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Often the Best Drone Photos for Real Estate Don't Look Like They Were Shot from the Air

Published: 01/03/2019

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This is a guest post by Dave Spencer in the Seattle area.

Often the best drone photos for real estate don't look like they were shot from the air...

That's because of processing fluency, a language study that's been established for over 100 years. Progressive companies quickly discovered the science worked for advertising too, both written and visual.

Advertising is about sparking positive emotion. Yet one of the things this science uncovers is that when a viewer's brain has to "trip" over something to understand it (for even a fraction of a second), the byproduct is actually a negative emotion. Here's an example:

We all know that most homes have straight up-and-down-walls. But because the photographer's camera was not exactly level, the vertical lines in some listing photos seem like they're pointed to converge outside the image. Your buyer's brain does the math and instantly delivers a straight wall verdict - along with a negative emotion! At that point, many shoppers simply move on to another.

Converging vertical lines is a common real estate mistake that triggers a "figure it out" mode in the brain. Other potential problems include white balance, window exposure, and focal length distortion. There are more but bottom line is that when it comes to effective advertising photography, simple and incredibly easy to understand isn't just a style--it's a basic requirement.

The average real estate drone photo has very poor processing fluency. Of course, the brain has to trip over an unnatural perspective (flying). Rarely are vertical lines corrected. Wide angle distortion is extremely common. And there's almost always too much information (never a good thing when selling). Many drone photos feature rooftops and driveways; is that an emotive image? Of course not.

A thumbnail photo captured from a drone has under 4 seconds to engage the viewer. Think about it the next time you pull up a map because that's essentially what a high altitude sweeping drone image is--a map with a 4-second fuse.

Real estate drone shots should be tight and low. When someone wonders "was that shot from the air?" and really isn't sure--you've got it right.

Larry Lohrman

11 comments on “Often the Best Drone Photos for Real Estate Don't Look Like They Were Shot from the Air”

  1. False. When clients hire me, they want to see it's an aerial photo. Sure, I'll add a few close-ups, but they want to see those views and the home's relativity to a park 4 blocks away. If they want it to look like a non-aerial photo, then I'll shoot a non-aerial photo.

  2. Well I can certainly agree that some drone shots should be exactly as Dave suggests. And I quite take his point that we do not want to tax the viewer but instead make the image an easy thing to behold; not make the viewer work to overcome the visual obstacles to the main communication points. But to limit drone shots to his very narrow criteria is ignoring the rest of the visual information that sky shots can provide to someone looking at a property. Frankly, I use a drone for stills as a more mobile tall tripod and often not that tall a one. It can just get the camera lens to places that can be hard or impossible to get to any other way. And when there is a view involved, more than a postage stamp garden front and back, where the driveway is an integral part of the landscaping and architects design, where the property is extensive and sits in a prime location, to limit one's visual communicative scope to such tight strictures, is castrating the communication potential of the aerial platform.

    So in my work I mainly shoot from a low angle but higher than I can get with my tripod and a step ladder. I could fiddle around with a pole and have, but a pole is much more limited in its mobility to find just the right point to shoot the house and property (we can't just assume that its only the house a buyer is interested in can we?); especially hill side properties that abound in my market. And a pole takes time to set up and move around.

    If I have a two story house, I like to get the camera lens up to between the floors. I hate the foreground to be filled with concrete driveway. So I try to shoot the street view early or late when the local trees can cast their shadows across the frontage road and partly over the naked expanse of the driveway. So many houses I have to shoot are simple ranch style dwellings with a patch of front "garden" with a third of the frontage being the cement/asphalt driveway and half the house being the garage doors. I like to shoot the street views with the longest lens I can to minimize the wide angle effect of exaggeration of the fore ground which is usually street, curb, sidewalk, driveway and whatever bit of garden or lack thereof before we get to the house itself, which as a one story, make a very wide and flat object that ends up with a lot of sky and a lot of foreground. Not to mention the inevitable utility pole complete with spaghetti power lines and their cousins below from the cable/internet company. Plus its easier to not include the cheek by jowl neighbors as well with their blue tarp covered mobile homes or boats. The drone lets me get to places further away that I can get backing up to someone's property across the road.

    So while the photo that accompanies this post is one of the ideal situations of lovely landscaping in the front and mature and lovely trees in the back towering over the roof line, the reality for most RE photographers are the homes of the majority of Americans that don't have these great features but still need to be photographed in their best light. Accentuate the positive and minimize the negative and I find taking full advantage of all the different angles a drone can give you without shuttering your mind to possibilities helps me get the best shots. And yes, I always correct for the verticals, lens pincushion and wide angle distortions unless I am simply too high for the vertical correction to be effective.

    And I also differ on another point. I think our audience has been watching enough TV which is filled with all the lens distortions of wide angles and aerial shots that most people don't think twice about them. The distortions are more noticeable with stills to be sure. But I also shoot video where the niceties of correcting verticals for drone clips are not available although lens distortions are, even for drones. But the movement itself tends to distract the eye away from the rail road track effect if the subject matter and the shooting style is sufficiently dynamic. So we have to live with compromise but try to minimize it.

    And with the new generation of DJI Mavic Air's offering great quality at reasonable prices, its easy to stuff one of these little guys into your equipment bag and get a few shots that count. I just shot two houses where I was flying for about 5 minutes just to get a couple different perspectives on a couple of houses. One the proverbial ranch that had a blinding white POD sitting in the driveway with the owners "stuff" that had been de-cluttered from the house. The drone gave me the ability to minimize that pod. Thank God for it! I shot from about half way up a telephone pole. That was all that was needed. The shadows minimized the expanse of driveway for me. Another reason to do a quick walkthrough before a shoot - timing of the shoot.

  3. I'm not tooting a horn here, but I've been in the drone industry longer than DJI, back when we had to hand-solder parts together and felt lucky to get 8 minutes of flight time. In other words, lots of experience with drones.

    This post has some nice points about the processing fluency, and I agree that we shouldn't be focusing on roofs and driveways, but after that it completely puts drone photography in a shoe box, which I disagree with.

    Yes, there is value to utilizing drone shots close and tight on a property, maybe in place of a pole for front exteriors, 2-3 story homes, or to show an expansive backyard, but that is merely a fraction of what this vehicle of photography can provide. Here's a short-list to prove otherwise:

    1. Properties near the coast, to show proximity to the ocean
    2. Properties with expansive acreage
    3. High value neighborhoods
    4. Properties with a vineyard
    5. Properties on a hilltop with great views
    6. Multiple units on a property
    7. Orchards
    8. Vineyards
    9. Proximity to a school or university
    10. Proximity to town in general
    11. Luxury condo/townhome communities with amenities
    12. High value homes with private amenities (pool, tennis court, basketball court, etc).

    We can also list out aesthetic nuances, such as capturing a beautiful horizon near sunset, or photographing a property during the fall when the surrounding streets are loaded with Autumn colors on the trees.

    Not trying to be an antagonist here, but I think the whole concept of drones in photography was to broaden the capability of our cameras and artistic eye, not narrow it down.

  4. Disagree.
    The supposition here is that a drone shot is serving the same purpose as a billboard or a magazine ad - you must capture attention and share information quickly, and you are competing in the environment against 100s of similar images.

    Today, when people look for homes, they SEARCH for them, and the information that accompanies them. Now, should you first image always be the one taken from 200 ft up? No, in that I agree with the author. Should images taken from height be included in the deck? Absolutely, if they have information that will help advance the sale.

    Finally, imagine this conversation:

    Agent: Wheres my drone shots?
    You: They are there.
    Agent: Don't look like drone shots.
    You: Not supposed to. Processing fluency.
    Agent: Is that when you process my payment? Because I paid for drone shots and didn't get them?
    You: Uh.......

    Give them people what they want.

  5. As a real estate broker and photographer, something I’ll always remember from an older agent. Whike you may know what works to shoot best to help sell the house/home, it’s usually the real estate agent who’s paying for the photos, and if they want to include photos that definitely “look” like aerials that’s what you provide, along with others that you know will best suits the viewer. Same thing when I sold advertising. Clients used to tell me they wanted to be in one market or another, but I’d tell them that wasn’t their product demographics. They’d tell me that’s fine, but I’m the one paying for the ads. Never understood it why, but both views helped me have a successful real estate career these past 35 years and still going forward. Bob

  6. Thank you for the comments. It's great to hear that not all real estate photographers think the same! Trust me I really do get it - The seller wants a drone shot, the broker wants the listing and I want the business. Heaven knows I've done my share of obligatory drone shots.

    @Jake showing proximity to a park that's 4 blocks away is wonderful. That image is going to have A LOT of information in it. The more info you cast out there, the smaller your net becomes. Is that a good trade-off? Is it worth a discussion with the client (who could only be impressed you're thinking about such things)?
    @Peter re wide angle TV; I don't watch it, but I do shoot for a couple popular channels. Contracts come with intricate shooting instructions that almost always include; "try to shoot with 50mm or longer whenever possible".
    @?Ty How can you be sure a photo will "help advance a sale" I wonder?

  7. Overall it had some interesting points. Perhaps a more effective and positive way to frame the article would have been centered around how to utilize "close-up" drone shots, instead of suggesting it's the only/best method that should be used.

  8. For the most part I agree with the article when it comes to aerial image of the house. I see far too many roofs and straight down images that make the narrow space between tract homes that much narrower. A long shot over the development is something I can the "Sargasso Sea of Sameness". The image does a great job of pointing out the the listing looks nearly the same as every other house from horizon to horizon like the scene in some dystopian totalitarian SF movie.

    Darren's list of useful images illustrates that careful breaking from convention can be a good thing if it makes a strong point and adds lots of value to the marketing. A home at a ski resort can be much more valuable if it's close to one of the ski lifts or the central complex and an aerial photo that shows the property and the feature in relation to each other can speak volumes. Some of the properties in my area have barns, horse stalls, arenas, groom's cottages and other out-buildings. A well conceived overview image can help tie all of the other images together.

    I'm going to be making a few images of a burned out home that I wasn't hired to photograph for a good customer as soon as there is a day with compatible winds. It's not too far from me and I drove by to have a look since it's going to be a bear to market (the city is requiring a total tear down and will not permit any less of a rebuild). After visiting the property I could see that even as a big project, it's in a good location with no neighbors on either side or across the street and the neighbors to the rear a fair distance away due to a small creek. Some aerial images showing the potential for the lot may be just the thing to get the property sold. I'm new to drone photography so it's good practice for me and good politically with that particular broker. I'm hoping that I can pick up some add-on drone work for things like vacant land that I wouldn't be hired to photograph normally. Vacant land is another place where that processing fluency might need to be pushed a bit since there isn't 3 dimensional point of focus like a building. One lot of flat desert land where I am looks pretty much the same everywhere, so one picture can be reused over and over and nobody would be the wiser. An aerial image that ties the vacant property into the larger setting is only going to be valid for that one piece of land. If it takes me no more than 30 minutes to do those jobs and I charge $50ea when I'm already nearby, that's gravy.

    There is an aesthetic in architectural photography that is still valid when shooting aerials. Since we humans don't have wings, we don't get many views from a high vantage point that often in our daily lives. Homes are often conceived in 1PP elevations the same way painters were showing them throughout the ages and it's either instinctual that we find depictions of architecture natural and normal when verticals are straight and we are on the same level as the foundation or we've spent a lifetime learning to accept those POVs as normal. Putting the camera on the floor and making images of RE that way is just as weird as flying a drone to 100' and looking down at a steep angle. Sure, some customers want that, but it is to be hoped that they asked you to photograph their listings because they like your style and not just to get somebody to push the shutter button for them. Hopefully they will allow you to make compelling images they can use and respect your advice on what works visually.

  9. @David - Great question. Truth is, I can't. What I can do is ascribe a question to every shot I take, and provide the answer with the help of the agent. What's behind the property? What shape is the roof in? How close is the home to the river (my market includes the Ohio River)? What do the neighbors yards look like (and what will I be looking at from my yard every day.) You and I would probably agree that shooting aerials for the sake of showing off is a waste of everyones time. But to suggest that a shot from sixty feet of a nice home would elicit a negative response I believe is science misapplied.

    I think the crux of the argument is this - you state that "Many drone photos feature rooftops and driveways; is that an emotive image?". Often it is not. But the images we take today are much more about INFORMING than they ever were. Customers expect to SEE a home online today, not just to have their curiosity piqued enough attend an open house. Agents who told me 10 years ago that they didn't want too many photos because they wanted a phone call now order video, 3D tours, and want 80 photos, because they believe the market psychology has shifted.

    Remember the listing you are shooting that day isn't the ONLY sale. I want the agent to be happy because I am selling them. I work with established agents who know what they want. They will accept my council, but they write the checks. They also want to show their NEXT potential listing customer the kind of work they provide for them. "Obvious" drone shots help them communicate that they are a full service marketing company.

    We may not agree, but an interesting topic. Thanks for sharing.

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