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 4 - The Digitial Darkroom, photo editing and post proccesing
Rarely are the images seen in advertising straight out of the camera. In fact, I'd estimate that as much as 90% are edited or retouched before they are published for the world to see. The use of 'Photoshop' has become so common place in all the media around us you would be hard pressed to find an image that wasn't. Interestingly, that is not true of real estate marketing, at least not of the photos you typically see on the MLS. I think part of the reason is that there is a stigma to 'Photoshopping' an image as involving some sort of digital trickery or deceit. And that does happen, but the act of editing a photo to improve its appearance or display better on the internet is not inherently bad. Another reason I believe, is that the workflow of using editing software isn't always very intuitive. Even if someone is computer literate, there can still be a steep learning curve.
Whatever reasons you have for not using editing software to improve your images, its time to let them go. Appropriately done, editing your photos is neither unethical or all that hard really as long as you follow some simple guidelines. First and foremost, you need to either download a free editing suite like http://picasa.google.com/features.html or http://www.picnik.com/ or purchase a more powerful version like Adobe Photoshop or its little brother, Photoshop Elements. Once you have the software installed and your pictures downloaded from the camera, it's time to have some fun. I encourage people just starting out to explore the sliders and take each one to the extreme, not because this is how the software is used necessarily but as an exercise in recognizing how each adjustment affects the overall image.
One of the greatest benefits of editing your images is that you can correct a lot of defects in what are otherwise good photos. This frees the photographer up to defer some of the work of getting a good picture in the camera to work later on at the computer. Personally I find this very liberating and lets me focus on 'building' an image as opposed to simply 'capturing' it. For others, just being able to straighten the picture and resize it for the MLS is enough to make the quality better.
The photos above demonstrate how a seemingly unusable image can be brought back to life with the right post processing. This was all done by working with a single, RAW file in Photomatix Pro and Photoshop Elements 6.0
Let's talk about workflow now. One of the first things you'll notice with editing software are that there are several buttons to push and sliders to slide and they all do something different. So how do you make sense of it all? Well there are a couple different ways of going about it. I like to break the process into three stages, Correcting, Retouching and Resizing. Let's use these stages as a starting point and look at how we can take a photo from start to finish.
Correcting - One of the first things I do when I start working on an image is rotate and straighten it. In this case, 'straight' means both your horizontal and vertical lines are correct. Make it a good habit of avoiding converging verticals in the camera because you will need more sophisticated software to correct that kind of distortion. This is also a good time to correct the other defects such as barrel distortion caused by a wide angle lens or cloning out items in the image, if your software allows it. This is one area where the free software cannot compete with a bona fide editing suite. If you are already familiar with software like Photoshop, I suggest PTlens http://www.epaperpress.com/ptlens/ or DxO Optics http://www.dxo.com/us/photo as an alternative to doing your perspective and lens distortion correction manually.
Retouching - This stage is where you fix the brightness, contrast, saturation and color. Changes made here can drastically affect how the image looks, for better or worse. I like to start with the 'lighting' or exposure aspect of the photo. If you have the option to adjust the shadows and highlights, I like to do that as opposed to brightening the entire image. Once the exposure is good throughout the photo, I adjust the color saturation to taste and then finally add brightness and contrast. Contrast is especially helpful if the image looks grayish or hazy.
You can get a lot of mileage out of the free software in this department but once again the pro level software and plug-ins can make a remarkable difference. If you are looking for something to add that last bit pf sparkle or help make the image 'pop', I recommend Viveza 2 http://www.niksoftware.com/viveza/usa/entry.php?view=intro/viveza_announcement.shtml and Topaz Adjust http://www.topazlabs.com/adjust/ .
Resizing - At this stage the image should look pretty good, but we aren't done yet. The picture still needs to be cropped, resized and sharpened for its intended medium. Once the image is cropped, either for a better composition or for a different aspect ratio, I save a copy of the file in its original size and format. This allows me to go back and make subsequent resized versions of the same photo without having to do all the corrections over again. At this point, it's a good idea to think about the different places these photos will ultimately end up. Are you posting these photos on the MLS or another website? Are you making full color print brochures and postcards with them? You need to resize and sharpen differently depending where they will be viewed. My local MLS, First Multiple Listing Service, allows photos to be uploaded at a max resolution of 800 x 600 with a max file size of 200kb. So I do one version that is specifically resized and sharpened for the MLS and then another version that is suitable for printing or displaying at hi-res, typically 1920 x 1280 at 300 pixels per inch. Don't just select arbitrary values, be specific with the resizing.
The final step before saving as a JPEG is sharpening. When a photo is resized it is not uncommon to lose some clarity and this is why I choose to do my sharpening last. Wait to sharpen the image until after all the other adjustments and resizing are done. I typically use an unsharp mask feature as opposed to a standard sharpening adjustment, but others may have a different preference. Regardless, use this feature sparingly, over sharpening an image is one ''fix' that can do more harm than good.
First photo is straight out of the camera, 1 of 3 exposures used to create the second photo. Second photo is the blended final image in which extensive post processing was done.
So to recap, the workflow I find most efficient is Correct, Retouch, Resize and finally Sharpen, and then Save as Jpeg. Following these steps is one formula to achieving consistent results time and time again. I also like to practice the '3 steps forward, 1 step back rule'. The idea here is to make your adjustments until you get the desired result and then purposely back-off a little as to ensure you don't over do it. For those that are new to digital editing and post processing, this workflow may take some getting used to so persevere. In closing, I want to mention that what I have covered here is just scratching the surface. There is enough material on this topic to cover a hundred blogs. I hope you use this one as a spring board and dive right in as proficiency with editing software can and will lead to a dramatic improvement in you listing photos.
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