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What Is The Best Focal Length For Shooting Interiors?

Published: 27/05/2016
By: larry

17-40LAnnie in Idaho says:

I have been shooting real estate for about 4 years and currently shoot with the Canon 5DMkII and 5DMkIII. But the lens I have been using is the Tamron 10mm-24mm. When zooming to about 14mm there is serious vignetting. I like this focal length but its time to upgrade since the edges of images lose focus, and I can't find a lens that opens to 14mm or even 15mm. Is the Canon 16-35mm the only full frame lens option for wide shots?

Canon makes the 11-24 f/4 lens that is very high quality, but I would not recommend that anyone use a lens this wide for shooting interiors. It will work but it is over-kill. I've used a Canon 16-35mm lens on a Canon 1Ds and 5DMkII for a very long time and my opinion is that in most situations even 16mm is too wide to shoot interiors.

The perspective distortion at 15mm and 16mm is huge. Perspective distortion is where objects in the extreme corners become way wider than the same object closer to the center of the photo. Also, circular objects in the corners become squished and don't look round. Good interior photography is done closer to 24mm. That's why tilt/shift lenses designed for photography are usually 24mm. The most popular Canon full frame lenses for real estate photography are the Canon 16-35mm and the Canon 17-40mm (see the poll on my lens page). The wider lenses in the 10-20mm range are intended for crop sensor DSLRs that have a 1.6 or 1.5 multiplier on the focal length.

Yes, I know there are some Realtors out there that ask for ultra wide-angle shots but they need artistic guidance from professional photographers that are more visually sophisticated.

So, for Canon 5DMkII and 5DMkIII DSLRs I recommend either the Canon 16-35mm (the f/4 version is all you need) or the Canon 17-40mm. These are both quality lenses that go plenty wide enough for shooting interiors.

Aaron in OH asked:

This post brought up a question about wide angle lens' and video that I have. Basically, what is the best focal length for filming video of interiors?

I shoot stills with a Sony A7ii and Sony 10-18 mm (15-27mm FF). I film video with the Osmo Pro (X5) and the Olympus 12mm (24mm FF). I know that you have discussed 24mm being the sweet spot for interiors and I could not agree with that more. Despite how much I educate clients, they always want everything as wide as possible and I work with that as much as possible. I prefer 20mm (FF) for filming and after upgrading from the Osmo x3 (20mm FF) to the x5 I am really missing the loss of 4mm. At 24mm I seem to loose most of the floor and ceiling. The footage between the x3 and x5 is a night and day difference and I know photography and videography is about trade-offs at this point.

Then, I see videos in my area such as this, which seems to be used with an ultra wide lens for such a small home. So again, what is the best focal length for filming video interiors?

I am also asking because I will ditch the x5 and just buy a gimbal for my DSLR if I need to obtain a wider shot.

There is no BEST or RIGHT focal length for shooting (still or video) interiors. What is best is what your client likes best or what creates a strong composition. If you want to get an image published in Architectural Digest or if you want to win the PFRE Still contest you will not want to shoot "UFWA" as Scott Hargis says when you shoot ultra wide. If your client is a designer who is trained in the arts, you probably won't want to shoot ultra wide because that doesn't create a strong visual composition like they are looking for. But, if you want to please the average real estate listing agent whose iPhone won't shoot wider than 28mm effective then you will probably want to rack it out as wide as you can go because like you say, that's what they want.

I don't think it's worth your time to "educate clients" in the arts. Be flexible and do what it takes to create satisfied clients whether your clients are agents or interior designers. But as a photographer, understand and be able to see the difference between UFWA and an interior image with a great composition like what Scott HargisTony ColangeloBrandon CooperJason Roehner or Barry MacKenzie would shoot. As you learn to compose like this you will want to do it all the time!

BTW, note that UFWA is now an official a term in the Urban Dictionary. But Scott says they have the definition backward! UFWA is a bad thing, not a good thing! I guess it all depends on your point of view.

21 comments on “What Is The Best Focal Length For Shooting Interiors?”

  1. Don't forget Tamron 15-30/ 2,8 lense, it is cheaper than canon and picture quality is even better. It has also vibration control, so it' easy to use even without tripod. Also i dont have flare problems with it. I have used quite many lenses but Tamron is so far best, it works even new megapixel monsters.

  2. Lots of room for discussion here. I fall outside the majority of real estate photographers in that I shoot with the widest lens I can, although I have been known to zoom in a bit for composition. But also I do not subscribe to the idea of keeping the film plane in the same place as the back wall to minimize parallax distortion. I find most ceilings boring and when the lens is aimed at the far wall you get a lot of ceiling in the shot. I find generally floors are far more interesting so I aim down to a greater or lesser extent. This means the sides of the shot are leaning and not parallel with the sides of the frame. Since it is so easy to correct this in post, I prefer to make my parallax corrections in post rather than in camera. When I shot with a sheet film view camera, then I would make my film plane lie parallel with the vertical of my subject be it a room, building or computer box. And the raise or lower the lens board for composition and depth of field. That took forever to get right. Today it takes a fraction of the time to do this in Photoshop.

    I include this song and dance since I know I am going to be shaving off a lot of image real estate, so to speak, in post so I want to have enough space to work. And with the high resolution of today's cameras, there are plenty of pixels to work with. It is also a result of decades of working with art directors who wanted to do the cropping and did not want the photographer to do it. So while photographers like Cartier Bresson wanted to compose in camera and print the whole negative with no cropping, commercially I see no reason to do so. The ultra wides allow you to make up your mind in the calm space of your computer room and not while you are chasing the light on location. So I do recommend using an ultra wide since you will probably crop off that soft edge detail, any vignetting and elliptical round things in the corners. Although when shooting you should be experienced enough not to allow such obvious subjects of distortion to appear on the outsides of your composition in the first place. Just one photographer's opinion.

    But when choosing a lens, I would also recommend going to a camera store and actually shooting some exposures with several different brands and focal lengths with your camera to see the results at the f-stops you usually use. You would hardly buy a car without at least driving it around the block and kicking the tires (although I have never quite understood the tire kicking thing.) so why buy a lens without trying it?

  3. Larry is absolutely right about shooting too wide - I have actually taken the time over the past year or so to find my most commonly used focal length & it is 24mm. If you are a geek like me you can do this yourself with the Lightroom catalog analysis tool: that will show you what percentage of shots are done using which focal lengths, f-stops etc.. Even though I have a 16-35 and have a 12-24 as well, I find that I almost never shoot wider than 20mm.

    So that being said - IMHO the best lens for you is the Canon Tilt-Shift 24mm F3.5 II. That is far & away my favorite lens - I shoot 90% of my jobs with this lens. It is expensive, but well worth it not only because of the image quality but also the flexibility. You can adjust and compose shots so much quicker and keep your verticles absolutely straight. Lastly - 24mm is the sweet spot for focal lengths & really helps with your composition. If you don't want to spend that much, my second choice would be the 17-40 F/4.0. I have this one as well, but end up shooting it almost 100% of the time at 24mm (I almost never zoom out to 17mm).

  4. When I was shooting Nikon (I've switched to Fuji), I had the Tokina 16-28mm 2.8. I'm very picky about my real estate lens not having stretchy, soft corners. The Tokina is fantastic - no stretch, sharp throughout, clean. It's heavy and has that crazy bulbous lens but it's a great lens and a fraction of the price. The only thing I didn't like was it flared for exteriors so I got a flexible lens shade which took care of that issue.

    People also love the new Tamron 15-30. Same bulbous lens and very heavy but I've read great things about it.

  5. The other issue, the Tamron 10-24 was designed for a crop sensor camera, such as the Canon 80D and 7D. No wonder there is serious vignetting when using on a full frame camera, such as the 5D. While the lens will physically fit, the lens was designed to support the smaller sensor size. With a factor of 1.6x, the equivalent range on a full frame camera is the 16-35. On Tamron, the "Di II" noted on the lens is for crop sensor cameras, while "Di" would be on lens designed for full frame, such as the Tamron 15-30. While I don't shoot Canon, I believe "EF-S" in the full lens name indicates designed for crop sensor cameras, while "EF" indicates designed for a full frame camera.

  6. when I shot Nikon DX I'd use the Tokina 12-28 which was a good all around lens and tried not to shoot full wide except when needed. On my full frame Nikon, I'd shoot with my 20mmf-2.8 Nikon lens. I tried shooting with a 24mm on full frame as it has been the general opinion on this blog, that it was the ideal focal length, but I found it not quite wide enough on many shoots.
    But now that I have switched to the Fuji X system, I use their extremely sharp (but heavy) 10-24 f-4 super wide zoom, mostly at 14mm. last month, while at B&H, I found a used, mint condition, 14mm f-2.8 Fuji prime. This lens is not only sharp and contrasty, but it's crazy (Leica sharp), lightweight, built great and definitely blows the Tokina and Nikons away. I find the 14mm (equal to a 21mm on full frame Nikon) to be my ideal focal length, as it is just enough wider than the 24mm to make a difference, especially if you shoot high and point down and crop straight.

  7. I have a Sony A7r camera with a Sony FE 4/16-35 lens. I shoot most of my interior shots at 16mm (unless the shot itself requires some cropping.) This does result in major horizontal distortion at both sides. After some testing with frisbees I found that the width was about 27% wider than the length. But, at 16mm the picture does get in a lot more of the room. I think this is especially important with large, open, multi-room areas.

    After processing the picture in Photoshop to get the lighting right, the verticals perfect, the windows see-through, and removing any unwanted things from the picture I then insert the final picture into PowerPoint. All the pictures I put on MLS, or in a video, or in a slideshow tour, all go through PowerPoint. Note, I never think my goal is to produce the best picture, I always think it's to produce the best "slide."

    Once the picture (with all the distortion) is in PowerPoint I then use the Crop Picture Position command to shrink the width of the picture. Typically this takes it from 13.2 inches to 10.5 inches. This seems to eliminate all the distortion without having to crop any of the sides. Then I adjust the true width of the picture back to 13.2 inches, which makes the height much more than 7.5 inches. So then I crop the height. Mostly the top, which does eliminate most of the ceiling, but as one of the comments here said is probably the least attractive part of the picture. I then add captions and any required call-outs to the slide. The result is a 13.2 by 7.5 inch slide that when saved as a JPEG or PNG is full-width picture with no distortion.

  8. I agree with Peter D'Aprix. I use my Canon EF-S 10-18mm at 10mm exclusively for RE interiors (equivalent focal length range of 16-28.8mm). This lets me work fast on site and have more room and flexibility to crop in post. I too, dislike those photos with 1/3 devoted to a blank ceiling. I tend to crop for a "CinemaScope" aspect ratio, removing superfluous ceiling and floor.

  9. I have always believed that there is a huge difference in Real Estate Photography and Architectural Photography. The purpose of Real Estate Photography is to fill the temporary need to drive potential buyers to go see a property. Architectural Photography is so much more.
    I shoot most of my Real Estate Photography with a Canon 17 TSE. As a life long Nikon user, I bought a Canon 5D3 so I could use the Canon 17TSE. The wider lens usually gives a better feel for the rooms you are showing in context to the rest of the structure.

    For Architectural Photography, I would use the 17 much more sparingly, probably defaulting to the 24 and 45.

    In all cases, I prefer the TSE approach to perspective. As an "old timer" who had to get it correct in the camera... I prefer not to effectively turn my 17 into a 24 in order to correct in post. I also have greater latitude in the altitude I shoot from in any given room.

  10. When I started shooting Real Estate the 14-24mm f2.8 Nikon lens was all I used. Maybe some exteriors with 24-70mm f2.8 Nikon lens. After reading and learning more about interior photography I purchased a Tilt/Shift lens and that's pretty much all I use for interiors now. I love what can be done with it on interiors and exteriors. Can't live without it now.

  11. The best focal length for shooting interiors is the one your client wants you to shoot at, especially if you value repeat business. With my clients, that's generally 16mm on a full-frame DSLR.

  12. @Jeff Bishop I have been considering a tilt/shift for some time now but can't afford both the 17 and the 24 right away. Do you find that the tilt/shift saves you time on real estate shoots or does it take more time to compose since you can't zoom in and out? I want the 24 for the commercial clients that have started hiring me, but have gotten good feedback from my realtor clients since I started shooting at 20-22mm once I bought the 17-40 lens (was previously using exclusively the 24-105). So I would think for real estate shoots the 17 would be preferable for average-size properties.

  13. When shooting interiors my average focal length is 25mm. In my opinion, with rare exceptions, if you feel you need to go wider than 20mm then maybe you should start thinking about your compositions. Sure, we are photographing the home to document the space. But, it's also important to try to show how the space feels. Most of the time you can't do that when shooting too wide. Slow down and think about your compositions and try to create images that invoke emotion in the viewer so that they want to visit the home.

    I don't buy the excuse "That's what my clients want" in regards to shooting UFWA. Who's the professional photographer? You or your client? Do they tell the appraiser how to do their job? What about the stager that was hired? Or the painter that came in to update the color scheme?

  14. Brandon... Proper use of a T/S requires a GOOD tripod and careful composition of your shots. It is way slower than handheld and just a little slower than using a good tripod with a conventional lens.
    I have hand held mine for sloppy exteriors of vacant land and abandoned buildings and even done handheld HDR sequences when building rules prohibited the use of a tripod... But this is not how I like to work.
    I agree with your assessment of the 24 for more sophisticated clients and the 17 for Real Estate clients. Pick the focal length of your first T/S lens based on where it will have the most impact on your business growth... Where do you want to do most of your work... Commercial/Architectural or Real Estate?

  15. My Tokina 17-35 (FX) got sent for repair so I had to use a 24-105 for 2 months. I am certain it's made me a much better interior photographer (I still have a long ways to go - but that's why it's still fun!)

  16. The stretching effect at the edges of the frame, which occurs to some degree with all wideangle lenses, is not called perspective distortion. It is called volume anamorphosis distortion. And, what Peter refers to as parallax distortion is actually perspective distortion.

    Also, these statements by Larry are wrong. "Good interior photography is done closer to 24mm. That’s why tilt/shift lenses designed for photography are usually 24mm." Good interior photography can be, and frequently is, done with a wide range of focal lengths. The most frequently used focal length for architectural photography is probably 24mm, but architectural photographers regularly make use of other focal lengths, both shorter and longer, and the same goes for interior design photography. This is why Canon and Nikon, the two most widely used makers of small format cameras offer a range of perspective correction lenses from wideangle to telephoto, as does Schneider-Kreutznach, one of the preeminent lens manufacturers. Used properly, good interior photography can be done with an extremely wide range of focal lengths. It depends upon what the client and the photographer are trying to achieve. That said, it gets progressively harder to compose for interior/architectural subject matter with lenses wider than 24mm.

  17. I am a realtor in Miami and have a Nikon D3200 that takes beautiful pictures. However, I need a better wide lens to shoot smaller spaces, especially bathrooms. My main concern is that I don't want the pictures to have a perspective distortion, as buyers get very disappointed when they get to the home and the rooms look much smaller than what they saw on the pictures. I have read all of the comments and your responses, and it seems the Sigma 10- 20 and the Tamron 11- 18 would do the job and are less expensive alternatives to the Nikon 12 - 24 and 14 - 24, but I am still insecure about which one will be the most appropriate. I will really appreciate your advice.

  18. super wide angle lenses of any make will sometimes do strange things to rooms. In my toolkit I have DXO Viewpoint as a photoshop plug in. It is useful in correcting the excessive distortion. I don't use it on every shot, but maybe on 10% of photos

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