Even empty subdivision homes can be made attractive…

Even empty subdivision homes can be made attractive…

As a real-estate photographer in Tucson, I used to think photographing lavishly decorated custom homes was a difficult mission due to the level of expectations of sellers and Realtors®. I don’t anymore. Empty subdivision homes are much more of a challenge: a Zen challenge to show that ‘what is not there’ is precisely what is attractive in these homes.

Photography is at its core the art of ‘writing with light’. Reduced to physics, it is showing visible objects hit by light waves that are either reflected or absorbed. The human eye does not perceive the existence of ‘air’ (gases) and where there are no proximate subject to focus the camera on, the shot resolves to the next distant one.

In empty homes listed for sale, this means shooting walls, doors and windows. Sometimes, sparse furniture. But aiming at sparse furniture is a recipe for an aesthetic disaster. And when the house is of the cookie-cutter, subdivision type, that result is guaranteed.

The zen of negative space

What then should the photographer focus on to avert a catastrophe? My personal answer is light, volume and negative space.

Even the most empty, cookie-cutter subdivision home has something to offer to the eye. A certain quality of light (colorful, dark, white?); the distance to the next door or another wall (spacious? narrow?); the number and size of windows or doors; the architectural arrangement of the room you are in and the adjacent rooms; the wall-to-ceiling lines…

The Zen of empty home photography is to not shoot the isolated sofa, but the distance between the eye of the viewer (lens) and the sofa. To not shoot the back wall, but the length of wall between two other separations (other walls, door,…). To not shoot the window but the situation of the window in the wall and the light it allows to come in.

In other words, the photographer must show NOT the absence of objects, but the PRESENCE of space.

Using the viewer’s imagination

In the photo I picked to illustrate the top of this article, I selected a wide-angle lens, zoomed it all the way out, and positioned my camera in the farthest corner of the room to show the space between the front door (all the way to the right) and the wall on the left.

By shooting multiple wall corners, I opened up the space to create the basis of a rectangle (3 sides). The viewer’s mind will complete the missing side (in my back). I never shoot only one corner in a room: this creates a “triangle shot” and closes the space. I shoot at least 2 corners and 2 walls… 3 and 3 when possible.


On the left, the wall is partly cut: but the eye detects the generous light entering the room and the mind will extrapolate the presence of a French (or large) window.

On the left, the wall is partly cut: but the eye detects the generous light entering the room and the mind will extrapolate the presence of a French (or large) window.

The need for space is innate

Because space is desirable and most often comes at a premium, real-estate photographers worth their pay will seek to give viewers a feeling of spaciousness. Space means life, relaxation, privacy. Lack of space makes life more difficult and increases stress.

You have to be born (or spend considerable time) in a constricted environment to adapt to a lack of space. Even then, humans will seek to maximize space by using small objects and keeping their environment orderly. Take a look at Japanese homes and apartments: the entire Japanese civilization bears the mark of the country’s geography and the need for humans to live in harmony in close proximity with one another. Small coastal areas, small homes, small daily objects, extreme orderliness, meticulous hygiene, tight social order. Even smaller bodies.


America on the other hand was founded on the abundance of space. The wide-open prairie and a low population density are hallmarks of the American civilization and geography (even NYC with its cramped apartments and high population density seeks space by building higher). Americans dislike tight, cramped living quarters. Most people in this country want bigger homes, notwithstanding the marginal phenomena of tiny houses. Realtors® want photos of a property to show space.

Right on. Because what empty subdivision homes offer in most cases is… space. That’s the main act the photographer must play in a cookie-cutter home.

There again, the photographer’s mission is to show NOT the absence of things, but the PRESENCE of space. How best can we photograph space?

Creating space and volume

I mentioned earlier using wide-angle lenses and shooting multiple corners and walls in a room as a technique to model the perception of space and volume.

Another technique which my team and I used when we were shooting hotel rooms in Paris was to lower the position of the camera and tilt it upwards.

A typical hotel room in Paris is no more than 270-350 sq.ft., bathroom included. For Japanese tourists, it’s not a problem. For European tourists, it’s not a big problem either because most Europeans are accustomed to live in small apartments. For North American tourists however, looking at a small hotel room is uncomfortable.


Lowering the height of the camera and tilting the lens upwards artificially enlarges the perceived space by increasing the divergence of vertical lines at the bottom of a photo. Seasoned photographers strongly object to this technique, but if the alternative is to show one corner of a small room squeezed between 2 walls (the “triangle shot”) or 3 partial walls boxed between a bed and a low ceiling (the “shoebox shot”), I can guarantee them that the hotel owner will never use their shots and fire them on the spot. Money talks, so in a situation where Mammon reigns, let’s be creative.

In a real-estate situation however, I use this technique with extreme care because of its obvious visual problems. Vertical lines must be vertical at 90° from the floor/ceiling plane. It is definitely possible to lower the lens height below average human height to create more visual space, but the lens should not be tilted at all. And if the resulting photo shows a vertical divergence problem, it behooves the photographer to correct perspective errors so that vertical lines remain vertical.


In this photo, I shot slightly below door handles in order to show a tight area in a more flattering light than if I had shot it at head level, cutting doors mid-height and closing up the space. I corrected the perspective in Lightroom at the post-processing stage.

The only situation where I may deliver a distorted real-estate shot is when the room is so small or so narrow that the room volume has to be grossly exaggerated if the Realtor wants to show it on the MLS: in this case, I can lower my camera down to a foot from the ground. The angle of the shot wildly exaggerates the dimensions of the room, but everybody can see it is an unusual angle. It is so obvious that it can hardly be called deceptive.

Adding light to increase perceived space

It’s a well-known law of photography that darkness constrains a scene whereas bright light expands it. It’s not easy to create an intimate scene in a very bright environment (unless you blur the environment around your subjects and vignette the shot). Dim light however will create shadows and dark recesses, and limit the visible space surrounding the subjects.

Experienced real-estate photographers maximize the use of both natural and artificial light to open up the space and make a room look bigger (at least as big as it really is).

Take the case of bathrooms in subdivision homes. These bathrooms are often small. To increase the perceived space, it becomes crucial to make maximum use of all available natural light and to complement it as necessary with flash units. If the bathroom has no natural light, the challenge is compounded.


In this example, I shot the bathroom almost from across the door frame, with one leg of my tripod outside the bathroom. You can tell by the angles in the shot. But this enabled me to capture 3 walls (avoiding the deadly “triangle shot” which corners the viewer’s eye into a dead-end) and to use the reflective paint of the right-side wall to bounce off my flash light.

I had to angle my lens so that my reflection would not appear in the left-side mirror but my lens would still capture the sink and countertop. The mind automatically ‘prolongs’ the mirror to the left. The flash light was controlled to be bright enough that all the space would be evenly illuminated, but not so overly bright that the white surfaces would be blown out.

Adding a colorful pathway

In a quasi empty space, without most of the usual objects found in a home, the eye has few things to hold onto. Walls and windows are not that interesting. Staging the shot by adding a few colorful elements (flowers, vases/jars, paintings, knick-knacks, etc.) will increase its interest.

However, placing these elements haphazardly around the room would miss the mark.

The eye will travel very quickly from the left to the middle of the picture (or to your focal point, point of greatest sharpness), then to the right or to the background area. That’s assuming your depth of field covers most of the ground (at f/8, for instance).

If you want the eye to look around and force the viewer’s mind to evaluate the overall volume of the room, place colorful objects on the left and on the right, in the foreground and in the background. Direct the eyes of your spectator by creating a pathway from one location to another location, all the way to the background and to both sides of the shot.


In this shot, the natural eyetrail (left > center > right) is mapped out with colorful or big objects so as to force the mind to gauge the depth of the room. These objects ‘create’ perceivable space.

In the other shot used at the top of this article, the bright blue bouquet helps break the monotony of the color scheme while pulling the eye toward the background. This layout helps the viewer’s mind evaluate the depth of the room. A colorful flower tray anchors the eye to the left wall, and the shot being very wide, the eye will naturally bounce all the way to the entrance door on the right. I could have placed another colorful object there, to help anchor the eye to the right side. My angle is wide enough to draw the eye.

The leather sofa in the middle forces the mind to see the depth of this recessed corner which would otherwise go unnoticed due to light bouncing off the light color of the separation wall.

Colorful anchors complement the width of the shot and help the eye travel in all directions across the room. The viewer will conclude that this is a very large room and a wide-open floor plan. In fact, it is wide but not so wide, and open but not so open: the image magnifies the space. Angles, lines, light, colorful anchors.

What do viewers think?

Ultimately, real-estate photographers must keep in mind that shooting properties has one single purpose: to enable Realtors to sell or rent listings in the shortest possible time. That’s the central focus of our photographic mission.

For this reason, we must play with every advantage offered by the listing. If the listing is vacant and empty, and if this is a home without much personality (an unfortunate characteristic of subdivision homes), our most major objective is to show space, volume and light.

Noticing the space available, viewers will mentally project themselves and their family living in that space, what they will be able to do, how sweet this sweet home will be to their kin… Show her space and volume, and the woman of the couple may think about how to decorate this home, and imagine where they could set the piano to use the space available. Show them a room lit a giorno, and viewers will immediately form an impression of cleanliness, comfort and happiness…