Last Updated on January 22, 2021 by Jose Barrios
If you are not offering 360 virtual tours (also called 360 panoramas) alongside your real estate photos, you are missing out on some serious cash.
Virtual tours are now being pushed by such major players in the real estate business as Zillow and Realtor.com. Just like not having a drone, not offering virtual tours is no longer an option.
I will not be recommending specific equipment in this guide, since 360 cameras and software are constantly evolving.
In this guide:
- What equipment do you really need?
- How to create a virtual tour
- Free vs paid 360 tour platforms
- High end 360 tours (AKA DSLR panos)
- How much to charge for 3D tours?
- Best online resources for 360 photos and video
What equipment do you really need?
Before you go out and start buying the latest and greatest 360 camera, you must make sure that you are buying the right equipment for your needs.
Right off the bat, forget about using your smartphone to create virtual tours. They produce mediocre results and will make you look bad. You need a dedicated system for 360 photography.
There are three different routes you can go: Zillow, Realtor.com, or do your own thing, and each method has its quirks, limitations, and expenses.
Zillow and Ricoh Theta
Virtual tour taken with Ricoh Theta V and hosted on Zillow
Zillow is by far the easiest way to get your foot in the door when it comes to offering virtual tours. Their software platform for creating virtual tours is free, but you are limited to using specific cameras. They currently as of this writing only accept Ricoh. It is the only camera that works with their app.
You are not allowed to edit or manipulate images in lightroom or photoshop, or any other image editor. You can only take and upload photos through their smartphone app.
Depending on the model you purchase, Theta V or Theta Z1, you will be set back between $380 and $1,000.
Realtor.com and Matterport
Realtor.com has an arrangement with Matterport that allows them to publish directly to Realtor.com, just like Ricoh publishes to Zillow. The caveat is that Matterport’s platform is not free like Zillow’s. There are other limitations, but I will cover that in a moment.
Matterport’s flagship camera will set you back $3K, which is a whole lot for a single-purpose camera that is only compatible with their platform. It is a great camera that produces beautiful 360 photos, but it is limited to their platform and software.
Because of increasing competition, Matterport has expanded its platform to allow other less costly cameras to use its platforms like iPhones, Ricoh Theta (All models unlike Zillow), and Insta360 One R and One X.
Do your own thing!
I personally hate being locked into a specific piece of hardware because a software vendor or platform refuses to work with anything else. It is obvious that both Reltor.com and Zillow came to some arrangement with camera manufacturers when it comes to locking in photographers to specific hardware and software.
I rather choose my own. 360 cameras are constantly evolving, and are getting better and cheaper all the time, so instead of recommending a specific model look for the following two features:
Megapixels, the more the better. Unlike your DSLR or mirrorless camera where 24 megapixels is a whole lot, on a 360 camera, those 24 megapixels must be enough for a whole 360 photo.
RAW files, for professional photos RAW images are a must, avoid JPEG-only cameras, they suck (I know, I own one, I’m looking at you Ricoh Theta V).
How to create a virtual tour
Virtual tour taken with Ricoh Theta V and hosted on Cloudpano
Taking the photos is only part of creating the tour, you must now put the whole thing together. You need to connect all the 360 photos and create a “tour”, the links that exist between images of rooms that allow you to navigate the 360 tour, and add labels to everything (living room, bathroom, main bedroom, etc.).
Both Matterport and Zillow limit you to their platform, you can only manipulate the tour itself, and in a very limited way.
There is no possibility of using external software for manipulating your images (no Lightroom or Photoshop). This means no color corrections, white balance, exposure control, etc. Every aspect of your photo is decided by their software.
Matterport does a great job at “auto” connecting your tour. It will create for you all the navigation points and is really good at doing it. But the reason it is so good is the inordinate number of images it requires you to take. Their platform requires this in order to create their signature Doll House effect.
Zillow’s platform is bad at creating a tour in an automated manner and requires you to manually edit the tour if you want it to work correctly. This might sound like a bad thing, but the upside is that Zillow 3D tours only require a single image per room (two or three if you’re doing the floor plans), and the whole process only takes about 20 to 30 minutes for an average home vs the hour-plus for Matterport.
Third-party platforms like Cloudpano or Kuula also allow you to create a virtual tour, but unlike Zillow or Matterport, they do allow you to manipulate the images with software like Lightroom and Photoshop in order to produce the best results possible with your camera.
Third-party platforms also allow you to add extra things to your tours, like points of interest, custom navigation icons, popup photos, videos, interactive hotspots, and more. Many of these platforms also allow for publishing Street Views to Google Maps.
Free vs paid 360 tour platforms
All your virtual tours must be hosted on a platform in the cloud for them to be viewed, and this is not free, with the only exception being Zillow.
Zillow – The free option
Zillow is the only platform that is free to use, all you need to do is register with Zillow to become a Zillow Certified Photographer. Your photos will be hosted on their servers for free, forever. The only catch is that the Zillow platform is for residential photos, so if you have other types of customers, like restaurants or vacation rentals, the Zillow 3D platform will not work for you.
You are also limited to using Ricoh Theta cameras only!
Matterport – The expensive option
Matterport is also real estate centric. Its platform and products are meant to showcase homes, not other types of business. Their product also requires a subscription, with the most basic one costing $10 a month for 5 active tours. The next step up is $70 a month for up to 25 active tours.
If you should ever cancel your Matterport account, all your tours will be deleted, not very practical, especially if you are catering to commercial clients (non-residential) like AirBnB vacation homes, hotels, and restaurants. You will also lose all your photos, so you just can’t take your images and switch providers.
Third-party virtual 360 tour providers
Third-party tours created and hosted with companies like Kuula or Cloudpano on the other hand offer what in my opinion are better plans. They both come in at different price points and offer different levels of complexity, Cloudpano being the easiest of both, but costing more. I personally like Kuula, but there are many more options available from many other providers, ranging from the very simple to the extremely complex. It all depends on your clientele and price point.
The best feature that most paid platforms offer is hosting forever, even if you cancel your account, your 3D tours will continue to be hosted on their servers. This feature alone is a must-have for commercial clients.
High end 360 tours (AKA DSLR Panos)
Just like in regular photography, where high-end photos can go into the thousands of dollars for a property, there is a niche market for high end 360 tours.
These tours are not done with a 360 camera, they are done with a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, they also involve a lot of work, and I do mean a lot. These are not “point and click” photos.
These 360 panoramic photos are done by mounting a DSLR with a wide-angle lens (preferably an 8mm lens) with all settings on manual on a specialized tripod head like the Nodal Ninja.
The process starts by calibrating the camera to the pano head and then taking a series of photos that are then “stitched” together to form a 360 spherical image.
The most popular software to do this is PTGui, and the basic version costs almost $160, but if you are doing this kind of work, you will love this software. There are other alternatives out there, some even free line Microsoft ICE, but if you are running a business, you need simplicity and ease of use, something not offered by other software companies like PTGui does.
The biggest advantage of using a DSLR or mirrorless camera for creating a virtual tour is that you can now create very complex images. You can introduce the use of flashes (no flashes in 360 cameras, you would see it), window pulls, flambients, etc. You are now able to composite images, use Photoshop, use Lightroom, you can do anything to the photo you want.
But all this extra work comes at a price because of the extra labor, so these types of images are not for everyone.
How much to charge for 3D tours?
Start by reading my guide about how much to charge for your real estate photos. This same principle can be applied to your 3D tours. Go and see what your competition is charging, don’t be the cheapest, try to be with the top players in your market, after all, “cheap = bad” in the mind of potential buyers.
Residential can range from free as in beer (yes, there is actually a company that is offering the Zillow 3d tours for free, I highly doubt it will last long, much like their $99 photos that included free drone photos did not last a year) to the very expensive Matterport tours (you have to pay for that hosting until the real estate agent sells that home) for up to $400, I guess they must make their $3K investment back somehow.
Commercial 3D tours on the other hand are quoted on a case by case basis (at least in Orlando), there is no set price like in real estate photos. This is because the amount of work involved in a commercial 3D tour can vary wildly from client to client and what they want in the tour.
Best online resources for 360 photos and video
There are a lot of people out there offering “free” advice, with titles like “the best 360 camera”, “the best this or that, but the truth is most are just pushing affiliate links or are paid by manufacturers to promote their products.
I’m not one to criticize, after all, this site has affiliate links in it, and I will get paid if you buy something you click on. I also have to pay bills and the people that I’m recommending for further reviews into 360 cameras, software, and techniques, also make a living from their links, but the difference resides in the fact that they and I actually make a living from taking photos.
These are my two and only recommendations:
For 360 Cameras and software, reviews look no further than Ben Claremont, his YouTube channel is the best for this, I think he owns just about every 360 camera ever made.
For DSLR 360 photos (and any other real estate photography-related question for that matter) Nathan Cool is a god! Go out there and watch his YouTube channel and hang on to every word this man says! It is pure gold and I credit him for getting me started in this business.
Virtual tour taken with Ricoh Theta V and hosted on Cloudpano
After reading countless articles and watching endless hours of YouTube, my recommendation is to buy a middle of the road 360 camera, like I said earlier, there are new models all the time, so I’m not recommending any specific camera.
You should purchase a camera based on specs, not based on whether it works with Zillow, Matterport, or Realtor.com. Any virtual tour you create on any paid platform will be usable on any other platform, they all provide you with an unbranded link you can give to your real estate agents so they can add it to their MLS listing.
Avoid anything that involves long term contracts, if their product is so good, why force you into a contract?
Also avoid Matterport, beautiful product, love their images, its just that personally, I have not found a sustainable market for their product, but hey, that’s just me, maybe it is great for your city, it really depends on demand.
I personally like services like Kuula and Cloudpano, they are currently my flavor of the month, but there are other platforms out there, give them a spin, see what you like, my cup of tea might not be yours.
Think about expanding your clientele, look into commercial clients, they are more work but pay better than real estate agents, they are also a great source of additional services you can offer like regular photography and video. You could make with one client what you would normally make in a month of photographing houses.
And above all, have fun! If you hate what you are doing, do something else that you really like, and in the end, you will be more successful.
“What can I say? I love taking photos of houses.”
Based in Orlando Florida, Jose is a real estate photographer specializing in vacation homes, working for realtors and property managers to make their properties look great. You can visit his site at JoseBarriosPhoto.com.