A Short History of Real Estate Photography

November 22nd, 2010

Today is the 20th birthday of the World Wide Web. Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first browser and web server and ran both on his desk at CERN in 1990. I can clearly remember the first time, sometime during 1993, that I installed the Mosaic browser on my PC at Boeing and first started clicking on hyperlinks. I clearly remember immediately thinking that this was earth shaking! I stayed at work late that night clicking hyperlinks browsing around the few sites available at that time.

What does this have to do with real estate photography? Everything! The web created real estate photography. I was talking with Scott Hargis this afternoon about the history of real estate photography and describing the way my wife Levi created listing flyers and listed homes in back in mid-1980’s when MLSs were not online and there were no broker or regional websites. The MLS published a weekly phone book looking listing of all the local listings. Each listing had one black and white photo of the listing that was so bad that most of the time the home owners wouldn’t recognize their home. The way agents would get those awful looking exterior shots was just check a box on the listing information form they sent to the MLS that indicated they wanted the MLS to shoot a photo. The MLS had a team of people that would do drive-by-shootings of your listing. Literally, they wouldn’t get out of the car and most wouldn’t even stop the car. Before the late 1980s photography just wasn’t a significant part of real estate. I remember helping Levi get one of the first Macintoshes in 1984 so she could create better listing flyers. In 1985 we got one of the first versions of Aldus PageMaker and one of the first Apple Laserwriters so she could make even better flyers. Because scanning film was uncommon, we would have the photo finisher print hundreds of 4×6 photos and then pay the kids use spray glue to attach them to the flyers we created with PageMaker. Levi’s broker was so impressed the the flyers he would show them at the weekly marketing meetings. She was the only agent in her company that had a computer at the time. Color photos on marketing flyers were unheard of. We continued to use the spray glue technique for flyers until the first color inkjet printers became available in the late 1990’s. We printed so many flyers that we had several inkjet printers that we ran continuously to produce enough flyers. Those little printers would work so hard they would only last a couple of months before they would just give up and die.

The first step towards a web based MLS was dial-up. You had to have a special MLS issued application on your computer that would dial a time-sharing system that had a database of all the area listings. Most agents still subscribed to the phone book version of the MLS because at that time most agents didn’t have a computer. It happened at different times in different locations, but by 1999 when I quit Boeing to work with Levi full time in real estate the Seattle area NWMLS was web based and most large Seattle area brokers had their own websites that were fed all the local listings from the NWMLS. Only agents had access to the web based MLS. Once all the local brokers had websites where home buyers could browse through listings themselves it became clear that the web was going to be a central focus of buying and selling real estate. The last development to drive real estate completely to the web was the wide spread availability of DSL and broadband cable. Once most people had high speed web access and a web browser, color photos immediately became and essential part of marketing a home. Home sellers were also dazzled by great looking flyers and brochures but it was clear that it was the photos on the web that got the buyers to the home. Showing potential listing customers glitzy flyers and brochures just helped get the home seller to sign the listing agreement but the didn’t sell the listing.

Today it seems like the web is a natural phenomena and has always been there. It doesn’t seem like the web is just 20 years old and that the web in a form that created the blossoming of real estate photography as we know it today is only about 10 years old. There’s no mistake about it; there wouldn’t be the demand that there is today for real estate photography if it wasn’t for the web protocols and the web server and web browser that Tim Berners-Lee invented. Now days Tim has some serious concerns about how the web is evolving that he describes in his recent article in Scientific American.

6 Responses to “A Short History of Real Estate Photography”

  • Thanks for this post, Larry – it really puts things into perspective for me. I’m too young to remember the printed MLS sales comp books, as I started as a Real Estate Appraiser after digital cameras had been around for a good number of years, and I’ve been fiddling around with editing real estate photos since Photoshop 6. Thank goodness real estate and architectural photography has been able to benefit from the technological advances of the latest and greatest equipment (hardware, software, and grey matter). Thanks again for your blog – it’s an invaluable resource for real estate photographers, and I look forward to getting back into real estate photography here in PDX sooner than later!

  • I like Michelle’s comment about being too young to remember how things worked prior to 1990. Unfortunately I’m too old to not remember things that far back. When I think of on-line computing and work flow I recall when I first became a telecomuter with a computer in my home and access to a network that allowed us to work with people all around the U.S. and send email and share files. We used ArpaNet running on Multics — the year was 1971.

  • Back in the late 60’s I got a summer job working for a local photographer in Riverside, CA. He had a studio and did the usual stuff: portraits, events, etc. and contracted with the fledgling MLS to shoot listings and print them on tear sheets, which pre-dated the thick MLS books. My dream job was to drive his Alpha Romeo sports car with 2-way radio around and shoot new listings with a weathered Rolleiflex on a tripod. On non-shooting days I would help out in the little print shop he built behind his studio. Four b&w images on a sheet with corresponding listing info on the back. My job was to run the paper through the perforator and the 3 hole puncher, then wash up the press after the printing was done. Then I boxed up the tear-sheets and delivered them to the MLS. Realtors would come to the MLS office to pick them up and insert them into their 3 ring binders. Flash forward to the mid-70’s and I got a job with a national company as an MLS photographer, aka, ‘drive by shooter.’ I was paid about $600 a month which included a Toyota pick-up. Since my rent was only $115 including utilities, I was in fat city. Once a week I boxed up the rolls of Plux X film I had used during the week and drove over to LAX to ship them overnight to Minneapolis where they processed the film and printed those phonebook-like MLS books. I would drive back to LAX a couple of days later to pick up my weekly truckload of books and deliver them to the MLS office. I remember thinking then how high-tech and sophisticated the whole process was compared to my little summer job a decade earlier. I transferred to LA when the company landed that account and was on hand when they setup the first mainframe computer to process listings. I switched from being a ‘housesnapper’ to a computer guy. My new job was set up up dumb terminals to install in Realtor offices. What a miracle! Pick up the phone, dial a number, get a screeching noise and insert into a pair of rubber cups and the dang thing started printing. Just text, no photos of course. Going from 300 baud to 1200 baud was a huge deal! Anyway, sorry for the long trip down memory lane, but it’s your fault….

  • Larry and Dave,

    What great information and stories about the development of real estate photography. It is amazing that it has only been 20 years. We bought our first house in 89 and I don’t think I ever saw a photo on the listing sheets…..we’ve come a long way baby.

  • I have been a retoucher since leaving school in 1972.

    I remember the first job I did for Real Estate back in 1989.

    We scanned a transparency on a Dr Hell scanner.The image was digitsed and transferred to the Chromacom 2000 a very early retouching station where I could blue up the sky, adjust colour ,remove seaweed from the sea wall, all very good for back then.
    The equipment was very expensive a good scanner would cost $200,000 and the Chromacom would be over 1 million.

    Now I have a team of great retouchers working with me on Macs and Photoshop, we are still producing the best quality work in Sydney, thank heaven for Macs and Photoshop.

  • Wow… thanks for the memories. Our local MLS didn’t have a dedicated “shooter” we sent poloroids or cheap kodaks in with our listing forms…