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What Are Your Favorite Real Estate Photography Efficiency Hacks?

Published: 14/04/2020

Kelly, from Columbus, GA writes:

“I was coming up to the end of my first year in real estate photography and I was starting to get the hang of using off camera flashes before the Covid-19 virus shut everything down. I’m trying to get more of a handle on things; especially related to getting more efficient in my work. I was hoping you could share some things that I can do to increase my efficiency at a shoot.”

Thanks for writing in, Kelly. This is a topic that’s really important to me because my own photography business is built-on doing multiple shoots in a day, This has forced me to become really efficient at how I get through a house at a shoot. If I’m being honest, I would love to slow down a bit but I’ve worked my tail off to be the top shooter in my market and it’s something that I’m not quite ready to give up to my competitors. So, if you’re looking for some “efficiency hacks”, I’d like to get the ball rolling by offering a couple of ideas, and I’m sure others will offer lots more in the comments section below.

Minimize Your Gear

For me, probably the easiest thing that I did to become more efficient was to minimize my gear. I figured out what the absolute minimum amount of gear I needed for the work that allowed me to get the quality-level that I wanted for each photo was. So for me, all I have in my gear kit is my camera, a tripod, a couple of lenses--although I use my Nikon 14-30mm lens for 99% of all the scenarios I'll encounter for real estate (I don't want to take a bunch of time switching lens throughout each shoot) and finally, no more than 2-3 Speedlites.

Develop a Repeatable Process

The other thing that really maximizes my efficiency is not spending a bunch of time taking multi-shot brackets. For me, through much practice, I’ve been able to figure out a system where I take only one ambient shot and one flash shot for virtually each room that I shoot. This two-shot system allows me to cover about 90% of the shots that I take at any given shoot. For me to get to this level of efficiency though, I had to review a lot of shots on my camera's LCD screen in order to train my eye to know whether I had the right exposure levels in both my ambient and flash frames, that would allow me to blend the shots well, in post.

This leads me to my main point which is: The goal is to have an approach that is highly repeatable and scalable. If you’ve ever followed professional golf, you’ll know the name Jim Furyk. He has one of the oddest golf swings in the history of the sport--so much so, that if you were teaching golf to your young son or daughter, you’d never do so using Jim Furyk's golf swing. That said, Jim Furyk has had a great career and is going to end up in the Golf Hall of Fame at some point. He’s been successful because his golf swing, while loopy and not pretty to look at, is highly repeatable, and he’s used it to his advantage. The same is true in our profession as it relates to efficiency. Your approach and execution in each space has to be virtually the same with each shot. In fact, the more time you spend trying to figure out the mechanics of the shoot (e.g., trying to come up with a perfect lighting set-up in every single space), the less time you’ll have to devote to how you want to compose the shot, which is by far, the most important variable in coming up with a great shot.

Anyway, these are my top-2 pieces of advice, Kelly. I’m sure folks will be adding their own comments that will give you many more great ideas to think about and use in your work. Good luck!

Brandon Cooper

18 comments on “What Are Your Favorite Real Estate Photography Efficiency Hacks?”

  1. There are many reasons why a photographer may shoot lights off, but let's get real here... cmon really. If you were an auto mechanic would you rather swap out a transmission or change the oil for the same money?

    I really think the difference in difficulty between lights on / off is understated. It is SO basic to take a "nice" photo with lights off it is almost a joke. Get a well exposed ambient frame then get a slightly darker frame for the window. Done.

    I am sorta predicting the answers here, and I do that, forgive me, but the real reason to shoot lights off is it makes your job on the magnitude of about half as difficult (you are taking color problems almost completely out of the equation). Lights off you are now making the same money, not necessarily going twice as fast, but I would say you have half the problems to deal with on a daily basis.

    Lights off, you make more money per hour, are able to schedule more shoots in a day. Are there any other reasons we even need to consider?

  2. I agree 100% with Andrew. Pretty fixtures lit up look best but average real estate shoots don’t justify the extra work. I’ve started turning many or all lights off for all but a few interior rooms on average homes and condos (Luxury home where I’m paid more most lights are on). I prefer the look of lights on but I needed to speed up both shooting and the editing (most of my editing now done by my son). My developer/builder work pays well and lights are on. I resisted turning any lights off for realtor shoots until I noticed AD magazine with lights off - that surprises me

  3. Unfortunately probably the most common sense answer is not an option on the form. That answer is "It depends on site conditions found at the time of the shoot."

    You don't shoot common RE projects to get noticed in AD. You shoot to make acceptable images that look pretty and at the same time document the property accurately. You, or at least I do, shoot to add a bit of emotion and good composition to each shot. If lights on work I do that. If lights off work I do that. If some on and some off work best I do that.

    Lights can bring some warmth (welcoming emotion) to a room. When that happens I leave them on. Then at times there is a mixture of types of lighting that clash. I leave some off and some on. Then there are cases where some bulbs are burnt out and that stands out as unmaintained. I turn those all off so the burnt out ones in the ceiling that the owner can't reach, do not stand out. Ceiling fan lights can be good or bad. I turn off the bad ones and turn on the good ones (look at me I'm a stunning fan or look at me I'm a $29 piece of crap fixture in a million dollar home).

    So the heading of the post is misleading "Should I..." and then the poll asks "Do you..." and then does not allow the most common sense response.

    I did not answer the poll... and that's the rest of the story.

  4. Usually... all lights on ceiling fans off. I do have requests from some apartments or short term rentals to shoot with the lights off from very specific angles. For he most part it depends on the property. Cool fixtures are always ON. I look at each shoot as a sort of resume for the next client looking to hire me. Sometimes I spend a little too much time on lower paying shoots but hey... I love what I do.

  5. For me it very much depends. In most cases, I am still shooting lights on. However, my situation is a little unique. I live in a mountain/summer home community with lots of cabin-style homes and most make use of an abundance of wood on the interior. In most cases, they simply look warmer, cozy and more inviting with the lights on. On the other hand, when I do occasionally get the light and air "Pottery Barn look" home with lots of neutral colors, I do prefer lights off unless the light fixture itself is of special note.

  6. Making the job easier and faster, while laudable, is a poor justification for shooting with lights off.

    For me it's an aesthetic and compositional choice. Can lights on draw the eye away from the the main point of interest. Same for ceiling fixtures. If there is an architecturally significant chandelier or sconce and its dimmable I'll have it on.

    Most agents want them on. Until I saw the Compass photo guide promoting lights off, I didn't argue, even though I wasn't a fan aesthetically. Now, when shooting for an agent that says they want lights on, I explain why I think it's better to have them off unless the contribute. Even using the LCD on the camera, they quickly recognize the compositional benefits.

    In my view, there are probably as many real estate photos diminished by poor flash technique as with lights on inappropriately.

    In the end, it should be an aesthetic decision not a "make life simpler" decision. At least, in my view. 🙂

  7. I don't think there's a right or wrong answer here... it really depends on each location. My preference is certain lights on, but not all. For example, a lit lamp by a reading chair (or bed) can be more inviting. Many times I'll turn off the ceiling light if it's ugly or is using a bulb with a odd color temp. I prefer the look that makes it appear that someone is living there... I think it's easier for a prospective buyer to place themselves in that type of setting because it's less "show-roomy" and separated.

  8. When I started doing this kind of work 9 years ago, I had a RE friend who let me shoot some of her homes. The first thing she told me was, "Always turn all the lights on". I did that for a number of years. But I've discovered that, in many but not all, cases the photos look better and more natural with the lights off. One thing that I realized is that she was probably told "all lights on" by another agent when she was starting out and took it as gospel. Then she passed the same info along to me, and for a long time I took it as gospel. It's amazing how many things we accept as "the way it's supposed to be" are nothing more than things that have been passed down by others.

  9. For me it comes down what makes the best photo and tells the story of the house. If there are a lot of reds, oranges and yellows or a lot of wood, I like the lights on (assuming the lighting looks good and bulbs are matching). If the colors are more blues and grays with a modern feel, I like the lights off. For real estate, I don't like to have the lights off in the bathroom if there are no windows. It just doesn't make sense and it isn't hard to expose for the light fixture, gel the flash, and get a clean shot that can still jive with other parts of the house where maybe I left the lights off.

    There are so many variables, I don't think I could have decide to choose one or the other.

  10. I shoot with flash and with lights on. For the simple reason, that a bright looking room with dark (lights off) fixtures, is not logical and I think that inconsistency registers with people.
    I get plenty of light from my flashes, and don't need the lights in the room, but I think it adds to the photo to have somewhat glowing lamp shades, etc. Of course, the downside is all the dead bulbs that look out of place.

  11. You have a lot more to learn about your camera, LR, and workflow. It isn't harder to do it one way or the other, but it does take slightly different camera settings, and a different LR recipe, and using flash. I actually find it slightly more complicated to edit without having used flash, whether the lights are off or on. Just the incoming light from the windows alone is not consistent - there can be blue light from the sky, and green light bouncing off the grass, mixing with various shades of wall paint. Turing the lights on is one or two additional colors to the room, but it makes little difference if you're not negating all those colors with a clean source, which in turn saves time in the editing.

    Also, are you going to turn the lights off in the basement where there are no or few windows? It's good to know how to shoot both ways, because you will definitely need to be able to switch-hit for different situations. A month ago I was in a HUGE cabin where the main/great room had no natural light in it at all, and frankly, not that much incandescent either. I had to re-think everything I know about shooting RE work just to make that work out. And it turned out beautiful. The light was so dim I couldn't even see to focus, and the camera wouldn't do it either. I had to go to the manual focus 2.4 meter rule and f8, and then adjust everything else until I had a viewable image with a working color balance. Flash looked somewhat unnatural in that setting, and the ceiling was 20ft up, made of deep orange red colored wood, so bouncing was out of the question. But i did find that flash on very low power, mixed with the long exposure, cleaned up the color without creating crazy shadows.

  12. The answer is "yes", you should be shooting with the lights on or off.

    My main approach is to have the lights off for the primary exposure. If there are fixtures that are artistic as well as functional, I'll capture a frame exposed for them separately that will be added in during post production. Putting that frame on it's own luminosity or lighten mode layer in Photoshop and a mask to brush in just the amount and extent is quick and easy. I might try one frame with the light(s) on as a test. With a 10" tablet and a CamRanger, it's a great way to see what the light is doing to the scene. If it's throwing wild unwanted shadows or a bad color cast, it stays off. Lights that are purely functional stay off.

    There is alway a "but". If the lighting has been well designed and is part of the architecture of the home, that's a selling point and will have to be captured. Chances are that the light will be really good in that case. Think of a nighttime photo in a luxury high rise condo with downlights picking out furniture and areas to define the space. The lights have to be on and the image made at the right time. If you have to get a photo of a poorly lit basement or interior room, you may need the installed lighting to get your base ambient exposure. I've had kitchens that were a challenge due to the ambient light be highly graduated from one side to the back. If you can unscrew that one bulb with the different color temperature, it's easy to clone it back in later rather than trying to clean up a big color spill by having the lights on in exchange for a simpler lighting solution on site.

    Your main approach is down to your own style and what you find more attractive. I don't think it's cheating to consider the time it might take to overcome mismatched color temps throughout an image as part of the decision process. For an architectural job, you should be prepared to gel lights/strobes, mask or scrim windows and all of the other things to get the light just right. For real estate, there is a limit to what you can do in the time frame you can allocate to a job both on site and in post. It comes down to knowing why you are making the decisions you do.

  13. For real estate, I turn the lights off in any room with a window. Apart from the clear workflow benefits with color casts, I also just prefer the look just from an aesthetic standpoint. It's the difference between a big, soft light source (window) and several tiny points of light (light fixtures). With lights turned on, the quality of the light changes significantly, not just the color temperature(s). So it's a specific look that resonates with me, to turn the lights off.

    The other thing is, I very rarely see in RE photography, examples of lights being turned on where the light fixtures themselves are contributing light to the scene in a natural way. Using flash and compositing methods, most of the photos I see either, A. just nuke away the ambient light from the fixtures and replace it with flash (varying degrees of success - it can look fine when done well), or B. use ambient light in their edits where the lights are turned off, and blend it in over frames with lights turned on. So what you get is a shot with natural window light, and all these interior lights turned on but not contributing light to the photo. To me, both of these scenarios are very common and pretty off-putting. It doesn't add up, and doesn't feel natural. Of course, I'm splitting hairs here. The photos are fine for MLS and if the clients are happy, that's what really matters I suppose.

    But if the question is being answered from the context of preference and "feeling", I think it's important that if you're going to turn the lights on, then you should leave some of the influence from those light fixtures in the scene. The "warmth" I see in photos with lights turned on is often so subtle, if it's even there at all, that I wonder why we need to see all these tiny, bright dots of recessed light on the ceiling. They're just a distraction, to me.

  14. Ditto Garey G. I only shoot lights on when I have to.

    Window light = beauty. It’s directional (use those blinds behind you), it gives depth and texture, and it leaves a more consistent color throughout the room.

    Lamp light = disarray. It leaves the scene with multidirectional lighting, multi coloring and multi levels of power.

    If I have to I will take a separate shot or two ‘a la Ken Brown, and reluctantly cut them in as needed.

    The only reason that I shot with the lights on when I started this confounding vocation was because of HDR. Since then I’ve taken some good advice and regained control of my procuct.

  15. I prefer the lights off for all the reasons above - clean, directional from windows, etc. One thing I do if shooting lights off is to take an exposure with lights on to have it as a backup. Some realtors prefer this.

    I hate yellow orange bulbs!

  16. A few years back I tried shooting only natural light. It is definitely an easy way to defeat the myriad of colors put out by today's lightbulbs. However I found that the images lacked a warm inviting feeling with the lights off. I am now incorporating a flash shot to control the varying color temperatures in available lighting

  17. I prefer shooting lights off, I think it looks better and yes, it is a lot better. However, most of our agents will have none of it and they prefer the more "welcoming" look of lights on. We've stopped trying to convince them.

  18. When I first got into this business I placed a very high value on consistency, and tried very hard to make all my shots of a property look very similar...and waaay too bright.

    Nowadays I have my processing refined to the point that most of my shots have a similar look anyway, but now I place higher value on getting the shot each space deserves. Sometimes, it won’t look like the others, and that’s okay.

    I switch hit lights on or off all the time, but do usually shoot them on. Color casts can almost always be taken care of pretty quickly by flash and/or desaturating ceilings.

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