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In Pursuit Of The Money Shot

Published: 06/01/2014
By: larry

CrossListingIn real estate photography there's one shot that is as important as all the others put together. The primary exterior shot. Most MLS's (but not all) require this first shot in the listing photos to be an exterior shot. It's the shot has the potential to grab the buyers attention and motivates them to look at the home in more detail.

To understand why this shot is so important, think about how real estate web sites are designed. They always feature one photo larger than all the others with a bunch of thumbnails for the rest of the photos. As buyers search through large numbers of properties in their location and price range of interest the search process becomes a visual contest to see which primary image is attention grabbing enough to get the buyer to look at more listing details. In this contest you have a split second to grab attention. It can be a fantastic property but if the front shot doesn't grab the buyers interest they are not going to look farther. They will scroll or click to the next property. All real estate photographers should spend time searching through real estate sites to see how this works and feels.

The two photos to the right are of the same home. The lower one is the front and the upper one is the back view high on a hill behind the home. It took me a while walking around the home to discover the rear view. In this case, the shot of the back makes the best money shot! As it turned out on this listing it was in fact this rear view shot that motivated the buyers to physically come look at the home. I know because was able to talk to the buyers at length during the home inspection about the how they found this property. They first saw it on a regional website where it was large with a bunch of thumbnails below it - they were actually had a printed copy of the webpage with them.

There are a number of things to do when working to create a strong primary exterior shot:

  1. Increased camera elevation always looks better than shooting from the ground. It is truly miraculous how a little elevation adds to visual interest.  Use a vehicle, a ladder or a painters pole or UAV to get some elevation.
  2. Large expanses of driveway, street or straight on views of garage doors always detract from the strength of the image. These are just not architecturally interesting features.
  3. Three quarter shots, where you are shooting at a slight angle to the front of the home are are usually stronger than shots taken straight on to the front. These have the capability to show some of the side and/or back yard.
  4. Front shots are not the place to use ultra-wide-angle lenses if you can help it, because lenses wider than about 24 mm or so will exaggerate perspective so the photo has a strange look. I have to admit though, there are some cramped front yards where you are forced into shooting with a wide-angle lens.
  5. Try to show as many home features as possible. For example, the top photo shows, the view, the garden with a pond, the potting shed all from a high angle of view.
  6. Take lots of shots from many angles. You don't always see everything in the finder. You may discover the best shot later in Lightroom.
  7. Sometimes the back or side view looks better than the front.
  8. Twilight shots generally attract the most attention and should be used whenever possible

Then there are some homes that are simply "butt-ugly" from every angle and there is nothing you can do to help them. They are harder to sell. The is an old listing agent saying, "if you can't see it, you can't sell it". It has a lot of true!

11 comments on “In Pursuit Of The Money Shot”

  1. Thanks for the tips. On the flickr forum I was posing the question of how to get a money shot in the winter when the grass is brown and no foilage. I think its just a matter of combining these tips and going with the fact that you have to have some brown in the photo since it is Winter.

  2. One of the first bits of advice I received from a real estate pr person was never shoot the front of a house with the garage closest to the camera. 😉

  3. Tony, in the winter I color the grass green in lightroom. Unlike those states that tolerate Kentucky blue grass lawns that stay green all winter, the grass in the southeast turns brown when dormant. I color it a realistic green & it makes a world of difference.

  4. This is interesting. In the UK the front exterior shot is not so commonly used as the first shot. You often find lounge interiors used. I think it depends on the house. If the interior is impressive but the front is not much to write home about, it could pay off to use an interior shot instead.
    Has anyone done any scientific studies on this? I bet shots with red in them get clicked on more! Red catches the eye moat easily.

  5. @Mark - I've seen articles where people claim that twilight shots get clicked on more than others. Can't find it at the moment, I've referenced it here on the blog before. This is also the reason that frequently people pump up the saturation of listing photos.

  6. A lot of good points. Unfortunately it is the real estate agent who choses the main image and most automatically chose the head-on front shot (I think that they believe the head-on front shot is a requirement).

  7. @Rick - In the end the listing agent is in charge of the marketing so they get to make the final decision. But as an ex-listing agent I automatically avoid shooting a straight on shot. So my clients never get a straight on shot unless there is some compelling reason it looks better straight on.

  8. In general, I strongly disagree with Larry's advice, though there are some points I agree with, at least partially. The number items below correspond to Larry's points.

    1. I do not think that elevated perspectives are necessarily superior. I think it depends upon the house and its surroundings. Sometimes
    an elevated perspective can be inferior to a ground-level one. In fact, I would say that a really well designed home should look its best from the perspectives
    from which it will actually be viewed in daily use, or at least there should be at least one very strong perspective from normal eye level.

    2. In general, I would say that large expanses of driveway are a distraction. However, there are occasions when driveways can be of significant visual interest, due
    to interesting paving or design. In such cases, a bit of elevated perspective may be useful to obtain a better view of the driveway.

    4. I disagree about using ultrawide focal lengths for exteriors when the property has large grounds with attractive landscaping and you are able to stand back far enough from the buildings to avoid unpleasant wideangle distortion. For smaller properties, however, I would say that it is a good guideline to avoid or limit the use of ultrawide focal lengths. Still, it really depends upon the property and the type of perspectives and camera-to-subject distances that are available.

    5. I disagree about trying to show as many features as possible. In my opinion, slavishly following this advice risks compositions that contain too much information, which can be distracting and weaken the composition. The purposes is to create the strongest, most compelling photo that gives a reasonable amount of info about the basic style and design of the home, and its most attractive features. Use additional photos to provide more info about the property when needed.

    6. I think that taking lots of photos without strong intent is counterproductive and is a symptom of insecurity and a lack of a strong point of view. Sure, maybe shoot a modest amount of extra views for insurance and to give yourself some options, but don't just shoot willy nilly.

    7. While twilight shots can be very impressive when done well, even for relative modest homes, not all homes work well for twilights and not all photographers are good at doing these kinds of shots. Furthermore, with the right lighting, a nice, sunny daytime shot with blue sky, a bright green lawn, and other colorful surroundings can really make a home stand out, sometimes even better than a twilight shot.

    Additionally, there are circumstances where none of the exterior shots will be the lead shots, because the exteriors are simply not very interesting relative to the interior. In major urban areas, I often see realtors downplay the exterior shots in favor of a living room or kitchen shot as the lead, even for pretty high-end homes. For suburban properties, yes, an exterior shot will often be the lead shot.

    In short, I would say that it is dangerous to try to provide rules, and even sometimes guidelines, for this sort of thing. Ideally, I think people should make a formal study of composition. Barring that, I would advise people to study the photos of master architectural photographers, and to study paintings and drawings of buildings by master artists (at least those done after artists had learned to master the rendering of perspective in two dimensions). I would also suggest viewing great architectural subject matter in person, and really walking around it and studying it at different angles and different times of day. And, while you are doing that, bear in mind that these buildings were designed to be viewed by people with their feet on a solid surface, not suspended in mid air (which is not to say that I am necessarily advising against elevated shots, however).

  9. @ David,

    You're being a bit harsh on Larry, but you are obviously well qualified to speak on the subject and you make a lot of valid points. Thanks for taking the time to add to the discussion by sharing your viewpoint as well as adding detail about WHY you feel that way.

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