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Real Estate Photography Basics: Focus, Exposure and White Balance

Published: 19/12/2009

This last week I gotten several questions about the basics of real estate photography like "should I use autofocus?", "what should I do about reflections from my flash?", "should I increase the ISO if there isn't enough light?". "should I use RAW or JPG?" So I thought it would be useful to step through some of the basics.

  1. Expect to do some post processing to get the best image possible. You can do everything you need to do for real estate photography with Photoshop Elements or Photoshop. Lightroom is easier for most post but doesn't fix vertical and barrel distortion. PTlens will fill that hole.
  2. To get the very best results in post processing you should be shooting in RAW. A RAW file allows you to make more changes to white balance, exposure etc without ruining the image. Yea the files are bigger but these days memory cards and storage are cheap.
  3. Use the histogram and expose to the right. This rule takes advantage of how CCD and CMOS sensors work.
  4. Pay attention to white balance. It's easy to adjust white balance in Lightroom, Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. There's no right white balance, it's what looks good to you or your client.
  5. If you are using flash (on-camera or off-camera) you don't need to use a tripod (because the flash duration is so short) but if you don't use flash you should use a tripod to keep good focus at long exposures.
  6. Reflections (particularly if you use on-camera flash) and hot-spots are inevitable when using flash. They can be removed easily in post processing (with cloning).
  7. Use hyper-focal focusing to make sure your images are sharp from a few feet to infinity. You can't fix an out of focus image in post processing. You have to get it right in the camera.
  8. Autofocus can be hard to control in low light interiors. There are a bunch of reasons to just turn it off and use manual focusing.
  9. Even though many modern day sensors look good pretty at high ISO settings, you are better off keeping the ISO as low as possible. The rule of thumb is if you are shooting HDR keep the ISO at 100 or lower because the HDR process increases noise so you want to start out with as little noise as possible. For flash work use ISO around 400. This effectively gives you flash(s) more power and there's less of a problem with noise when using flash.

I may have missed something. Feel free to add your favorite basic rule or tell me if I've missed something important.

Larry Lohrman

12 comments on “Real Estate Photography Basics: Focus, Exposure and White Balance”

  1. Great coverage of all the basics! I have saved many photos that were shot in RAW that would have been hopeless in JPG. Still have lots to learn but you can't get away from the basics! Thanks for sharing.

  2. I have to agree with Laura. Shooting in RAW is the way to go. You have more room to work in post processing and as you point out there will be some post processing necessities.

  3. Larry great basic tips we always need to review from time to time!

    Here is another depth of field scale I've been using for years at I find it very easy to use.

    I always photograph using JPG + RAW. The JPG I use only for quick viewing and editing.
    Also I find when I use my Sony A300 in live view mode, the system uses many more WB sensors than it does in the optical view mode so I get very good results with AWB. When I need to make finer adjustments I can see the K degrees changes very quickly while viewing the flip up LCD screen. Another advantage with the live view mode is it reduces back aches from having not to bend down so often to look through the eyepiece. I find it easier to lin up the verticals too. When the camera is on the PAP, I can tilt the LCD down and use the it to line up the shot. Then I use a Cactus RF shutter release to take the picture. This works very well for up to about 12-14 feet.

  4. Hey Larry, I click on your link in your post to turn off autofocus and it takes me to a login page. Just checking to make sure the link is right, thanks for this great post!

  5. Regarding hyper-focal focus, I've read all I could find and now I think I have a good understanding of it ... I've also calculated the hyper-focal focus for my lens which is a Tokina 12-24 F4, and what I've found is that when I'm in 12mm equivalent to 18mm on my D90, I should set the focus at 2.89 ... but I'm not sure how to find where 2.89 is ... if you search for a Tokina 12-24 image you will see that the focus is 2 and then infinite ... so where is 2.89? 🙂

  6. @Al- When your lens has a distance scale on it you don't need to calculate the hyperfocal distance, you just use the scale. Set it from 2' to infinity and you are set. The reason your calculation is off may be you should be using 12 as the focal length instead of 18... I don't think the sensor size has an effect on the hyperfocal length.

  7. @Larry - I set the lens to 12mm but because D90 is not a full frame camera I end up with 18mm so I've put in the calculator the 18mm ... should I put 12mm in the calculator and find out what's the HFF for 12mm?

    Thanks for ur reply

  8. Al, for this purpose, you want to use the real, not the effective, focal length. Anyway, when you are talking about focal lengths this short, the depth of field is so great, even at wider apertures, that you don't have to be very precise with setting the hyperfocal distance, at least for non-critical work, that is not at close range, such as pfre. If you do want to be very precise with hyperfocal distance, you do need to calculate it for many zoom lenses, which really cannot provide full depth-of-field scales for all focal lengths and apertures. And, hyperfocal distance for any given aperture and focal length will depend on the viewing conditions, i.e. degree of enlargement and viewing distance. Most depth of field scales use a reference of an 8 x 10 print I believe. Read up on circles of confusion.

    By the way, there is only one plane of truly sharp focus. For pfre we do not have areas of a scene that are closer than about 3-4 feet, and those things do not often have to be in ultrasharp focus. So, even if, technically, the hyperfocal distance is, say, 2 feet, you still want to set the focus point further away for maximum sharpness.

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