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Is Misrepresentation A Serious Problem In Real Estate Photography?

June 19th, 2013

BrightonAU1I talked to a producer today from ABC News that is working on a piece ABC is producing on the subject of photos that misrepresent properties. She was looking for examples of cases where marketing photos misrepresented properties to buyers. This well documented case in Melbourne about a year ago that I posted on was the only one that I could come up with.

Update 6/20: Aric in the comments below points out another post on photo deception that I did recently that I’d forgot about.

We discussed that:

  1. The selling agent typically has the legal responsibility to make sure that the marketing materials do not misrepresent the property being sold.
  2. Buyers do not purchase property based on just the photos. Personal inspection and physical inspections by professional inspectors are a key part of purchasing a property.
  3. Doing sky replacement, fireplace flame addition, using ultra wide-angle lenses and HDR is standard practice in the industry although some buyers undoubtedly believe that these techniques misrepresent.
  4. Fifty years of TV marketing has made the public pretty sophisticated marketing consumers.

My assessment is that photo misrepresentation was not a significant issue in real estate photography and that a more interesting story would the misrepresentation that goes on the covers of woman’s magazines. But she says the’ve already done that!

What do you think? Is real estate photography misrepresentation an issue? She will be reading this, tell her what you think and give her examples.

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34 Responses to “Is Misrepresentation A Serious Problem In Real Estate Photography?”

  • In my area, the properties look much better in person than in the photos. As always, caveat emptor.

  • I’m still fairly new to RE photography, but photo manipulation is so standard nowadays, convention images pale in comparison. Agents want the “pop” but house hunters tell me they are disappointed when a wide angle shot makes rooms look bigger than they actually are.
    Now about that the issue with women’s magazine manipulation…

  • I’m still fairly new to RE photography, but photo manipulation is so standard nowadays, convention images pale in comparison. Agents want the “pop” but house hunters tell me they are disappointed when a wide angle shot makes rooms look bigger than they actually are.
    Now about that issue with women’s magazine manipulation…

  • Is Susan and Cole the same person? LOL

    I’m fairly new to RE photography and I don’t see any of the “gross” misrepresentations mentioned earlier in my area (or I just haven’t run across them yet). However, I believe that the basic photos most RE agents use from their cheap point and shoot camera or camera phone are really doing a disservice to both the buyers and sellers. Narrow fields of view that only show a small portion of a room doesn’t give the viewer a true feeling for the size of the room. The underexposed (or overexposed) nature of many of the photos don’t show the details of the property or offer the hint of the “atmosphere” or “feel” of the different rooms. Also without color-correcting the photos during post-processing, the true colors of the property, the walls, cabinets, countertops, etc. can’t been discerned. These are the types of photos I feel most misrepresent properties which are for sale.

  • I think that there is a fair bit of misrepresentation, though I do not believe it is malicious our inherently dishonest. I’m sure we’ve all come across those horrifically dark rooms that seem better suited to a literal ‘darkroom’ than a living space. I shot one such room last week that was so terribly dark that even the agent asked the homeowner if they could replace light bulbs/fixtures, etc to make the room a little more inviting. This is the very issue I see being misrepresented most often.

    As photographers, it is our job to properly expose and balance the light in our photographs so that they are appealing. To that end, we take our tools, be they digital (software) or manual (lights, shutter speed, etc) and set to work crafting the best ‘normal’ lighting for a given space. We’re all very aware that this simply isn’t a truthful representation of every room. Broad rooms with low windows make for dark and starkly glaring light in far too many homes. An uninviting space due to poorly designed lighting is just that – uninviting.

  • The only misrepresentation I come across are the ones where the Agent him/herself has taken the images. They make the rooms look smaller than they are, darker than they are and none of them when viewed in person actually do lean in at the top (converging verticals).
    Professional photographs, by their nature, are more accurate.

  • Misrepresentation works both sides: bad photos and fake ones. A real professional should provide something else.

  • There is a difference between absolute misrepresentation (which is what ABC is after because that gets rating) and using an ultra wide angle lense, off camera lighting, HDR or fusion, a sky replacement, ect… There is nothing that we as photographers can do, either at the shot or in post, that will give the actuall view of a room or property from a human eye. We can try to get as close as possible, but the sensors (or film if that’s your thing) aren’t good enough to capture every tone, color, shadow, or highlight that exists in real life. Especially when you have a window with high noon sun coming into it on the opposite wall from where you are shooting. I have to agree that where I see more misrepresentation is when an agent walks in with a point and shoot, entry level DSLR, or iPhone and try to get photos of a property in auto mode, that isn’t even close to what the property actually looks like.

  • Cropping is done every day, and how is that not part of the consideration, every one does it…why because no home is perfect and should always be viewed before buying. If a picture got a sale of the home by itself maybe it would be a bad thing. But as a photographer and a realtor, I did my job to get a buyer to consider it. ( just don’t overdo it) is excluding a shot of the garbage can next to the neighbor’s house a misrepresentation? Every house has to have one just like a toilet but we don’t shoot those either.

    A camera is not an eyeball, and should never be considered as one

  • It is not real estate photography per se that is misrepresenting property but the actions of those few agents who request photoshop changes that do, in my opinion, misrepresent property to some extent. I have one client who regularly requests the removal of power lines and POLES, deepening the blue color of the water, placing trees and shrubs to hide neighboring homes, etc. It is usually fairly subtle (other than the power poles) but still…not accurate.

    Lighting a room properly, accurate color and a wide enough angle to see the room, replacing a sky–these are not misrepresentations.

  • Does adding in “fake” furniture, removing large tracks of tenants items/clutter/furniture, making the lawn look like a golf course, all equal misrepresenting a property, if the answer is yes then there is alot of misrepresentation going on in my area….(I believe that images should be labelled as modified if this is done as “artists impression”)

    personally I have my own line in the sand and wont do this, I will not cross it even for my best agents. Fair Trading Laws in Queensland say you must honestly represent the property.

    Peggy your a brave lady, I would never do what your doing taking out power poles and hiding neighbouring homes. In QLD it would open you up to legal issues. I just find an angle that reduces them. Changing water and sky colour I think is in the relem of fair as both can change on a daily bases.

  • I agree with Ian and subsequent comments. Agents with a point and shoot or camera phone misrepresent a home more than a pro would. For the most part we paint a pretty accurate representation. I am occasionally asked to remove flaws, but refuse When someone is insistent I ask that a release be signed by the agent and the homeowner which documents that I was instructed to materially alter the property, and that they and the homeowner could be subject to lawsuit for misrepresentation of the listing. Once they see this they change their minds. It’s only been signed once.

  • @Aric- Thanks for reminding me. This one is so bad it seems like a joke.

  • For me it depends on the property.

    If you’re shooting a work of art (house porn) to which no photo can do true justice or compare to what you’re feeling…say standing at waters edge, then I say make it POP. Not everyone agrees of course but people are shopping and want to be sold.
    As well as many egos to stroke.

    We aren’t causing anorexia and insecurity in your daughter.

    The example photo compares overhead sunlight from the Google camera to a horizon twighlight shot. No fair.

    If it is a pile of bricks or poorly lit closet that you need to make interesting, RUN, or do what you can to provide useful info.
    Be honest or be called out.

  • @Mark…. I like your idea of having a specific release to address the issue. I have one agent in particular who tells me she’s going to make adjustments in photoshop herself. I always remind her that I am not liable for her changes. A release would be better.

    @Kym – I agree with you! I decline to do any editing to towers, power lines/poles, large areas of grass, neighboring houses, cracks in the wall, paint color, water spots, etc. I will remove trashcans, adjust lighting, pop in a blue sky. I’m laughing at the thought of a client saying… “Well, the photo online had a blue sky. It’s rainy and gray today. What a misrepresentation!” ha ha ha

    Most photographers have a style, usually based on their equipment and their artistic preference, which remains consistent throughout their work. I would not solely look at the photographer when questioning the ethics involved with real estate photography. I would also take a good look at the Agents who are requesting & paying for said services. If they don’t contract that style/type of service, it becomes a non-issue in the marketplace. My personal feelings on wide angle lenses/shots… Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Your image should still be framed appropriately and scaled realistically. And buyers have to remember that a camera will not capture the smell of cat urine, or some of the dirt and dust… both of which can greatly alter a buyers perception when walking in the door.

  • Well, in the Netherlands we have jurisprudence about this topic. Of course the legal system in the USA is different. But here (NL) this jurisprudence allows the real estate agent (my profession) a lot. Maybe even a bit too much we get away with pretty much everything. The High Court said said “All information an agent and his client provide in advertising (Internet) should be considered as an invitation to just arrange a viewing, and nothing more then that. On the other hand the union of RE have agents have rules, one of the rules is an agent is never allowed to misrepresent. IMO the commercial floor plans should be 95% accurate (bear in mind even a technical drawing never is 100% accurate) photo’s can be edited pretty much. If an agent (allows) goes TOO far it will get back to him because he will be investing time in potential buyers, but those potential buyers will be disappointed and that usually is a waste of time. I think Marvin is right (as long it is not malicious…….) it should not be called misrepresentation.

    Those who do misrepresent intentionally will get it back straight in the face, that agent will pull himself down and out of business.
    As an agent I never been afraid to draw a line. If a client would push me to present a property and cross my line (integrity) I ask him to find an other agent.

  • Must be a real slow news day! Have her pick up a menu at any restaurant and tell me what she sees is what see will get. Clip the add for Mc Donalds and go there and order what is in the photo and tell me they look close to the ad. Models on magazine are Soooo.. retouched that you would not reconize them in public. Have her go after car advertising and all those hot chicks and cool guys driving around Monoco or some mountain “S” curves and say how cool the car is and how great the breaking system is!
    It’s not misrepresentation…it’s advertising! This is what the client and the public expect. Don’t blame the photographer for giving the client what they ask for and demand! The only misrepresentation is when Time magazine, (O.J. Simpson) newpapers or other Journalistic publications “Manipulate” an image for shock value or to portray someone in a light other than reality!
    If she really wants a story, do a documentary on how the white house press secretaries have manipulated the press over the years and have controled the reporters who are, “invited” and have seats in the press room. Have her make a list of the reporters who have lost their seat because they ask the wrong questions or report other than what the white house wants reported. If she is seeking manipulation and misrepresentation there are bigger fish to fry!

  • This is a great discussion to have. I have long believed that these 14-24 mm lense we use is a grose misrepresentation of the truth. We just yesterday moved to a new home. As my wife was reviewing possible new homes she would often comment “look at the size of these rooms”. I would look and inform her it is a wide angle shot. As you push the walls away from you you are giving a very inaccurate understanding of the room. ALso, shooting panos of tiny rooms.

  • I agree with Ben that ABC will probably go after extreme examples to get ratings.

    What I find ironic is that after ABC finishes with the story on misrepresentation (by using a few cases that actually misrepresent the norm), they will cut to their disgusted anchor people who are under perfect studio lighting and in make-up and look NOTHING like that in real life. After that, the case will be prosecuted by lawyers who have slick commercials that make them look like ‘everyman’ heroes instead of the ambulance-chasers they are. Then it will go to a judge who looks nothing like his/her 20-year-old official photograph which (likewise) was taken under perfect studio lighting. From there, politicians will then craft laws that everyone will be forced to abide by – except themselves.

  • For those of you who are interested in seeing some great examples of photo tampering throughout history, check out this website: http://www.fourandsix.com/photo-tampering-history/?currentPage=2

  • Define “misrepresented”. In the winter, I green up brown grass. Does that count? I also remove weeds, even if the whole yard hasn’t seen an ounce of Chemlawn since the dawn of time. If I use flash, the light in the photo isn’t representative of what the natural or artificial light in the house is… and we all know that, otherwise we wouldn’t use flash. Photos where strobes are used (even when not calling attention to the strobe), significantly alter what a camera will do on it’s own, although it’s hard to tell which is the worse offense:

    – an un-retouched natural light straight-out-of-the-camera-photo (which doesn’t match the brain’s ability to do in-head HDR. We can see shadow detail and outside highlight “perceptively correct” at the same time, so a single shot from the camera is pretty much a deviation from our reality.

    – a tone-mapped image, which doesn’t exist in the camera or your head

    – or a strobe lit photo which comes very close to your in-head HDR, but which the owner of the property will never be able to duplicate no matter what lights he accents with.

    Is it wrong to put grass in a new property that doesn’t have a lawn yet? How about “virtual staging”? Removing picture hanging nails from the walls?

    I disagree with Sonny’s claim on wide lenses. My peripheral vision see’s close to 160+ degrees (even though my brain is capable of tunneling out the point of interest), so anything more zoomed then that seems distorted to me, but I do agree there is some distance perception that can make a room seem longer, but that’s because our brain knows what size a lamp is and allows for it’s size relative to a distant lamp… but sitting here… my 23in monitor looks bigger then my 60in flat screen which is only 12 ft away, so that could just be a lack of observation on our part.

    So, I guess I’d be inclined to define misrepresentation as “changing something with permanence”. (powerlines & poles, fire hydrant, neighboring properties (removal) But in reality, aren’t the people going to physically tour the property before they buy it? Isn’t that a reasonable expectation that either they or their agent will personally inspect it?

  • Buyers should never buy a home – “sight unseen”. Having said that, photos do have the ability to draw in or discourage a buyer from viewing the property. I think the main issue with photo misrepresentation has to do with hiding issues with the home. For instance, a large stain in a carpet, water spots on the ceiling, holes, etc. I have had agents ask me to “photoshop” these issues out of the picture. I tell them that I will not do that, but I will try to take the picture from a view where it would not be seen.

    I agree with Kelvin’s definition of misrepresentation and of course “caveat emptor”.

  • Is it really different than any other type of marketing these days?

    I was in a Subway sandwich shop the other day, and as the girl was making my sandwich, I stated (jokingly) “I want mine to look just like THAT (referring to the photo above her head). She just laughed and said she wouldn’t even know how to make a sandwich look like that photo! It’s accepted as marketing by the general public and is used virtually everywhere by everyone. Have you ever seen a MacDonald’s burger that looked remotely like their advertisements? I haven’t!

  • @Fred That’s because the McBurgers you see on the menu are created in plastic by a food stylist. One of the AD agency guys I work with used to be a “creative input” guy on those shoots, where they’d perfect what a McBugger “is supposed to look like”. (one pickle at a time)

  • @Kelvin- Yes, there are food stylists that do the same for food as stagers do for real estate. About a year ago I did a post on what Micky-d’s do in Canada. See: http://photographyforrealestate.net/2012/06/25/marketing-involves-making-stuff-look-better-than-it-really-is/

  • I find it interesting that agents define “misrepresentation” and “photoshopped” as one and the same as the get on their misrepresentation soapbox. If ABC really wanted to address misrepresentation, they would look at how perfectly sound home is made to look structurally unsound with slanting walls, cabinets, etc that we know takes 5 sec to correct on Photoshop. Likewise, what are those blown out windows hiding. Coind go on but my 30 min free wifi at Frankfurt airport is running out. Grass green 10 months of year, misrepresented when taken during the 2 brown months? Overcast skys in Florida, the Sunshine State? Program would creat controversy is put pressure on agent’s lack of investment in their customers.

  • Craig your post is the most incredibly succinct I have read on this subject. People see what the want to see and if they are not provided a well lit and composed image from which to evaluate, we would be doing a disservice to our clients.

  • Hmmmm….If a camera could accurately replicate the mechanism of the human eye, this would not be an issue. But therein lies the problem. Our job is to do the best we can in that regard AND show the home in its best possible light. That doesn’t mean we do plastic surgery on the house. We just make it the best that it can be for what it is. I won’t do things like replace a bad lawn or anything like that. I will remove unnecessary distractions like trash cans. Power lines are a wild card.

    Around here the main problem I think is with who do “renderings” of what will happen if the home is gut renovated. When a buyer sees what a house “could be” they should also see what it “is”. I’m seeing a lot of the “after” without the “before” shots and I don’t think that’s a good idea.

  • ABC followed up on this with a segment on Nightline’s “The Lookout” consumer program.
    The coverage on the photos and photo manipulation starts just after 5:50 into the piece.

    http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/video/real-estate-survival-guide-19502674

  • @Dan- Hey, good job getting some good PR and exposure for your business! I don’t understand the point of doing such a wildly unethical Photoshop demo… it just gets the public worked up that that is what agents are doing!

  • @Larry – Thanks! The Lookout is a “Consumer watchdog” type of program. Without some kind of villain in the segment (over-the-top photo trickery), the piece would have fallen short for the format. My only disappointment here is that they didn’t show the original photos from the agent. No ethical issues with them, but not wonderful for marketing. I have to give serious credit to the agent for allowing himself to be open to some serious potential bashing. He was a great sport about the whole production.

  • @Dan- Nice job on the photos for the ABC segment. It’s good to see these types of shows being aired. They will be over-the-top, but that’s TV. They can’t shoot straight, to them that’s boring. I want the agents I work with to NOT ask for unethical re-touching. I would hate to lose work because of having to say no.

  • @Ken Brown – Thanks. Kind of amused on that “Shoot.” I let ABC take the JPG files SOOC, and i never did anything with the images from the moment I left the property. I haven’t stopped chuckling about the whole thing since the day we did it.

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