Tips to Improve Your Listing Photos, Part 6 - Understanding Focal Length

Real Estate Agent with Georgia Elite Realty

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 agenthome stagerseller or just interested in taking better pictures of homes, this blog series is for you.   


Part 6 - Understanding Focal Length

One of the most frustrating experiences I encountered early in my career as a listing agent was getting my listing photos to look the way I wanted them too.  I struggled to show certain rooms the way I wanted them to be seen and I assumed it was some function of my simple, yet convenient, point and shoot camera.   Even "zoomed" all the way out, I just couldn't show some rooms in their entirety.  

It's obvious to me now, but at the time I didn't realize that my problem was a combination of the focal length of the camera's integrated lens and its tiny sensor.  So I did what any self-respecting problem solver would do and turned to the internet for my solution.  What I discovered is that in order to get everything in one shot, I needed a camera with a larger sensor and a Wide Angle Lens.

Determined to get these photos looking their best, I gave in and invested in a DSLR camera and an Ultra Wide 10-22mm Canon lens.  I couldn't wait to try this new gear out on my next listing.  I was sure now that I had this super wide angle lens and new camera my shots were going to look pro.  So I went along snapping off shots, pausing only briefly to look at the view finder to see my images in all their wide angle glory...  And that's when it hit me.  Yeah, the shots were wide, but something looked off.  Long rooms now looked like bowling alleys.  Tables and furniture looked oddly stretched toward the edges of the frame and items in the middle of the image looked squished and out of proportion...  The solution to my old problem came with a new set of issues and needless to say, it was back to the drawing board.

What I learned is that like with most trades, there are different tools for different jobs and photography is no different.  Before we get into that, I want to mention that when we talk about focal length, we need to clarify that what we are really dealing with is effective focal length.  In other words, a lens that covers a range of 17-70mm will only yield 17-70mm on a full frame camera.  Many pro-sumer cameras sold today, such as Canon's EOS line, use a smaller, APS-C crop sensor.  At the risk of oversimplifying this, the camera sensor crops the outside edges of the image the lens "sees" and leaves you with the center.  Just as when you zoom in you lose the edges of what you saw previously, a crop sensor yields a narrower field of view.  How much narrower the field of view is typically expressed in terms of a multiplier like 1.6 for Canon or 1.5 for Nikon.  For example, a 35mm lens on a full frame body would have an effective focal length of 35mm.  The same lens on an APS-C sensor Canon camera would have an effective focal length of 56mm (35 multiplied by 1.6 = 56).  

Confusing?  Don't worry, I'll save the physics lessons for another day.  What is important now is that you understand what type of sensor your camera has and what effect it will have on any given lens' effective focal length.  When you go to purchase a new lens or adjust the one you have now for the purposes I list below, knowing the crop factor of your camera's sensor will help you make the right selection.


I like to separate effective focal lengths for real estate into three different categories.


Wide Angle Real Estate Photography by Atlanta Photographer Iran WatsonFor those new to real estate photography the words "wide-angle lens" will soon find their way into your vocabulary.  Why?  Because wide-angle photography is the bread and butter of interior real estate photography.  Wide Angle focal lengths will generally fall somewhere in the 16 - 24mm range.  This range is very useful, if not mandatory, for capturing tight spaces like bathrooms and bedrooms.  There is another useful function of wide angle photography in that it helps to show how spaces relate to one another within a property.  

A word of caution however, a wide angle lens will show more of the room not because the lens produces a "bigger" image circle but because the lens, for lack of a better term, stretches the image.  This in turn creates visual distortion that can not only mislead the viewer as to the actual volume of the room but skew vertical lines so that they are slanted and no longer plum.  A good rule of thumb when using a wide angle lens is to keep the camera as level as possible and the lens perfectly parallel with the floor.  I will also add that it is a good practice to always start at the longest (least wide) end of a wide angle lens and back up as far as you can before pulling out to a wider focal length.  This will help to avoid another type of distortion common in wide angle lenses known as barrel distortion. 



Twilight exterior shot of a home for sale in Smyrna, GA by Atlanta Real Estate Photographer Iran WatsonThe effective focal lengths from 24 - 50mm range are what I consider to be the medium focal lengths.  The shortest end of this range could still be considered wide angle whereas the closer you get to 50mm the more you will be approximating the focal length of the human eye.  I find this range is especially good for shooting your typical home exterior where you have room to back up.  In fact, I always try to shoot my primary MLS photo at or as close to 50mm as possible so that the prospective Buyer will see the home as it looks in real life.

This range is also good for capturing more of an interior design aesthetic where the focus is not on showing the dimensions of a space but rather drawing attention to a compelling composition within the space.  Consequently, the range closest to how we actually see things is less prone to both volume and perspective distortions.  With this is mind, if it is possible to photograph a larger interior space at these focal lengths they will look more natural and in turn, hopefully more appealing.  Most of the images seen in home decor and furniture catalogs are shot at this "medium" focal length.    



Detail shot of Master Bedroom and end table by Atlanta Real Estate Photographer Iran WatsonEssentially anything over 50mm falls into the "Tight" category.  These focal lengths are well suited to detail shots as the compositions in this style of photography are much more intimate.  Aside from these close-up shots, it is not often that you will need anything longer than 100mm.  When you do it is usually because you are trying to pull a distant object or landscape closer to the subject.  A city skyline or mountain view will look greatly diminished with a wide angle lens.  However a longer focal length will give the illusion that those far away objects are actually closer than what they really are.

I will also mention that an effective focal length of 100mm is typically what portraits are shot at.  So while you may not get a lot of mileage out of a lens that covers this range in terms of real estate photography, it can come in handy when its time to shoot head shots or other non-real estate related shoots. 


There is no doubt that wide angle photography has its place in shooting real estate, but don't forsake the longer focal lengths just because you can "get it all in one" with a wide angle lens.  Just as a painter uses different brushes and a mechanic different wrenches, they all have their purpose and they all can be quite effective when used at the appropriate time.  As listing agents and/or real estate photographers we are charged with creating marketing images that not only accurately document the property but more importantly elicit emotion and a sense of urgency to see it in person.  Understanding focal length is one more tool that will empower you to do just that.


Be sure to check out the other blogs on the Tips to Improve Your Listing Photos series:

Part 1: Learn What Makes a Good Real Estate Photo 

Part 2: How to get the Most out of your Flash 

Part 3: The Most Important Camera Accessory The Tripod 

Part 4: The Digital Darkroom, Photo Editing and Post Processing 

Part 5: White Balance and Color Control 

Part 6: Understanding Focal Length




This entry hasn't been re-blogged:

Re-Blogged By Re-Blogged At
Real Estate Best Practices
Home Staging
Photography, Advanced
Tips and Techniques for Better Real Estate Photography
real estate photography
wide angle
photography for real estate
atlanta real estate photography
focal length
atlanta real estate photographer

Post a Comment
Spam prevention
Spam prevention
Show All Comments
Dan Edward Phillips
Dan Edward Phillips, Humboldt and Del Norte Counties, CA - Eureka, CA
Humboldt and Del Norte Counties, CA

Good Morning Iran, thanks for sharing the input, great information.

Dec 12, 2010 10:40 PM #1
Larry O'Sullivan
Sandy, UT

Iran - great lesson as always. What you have described sometimes takes even commercial photographers years to learn. Practise and application lead to perfection.

Dec 12, 2010 10:41 PM #2
Renee Marrs Caperton
Marrs & Associates - Corsicana, TX
Realtor - Corsicana Texas Real Estate

Grat information...thanks!

Dec 12, 2010 11:30 PM #3
Lee Jinks
Jinks Realty - McAllen, TX

Thanks Iran

Dec 13, 2010 01:38 AM #4
Joshua Zargari
MJ Decorators Workshop LI staging and home decorating - Lynbrook, NY
MJ Decorators Workshop

Great tips...

Dec 13, 2010 03:23 AM #5
Crystal Wolverton
Commerce Title Company - Dallas, TX

Great info!! Thank you for sharing, I am going to share your tips with several of my clients. :)

Dec 13, 2010 05:21 AM #6
Iran Watson
Georgia Elite Realty - Marietta, GA
Marietta Real Estate Agent - Photographer

Thanks everyone for the comments.  A lot of what I have learned has been a direct result of someone else willing to take the time to share with me.  Pay it forward guys, it works!

Dec 13, 2010 05:58 AM #7
Gary Burleson
Beach Water Realty - - Myrtle Beach, SC
Myrtle Beach Homes, Condos, Foreclosures, Investment Propery

Thanks for taking the time to explain the details and including pictures. It now makes sense.

Dec 13, 2010 10:07 AM #8
Kristine Ginsberg
Elite Staging and Redesign, LLC - Short Hills, NJ
NJ Home Stager

Great tips especailly sinsce 84% of buyers search online first and if you don't have great pictures, you lose a lot of foot traffic!

Dec 13, 2010 01:45 PM #9
Maureen Bray Portland OR Home Stager ~ Room Solutions Staging
Room Solutions Staging, Portland OR - Portland, OR
"Staging that Sells Portland Homes"

Iran ~ Your tips are very helpful, thanks for sharing them. Your photography is really exceptional, too.

Dec 13, 2010 02:03 PM #10
Don Stern
Realty Executives South Louisiana - Baton Rouge, LA
Greater Baton Rouge Real Estate

Well done again, Iran.

Dec 15, 2010 02:09 AM #11
Nancy Williams
Coldwell Banker Homestead Group Select Professionals - Harrisburg, PA

Iran, you are a natural born teacher.  What you have given us in this one blog post is more than I've gotten from some books I've paid good money for.  Thank you for both practicing what you preach and preaching what you practrice!

Dec 18, 2010 04:05 PM #12
Iran Watson
Georgia Elite Realty - Marietta, GA
Marietta Real Estate Agent - Photographer

I appreciate all your comments.

@ Nancy - My goal has also been to make it easy for anyone interested in the subject matter to learn from my teaching style .  Your comment means a lot to me.  Thank you.

Dec 18, 2010 05:27 PM #13
Nancy Williams
Coldwell Banker Homestead Group Select Professionals - Harrisburg, PA

Iran, I especially appreciate how you are cluing us in to the fact that the "wider world" of photography doesn't stop nor end at the wider the better.

Dec 19, 2010 04:10 PM #14
Toronto, ON

Hi Iran - I am learning a lot from your listing photo series.

Jan 08, 2011 04:34 PM #15
Reno, NV

Iran,  great lesson on the focal length, which you mentioned in my "headshot" inquiry. Just to let you know, I spent ALL DAY with my camera, set up the room with 3 point lighting, got my manual out and got the "portrait" SCN mode set, and praticed with that camera.  It was FUN FUN FUN.  Now I want to go back and set the White Balance, as you suggested in previous post, and I had to research in the manual on how to set it (I am using a paint color sample pallete as a prop and the greens are washed out, look white).  I am experimenting.... hope to get the final shot tomorrow with the natural light in the morning..... THANKS for your help and suggestions...

Jan 18, 2011 03:31 PM #16
Post a Comment
Spam prevention
Show All Comments

What's the reason you're reporting this blog entry?

Are you sure you want to report this blog entry as spam?


Iran Watson

Marietta Real Estate Agent - Photographer
Ask me a question
Spam prevention

Additional Information