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Pictures are Worth a Thousand Words, but what are your pictures actually saying?

Pictures are worth a thousand words. Wouldn’t it be nice if all thousand of those words were actually in praise for the subject of the picture? Time and time again I see photos of homes in the MLS that make me NOT want to look at the house, it’s either too dark or washed out or it just doesn’t make the house look appealing. Or it’s pictures of inconsequential things, like the seller’s dog, or a squirrel in the lawn, or 5 photos of the staircase and no other interior pictures. I swear I’ve seen pictures that were made by a camera phone.

What is the point of pictures in our line of work? It is to showcase the house. In this day and age when the vast majority of folks are going online to see everything they can about a house, the photos we have are your first impression. It can make a buyer drool and want to jump in the car to go see it right away, or it can make someone simply pass over it without a second thought. What kind of photos are you taking?

The options are pretty simple. Take good pictures or pay someone that can take good pictures. I was very close to start paying a professional photographer until I learned how to make astonishing photos myself. This isn’t for everyone, but it might work for some! So let me show you some examples.

Everett House

This one is your ordinary every-day split-level house. The picture on the left was pulled from when the house was for sale 4 years ago. It has nothing wrong with it. It’s actually fairly well exposed in that you can see the house clearly. However it’s kinda plain and split-level homes here have a certain negative stigma. The photo on the right is of the same house that I am listing now. This house has a gorgeous front yard and the goal was to emphasize the overall property’s beauty and de-emphasize the split-levelness. The house is small in the overall photo, but the goal was to catch the viewer’s attention so they will click on more photos and then be turned on to the inner beauty of the house. Instead, someone could easily see a plain old split-level home (seen one…seen them all) and pass right over it…not knowing what they might have missed.


These townhomes are pretty new so that I couldn’t find a photo of it from when it was originally sold. The next best thing I did find was a photo of the unit next door to the one I have listed. Again, nothing really wrong with the picture on the left except the sky is overexposed (all white) and it just looks like any ordinary ho-hum townhouse. I tried to get a little bit of mother nature to help spruce up my version of the picture…some trees in the background and blue skies.


Here is an example of when a good wide angle lens comes in handy. The photo on the left taken in a previous listing doesn’t even have the whole house in the picture. The effect I was going for here was to have all the lights glowing…again to be an eye catcher.


The photo on the left is of the same staircase as the one I took on the right. The staircase is actually pretty neat and the photo on the left fails to communicate any of that…there’s even barrel distortion at the left and right edges of the picture (see how the walls aren’t straight?).

So how are these photos done? True, these are not “natural” photos. Depending on the sunlight, you don’t typically get a scene where both foreground, house and sky are all well exposed. If the sun is behind the house, you’ll usually get a sky that’s well exposed and the house is dark. Or the opposite, where the house is properly exposed and the sky is washed out. Here’s my secret. It requires a few tools. 1) a camera that allows you to manually set its exposure, 2) some software and 3) a tripod.

The technique used here is called HDR. High Dynamic Range photography. It basically involves taking several shots of the same image at different exposures. The idea is that at different exposures, different parts of the image will be properly exposed. Once you have your set of pictures, you feed them into the software and it merges them all together. You then have to go and tweak the picture to get different things to show up better. Easy as pie. There’s various versions of the software. You can get a photoshop plugin or a stand-alone. I use
HDRsoft’s standalone package. The software is the easy part. Getting a cheap digital camera to take differntly exposed photos is tricky and would involve lots of menu button presses (which is where the tripod comes in). You need all your shots to be the same. Too much movement and the software won’t be able to properly mash them together.

The camera I use is a Canon Digital Rebel XTi (400D for those non-US readers). The easiest way to take multiple-exposure shots is using the camera’s built in auto-bracketing feature. On the Canon XTi it will automatically fire off 3 shots at the 3 different exposures I set it to.

Here’s some examples of the three shots used to make the pictures I have above. Each one captures a different set of detail in the photo (the set on the right is more clear) and software creates a picture with all the details highlighted. The trial and error part is figuring out how to tweak and what to tweak to get the best looking results.


So there you go. I’m nowhere near an expert at this technique …I’m still learning!! Go to flickr and search for ‘HDR’ if you want to see the stuff the pros can do with this technique.

So why not just hire it out? You can. Like I said, this isn’t for everyone. I personally do it to increase my value to my clients and also so I have an excuse to buy the camera gear I’ve always wanted. Happy picture taking!

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    11 Comments so far

    1. Mark February 29th, 2008 6:50 am

      Great job on improving over the ‘standard’ listing pics! The lighted house and stairway give a nice, warm feeling. Sometimes, just shooting at the right time of day does the trick (as in the townhome, too).

      One cropping suggestion, you don’t need the entire foreground element in the photo for it to do its job…on the split level, try cropping out half the pine tree on the left (just to the right of the top stem), crop out the trunk on the right, and just above the pine tree behind the house (eliminating the sun), all without eliminating the foreground. Now, you should feel like you’re looking through a frame of trees, toward the house, rather than at them, and the house will be sitting more ‘majestically’ at the top of the picture, focusing attention on the house, rather than the sky. And keep those horizons straight!

      But, all in all, definitely in the right direction!

    2. Matt Scoggins February 29th, 2008 8:33 am

      Great tips! Thanks for sharing.

    3. Daniel Rothamel February 29th, 2008 9:43 am


      I too, share your desire to learn to take dynamite listing photos on my own (we also share the same camera). I’ve seen the HDR technique used, but I haven’t done it yet, myself. I have been working to learn about lighting and exposure so that I can get the best possible natural pictures, then I’ll start with the HDR stuff.

      One thing that I have found is that lighting makes all the difference in the world when it comes to interior photos. A few slave flashes will go a LONG way to improving interior exposure.

    4. Ben DeBell February 29th, 2008 10:26 am

      Great tips! I am always looking for ways to improve photos. PhotoShop is a simple program that some agents use to make pictures look brighter and crisper. There’s actually some good debate out there about the ethics of using PhotoShop in real estate – it makes for some really interesting reading. My own tips for great pictures include:

      *Take a lot more pictures than you think you will need. If you are already at the house, this does not take a lot of time.
      *Actually look at the picture you are taking. Don’t just snap away but take the time to align your shot and set up a great picture.
      *Get to know your camera’s features. Even basic digital cameras come with easy ways to align, crop, and otherwise change pictures.

    5. James Hsu February 29th, 2008 12:42 pm

      Daniel, a great book on exposure is Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson (revised edition). I felt it was a good mix of technical explanation with not too much detail. Each chapter covers one main feature an how you can exploit that feature to make creative shots. Very good read in my opinion.

      Ben, I can understand the debate about Photoshopping pictures for listings…you’d be showing something that may not really be there. The thing about this HDR technique is I’m only showing what’s there. It’s a better representation of what our human eye sees. When we look at a house and it’s surroundings, we see everything properly exposed. A lens can’t do this (at least not that I know of yet). Depending on lighting, you’ll get one part of the picture properly exposed and the other not. HDR can bring things to a closer representation of what the human eye sees.

      Mark, horizon straight…gotcha! You’ve given me a great excuse to get a new tri-pod! :)

    6. Galen February 29th, 2008 8:22 pm

      Fantastic examples James. The first is especially dramatic. I see a lot of so-so photos, day in and day out.

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    10. Michael March 9th, 2008 2:23 pm

      Creating the right first impression is very important. So having your pictures done right is everything.

    11. Sue April 7th, 2008 5:27 pm

      You have a great “eye”. Lighting is key. The pictures are great!