Sometimes we want good photos, we want them quickly and we want to be able to do it ourselves. I think we can all say we have been in this situation. Yet for real estate agents, many times good photographs are an important part of their livelihood.  

This will be the first installment in a series about how Orange County real estate agents can improve their real estate photography. Let’s jump into this with our first rule…….

Keep the back of your camera, phone or tablet straight up and down!

The Problem:

If a camera is pointed even slightly up at a home or the inside of a room, the vertical lines in the photograph will all converge toward the top. In an instant, the straight, parallel vertical lines of the home your are photographing can begin to look like the classic converging lines of railroad tracks. We don't want vertical lines to converge at all, and the more you point the camera up (or down), the more severe the problem becomes. Converging vertical lines make the exteriors of a house look distorted and as if they are going to topple over. Converging vertical lines in interior photographs make a home look awkward, as if the architect or construction crew were incompetent. Look at the two pictures below before you read on. Can you see any visual clues that tell you something is out of whack in either photo?

Is something not right in this image?

Or is something not right in this one? 

The key is to look at the lines you know for a fact should be vertical. Here that would be the end of the green wall on the left, and the wall joint where the green and white walls meet on the right. The lower image is clearly the one that is out of whack (back of camera not straight up and down). The line of the left wall is clearly converging downwards, which is our indication that the camera was pointed down in this image. Notice it is more pronounced at the end of the wall on the left than at the wall joint.  That is mostly because it is further from the center of the frame. 

In the image on top, where the camera's sensor was straight up and down, are the pictures looking straight? Let's look at the frames, starting from left to right. The one on the left looks pretty straight to me if you look at that far edge. The one in the middle at the end of the hall looks a bit off! Well, guess what, the picture is crooked, sloping down towards the left as we look at it. Lessons here are to not use wall art as your vertical reference, and to try to get a picture frame level when you take the photo if you see it's not level. Do the vertical lines in the group of three frames on the left look good? They are off by a tad. This is because the top of the pictures extend out and the bottoms are flush with the wall. So again, the picture frames aren't straight, but our camera is in fact level. Let's discuss how to solve the problem, if you haven't got it figured out already.  

The solution:

First, this is by far the number one interior photography tip everyone can easily do to instantly improve their images (it's a bit harder with exteriors). But, how do you know if the back of your camera or phone is level? Use the live view LCD screen. By verifying on the screen that the vertical lines in the house are in fact vertical, you know your phone or camera sensor is now pointed in the same direction as the wall (i.e., straight up).

But, what is a  trustworthy vertical line in a house? Things like door thresholds, wall joints, window frames, and the edges of walls will almost always be straight up and down. Watch out when using things like picture frames and bookcases though, as they can definitely be askew. Better to stick with the things we know are vertical. Remember, we aren't smashing atoms here, so if you visually confirm that the lines are pretty straight on your LCD screen, you're probably very close to "true", so fire away, and make that picture. 

For interiors, this really isn’t all that hard, is it? Just get the composition you want, get your camera or phone as close as you can to that straight up-down vertical line, verify the fact that you are parallel with the house’s vertical lines in live view, and make the shot. Things can get a little tricky here though. You may have to dip down by way of bending your knees, or raise the camera above your shoulders, to get the composition you want, all while keeping the back of that camera level. The key is to not point the camera up or down to get the view you want. The small effort in doing this is well worth the rewards it offers via better photos. 

Yet, for exteriors, as you try this you are going to find very quickly that it isn’t always easy to get a good composition while keeping the back of the camera on the same line as the house's walls, especially with two story houses and taller. Nobody said this was going to be easy. There are a few simple things you can do to alleviate this problem however.

Try stepping away from the structure. Crossing the street and zooming your lens is a good start. This gives you a better angle where you don’t have to point the camera up as much. This wont always work though. Many times you will cross the street and there will be a big tree, or a car, in the shot. So the next thing you can try is making the picture from a higher vantage point. How? Honestly, you will have to get creative. Holding your camera as high as you can is a start. Standing in the back of a person’s pickup truck (with permission I hope) is an idea. Brining or borrowing a ladder will work wonders. I wear Doc Marten boots when on the job, in an effort (perhaps a poor one) to retain some semblance of style, while at the same time being able to scale walls and trees. The idea is to be on the lookout for vantage points that will get you higher. Many architectural photographers bring with them as part of their kit painter’s poles and very tall tripods just to get these higher perspectives.

So remember, we don’t want lines to converge in architectural photography mainly because it is a very inaccurate and unbecoming rendition of the property. Everyone involved, from the homeowner, to the buyer, even to the architect and the builder, are going to want to see straight lines actually be straight in your photos, so do all you can to make them that way. It is not always easy. Just get out there, do your best with what you now know, and keep the back of that sensor on the same line as the walls, corners and wall joints of the house, or as close to it as you can. Do that, and you have definitely taken the first step toward making better real estate photos.