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 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.
For 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.
The 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.
Essentially 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 5: White Balance and Color Control
Part 6: Understanding Focal Length