If a picture is worth a thousand words, a photo is worth more when potential guests are looking for a vacation rental. Photos are so important, we advocate hiring an experienced real-estate photographer to make your properties look their best. Like buying luggage or anything meant to last, it’s an investment. Nine times out of ten, that investment will pay for itself several times over as your conversion and revenue improve.
Companies like our friends at TruPlace, for example, have some cool tech that can help your properties come alive. And really, why shouldn’t renters expect the same 3D or walkthrough-type experiences they’ve seen shopping for homes or apartments? These kinds of experiences suggest that you’re sophisticated and savvy, and therefore that the rental experience will be as well.
However, it’s not always possible. Sometimes you don’t have access to skilled photographers. Maybe you shot the photos of other properties in your portfolio already and want to at least stay consistent for a new one. And maybe you just can’t afford it. These are all perfectly legit reasons to try and go it alone.
The good news is, modern photographic gear, including higher-end smartphones, can do amazing things. If you’ve decided to go it alone, then the least we can do is save you some research time by offering up a few tips to help you nail the thing that most amateur photographers screw up: Lighting.
Photography is all about lighting
Light is the only reason we see anything at all. Colors, reflections, shading, and anything that makes the world around us look beautiful is a result of light playing across the visible spectrum. Photography is basically the art and science of capturing light.
A digital camera works in much the same way as cameras always have. A lens projects a scene onto a sensor, which passes a digitized version of the image to media like an SD card. Everything about a camera’s “standard” settings, from ISO to aperture to shutter speed, controls the light that hits the sensor.
In general, the smaller and less expensive the camera, the more it will do automatically. The average point-and-shoot, and most smartphone cameras, have limited manual features. This makes sense; in most cases, a photo that is mostly in focus with halfway decent lighting is good enough for Facebook or showing pictures of your kids on your phone.
If you don’t remember anything else from this article, remember that “good enough” simply isn’t good enough for listings. Your properties have to do much of the selling themselves, and like any other “product,” the quality of the artwork says something about the quality of your offering.
A big advantage to DIY property photography is that time is on your side. If the lighting isn’t good one day, you can wait for another. If you schedule a photographer, you might have to take what you can get.
To limit the scope of this article, we’re going to assume that you have the best camera you can get your hands on and a sturdy (but not necessarily expensive) tripod. We’ll also assume you’ve taken the time to property clean and stage the areas you intend to photograph. Finally, we’ll assume that you will adjust your camera’s settings appropriately if you know how, or leave it on full auto if you don’t. (TIP: If your camera only has “scene” modes like portrait or landscape, set it to portrait. This will usually open the aperture as wide as it will go, a must when shooting in low-light conditions.)
Major Aspects of Lighting in Property Photography
Natural lighting isn’t just the cheapest way to take property photos — it also happens to be the best. Ideal daytime shooting conditions include bright, diffuse light like you get on an overcast (but not rainy) day. If it’s very sunny, the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset are your best bets. In general, you want to avoid conditions that produce harsh shadows, like direct sunlight.
On the day of your shoot, open all the shades and windows you can in the space, particularly if the walls and furniture have darker tones or rough surfaces (such as unfinished wood). If it’s very bright outside, some window treatments can help diffuse the light and make it softer. Your goal is to make it as bright as possible without having harsh highlights, beams, or shadows.
Light and camera position
Before you shoot an interior space, understand where the light will be at the time of the shoot. On an overcast day, it’s a bit less important, but generally you want the strongest source of light to be behind or above you, or to the sides. If light is streaming through a window and you can’t diffuse it with the shades, make sure you’re shooting from a position near the same side of the room as the window.
The best place for the camera is on a tripod, roughly at eye level, in a corner of the room. You’ll want to aim toward the far (diagonal) corner to maximize the room dimensions. For smaller rooms, like bedrooms or studies, including the (open) door in the frame helps the viewer see beyond into the larger space, giving them a better sense of where the room is in the house.
When you set a camera to “automatic,” you’re basically telling it to balance light across the subject as evenly as possible. This is called metering. It bases this on the strongest source of light in the frame. If you point the camera toward a window on a sunny day, for example, you’ll notice that the camera darkens the entire image so that the scene through the window looks clear. In so doing, the areas around the window turn dark. Shift the center of the frame to those areas, and the window will become very bright. If it’s somewhere in between, then neither the window nor the surrounding areas will get enough light.
There are two ways around this problem. The first is to simply make sure the room is brightly lit throughout if possible. The other is a dual exposure: take one image based on the light strength, or luminance, of the room and another based on the strongest light source, then combine them later using Photoshop or a similar program. This article has many lovely examples of well-executed dual exposures that have been composited into one image.
Fixing lighting problems
Just because a photo looks good on a 2-inch LED screen doesn’t mean it will look good on a listing. Unless you’re a real whiz with your camera settings, you’ll probably have to fix some stuff. This is another area where a pro can add value. But fortunately, there are free and inexpensive tools to help.
Photoshop is the granddaddy of all photo-editing applications, but it is expensive. Our favorite web-based alternatives are Pixlr and Photopea, which are ad-supported and free to use. They don’t quite have all the bells and whistles of Photoshop, but they have everything you’re likely to use.
The three main lighting fixes to know are exposure, temperature, and compositing.
If an image is just a bit too dark or bright overall, it may mean it was under- or over-exposed. Adding an exposure adjustment layer and moving the exposure slider around might be all you need to do to bring that luminance up a few notches. The same goes for coaxing out detail from shadows or highlights. Tutorials abound on this sort of thing.
Correcting color temperature is a bit trickier. Sometimes the “auto tone” or “auto color” settings will do a good enough job. If not, the addition of a “photo filter” adjustment layer can go a long way. Choose a color that is the opposite of the color you’re trying to compensate for (blue to compensate for orange, and vice-versa). Then, just move the density slider around until the color looks more accurate. (TIP: Use the same color photo filter with different rooms in the same property, varying only the density, to maintain a similar look.)
Compositing requires the most technical skill, but if you know photo editing a bit, it can come in very handy. Whenever you want a bright area and a darker area to appear evenly lit, take two photos from the exact same place and zoom level, one with the exposure based on the bright area and one based on the darker areas. Then, bring both photos into your editor as separate layers, masking out the parts you don’t want to see (or inverting the mask for areas you want to keep). This way, you can make an evenly lit photo that more closely matches what the human eye sees.
While DIY property photography has its pitfalls, the good news is that a little bit of know-how can save you a bundle. Understanding how ample, pleasing light can enliven even the plainest of spaces will give you a leg up on the many other DIY-ers who rely on OTAs to drive the bulk of their business. And like anything else, the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. Not only will your property photos improve, but so will the ones you take for fun.