As a Marietta, GA real estate agent specializing in Atlanta real estate photography, I had to learn quite a few lessons on my way to competence. Even though I was a decent Atlanta photographer, or so I thought, it didn't take long to realize that taking pictures of homes came with its own set of unique challenges. This blog series is written with the amateur photographer in mind. Whether you are a real estate agent, home stager, seller or just interested in taking better pictures of homes, this blog series is for you.
Part 3 - The most important camera accessory, the Tripod. - It doesn't matter what kind of camera you are using, keeping the camera dead level and completely still will improve your photos, period. There are several reasons why this is especially true for real estate photography. First and foremost, home interiors are usually darker places than most of the typical locations we take pictures at. The beach, a sporting event, the backyard... these places normally all have something in common and that's the fact the are well lit. When you get inside, its another story. If there is the option to use a flash we can compensate, to an extent. However, just blasting off a flash at a scene indoors isn't always the answer. We all have experienced the 'flash nuked' scenes that looked bright, but nothing like what we were seeing in real life. The other side of the coin are photos sans flash that are blurry or streaky because the camera moved, even the tiniest bit. In order to capture those lower light scenes and preserve that ambience, the camera's shutter must remain open for a longer period of time. During this, the camera must remain absolutely still to produce a sharp image.
I covered a couple of ideas for using flash in my last blog in this series. If flash will not solve your problems trying setting the camera up on a tripod and using the cameras self-timer or a remote shutter release. If you find the timer takes too long, I recommend using a remote shutter release. Even the act of pushing the button on the camera to take a picture may be enough to introduce sufficent movement to render a less than sharp image.
Another issue that we commonly run across is the fact that an average height person is typically 'looking down' on a room as opposed to straight into it. Usually, the photo will look better if shot dead level at a height about half way to the ceiling. So when photographing a room with 9ft ceiling start with the camera at about 4ft high and adjust accordingly. This is fairly easy to do with a tripod as the handheld approach will leave most of us in an comfortable crouching position. Of course there will be exceptions to this rule, like having to get the camera high enough to clear the back of a sofa for example, but as a starting point you can't go wrong.
The wonderfully complex human eye can adjust for all kinds of perspective distortions whereas a camera isn't quite so capable. Tilting the camera down, especially with a wide-angle, can cause what's known as converging verticals, where straight walls become slanted toward the top or bottom of the frame. Converging verticals is another thing a tripod will help you avoid. Try lining up the edge of your viewfinder or LCD with the edge of a wall or cabinet end so that those lines are parallel. If you notice the verticals lines start to slant, move the height of the camera up or down until you get the feature you are angling the camera to get. In other words, if you want more of that gleaming hardwood floor, trying lowering the camera's height before angling it down. In some situations, converging verticals will be next to impossible to avoid, like shooting down into a family room form a second story overlook. You can always attempt to correct it in post, just make it a habit to keep the camera at an appropriate height and as level as possible.
The picture on the right demonstrates converging verticals. This photo was taken at 14mm at a height of about 5'6". Notice the door trim and cabinet end on the right side of the image.
The above photos show the difference that a mere 6 inches in height can make. The ceiling in this room is 9', the photos were taken at 4', 4'6" and 5' respectively.
Keeping the camera level and at the right height are just a couple of benefits a tripod will afford. Another application would be to use the tripod to get the camera much higher than what you could get holding it at eye level. Hoisting the tripod and camera overhead is a great way to add a few feet to your shooting height. This is especially useful when shooting the exterior of homes at day. Typically the light will be bright enough that you will only need a very short shutter speed. Combined with a higher ISO setting (400-800), this makes it possible to get a reasonably sharp picture even if the camera isn't completely still. Just set the cameras timer, lift the camera and tripod overhead, take the picture and hopefully you captured a usable image. If not, rinse and repeat until you do. This technique was actually how I was introduced to Pole Aerial Photography via Lee Jinks excellent blog: http://activerain.com/blogsview/299278/evolution-of-my-pap-system. Once I saw what a difference a few extra feet made, I just wanted to get higher and higher.... Lately, I have been using my tripod with a Little Giant collapsible ladder and work platform as seen here: http://www.littlegiantladder.com/little-giant/little-giant-work-platform.html . I can get up to about 16ft and still have all the luxuries of my good camera and lens. I really like this ladder system and I highly recommend it. I use it in some form or fashion on just about every shoot I do, not to mention the fact it comes in handy when you actually need a ladder (as opposed to a glorified tripod platform).
"So which tripod should I buy..."? My answer is simple, "Whichever tripod you will actually go and buy and then use." Seriously, get the best tripod you can afford but don't get caught up on price and specs if you just need something to get you started. Michael Yearout makes some solid suggestions as to makes and models in his blog at: http://activerain.com/blogsview/983829/Why-You-Should-Use-a-Tripod . He also points out that the tripod itself is just half of the equation. A good head is also important.
Still to this day I occasionally use a cheap $30 tripod and it works fine. Granted a better constructed tripod will be a little sturdier and less prone to sympathetic movements, when its time to upgrade you can always use the cheap one for your flash. A few features I do recommend are a quick release plate mount, some sort of built in bubble level and the ability to tilt from horizontal to vertical. My $30 tripod has all of those. I will add if you are shooting multiple frames for exposure bracketing and then additional frames for flash or a good window exposure, keeping the camera from moving will only improve your final blends. This is a case where a heavier and studier tripod will make a difference.
Be sure to check out the other blogs on the Tips to Improve Your Listing Photos series:
Part 5: White Balance and Color Control
Part 6: Understanding Focal Length