 4 different color temperatures present in the room - which was "natural" except that again, the human eye/brain combination doesn't directly experience it that way, either.

    Another example:

    In this case the "natural" light flooded in from directly behind the camera and rendered the scene totally flat. The exposure wasn't too hard (although the furthest spaces were extremely dark) but the sense of 3-dimensionality (which humans perceive via binocular vision) was GONE. Cameras don't have binocular vision, and we view photos on flat surfaces (like screens and prints) that don't fill our field of view, so measures have to be taken to mitigate these problems. The existing light, at any time of day, was not going to do this for us. So we introduced directional light, instead. Sometimes "Natural" looks like crap --- my clients rely on me to make a good photo no matter what.

  8. I think there is some conflation in this discussion of two different concepts: sharpness and resolution. "Sharpening" is a digital process of increasing edge contrast or acutance. It cannot add detail, but the lack of sufficient acutance might perhaps obscure it. Typically, when we refer to sharpness, what mean is the total effect that the combination of resolution and acutance produce.

    As for Jason's comments about depth of field, I think many real estate photographers are too concerned with obtaining maximum depth of field when it is really not necessary and in fact may detract from the photo. Having some areas be sharp and others not quite so sharp can help direct the eye within the scene. Also, in most cases, for real estate photography, the furnishings are usually not being sold with the house, so having some of them be modestly out of focus is hardly a functional or aesthetic problem. Furthermore, with the type of wideangle views often used for real estate photography, an aperture of F:7.1 or even F:5.6 is not going to yield the kind of strong out-of-focus areas that using a longer focal length would.

    Lastly, depth of field is a function of the viewing distance and the reproduction size. That is, the same photo will have a different apparent depth of field if viewed as, say an 8" x 10" print and a 24" x 30" print, at a distance of, say, 3 feet. Standard depth of field scales are based on viewing an 8" x 10" print at a distance approximating a typical arm's length.

  9. Wow, some of the generalizations and opinions above really give me pause...

    It's not about how oversharpened you make your photos. Houzz photos, pfft.

    It's all about the light.

    All kidding aside, if you have the gear, skill and eye, mastering your light and exposure will open up a whole new world of sharpness. Without the right exposure in the box, have fun running all sorts of software chasing the magical razor edge.

  10. I think the word "sharpness" is used to often to cover a wide range of things that some people just don't know how to describe. In this case my guess is that the photos are just "good" and they have a multitude of factors to going on to achieve this.

    Good quality light, good photographer, good scenes, good technique, good equipment and perhaps good processing. I think that order is about right to reach a please-able result. I think a terrible photographer with an iphone and no technique that happens to fall into a nice scene with great light can produce a pleasable enough image.

  11. I find sharpening on export from Lightroom is all I need most of the time. Other than that I will manually sharpen some images in Lightroom if I've used the noise reduction sliders. Auto focus seems to work fine on my gear although manually focussing in live view at 10x is definitely an improvement that I've noticed.

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