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What’s Your Preferred Camera Height for the Exterior "Hero" Shot?

Published: 14/08/2019

Robin, from New Bedford, MA writes:

“When I go through the Flickr group, I see some people shooting exteriors from a low camera height and others who seem to put their camera much higher--like on a pole or something like that. Do you have a suggestion about what is the best camera height for exterior shots?”

Robin, before I answer your question, I want to offer the notion that “best” is often in the eye of the beholder. At the end of the day, I think there's great value in you developing a sense of what YOU like best. Yes, I understand that some of your clients will have their own preferences/opinions that you have to take into account. However, I strongly believe that, if you explore/create your own style and make images that please you first, the odds are that in the long run, you’ll end up attracting clients who also like that style. If you combine this natural connection with some great customer service, then you’ll increase the likelihood that these clients will stay with you, long-term.

Now, getting to your observation; I'll qualify it by saying that a vast majority of the exterior images posted on the PFRE Flickr group are made up “hero” shots (i.e., the single, best exterior shot from all the exteriors submitted to the agent and the one most likely to be shown as the first shot in the listing). If these are the photos you’re referring to in your question Robin, then I’d agree with your observation regarding photographers using very low and very high camera heights for those hero shots. I'll also add that each has its advantages.

For instance, I know that many shooters like to shoot the hero exterior shot from a very low camera height because they think it makes the house feel larger; perhaps even grander. In fact, even many movie directors shoot upward from a low camera height because doing so makes a character in a given scene seem more powerful. Photographers who prefer to shoot the exterior hero shot from a higher vantage point do so because it is a perspective that will likely be unfamiliar to most people. As such, the belief is that a photo taken from a high vantage point is distinctive when compared to those that are captured from a low vantage point or even at a standard eye-level. If you were to twist my arm and ask me for my own preferred approach, I’d choose the latter. In fact, I’ve always brought an extendable ladder to all my shoots to get me that extra height. For my eye, I’ve found that a height of 10-12 feet is a good sweet-spot for creating this distinctive look (presuming the entry door is at ground level). Some shooters in our community prefer to go much higher and end up using a camera-pole or extra-tall tripods that can go as high as 25 feet. These are useful when the house is naturally elevated and the sidewalk/driveway is well-below the level of the entry door. And of course, some prefer images captured with a drone.

Robin, as I noted earlier, my advice to you is to determine what you like best. Perhaps you can experiment on your own house, first. That is, once you select a preferred camera angle, then take a shot of your house from a very low vantage point and then take another with your camera on a pole or while you're standing on a ladder... and then compare the two. I'd guess that you will quickly have a gut-feeling about a preference between the two. If you do use a ladder, then please be very careful and always heed the warnings posted on the ladder; particularly the one(s) regarding the recommended safest of the higher steps for you to be standing on.

What other suggestions would you like to offer Robin?

Tony Colangelo is a residential and commercial photographer, as well as a photography coach, based in Victoria, BC, Canada. He is a long-time contributor to PFRE and is the creator of The Art & Science of Great Composition tutorial series.

14 comments on “What’s Your Preferred Camera Height for the Exterior "Hero" Shot?”

  1. Well done Tony as always! Particularly like the way you said to be mindful of your own style and yet take clients opinions into consideration... very important to be open to what they are requesting or “seeing” in their needs ... even if it means being honest that it is either impossible or will be detrimental to the overall shot...

    anyway... i always take each subject from the best irrespective i can based on what the given challenges allow... just like an interior photo ... each shot will require you to hunt and adjust angle, height etc ... no standard camera height will make great shots as the subject changes with what’s in front of you...

    i usually prefer a normal viewers perspective on exteriors is.. ground level but sometimes the home is raised or just plain floating in the sky on a small mountain of a hill! lol! so then either a ladder or a drone is required to capture the home for a hero shot at a good perspective to show what it looks like... but always making decisions based on the subject... sometimes a home might be better elevated slightly to show a landscaping design leading to the front door or recently... a small garden that the client wanted to make sure was in the shot... but drone or pole was too high and forced mid range tree branches to encroach on too much of the home hiding most of the exterior so a ladder was the truck allowing me to only get up enough to make the garden detail read as a garden and see clearly the home ... i will day that i don’t think always anything is the best practice to follow... i don’t really see elevated front exterior photos that don’t need to be elevated and are not showing anything else off like in tony’s photo above - it is showing the home in relation to it’s important and “selling” feature... the water behind it...

  2. I think you'll find that it completely depends on the house, its dimensions, topography, features, architectural style, landscaping, and other circumstances surrounding it; there really is no formula. I always carry a 18' pole, as well as a platform that mounts on the roof rack on my full size van, but probably 75% of my exterior shots are on a 7' (max) tripod on the ground. If I need to go higher than the van/pole, I have a mast that goes up to 45', but I only bring it when I know I'll need it... which isn't very often.

  3. What a horrid question, the answers are either what looks good to you or what the client prefers. That said, I would have the camera about a foot higher than the door knob on a single story or two story track home if I was standing on the same level of the homes foundation

    Now for the variations.

    Elevated looks good if we are going for that Estate look or you have a view on the back side of the home. If it's other homes packed into a neighborhood, then not elevated as a sea of roofs is not inviting.

    Very elevated if we have huge backyards (acres in size and we wish to show the front as well as the back amenities (pools come to mind). But once again, not if the houses are stacked side by side and back to back. If that's the case than an overhead drone shot works better.

    Up at the house if it's elevated from the street or raise the camera back to door knob level if the rise isn't to great. I don't care for that straight on, level shot if it's obvious you are standing on a ladder. You can do this if you shoot tight enough that you don't see the elevation (sloped or retaining wall front yard).

    The secret is to be able to frame the home from level, raised or lowered and still present a nice facade. Sometimes you have no choice from where you shoot, but you can frame (most times) from center, left or right.

    I personally do not want to shoot them all the same, I don't want an experience realtor to pick out my work because it is always the same, other photographers strive for that boring consistency. In my early email marketing I always stressed that I was always evolving, don't judge me by what you saw a year ago, If my stuff still looks the same, shoot me.

    Always try to remember that you want the perspective buyer to recognize the home when they drive up to it.

  4. Sort of like asking how long is a piece of string; it depends. First on what looks best then on the marketing points of your client for the particular property. So I shoot from where ever I can combine those two. Never a hard and fast rule. But more important than height I’d the light. Light makes or breaks a photograph which of course is where the “photo” part of photography comes from. No rules; just what works.

  5. @Peter D. I was going to use the string saying!

    I just had a property on a corner and about 5-6' up where I used my pole. I like to go up if there is a short fence in the front so I can put the top rail below the base of the house. Sometimes landscaping obscures the house and raising the camera 10' gets a better view. I even like putting the camera up to use some foliage to frame the image. On two-story homes, I almost always use a pole shot unless it starts to reveal something in the background that distracts. I also use an elevated POV to show solar panels on a single story home. Not so high that it's right in your face, but enough so somebody can see they are there.

    There is too much of a good thing. The higher you go, the larger percentage of the frame is roofing. Backyards get small and tract homes grow closer together. Architects usually work from a 1PP front elevation to design the look of the house (although I swear builders are only using interns these days for tract homes and not anybody with an appreciation for architecture). I understand the novelty of drone shots, but I don't see the value of many of the images I see unless the aim it to market the home to astronauts.

    A low camera angle is as abnormal as a too high POV. It either puts more than half of the frame at the bottom with the foreground dominant or there is an extreme amount of rescuing in LR/PS to get the geometry straightened out (still looks wrong to me). Some people shoot interiors from knee height and it's like they're marketing to toddlers. No, ground hugging photos just aren't appealing for RE.

  6. I haven't yet seen in the comments anything about tilt shifts, but to me this is definitely one of the better uses for them in real estate photography. Granted, its not exactly the same, but you can minimize the foreground and fudge a little elevation by shifting the lens up, and they're a whole lot safer and less cumbersome than carrying around ladders and giant poles.

  7. @Brian Roberts. I bought a 24mm tilt-shift earlier this year exclusively for properties that have extreme features, for example are located on a steep hill, have virtually no front yard, have low hanging tree branches that cover most of the front of the home, etc etc.
    What I'm finding so far is that houses on hills are still problematic, because when you get shoot too far below the roof line, you can't see the slope of the roof and it ends up almost looking like a flat roof. Personally I think the optimum height for a hero shot is at half the height of the house. That or get far enough away where you can photograph the home using a longer focal length.

  8. The article seems to be focused on establishing a "style" that suits the photographer --- but really, the most important factor is what most suits the *house*. Everything we do as photographers should be informed by the architecture. Each decision we make, whether it's the camera height, the station point, or the lighting/exposure, should be driven by what best expresses the actual experience of being there. Along the way, the decisions each photographer makes in resolving compositions will reveal her personal style.

    Many of the comments seem to be proposing some sort of formula ("one foot above the doorknob" or "half the height of the house"), but in my opinion, this is just laziness. There are no formulas. We are not studio photographers, working in controlled environments with uniform subjects. Just as you would never say, "I always drive my car in 3rd gear", you should avoid formulaic responses to what is fundamentally a creative endeavor. Half the fun of photography is in solving the problems, evaluating the subject matter, and responding to it in a way that creates a dynamic, compelling image.
    Certainly your client's needs play a role, too -- we routinely shoot UWA and beyond in order to "make the room look larger). Likewise, if you want to emphasize the buildings's height, consider lowering the camera. Want to make the front yard look more spacious? Raise the camera, get a broader angle on the grass. Finding that perfect composition that is aesthetically pleasing, and fulfills the clients's needs, may elude you every time, but the chase is worth it.

  9. I have to disagree with Scott's comments a little bit. In cases where the architecture is of overwhelming importance for the marketing, I would say he is right. However, we are not shooting for architects in this genre of photography and sometimes other elements of the property will need to take precedence for the client, such as the size of the lot and the landscaping, or any scenic considerations of the surroundings of the property, which may require a perspective and composition that, while not necessarily optimal for showing off the architectural design, may show off even more important selling points for a particular kind of property.

    From the standpoint of featuring the architecture, I would say that a study of the portfolios of architects who use high-quality photography will be very instructive. Also, some might be interested to know that Frank Lloyd Wright preferred the exteriors of his homes to be shot from a seated perspective.

  10. Maybe its that I started my career in photography doing commercial photography. Primarily for art directors and advertising managers at large and small companies. Photographing their products for advertising purposes.

    That background taught me early on, that the principle role of a photographer is to work their A** off finding the point of view, lighting, and composition that showed the product to best advantage.

    Taking that forward to exterior photography of houses for real estate agents means, in my view, that the house, its surroundings, the time of day, the lighting conditions all influence where the best camera position is for a given image.

    The only criteria, from my perspective, is what's required to make an image that is visually appealing.

  11. Hi
    adding my question to what Robin and Tony mentions. re "camera-pole or extra-tall tripods".

    I've been looking to take shots from a high perspective, not necessarily for real estate for also for other type of shoots such as events. For a different perspective to all the photos taken at eye or low level.

    There's a few mentions of camera poles on this page. Can anyone recommend a camera pole that collapsible? I was even thinking a long boom pole might do?

    Cheers
    Orlando

  12. @Orlando, I purchased a fiberglass painter's pole from the hardware store and adapted a Manfrotto tilt head to the top with an Arca Swiss clamp. If you search for "Pole Aerial Photography" you will find a couple of ready-made adapters that screw on to a painter's pole. I found it much cheaper to build my own. Using a pole is much faster than a drone and raising the camera 10-12' is often more than plenty. Many times it's not even that much to get over the top of a fence in the front yard or get a better perspective on a two story house.

  13. Hi Ken,
    thank you very much for the reply and sharing your solution.
    After my question above, I went scouring the webs and came across this supplier in China, carbon telescopic pole (Lanbao). They've emailed me back so I might see how much they charge for an extendable pole. If it's too much your idea could be a solution if I have a car nearby to cart it around.
    I'll give the search term “Pole Aerial Photography” a go later on. 3m or so is all I'd need.

    Cheers mate
    Orlando

  14. @Orlando, A fiberglass painter's pole from the DIY store is going to be much cheaper than a carbon fiber one ordered from China. The one I use is a little over 2m stowed and almost 4m fully extended. It's only one extendable section. I've seen others that are shorter collapsed with more sections. If you don't see one that will work in the store, ask to see if they can order one that works better for you. Small hardware stores are often better than large retailers when it comes to custom orders. The one down the road from me has awesome customer service and can get me just about anything hardware/houseware in less than a week with no shipping cost.

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