Improving Exterior Shots

You really can learn something from anyone if you’re just willing to listen and set your ego to the side. Believe it or not one of the best lessons I’ve learned about exterior real estate photography came from a Comfort Suites hotel manager and his iPhone camera!

First a quick story and then a couple of tips.

Soon after starting my Tennessee virtual tour business I invested in a wide angle lens for my DSLR.  I was still getting used to the lens when I was dispatched to shoot a Comfort Suites property as part of the RTV Tour Track and Choice Hotels program.

The manager and I got along pretty well, but he was picky (but not unreasonable) and wanted to see my photos.  His reaction was positive until we got to the exterior shots.  I was so glad to have my new wide angle lens that I had used it outside.  “That shows too much of the concrete” was the manager’s main complaint.  “This new facility has an awesome façade and your photo should emphasize that instead of the parking lot.” With that he whipped out his iPhone and showed me a photo he had taken with it.  As bad as I hated to admit it, his photo was better in composition, if not technical quality.  While I was pondering this, he mentioned that he had taken the photo from across the street.

I decided to take his advice. I knew I’d be too far away from the building to use my wide angle lens.  Instead I replaced it with the 18-55 mm lens in my bag.  Using the longer focal length and moving back away from the building really helped!  This was a four-story hotel so it was tall and also relatively long.  The images were good, but not great.  I’ve since learned how to optimize exteriors (and why) so I’ll get right to the formula that I use to shoot exteriors.

1.    I use an 18-55 zoom lens on my crop-sensor DSLR and use the longest focal length setting that I can. The kit lens that comes with many DSLRs will work just fine.
2.    Move back as far as possible (see #1) .
3.    Get as high as possible for the best perspective and minimize converging verticals (if this term is unfamiliar, Google it).

I’ve learned that wide angle lenses not only take in more side-to-side, but they stretch the perspective of things front to back and exaggerate the “lean back” look when you’re looking up at a building.  Longer focal lengths tend to compress and flatten the image front to back, which is what you want on exteriors.  Do some experimenting by shooting wide with objects in the foreground. (e.g. Get up close to the front of your vehicle) and get a feel for it.

Software programs like Photoshop can go a long way to correcting converging verticals, but the better you can get it in-camera the less time you have to take correcting it later.  With a tall building or where the grade falls away from the front of a residential property, there’s nothing like  raising your point of view.   Here are two solutions to this.

1.    Ask for a ladder or bring your new PolePixie with you.  Even four or five feet higher really helps. Take a look at the examples below.  The difference is an eight-foot step ladder.  This shoot was fairly close to home so I brought my own ladder in my pickup.  I have heard of photographers standing on the roof of their vehicles.  Basically anything to get safely off the ground works. 


2.    Use a pole rig.  These solutions vary widely and until recently you really had to rig up something on your own.  I just got a paint pole adapter from Pole Pixie.  I then went to a local hardware store and got a Mr. Longarm 6′-18′ “Alumaglass” painters pole.  The main section is fiberglass and the two telescoping sections are aluminum. My main criteria for choosing this setup is that it fits in my car.   I’ve got just over $100 in the whole thing and 18′ will take care of most situations.  Plus it’s much safer since my feet stay on the ground.

With a pole you have to decide on a triggering mechanism.  I haven’t been brave enough to send my DSLR up the pole, but instead use a little Canon point and shoot (SD750).  I found a script at  that basically replaces the firmware in a non-destructive way. Once I hit the shutter I have the camera programmed to wait 10 seconds, then shoot five photos at 5 seconds apart.  I’ve had surprisingly good results with this method.  Here are a couple of before and after examples:

So that’s where I am today with my exterior photography.  And it all started with some constructive criticism from a hotel manager and his iPhone!  Hope this gives you some food for thought.  If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Brett Weaver
Creative Engineer
SpotLight Virtual Tours
Middle Tennessee Virtual Tours
Order a virtual tour:  931-201-9328