Selecting a Real Estate Photographer (Part 3)

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Go to Part 1 here

In Part 2, I showed you two unacceptable defects in composition and exposure that should remove a photographer from consideration.  In Part 3, I’ll discuss how many real estate photo companies have embraced a shortcut addressing the exposure defect, how they structure their business operation to handle it, and the implications to the agent, broker and homeowner.

The biggest technical challenge faced by an architectural photographer is lighting a relatively dark interior space to balance bright daylight streaming in through open windows.  Even with lots of interior lights and lamps, it is tricky to quickly dial in an exposure that reproduces the bright interior AND preserves detail outside windows that your eyes naturally see.  It certainly can be done as my natural light technique proves.  But perfecting that technique requires lots of practice and is not necessarily intuitive.

Illustrating HDR. Here are three images exposed to capture dark, middle and bright tones.

In the last few years, real estate photography companies have gone national, opening offices and franchises in dozens of cities.  I worked with two of these companies at various times and saw their business models from the inside.  The photographers that actually visit homes and take pictures are usually part-time contractors working on commission.  They earn $20 to $35 per home depending on the package they deliver.  They normally furnish their own cameras, lenses and tripods and must drive their own vehicles with little or no mileage reimbursement.  By the time they account for equipment depreciation and fuel, there’s little profit to compensate for their time.  Plus, they are always on call and may have to drop personal plans to complete an assignment received on short notice.

Here’s the fully processed HDR end product. I still prefer natural light techniques because I know I can get clear, natural views out of bright windows with none of the ugly, unnatural artifacts of HDR.

As a result, most of these contract photographers quit once they realize the obvious and hidden costs often outweigh the benefits.  It’s a cruel reality – franchises and chains have significant turnover in the field photographer ranks.

High turnover makes it necessary to dumb down the field photographer job so almost anyone can do it.  Enter the photographic technique call High Dynamic Range photography, or HDR. (Note: HDR is NOT “High Density Resolution” as one company refers to it.)

HDR involves taking a series of photographs, 3 to 5 shots, of the same composition, exposing for dark, medium and bright parts of the scene.  Then in post-processing on a computer, special HDR software squashes these multiple exposures into a single image, (theoretically) blending the properly exposed parts of each into one.

As long as the contract photographer can compose for straight verticals, he or she can take wild guesses at correct exposure.  HDR software will ingest anything and provide some kind of output.  After completing the shoot, the contract photographer uploads the image files to the franchise’s central computer.  Once there, the real brain trust of expert photographers, happy they are behind desks and not in the field, massage the set of files with their HDR programs to produce finished photographs.

But as I already mentioned, Photoshop and its HDR cousins can only do so much with compositions and exposures that have built-in defects.  If you know the limitations of HDR, you can expose to maximize quality of the output.  But because contract photographers rarely interact with central office personnel, they don’t always see the final product from their submission.  Worse, the national chains do a poor job of providing feedback and coaching the field photographer needs to improve technique.  In addition, the contract photographer can’t do much with listing agent feedback because the all-important image processing is done by someone else unreachable in a distant home office.

Included in Part 3 is an example of an HDR interior photo I took just for fun.  You can see three of the original exposures I used to create the finished photo.  In Part 4, I will show examples of common HDR images from some high-end home listings.  It’s disgusting how careless, mediocre HDR can destroy the look of a beautiful home.

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