Lighting Adjoining Spaces by Jonathan Barnes

Don't forget to make your adjoining spaces look as good as the primary space.

Don't forget to make your adjoining spaces look as good as the primary space.

There's so much to remember when you're trying to make a great real estate photograph. Doing some light staging, deciding on the composition, leveling and focusing the camera, creating the light, and checking all of the details. And, usually, you're under the gun time-wise.

You can see how it would be easy to forget something. Oh yeah. That other room you can see in the shot. Oops. I forgot to [stage it/light it/move my bag of gear].

Today, we'll just focus on the lighting because it's probably the most obvious thing. An un-staged adjoining room is not ideal, but it's not the end of the world either. Things are usually farther off in the distance and it can be hard to see those little mistakes at a typical viewing size. It's another story if your client is planning on making big prints or you're shooting for a magazine!

The photo directly below demonstrates what happens when you don't light the adjoining space. Compare it to the photo at the top of this post, and you can see the drastic difference. You definitely don't want an adjoining room to look like a cavernous abyss. That's not inviting at all!

An unlit adjoining room can quickly give a real estate photo that spooky vibe.

An unlit adjoining room can quickly give a real estate photo that spooky vibe.

Let's break down the lighting step by step so that you can understand what's going on. I even remembered to take behind-the-scenes photos with my iPhone!

Step 1: Find a good window exposure. Always subjective, but I opted to show less of my neighbor's house by blowing out the windows a bit more than usual.

Main light, bounced into the wall/ceiling joint.

Main light, bounced into the wall/ceiling joint.

Step 2: Bring up the main room with your first light. In this case, a speedlight placed back camera left, bounced off the wall/ceiling junction above the bay windows.

Main light for adjoining room.

Main light for adjoining room.

Step 3: Bring up the adjoining room in similar fashion. This was done with another speedlight firing at the junction of two walls out of sight behind the pocket door. Note: pocket doors are awesome, so if you're shooting a room that has them, show them off a bit. Also, the door helped hide my speedlight and lightstand, although I did have a bit of room to play with over there.

Kicker light on a high-end highchair lightstand.

Kicker light on a high-end highchair lightstand.

You could pretty much be done there, but I decided to add a third light in the dining room as a kicker. It helped to bring out a little definition in the chairs and kept things from getting too muddy in the table/chairs area.

All of the speedlights were trigged via their built-in optical slaves by another speedlight placed on-camera and aimed at the ceiling. The on-camera speedlight was powered down to 1/128th power so as to not affect the exposure. The nice thing about this is that you can bring up that power level if you decide you need a little fill light. Things were looking pretty good to me, so I opted to keep the power level down and use it only to trigger the other lights.

Even if you're not using lights and such, always remember to pay attention to the adjoining spaces. It can make a big difference in your final images!

My Camera is Better Than Yours by Jonathan Barnes

Oh boy. If I have to hear one more time...

"My cellphone camera is amazing. It takes better photos than..."

"My cousin has a really nice camera, so I just got him to take the photos of..."

"I just bought this 36-megapixel camera, so I'll be able to take my own photos of..."

If there's one cliche that applies to all of the above statements, it's the old adage, "It's not the tools; it's the carpenter."

These days, everyone is a photographer, or so it seems. Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat. Millions, billions of pictures. Every new phone has a great camera, and everyone and their uncle has a DSLR or mirrorless camera. But it's not about the tools. Let's put it in action, shall we?

Enter our mystery guest "photographer" (the party in question shall remain nameless as to protect their guil—innocence?). I asked this mystery photographer to take a photo our living room laboratory. The mystery shooter used my equipment, without my supervision, other than to provide a quick demonstration of how to focus and zoom. I also set the camera to program mode (read: auto). This exposure mode emulates the same kind of autoexposure mode that you'd find on most consumer cameras as well as cellphone cameras. The only parameter I provided was, "Pretend you are trying to make this room look its best for a real estate listing." The shot, below.

A real estate photo. You see ones just like this all over the interwebs.

A real estate photo. You see ones just like this all over the interwebs.

Composition is a little wonky. Lines are little crooked, but not terrible. Vertical lines are a bit haywire. The camera actually got the exposure pretty close, but there's no additional light being added to the scene, so it's too dark inside. Compare to one of my photos of the same room:

Decent composition, straight lines all around, well-lit windows and room, clean and polished look.

Decent composition, straight lines all around, well-lit windows and room, clean and polished look.

"Well, Mr. It's-Not-The-Tools-It's-The-Photographer, why don't you just shoot with a cellphone camera?"

Good point. Because of control. It honestly doesn't matter what kind of camera I choose to use, as long as I can control the settings. I need to be able to control the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. I would like to be able to fire a flash. What don't I need? Megapixels, bells and whistles, the shiniest, newest thing. So, please don't tell me about your 50 megapixel cellphone camera with advanced facial recognition.

I hesitate to post this next part, but I think it fairly well underscores my point. Go ahead and google my camera body. Look up when it was first released, how many megapixels it has, and how much you can buy one for (used) these days.

Done? Yup, that's the camera I use for everything. Am I shooting billboards with it? Nope. Do I plan on upgrading in the future? You bet. But the point is that I can make beautiful images with that camera. I have studied and practiced technique, lighting, and composition. I have studied hundreds (if not thousands) of great photos. I'm not trying to toot my own horn, but it takes a photographer to make an image, not a camera.

The Great Wide-Angle Lens Debate by Jonathan Barnes

My wide-angle lens: the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 Pro DX II. 35mm equivalent: 16.5-24mm.

My wide-angle lens: the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 Pro DX II. 35mm equivalent: 16.5-24mm.

Wide-angle lenses are to real estate photography as baseball bats are to baseball. You can't really play the game without them. But how wide do you need to go?

I shudder and die a little bit inside whenever I hear someone refer to the need for a fisheye lens for real estate photography. Usually these people are not photographers (thankfully) and have no idea what a fisheye lens actually does (Google fisheye lens if you don't know). Rather, they are confusing the term fisheye with wide-angle. While a fisheye lens is a wide-angle lens, extreme distortion is one of its defining characteristics, and that is definitely not something you want to see in real estate photography.

Real estate photographers actually use rectilinear wide-angle lenses. Good rectilinear lenses keep straight lines straight, and even the slight distortion they produce can be easily corrected with post-processing software.

The problem with the majority of real estate photographs is not that they are being shot with fisheye lenses. It's that they are being photographed too wide.

Now, is this the fault of the photographer or the real estate agent?

A lot of the time, it's both. Many in the industry think that wider is better. Show everything that you can possibly show in the space and make it look bigger than it is. It's probably the latter that is the culprit most of the time, and I get it. Many buyers are looking for a spacious place to call home and a lot of the time, you don't actually have a spacious home that you are trying to sell. So, ultra wide-angle photographs create the illusion of a larger space, and you can at least get potential buyers in the door.

There are at least three problems with this, both for the agent and for the compositionally-conscious photographer. The first problem is that you may get your potential buyer in the door but once they see that the space looks nothing like the photo, they may be done. I know I've certainly felt that way in the past.

The second problem is for the photographer trying to create great work. Showing every single inch of the room is not only unnecessary, but it leads to a stagnant composition.

The third problem is more subtle, but something that you'll notice right away in the comparison photos below. The first photo was shot at at 35mm equivalent of 21mm (14mm on my DX sensor camera), while the second photo was shot at the equivalent of 27mm (18mm on DX). Look at the couch and closest window. In the first shot, the couch almost looks like it's falling out of the picture, while the window appears wider than it should.

Now, that isn't lens distortion that you're seeing. That is perspective distortion. The wider the lens, the closer you have to be to your subject to show what you need to show. What happens when you move closer is that objects closer to you appear much closer in comparison to objects further away from you. When you go really wide, that relationship becomes distorted in appearance, leading to the phenomenon you see when flipping between the two photos.

You may have noticed that my 21mm shot above didn't appear distorted until compared to the 27mm shot. But go wider and you'll start to really notice this effect. That's why I try to use the longest focal length I can get away with. I'm still shooting wide-angle, but I'm not just parking myself as close as possible and zooming my lens all the way out (the Tokina can go to 11mm, which is the 35mm equivalent of 16.5mm).

So, what's the solution? You're a photographer trying to get work in this industry, but the agents you work with want wide, wide, wide. Compromise. Look, 24mm is pretty wide. 20mm is quite wide. 16mm? Super wide, but why? It's too much most of the time and lends to distortion. Most of the really great interior photographers out there are shooting the majority of their work between 20mm and 24mm. Interior design photos are often shot with even longer focal lengths, although that comparison is unfair because that's a different industry.

I'm not saying there isn't a time to go ultra wide. There is, but it's not the bread and butter real estate shots. Ease off the wide zoom. Create tighter, more polished compositions. Show what needs to be shown, but make the space look appropriate and inviting. People will come.

Welcome to My Living Room by Jonathan Barnes

Nikon D200, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 @ 16mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/80 sec.

Nikon D200, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 @ 16mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/80 sec.

Yep, that's right. Welcome to my living room.

The living room is the focal point of our home and so it's only fitting that it'll be the focal point of some interior photography demonstrations. We'll be talking about all sorts of neat concepts, including natural light vs. artificial light vs. HDR, window exposures, styling, composition, and interior design vs. real estate photography. For you science nerds out there, we'll be using my living room as our control so that we can more easily compare all of the variables that we throw at it.

So grab a seat on the couch with your beverage of choice (I'll have a coffee), and curl up with a blog post. We'll see you back here soon!