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Photographic Effects of Varying Focal Lengths


Photographic Effects of Varying Focal Lengths


Whether you are an architect, a realtor or own a construction company, if you want to take the best possible pictures of the structures you are marketing, you need to understand lens focal length and its effects on resulting images. 

For our purposes here, focal length is simply those numbers stamped on your lens telling you how wide of a view you will have. A common kit lens may have a zoom range of 18-55 mm, so its focal length is adjustable by way of "zooming" in or out. Prime lenses like a 50 mm for example, have only one focal length which obviously can not be adjusted. 

So, does zooming that little ring in and out affect your architecture pictures? It certainly does. Even if you get the same exact composition, what you are seeing in the photograph will change drastically with differing focal lengths. What we'll discuss today are the basics of what is happening to your photographs when you zoom in and out, and I'll leave the fun stuff, like applying what you've learned, to you. 

I am going to be using one word a lot today to help me explain this concept. The word is "emphasize". When you want to emphasize certain areas of a photograph, focal length and lighting I would say are probably the two most important factors. Focal length and composition are probably far more important than lighting in most cases, because if what you are trying to emphasize is small and obscured, you wont be emphasizing it no matter how good the lighting is. 

When something is emphasized in a photograph, there is almost always another area that is being deemphasized. Our job is to emphasize all the important stuff, and deemphasize, or even eliminate, all the stuff we'd rather people not pay attention to, like a sidewalk for example. 


To teach the concepts, let's jump into an example. Just for fun let's say your friend is a landscaper architect and he comes to you for help taking photos of his last job. The landscaping he designed looks wonderful. He did a great job, and now our job is to emphasize the landscaping - and here is the tricky part - we want to know the house that he designed the landscaping for is there, but we don't want it to be the focal point. How in the heck do we do that? 

I am just going to give you the answer and show you some pictures, because it is so much easier and clearer that way. What we'd probably want to do for our friend is put his landscaping designs in the foreground with a very wide angle lens on the camera. Now I am going to bold this because it is the number one take away point from this blog: wide angle lenses emphasize the foreground, quite dramatically I might add, while longer focal lengths will tend to do the opposite and emphasize objects in the background more, while deemphasizing objects in the foreground. 

I just walked outside, and I will admit I kinda quickly took some shots to try and give you an idea of what I'm talking about. They aren't the best pictures for our example, but the important part is to understand the concept anyway. 

This is at 12mm on a crop sensor (that would be 18mm on a Nikon full frame). The lawn and driveway are greatly emphasized here. Unfortunately for our example the garage is in the foreground as well, so it is emphasized quite a bit too. The point is however, that the closer you get the camera to that grass, and the wider the focal length, the more it will be emphasized because it is your foreground. And when I say "emphasized" I am really talking about the amount of real estate an object takes up in the frame. Notice how small the rear roof behind the fence is relative to the zoomed images.

This is at 30mm on a crop sensor (that would be 45mm on a Nikon full frame). First and foremost, look at what is happening to the lawn. Our landscape architect friend would be quite unhappy at this point, don't you think? Look at the rear roof in comparison! This isn't trickery of any kind, this is what happens when you increase the focal length. What is really happening here is the rear roof is becoming more of its "actual size" relative to its surroundings because we are using a near "normal" lens. The roof back there in the 18mm version is clearly deemphasized and diminutive. 

This is at 55mm on my crop sensor. Look at the rear roof, it appears as if it is coming toward us, doesn't it? The whirlybird ventilators on the top of the roof have at least doubled, perhaps tripled in size relative to the 18mm focal length version. The lawn is even less emphasized, it is just a very narrow strip now. The million dollar question at this point becomes, what if we want to emphasize the house, but we don't want all that street and sidewalk emphasized in the foreground. We'll definitely get to that. 

My photographs weren't perfect in that I really just did run outside, and I got sick of the oncoming traffic, but again I think they are fine for depicting the point. If you want to do your own tests, which I highly recommend, get two solid reference points that you will be able to easily keep at the edge of the frames as you back up and zoom in. Something like two fence posts would be great, and make sure you back-up in a straight line away from them and zoom in accordingly doing your best to maintain that original composition. And try to choose a spot where the ground is fairly level. 

So, what do we know at this point? Wide angles emphasize the foreground and deemphasize the background, while the opposite is true of longer focal lengths. Just as important of a point is that wide angle lenses will tend to distort objects, especially if they are located toward the edge of the frame. Longer, and medium focal lengths are a lot better about not distorting the objects. This is one of the reasons why we see portrait photographers using longer focal lengths. And lastly, long focal lengths bring objects together, or compress a scene, whereas wide angle focal lengths make objects appear as if they are further apart.  

And we can see all of this in our examples above. Doesn't the corner of the near garage in the 18mm version look as if its relatively far from the fence and the section of house behind the fence in the other versions? Look at how long the side of the garage wall is in the 18mm image, while it appears progressively shorter with the longer focal lengths. Now, if that garage wall was something we wanted to emphasize in our image, we may actually want to go pretty wide on the focal length. Lastly, doesn't the structure in the 18mm version look distorted relative to the the other versions? The closer we look, we can see all the effects right there in those three images. 


We know the basics now, but how do we put it to good use? There are only a couple of scenarios that I see coming up all the time: 1) foreground emphasized too much with a wide angle lens, while house is distorted (as in 18mm example above) 2) street is emphasized too much with a longer focal length (as in 55mm example above).  Let's cover them one by one. 

When you are very close to a structure with a wide angle lens, really the number one fix is to back away and go longer on focal length. You don't necessarily want to back away as far as possible either. The compression we talked about, where things tend to get "closer" to each other with longer focal lengths will work on structures too. You don't necessarily want the rear of a home to compress forward toward the front, as you lose some depth there. Where is the ideal middle ground? I would say it all depends on the space and what you are trying to do. The important thing is that you understand what is happening as you back up and zoom in, and you can choose the amount to do so accordingly.  

As you probably noticed in the above photo examples, when you back up, the street and sidewalk become too prominent and take up too much real estate in the photograph. I have found a couple of ways to counteract this: getting lower, and getting higher. What happens when there is a flat surface in front of you like a large lawn, and you don't want it to take up too much of the picture? You can lower the camera almost to the level of the grass. As you get closer to the grass, that plane of grass takes up less and less real estate in the image. This same technique works with any flat surface, such as beds and tables when shooting interiors. Want to deemphasize the top of a table? Get a little lower. This is a great technique with a grass lawn because it gives us a sort of landscape photography feel with the grass or whatever landscaping is in the foreground, yet it decreases the amount of real estate the grass takes up in the photograph. 

Let me just say, good photography is difficult. For example, sometimes you can't back up away from the structure at all, you are compelled to go as wide as possible, and you don't want to emphasize the foreground. We do the best we can, but there isn't always an available method to emphasize what you want, and you just have to do the best you can. Sometimes lighting, or lack of light, and the blending of images is the only feasible way to emphasize what you want in a particular scene. 

We went lower with the camera when there was a nice, manicured lawn taking up our entire foreground. But, we can't really get down close to concrete when we are taking an architectural image in a city. You could try it, but it probably isn't going to work as well. In these cases, I have gone up with much better success. Eye level is really one of the most boring, monotonous places we can take a picture from anyway, so get your camera up there, however you can. What happens is we are able to point the camera down and include the front yard and the house, all while excluding the elements we want to deemphasize such as the sidewalk, the street and the retaining wall in this instance. If you took this picture from eye level, it is going to really emphasize that retaining wall, and the garden would have obscured the main subject. 

Going up is a great solution to strong compositions in many situations. This was shot from about 15 feet off the ground with the camera on a large light stand. Notice the street and adjacent sidewalk are almost completely eliminated. We know they exist, which is really all we want. The garden and retaining wall get an appropriate level of emphasis. We simply could not accomplish all of this from near eye level. Also notice the focal length is not too long so as to compress the back of the building toward the front corner too much, and not too wide to unduly distort or emphasize the surroundings. 

In my estimation, what is a common mistake I see all the time when it comes to choosing correct focal lengths? For example, when a beautiful view from an interior should obviously be emphasized and we are far too wide on the focal length and the view becomes diminutive within the frame. We estimated above that the whirlybird ventilators in the images grew by at least a factor of two, imagine if that was the effect on a window's ocean view in your photograph! 

Now, everybody out there is selling something different. Some are selling a view, others are selling a feeling, and others are selling square footage, so you need to know what you want to emphasize and use the right tools to get there. The important part is to have the knowledge in the field, and choose the appropriate focal length according to what you do, and do not, want to emphasize in the scene. So get out there and play with these techniques, have a great time and infuse it appropriately into your photography. Thanks for reading, and feel free to leave a comment if you wish! 



Oregon City Lodge Shoot


Oregon City Lodge Shoot

Recently I was lucky enough to shoot a beautiful lodge in the Oregon City area. The property the lodge rests on is amazing in itself, surrounded by nothing but pine trees, a small body of water that supports catch-and-release trout fishing, and the freshest air you could ever hope to breathe. 

I wanted to shoot the lodge at twilight, and give it a warm and inviting feel. The problem was that the sun was setting behind the lodge, making for a difficult exposure. If I shot the house too early, it did not really give me the feel I wanted (see image below). 

Shooting the house later in the evening did not give a suitable result either. Since the sun was setting behind the lodge, the brown color of the lodge was very dark while the sky was still very bright (see image below). 

The solution is to pour light on the structure and landscaping one frame at a time.

Now we have the house lit, the sky properly exposed, and can play with the tones and lighting in photoshop to produce the final warm and inviting result we were after. 





Good light is not easy to come by, but at least if we can recognize when the light will be good, we may be able to plan accordingly and make a beautiful photograph, and do it relatively quickly.

The (main) problem

Camera sensors can only do so much. On a bright, sunny day, they render the sunlit areas as very bright, and areas in shadow as very dark. A human eye, on the other hand, has a fascinatingly large dynamic range. Our eyes and brains are able to work together to see as much as three times the amount of light variation than your average dSLR camera. To put it simply, when the sun is out, our eyes can see detail in the bright and the dark spots, and a camera can’t.

The question

When we take a picture of a house, do we want the viewer to be limited to the amount of detail a camera can see, or the amount of detail our eyes can see? Do we want the viewer to experience the property as if they were there on site, or do we want them to see it as these contraptions called dSLR cameras render the scene? This is of course subjective, but I believe the answer is we want them to see the property as our eyes see it. We are documenting a space, hopefully with an appropriate amount of taste and creativity, and we want the viewer to experience the space as if their own eyes were there at the location. I hope you agree with me on that. 

The Theory via apps 

Instead of going into a lot of complicated theory about when and where the sun will be during any given time of year, it's better just to download a sun tracker app for your phone. This way, as long as you know which way the house faces (use google earth to figure this out), you'll have a good idea of when to show up to reduce the number of shadows. Because that is really what we want to avoid, we want to reduce those hard, dark edge shadows as much as possible. This helps, to a certain degree, the renditions from our cameras to look more like what our eyes see, simply because there are less shadow areas, and the camera's exposure can be set based on those bright areas. We'll also consider more ideal ways to photograph a house so as to depict it as our eyes see it, but first let's consider the daytime, sunny photos, as that is what we have a large portion of the time here in Southern California. 


What is the best time to photograph an exterior on a bright and sunny day? It's probably more useful if we talk about time of year. During the winter months, the sun is very "low" and in the southerly sky here in Orange County. This works to our advantage, because the lower the sun is, the fewer of those dark, evil shadows it is going to cast on the face of the house. In the summer, the sun is going to track much closer to directly above our heads, so it will be much more difficult to find good light in the middle of the day during the summer months. I would say just keep your sun tracker app handy, and be ready to know when and where the best locations will be for any given house, on any given day of the year. Reducing shadows and having the sun at your back as you shoot are you main goals. But even if you happen to reduce many of the sun's shadows, we are still going to get that effect we spoke about where the camera can't "see" all the detail on a sunny day. Let's move on to some even lighting solutions, which are much more favorable because they tend produce imagery closer to what we see with our eyes. 

The even lighting solutions 

Now, if you want a more even feel and tone to your photographs, without the bright highlights and dark shadows, there are a few ways to go. First is to wait for a cloudy day. When it is cloudy you can photograph the home at any point during the day. This will give you a nice, even look with the lighting, and really even out the exposure so we are closer to our goal of seeing what our eyes see with the camera. But we don’t always have clouds. Further, cloudy lighting can look a little flat or dull, and the sky in your photo will be a bland white. This method clearly isn't perfect, but if you need a quick, pretty darned good photograph of a house, grabbing the camera when the the sky is cloudy would not be a bad idea at all. The best scenario you can possibly come by, is in those instances when the is pretty close to the horizon, and it dips behind some clouds, but there is still blue in the sky. The clouds will help soften the light a little, and you may still be able to get a blue sky in your image.

The other option is to wait until about 30 minutes before the sun goes down, or start shooting right as it comes up and 30 minutes thereafter. If your house faces East/Southeast, you'll want to choose the latter, and vice versa. The light does change to a more golden color at this time, which can add a warm, natural feel to a photograph, but you may still have some hard edged shadows that aren't to your liking. But, the shadows aren't as bad as the midday shadows because the sun isn't nearly as intense in the late afternoon. It is arguable if this is even an even lighting method at all, but it can produce some great, warm and inviting results. In fact, there are a few Hollywood productions that were shot exclusively under this golden, or magic hour of light. As with most all our options however, this technique really only works with houses that are facing the sun during that time. 


The last, and perhaps best, option you have is to photograph the house after the sun sets, or before it rises. This requires a tripod, a dSLR and some patience however. Although you could try this technique out if you can find a way to mount a tablet or point and shoot to a tripod. After the sun sets, as you may guess, the lighting everywhere starts to even out dramatically. We don’t have those bright areas lit up by the sun, alongside dark shadow areas.  During any given night there will be a period of time, about 10 minutes long (if you are lucky), where the light in the sky, the light on the house, and the light inside the house are very close to being equal in intensity. This helps us tremendously, because we can properly expose everything (sky, house, inside room lights), all with a single exposure! This is ideal because we will have a beautiful photo that looks very natural to the eye. 

To accomplish this, get out there early, at least 10 or so minutes before sunset. The most difficult part will be setting your exposure. I would say go to f8 on the aperture, because that is probably closest to where your lens is at its best. Keep the ISO at its base setting. Sometimes this will be 100, and other cameras it may be 200. Then dial your shutter speed until the house's lights look “good” (i.e., not too bright, and not too dim). Some of the house lights may be brighter than others, but you'll just have to find a middle ground exposure you are comfortable with. All that’s left from there is patience. Your photos may start off too bright, because you set your exposure for the house's lights and the sunlight is overpowering them. All you haves to do is wait and keep those same exposure values (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO). As the light falls, you should take a picture every five minutes or so. Some cameras even have built in intervalometers, take advantage of that if you have that option, as it'll take the picture every five minutes for you. Keep taking pictures every five minutes until the house's lights look like they are overpowering everything. In that batch of exposures, you should have one that stands out to you as the best, and that is the one. If you get good at this, the entire process should take you no longer than about 30 or 40 minutes.

If you want to take the best photograph of a property possible, this is the course of action I would recommend. This process will work for both exteriors and interiors. If, for example, you wanted to preserve a nice window view and still have the room look well lit, you'd just turn on the lights in the room, and follow the procedure same as above. Your cameras settings will take care of the lighting inside the room you are in, then you must wait for the exterior light to match the interior light in intensity. Just snap an image off every 5 minutes just as our exterior example above. 

Inside or outside, the key is shooting during that time that the light is of equal intensity inside and out. Considering exteriors however, houses that face the sunset will tend to look great when shot using this technique, but houses that face away from sunset can tend to look too dark. The face of the house may never get a chance to match the sky in intensity, especially in cases where the house is a darker color. White houses are the easiest to get a proper exposure out of. I would say if you have a white house to shoot that faces away from the sunset, give it a try. But if it’s a dark blue house that faces away, hire a professional :) In any case, I sincerely hope you can get out there, try these techniques and get some great results out of them. It may not happen on your first try, but keep at it. 

The  image above was taken about 18 minutes after the one below it. These are both straight out of the camera. Although the houselights aren't on here, I think it's a useful example. The sun was setting at my back, and it was only a matter of being on a tripod with the right camera settings and some patience to get the shot. Also of note here, if I had to shoot the other side of this home, which I would then have my camera facing into the sun, would this have worked? It would not have worked nearly as well; the house would be in shadow and the sky would be many times brighter. That is more akin to the large differences in light intensity we see in a scene during the daytime, which we are trying to avoid. So you will have to keep that in mind. If you really need a great photo, a sunrise lighting scenario may be better than a sunset when considering the orientation of the house. 

This isn't bad, but it really isn't nearly as good as what I got waiting the extra 20 minutes for the sun to fall lower below the horizon, producing a golden light source that you see in the top image. But if you are in a hurry, by all means set up on a tripod after the sun sets, get a shot like this quickly, and get out of there. Remember though, depending on the weather and a host of other factors, the "best light" changes from one house, and even one day, to the next. So setting up early and having some patience are the best allies you can have if you really want to get the best photograph possible.  

Pop-quiz for those that read last week's tip on keeping the back of the camera level. Is the camera sensor parallel to the house's vertical lines here? It clearly isn't. The lines on the far left and far right of the house are clearly converging toward the top, which is our clue that the camera was pointed up in the making of this image. This happens a lot. You can't always get to a vantage point so as to level the camera. In these cases you are forced to correct the lines in post processing, but that is beyond the scope of this current post.  




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.