Architectural photography and real estate photography have a lot in common at first glance. They aren’t actually as similar as they would appear once they are placed side-by-side. Over the years, we’ve done a lot of both – so let’s compare and contrast both styles. We’ll start with the goals for each photographic style because they are rarely the same. By examining those goals, the differences start to become clearer.
Commercial architectural photography is very deliberate. Each photo is crafted to tell a specific story to support the needs of the client. The goals vary by subject and client – and the techniques should very accordingly. One common thread emerges across commercial architectural projects – emphasize the important and de-emphasize everything else. This is done through selective composition, lighting and editing.
The goal for real estate photography is crystal clear – sell the property. To achieve that, the imagery must tell a story about the dream of living in or owning the property being shown. Photographically speaking, this is done by a) showing the space as if the viewer were touring and b) presenting it in an idealized emotional fashion. It’s also important to remember that budgets tend to be smaller for real estate projects – so compromises must be made.
Spaces are generally shown in their entirety in real estate photography – usually by using ultra-wide angle lenses between 14mm and 24mm. This allows even a small room to be completely shown in a single picture. Composition with such wide lenses becomes challenging because perspective and depth can become distorted when ultra-wide lenses are used. It’s also a composition challenge to emphasize what is important and not show the items that are either not important or are distracting not since everything in the room is in frame and in focus. One strange by-product of trying to show everything in an image is over-emphasizing things that aren’t important. One great example of that is the over-emphasis on the “view” or the “window pull”. In real estate photography, it’s typical to make sure the window view is always prominent even when it’s not important. This can be very distracting from the overall impression of the room if the subject of the room isn’t the view since it draws the viewers eye away from the subject – which is typically the room, not the view.
Lens selection in commercial architectural photography is much different. Focal lengths are “tighter” – longer focal length lenses (or even more simply, less wide-angle) lenses are used. Focal lengths of 24-50mm are most common for commercial architecture with 24mm being the “gold standard”. These focal lengths are closer to the human eye and provide a more natural perspective on the subject than what can be gained by using ultra-wide lenses. The nice side benefit is better composition since peripheral distractions can be more easily excluded. Tilt-shift (or perspective control) lenses are also somewhat mandatory in this market since they can let the photographer get the perfect perspective while keeping everything square and vertical in the final frame. Depth-of-field (or more simply, what’s in focus and what isn’t) is also a bigger factor in architectural photography. It is used to create focus on the subject by blurring the background similar to what is done in portraits. This is a powerful and beautiful way to control what a viewer looks at in the final image.
The processing methods for real estate tend to value workflow and efficiency over accuracy. Often, high-dynamic range (HDR) programs and heavy-handed flash techniques are used to “get the shot” when time doesn’t permit proper light control or editing. Properly done and in the hands of a master – and within a proper budget to support the time to do it correctly – these techniques can be used to deliver very high quality results. Too often, the processing is applied one-size-fits-all and are overdone to save time and make the image “pop”. It’s the photographic equivalent of using a lot of garlic, butter, and salt when cooking.
Processing for architectural photography is more natural and more sterile.. no editing techniques should be apparent in the final product. An obviously garish “HDR-style” photo is not desirable for commercial architectural photography. To get natural looking final images, the color and light must be managed both at capture time and at edit time. Time of day and weather conditions are critical factors for best results. Supplemental lighting and manual compositing or blending is often required to deliver best results.
Cost and project budget is a big factor. The higher quality of commercial architectural photography comes at a cost. It takes time to craft the best quality shots – during the shoot and during the post-processing. It’s analogous to purchasing a product that is hand-made vs. mass-produced. Because of the very small real estate photography project budgets – most real estate photography is a series of compromises. The compromises are to deliver the best possible result in the given budget. Shoots often have to take place on days where the weather isn’t perfect and in a tight hour or two window based on the homeowner’s (or agent’s) availability. Processing often has to be done in hours rather than days – and compromises have to be made to make the time deadline and project budget.
Both styles have a specific purpose – so it’s important for photographic buyers to understand the difference and to get what they are expecting for their project budget.