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The Importance of Composition in Real Estate Photography

Published: 15/03/2019

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CompositionThis is a tutorial that Scott and Malia did a couple of years ago. I've done posts on it before, but photo composition is a super important subject in real estate photography and this tutorial is worth watching again if you've already seen it.

The most important question you need to ask yourself with each photo is what is the story you want to tell with the photo in terms of features and layout and feel of the room. As Scott says "What is the photo about?"

Once you have that concept in mind of what the photo is about it can guide decisions about what to include and what to exclude. You also can recognize which visual elements of the photo distract from the story and which visual elements add to your story.

The three main concepts that Scott covers in this tutorial are:

  1. Resist racking your wide-angle lens out to the widest focal length and including as much of the room as possible. Think about how the room feels rather than just how it looks.
  2. Think about how foreground visual elements work in relation to background elements.
  3. Think about shapes and tones in the room.

Oh yeah, and you need to practice this stuff. Some people get these concepts faster than others, but we all need to practice to get good at it! Another good way to practice these concepts is to think and talk about your work and the work of others on the PFRE Flickr forum. Frequently others will see things you don't notice.

Larry Lohrman

8 comments on “The Importance of Composition in Real Estate Photography”

  1. I agree completely that composition is vital for good architectural and RE photography. I would extend that to most advertising and promotion photography. In fact the only kind of photography I can think of at the moment it might not apply is scientific photography or mug shots at police stations, or for that matter, for my driver's license if my driver's licenses photos are anything to go by.

    But what compromises good composition is far more subjective. One of the points being made is that the images are less about documenting the whole room and about capturing what it is like to be in the room. I could not agree with Scott more. And I loved the video imagery that was lit with available light and made the room look fabulous. But then he, to my eye, that ambience of being there was destroyed with a blast of flash that completely destroyed the ambiance of the available light that provided the feeling of being there. I have seen very superior work by Scott with his flash set ups on his website, but I was let down after the wind up for capturing the feeling of being there.

    And while I also agree that it is not necessary to show the maximum amount of room real estate, so to speak, I usually try to capture not just cropped details but as much as I can if it conveys more communication of the nature of the room. We are not shooting for a furniture company to be sure, and I agree too that we are not selling lamps or high boys, but neither are we selling couches, rugs, wall art or beds. But these rooms are very defined by the nature of how they are furnished, bedroom vs living room, so I don't have a problem with including chests of drawers with or without lamps on them. But it is how we include them with our composition that makes them either a communication about the room or allow them to become a total distraction. For example I always turn off a lamp that is close to the outer edge of a wide angle shot to minimize its bright distraction. And we certainly don't want a large looming bulk of featureless dressers taking up too much of the shot in the foreground or for that matter an ottoman or coffee table. But that does not mean they cannot be included if you can minimize their visual impact.

    I certainly agree about cutting down on vast featureless expanses of ceilings, which is why I usually aim the camera to include more floor than bare, white, uninteresting ceilings. However, if the ceiling has beams, coffers, interesting architectural elements such as that bedroom, then I certainly will include them. To do one or the other depends on the room and to be successful, certainly the composition has to embrace it.

    I know there is a school of thought that images should be framed and cropped in the camera at the time of the shoot, but after a lifetime working in advertising photography working with graphic and art directors, it was drummed into me to include everything in the shot and let the art director make the cropping decisions after the shoot. We are really our own art directors here but I think the same approach is wise. I will shoot at full 10mm with my crop sensor Sony and Canon, then zoom in for a closer framing which gives me the option of moving back out in post if I realize I zoomed in too far. Plus, as I mentioned above, I tend to shoot at a slight angle downward to reduce the ceiling and capture more of the carpets, wood floors, tile etc. And so I expect to adjust my verticals and my horizontals in Photoshop/LR. By shooting at full wide angle it lets me loose some of that visual real estate as a wedge is cut out due to the correction process. And then I usually adjust the composition in post since even with my FreeWorld monitor, once I have an image on my larger computer monitor, I always benefit from hind sight in composition and cropping. With the high resolution we have these days with our cameras, the slight loss of pixels is not a problem even if you do some fairly major cropping.

    So while I agree with many of the ideas presented here, I don't entirely agree with all the conclusions. But then we all have our own styles and approaches that work for us and our clients. But there is no rule book about this as it applies to real estate over and above "does it work, however it is made?" So I think there is more here to discuss about what works for individual photographers and their clients with the proviso that yes, composition is very important since composition is graphic design and the underlying graphic design is half of photoGRAPHY and import in how we guide the eye through the image and move it to where we want it to go. So that depends on composition, lighting and even burning and dodging. They go hand in hand. Even color design comes into play in composition. Hot bright colors will capture the eye and may lead it away from where you want it to go in the shot. So a bright magenta flower in a vase sitting on the outside of the image will distract the eye from where you want it to go. Stagers will fill rooms with interesting things to appeal to buyers doing a property visit usually set for the view from the door way, but I find I am almost always having to change the placement to make things work for the photo, then have to try to remember where it was when I arrived. Placing a bowl of fruit on a kitchen island right in the middle is great for proper staging, but not for photography. I have to move it closer to the camera to make it look like it is actually in the middle, all things to wide angle lenses. All part of composition. All important.

  2. Note: When Larry says this video is "a couple of years" old, he means "seven years"!

    When we visited this exact topic a few months ago, in December, there were a barrage of comments extolling the virtues of always shooting as wide as possible and then finding a crop later on. And of course a few that were along the lines of the tired old refrain "I'm a real estate photographer, not an artist!", the word "artist" dripping with contempt.
    To the "shoot UFWA and figure out a crop later" proponents, I can only say that the crop is just a small part of a composition. The camera's Point Of View is at least as important as the Field Of View, and I don't really see how you can de-couple those two factors. Where I place the camera depends on how wide my field of view will be, and vice versa. There are some things you simply have to do in the field, no matter how much you dislike it, and composition is one of them.
    And of course, that's not even getting into the near-impossibility of lighting some of these extravagantly wide comps. When Malia and I made this video all those years ago, a big part of my motivation was to help explain to all the people who were emailing me at the time why they needed to stop shooting at 18mm, 17mm and even wider. When clients say "Make the room look bigger" what they often mean (but don't know how to express) is that they want the room to *feel* right. When we recognize the room emotionally, we like the photo. When an agent sees a photo and recognizes it as the living room of her listing, but can't connect to it on a gut level, then it just feels "wrong".

    Obviously, none of this is etched in stone. I often make subtle crops after the shoot, and no one is saying that a longer focal length automatically results in a better photo. A bad photographer will find a way to make a bad photo!

    @ Peter, sorry you were so disappointed with the lighting. I had thought that this video would be about composition, but I've got other videos that are devoted to lighting. This was the first video I was ever part of, and one of the first for Malia. My intent was that the important part of the video would be the discussion of composition. I also like the exposure Malia used for the videography, but for still photos, I think it would be a rare real estate agent who would be OK with the windows and light fixtures completely blown out as they were. I chose to do the simplest lighting (a ceiling bounce) as a way of getting a "typical" real estate shot quickly, but again, our intent was to discuss composition rather than showcase a portfolio shot. Sorry it was distracting.

  3. Scott, I agree with most of what you said above. And I quite understand about it being an old video in a field where both equipment and techniques are changing before we have quite gotten used to the last round of changes. But you seem to be making an assumption (if you are responding to what I posted above) that just because you elect to shoot wide, that means you are not working on composition at the same time. You seem to be saying, if I read you right, that shooting wide to work with the composition later means you are not working on composition at the time of the shoot. I can assure you that I at least do both and it is quite possible to do both. I compose for the ultra wide as I shoot it, then zoom in and see if the camera position is right for a more cropped version. I am not an idiot and certainly not an idiot after shooting advertising and now real estate for over 40 years. But with my past experience, I have a pretty good idea of how I am going to frame each shot before I look through the camera, not after I am back at my computer. In fact, its not just the composition that I gather at the time of the shoot, but a great many other things as well to get well attached to that RAW image I take back with me.

    I did a story for a French food magazine on a famous French chef who told me that since he had worked in a kitchen for so long, he knew his tastes intimately and made new recipes while he was flying in a plane or his helicopter, called them into his 2nd to cook, then he tasted the dish when he got back to his kitchens and made subtle changes that then became part of his menu. Photography is a bit like that too from the stand point of working out a shot in your mind's eye before looking through the camera, and then just following up on that with your equipment.

    Digital is fantastic since you can actually see what you are getting on your monitor whether it is a larger, separate one or on the back of the camera. In the days of film, all we had was a polaroid which was anything but accurate. So I grew up composing in the camera. Sure we could crop a bit in the enlarger, my clients could do so as they sent transparencies off to the color separator. Today we live in the lap of luxury. And it allows me to compose not with my mind but with my gut. But we are all different. And I think the video is still excellent for all those entering the field who need to learn how to compose and that it is important. I think you can bring out composition in in experienced photographers, but having "an eye" is probably more something you either have or you don't. If you do, it can be nourished and directed and developed. But it is certainly on of the most important parts of photography for sure.

  4. Hey Scott, we’d all love to see you do an updated video based on new ways I am sure you have learned to communicate this subject and new methods of making it happen.

  5. One of the things we've heard in our field for a long time now, is the saying: Most people don't know why they like a photo, they just know that they do. Here's the thing, though, it's been proven time and again that, *subconsciously*, certain factors are almost always at play when someone loves a photo; and IMO, the most dominant of these factors is great composition. Indeed, even if a photo is lit and edited perfectly, if the shot isn't well composed, it's never going to achieve the maximum impact on our clients (and their clients) ... and poor composition is something that almost never “fixable” in post.

    Next month (and please forgive the shameless plug!) I will be releasing a video tutorial that focuses exclusively on effective composition. It is rooted in a concept that Scott speaks to in his comment, above, when he says that, when our clients recognize the room emotionally, they end up liking the photo; and when an agent sees an image she recognizes as the living room of her listing, but can’t connect to it on a gut level, then it just feels “wrong”. Here, Scott is alluding, in part, to a dynamic within the field of cognitive neuroscience, called cognitive fluency. There are a great many shooters in our field who believe that the purpose of RE photography is to help the agent sell a listing or promote their brand ... this is not true. At best, these things are by-products of our work. The purpose of our photography is to evoke a feeling in the viewer and what I’ve always tried to do with all my coaching clients and try to convey in my upcoming video, is to identify which feelings are most dominant in prompting the viewers of our photo to say: “I love this shot!”

    Understanding and applying the core principles of effective composition (and thus, understanding WHY a great shot is a great shot), increases the likelihood of our being able to consistently create images that will resonate with our clients.

  6. Peter, while it is sometimes useful to provide some photos that offer some different options for cropping to suit layouts in marketing materials, real estate agents rarely have the kind of visual training and skills that art directors do, so I don't think it is ever helpful to provide them with loosely composed photos.

    As an aside, when considering offering options for cropping, more resolution and a larger format starts to become more important, as well as the level of technical skill and the quality of the lenses used.

  7. Time is a factor in PFRE so having to crop a bunch in post chews up minutes. Multiplied by 20-40 images per job and a couple of jobs, it cuts into sleep time. I used to shoot far too wide and I've cleaned up my compositions a lot since I gained more confidence in the compositions I was choosing. I don't give my RE customers much post shoot artistic control over the images I'm delivering at my standard rates. I do the best I can and listen to them when they ask for certain images. If they want to help compose each image, I can do that but I'd charge much more since it's going to take much longer on site and in post. Art directors that do that sort of thing for a living are very easy to work with since they can see the image they are trying to get and some understanding of the process where RE agents rarely do.

    Composition seems to be taught and talked about far less than gear and settings even though it's more important. Is it just a harder concept to get across? It would be nice to see some tutorials with RE examples. I feel like I learn more with relevant examples than I do when something is taught with abstract or too generalized concepts.

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