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 - Creative Cropping and the Megapixel Myth
People like to have a yardstick in which to measure a product's worth. It is so much easier to make a buying decision when you don't have to analyze 20 different functions and features to determine if its worth your money. Having something to latch onto, even if its not always the best indicator, gives the consumer something to compare the alternatives by.
When you're in the business of selling cameras, being able to offer "bigger" or "better" is a proven path to generating new sales. If there is one thing camera manufacturers have been able to do it is steadily cram more mega pixels onto a camera's sensor. The result is an ever increasing rise in resolution and to an extent, marketing savvy at its best. But does having higher resolution mean that the image quality will be better?
The answer isn't always clear, but for the purposes of this blog and online marketing in general you can do 90% of what you need to do with a 6 mega-pixel camera. By today's standards that's pretty anemic sounding, for what it's worth just about any decent Point and Shoot will give you that. The challenge in producing better listing photos is not that your camera is lacking sufficient resolution, but other issues like field of view or lighting conditions. When it comes to resolution, the question that needs asking is where will the images be displayed?
Consumption of real estate marketing is primarily done online. Listing photos will likely be viewed in the 800x600 range and in some cases 1920x1080 if a Hi-Def option is available. If you do the math, you need but only a 3 MP camera to do that... So why I guess its good to know you "got the horses under the hood" in practice it is likely you won't ever need them. Now if we are talking about large prints or 100% zoomed crops, that's a different story altogether. But even then it isn't as much as you may think.
If your photo's final destination is large, high quality prints or you cropping small portions of the photo and then enlarging those selections, there are some advantages to having more megapixels. Before I get into that, what I want you to understand is that buying or evaluating a camera for real estate photography based on the number of megapixels is not sound advice. In fact, any camera made in the least 3 years by any reputable manufacturer should have more than enough megapixels, enough that you can pretty much take that issue off the table. More megapixels simply means the camera is able to produce an image with higher resolution. The problem is that resolution by itself is also another poor indicator of final image quality.
So are you saying that a 6MP camera is as good as a 18MP camera? Not necessarily, but all else being the same, I can point out a couple of scenarios where I actually find the 6MP camera preferable. For starters, the image files are much smaller. If the final destination for these photos are 800x600 jpegs on the MLS, the extra time spent crunching unnecessarily large files is lost forever. When you are talking about hundreds of images those extra seconds start to add up... I'm not missing anything in terms of color, sharpness or overall image quality as these functions have very little to do with how many megapixels I have. This allows me to use a perfectly good 10Mp, "work horse" camera and put my hard earned money toward better lenses. The second reason goes without saying, a 10mp camera is almost always cheaper than an 18mp and just as capable as producing a 800x600 image for the Internet. I'm not saying that investing in a top of the line DSLR is a bad thing, just that it may not be necessary for taking great listing photos.
There is an upside to having increased resolution however. This is most notable in the leeway it allows in cropping an image or producing super size prints. Cropping an 18mp provides a lot of options, mainly because the picture files are 5x the needed resolution. By creating multiple compositions from a single photo you can effectively add additional pictures to the set; compositions that may tell the story better than what you originally captured. Cropping can be used both as a corrective and creative tool.
When it comes to composition, one technique that has proved to be useful is one known as a "fake tilt-shift". This approach derives its name from a specialty lens used by architectural photographers, among others, and essentially mimics the "shift" attribute of this lens. I find this approach to be very effective when I want a perspective that is isn't straight on yet I still want straight vertical lines. I purposely tilt the camera down or up in order to achieve the desired perspective. While I know this practice is sure to give me converging verticals I can simply correct this with post processing and then crop the image so that it is geometrically correct.
The two kitchen photos provide a glimpse at this technique. First the original, tilted down image was corrected using the Lens Correct filter in Photoshop. The once slanted vertical lines were made straight but the result was an odd, unusable shaped image with too much background canvas showing. With a simple crop the important parts of the image remained intact, including the angled perspective, and now we have a respectable real estate image.
Anyone that is familiar with ultra-wide angle photography knows that these lenses typically introduce visual distortions to an image. Whether its barrel distortion, chromatic aberrations or soft focus, the edges of the frame are typically the most problematic. Being able to shoot a little wider than what is actually needed (knowing that the edges will be distorted) allows you to go back and simply crop off the area of the photo where the distortion is most pronounced.
Another bonus of cropping a high resolution photo is that odd aspect ratios like the 960x130 typical in header images are much easier to pull off when you can effectively eliminate 60 - 70% of the image without having to upsample it.
Having an inordinate amount of megapixels also allows you to zoom in on a much smaller area of the original image and still get decent image quality. It's not uncommon to end up with two or three "compositions with a composition" when shooting exteriors or large interior spaces. Through a fixation in cramming as much information into every image as possible, sometimes we forget that providing information is only part of the equation. Sometimes a closer, more intimate composition can convey the message better. Other times there may be finer details that are just lost in the barrage of info that one can pack into an 18MP photo. Zooming in on these details and recomposing a new scene via the crop feature effectively lets produce an entirely new photo. The best part being you didn't have to take the time to set-up and actually take another photo.
The preceding images are a good example of how a tighter drop can actually yield another composition. In the first photo, the viewer is able to see the entire home, but the tree in the foreground is somewhat distracting. Not only that, but it is rather difficult to make out some of the subtler architectural details like the stone work and wood accents. In the second image, the viewer can make out those details much easier and the distracting element is gone. Same original photo, but the different crops draw the eye to focus on different information. Notice also there is little to no apparent reduction in quality and that is due to the fact that the original photo was many times the resolution needed to produce the pictures as seen in this blog post. Herein lies one of the few and greatest benefits of the "Megapixel Myth".
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