Architectural Photography vs. Real Estate Photography

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Unknown to many – even many in the industry – there are two distinct styles of photographing a property. The two styles (as you can guess by the title) are: Architectural photography and Real Estate photography. Both have a purpose and a market – but it is important to understand the differences.

Here is how I define each style – though I concede there are differing opinions and there are certainly shades of gray between the two. I’m also going to skip over any discussion of film vs. digital since I’m no expert on film. I’m sure there are some still shooting film – especially medium format film. For the most part, digital is the clear leader today.

Architectural Photography

Goal: Present the property in the most appealing possible fashion. Make every property look extremely desirable by picking pleasing angles that draw a viewer’s eye into the image. Worry about small details like glare, wall smudges, cords, and other unattractive details. It’s all about sweating the small stuff!

Camera: High resolution, full-frame DSLRs or Medium-Format cameras are the norm here. These cameras deliver a maximum amount of resolution and dynamic range. This is important if the images are ever to be used for larger than web page sized reproduction. The improved dynamic range helps to tame the extreme differences between light and dark that occur when doing interior photography. It makes the difference between being able to see detail in the shadows vs. having them be a black blob. Typical cameras: Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 1D Mark III, Nikon D3x, and many medium format by Phase One, Hasselblad, etc.

Lenses: Wide angle, perspective control lenses in the 17-24mm (35mm equivalent) range are the norm. These lenses are also called ’tilt-shift’ lenses due to their ability to tilt and shift the lens in relation to the sensor. These lenses do some unique tricks that standard lenses simply cannot. By shifting the lens vertically, converging perspectives can be straightened out. With an ordinary wide angle lens, vertical lines can tip as much as 45 degrees from vertical near the edge of the frame giving a very strange perspective.

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Notice the fireplace? It really doesn’t lean 20 degrees to the left!

Tilt-shift lenses also are some of the very sharpest (and most expensive!) lenses available for a camera platform. Some examples include: Canon 17mm TS-E f/4L, Canon 24mm TS-E f/3.5L II, Nikkor PC-E 24mm f/3.5D ED

Lighting: Controlling the light and presenting the existing natural and artificial in the most flattering fashion is a key differentiator between the styles. The goal is to make a picture look exactly as the eye sees it. It’s like the old adage:

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist.

Flashes, used improperly, can absolutely be the Devil – and the architectural photographer’s job is to make the lighting perfect while making it appear that no lighting was used whatsoever. Any ability to see the existence of a flash is a fail.

Architectural photographers have two tools in their arsenal to help in this regard – off-camera strobes and multiple exposures. I’m going to stop short of including HDR (high dynamic resolution)- because there is a technical difference between HDR and blending multiple exposures that isn’t always flattering to interior photography. By photographing 3 to 9 images of each scene then blending the multiple exposures, an idealized version of the extreme brights and darks can be created.

NOTE: Sharp eyes will correctly realize that the ‘what not to do’ image above was created using HDR!

Post-processing: Here too, it’s all about the details. Unflattering or distracting things in the image (cords, smudges, etc.) are cropped or edited out with Photoshop. Multiple exposures are blended into a single final image, colors are corrected, tone curves are applied to give the image more punch or to open up some dark spaces. Sharpening is carefully applied at this step.

Output: A small number of breathtaking images ready for publication are delivered at very high resolution

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Now, the other side of the fence:

Real Estate Photography

Goal: Where Architectural photography is focused on quality, Real Estate photography is single-mindedly focused on value. In this case, value is defined in terms of cost per image. It’s about throughput – how many images can be captured in as little time as possible to keep costs low. There’s nothing wrong with this approach – but it’s a distinctly different product!

Cameras: Tough to be specific here, so I’ll have to generalize. The real answer is that everything under the sun is used.. including cell phones.

Lenses: Again, tough to pigeonhole this – but the better ones use standard wide-angle lenses. Some use tilt-shift lenses, but tilt-shifts are more methodical and it’s tough to get the results needed in a high-volume business. I even saw a million-dollar property photographed with a fish-eye lens! Hard to believe..

Lighting: On camera bounce flash is typical here and the flash is generally pretty obvious. Some will do some simple auto-processed HDR, and the best ones will combine two exposures in Photoshop to get better views out the windows.

Post-processing: The bare minimum needed to get to a 640×480 MLS image

Output: Dozens or hundreds of images capturing every nook and cranny of a property

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Again – no knock on pure Real Estate photographers. The ones I know work very hard and most deliver a good product for the price. However, the market today demands curb appeal on the internet that sets a property apart from its competition – and an architectural photographer can better deliver that.

Most of the images from the post today were from a gorgeous farm house in Minnetrista that was heavily remodeled and expanded It is smack in the middle of a new housing development – and it’s easily the most striking property in the neighborhood. Somebody needs to buy this property – because it’s a gem!

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Next time, I’ll talk a little bit about my approach to balancing Architectural photography and Real Estate photography to deliver top quality images at a reasonable value.

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Mark Teskey