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Can You Make It In Real Estate Photography Working For Brokerages or Tour Companies

June 17th, 2014

WillWorkForFoodMy experience is that in real estate photography you must work for yourself to make a living.

I’ve seen a bunch of discussion lately about people wanting to find real estate photography jobs as a part time or weekend job to make extra money  and allow you to transition to being a full time real estate photographer.

Here is one:

I would LOVE to some how talk a brokerage into hiring me as their full time “staff photographer”

Here’s a quote from someone that is a full time “staff photographer” for a large brokerage:

I’m just starting out in the real estate photography and I’m fully aware that I’m underpaid. I do the photography, put up/take down signs, do the lock boxes and take measurements and get just under $10 an hour. All for one of the largest realtors in my area. Ugh, that actually hurt to type that out haha.

Over the last 7 or 8 years I’ve run into a huge number of situations where photographers work for large tour companies or large brokerages and they end up making about as much as they would if they worked for MickyDs or Walmart. Ten dollars an hour or less.

What needs to be understood about real estate photography is the profit margin is small because there is frequently a lot of photographer competition and listing agents in many areas are not willing to pay much for a real estate shoot. So if you get some other company like a tour company in the food chain the photographer doesn’t make much.

In 2010 I spent time helping Robert in Woodinville, WA who was making $30/shoot working for a large tour company where he covered equipment costs and travel costs traveling throughout the Seattle area. You can’t make a living in these circumstances! Peggy Taylor in Tampa is another example of starting out working for a big tour company and then becoming independent. Both Robert and Peggy couldn’t make it working for a tour company but built very successful businesses when they became independent.

The bottom line is you may be able to get some experience working for a large brokerage or a tour company but you have to be independent to create a worthwhile job that you can many enough to support a family on. It’s hard work but if you want to be successful you must be independent in this business. If anyone has evidence to the contrary please enlighten us.

 

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31 Responses to “Can You Make It In Real Estate Photography Working For Brokerages or Tour Companies”

  • Never a truer word spoken!

  • Having been a salaried employee in both the public and private sectors for 30 years, then subcontracting and finally running my own business in real estate photography, I agree wholeheartedly. There are many challenges and frustrations sure, especially when starting out, but the rewards are there for those who persevere. I don’t think I could ever go back to working for someone else.

  • I agree! I just ended a relationship with a tour company due to the economics. It just didn’t make sense. Also, I think you can provide better customer service and understand clients’ needs better when you’re the direct point of contact.

  • I’d work as an employee if the company paid $35 per hour, furnished all the photo gear and transportation. In other words, “In your dreams!”

  • It is hard. I’ve been in the game less than a year and it is making me question if the business is really worth it. Just met with an agent that closed $33 million in sales last year and they told me they want their photos to look like “paintings” aka run-n-gun grunge processed HDR.

    Ideally I would be booked weeks out with two shoots a day at $250 per shoot. That is good money for a photographer. But I am nowhere near that volume so I fill in with other photography services.

    I can see light at the end of the tunnel though, just got to persevere, NEVER give up.

  • I used to work for a Company that has been in business for 8 years and they have 30 photographers on staff and do around 100 shoots a day in the summer. The photographers do not have anything to do with editing. They just go to the appointments and shoot. I had to help with end of year reports and these photographers made serious money. Like, 100k per year aside from their wedding weekends, etc. It can be profitable.

  • I have been a photographer for many years, reinventing what I shoot. I am now shooting real estate. I am a very serious person and a hustler, as I do not waste time. I am an independent and shoot over 200 homes + commercial properties per month…..make a good living, but took work, dedication and focus of purpose. Took 4 years to get where I am at….It is very profitable…

  • I would think that if your a very good photography you should be able to charge more for your services or if you were very efficient your photography might be “good enough” but your margins much better.

    But maybe that just isn’t the case. No matter how good you are realtors aren’t willing to pay more and if they don’t care about quality then just shoot a house in an hour, I just don’t know how to accomplish that.

    I was hoping that video would be the thing we could use to differentiate our services and maybe be able to add more value back into the equation and eventually even raise the price on stills. But it seems that isn’t going to be the case either.

    I love what I do and money isn’t the only deciding factor but I hate mediocracy and I can’t just “point’n’shoot.” It is incomprehensible to me how any one person could shoot 200 properties a month. I’m not saying my stills and video are good or any one who does that much work their video or pictures are bad, I just can’t see how that is possible no matter what the quality.

  • I’m reading Roger Owens comments, and I’m simply stunned. How does one person shoot 7-8 homes/day? Think about it.
    You have to schedule, drive to, shoot, drive to next, return home/office, edit hundreds of images, post process, and deliver finals to 7-8 different clients. All in a day, every single working day!

    That’s not taking into account weather, traffic, people being late, access issues, telephone time, billing, accounting/office time, image back-up, and everything else we do running a business. Roger must pull 18 work days every single day, and that’s certainly impressive. Unless, you have more than one person shooting of course.

    Or, if when on location, you do nothing to arrange, or clean-up the scene, and simply point and shoot free-hand with 1 on-camera flash. Move on to the next, next, next, and at the end of the day, you do zero post production work, nada – just ship over the out-of-camera jpeg as they are.

    It’s certainly not my way of working, but it’s obviously working very well for Roger. Like he says, he’s been a professional photographer for many years, and he’s very profitable. I think he has come to the conclusion, that in his market, this level of photography is good enough and all that his customers expect. I suspect that his customers often are paying for the convenience of not having to point and shoot themselves – one phone call and he handles it all for them.

    Still, 200+ properties a month, that’s a lot work!

  • I can see how you can shoot 200 properties per month. One lens, on camera flash, no tripod, auto white balance, shoot .jpg, no perspective corrections, no post production, in and out of a house in 40 minutes or less, pay an offshore virtual assistant to book you appointments…

    200 shoots per month, $75 per shoot= $15,000 gross per month. Even if your expenses are 50% of gross revenue, you net $7,500 a month.

    I would not feel right calling myself a professional if this is what I was delivering to my clients. Maybe those of us professionals who are trying to shoot real estate like it’s architectural photography are the fools.

  • I make about 50k/year as a photographer working for a company. They book, edit, handle complaints, supply camera equipment and pay mileage. Is that good?

  • Im not calling into question Roger’s comment, I just pointed it out because there are three things that came to mind, workflow, quality and marketing/sales/price.

    50K/year can be a good living depending on where you live and your expenses, certainly a place to grow from. But I think part of Larry’s initial point is that if you work for one of these companies, how do you grow? You can shoot more houses and thereby make more money but that’s not really growing a business.

  • One doesn’t always have to be exclusive to a tour company. Depending on the area and how well they have penetrated the local market, they might only be looking for somebody to operate as an independent contractor and take jobs when needed. Some of these companies do pay well. It will depend on how much they need you.

    rant

    I just had to turn down a similar type of job. Sadly for me, since they paid rather well and handled all of the post. The contract seemed to be written by an attorney being paid by the word and newly minted, but I have seen much worse and my contact made it sound like some of the points I raised have been raised by others and they were open to negotiation. Everything broke down when they insisted on signed permissions to perform a full background check. They had already reviewed my work and resume and from that standpoint, I was accepted. As is fashionable these days, they wanted permission to run my credit report, DMV record, college transcripts and there was also a catch all term that could be interpreted as access to library records and movie rentals or any other bit of information they could think of. None of this information would be relevant to the job since the relationship was that of an independent contractor on a work-for-hire contract. A pleasant surprise in the contract was the clause to allow using the images in my own portfolio. I would have asked for that, but it’s nice they covered that. Obviously, I am not going to give my permission for a massive invasion of privacy. I have to wonder if they treat the plumber the same way. A blocked toilet might give the plumber a lot of leverage.

    Another point they make in several places refers to their policy of maintaining a drug-free workplace. What that means in practice is never expanded upon. They could have a policy that is anything from a vague “Just So No” to one that would require contractors to submit to random drug testing. I should pass a drug screening with flying colors every time, but I would still not agree to take time out of my day to present myself at a clinic and pee in a cup. This is something else that is irrelevant to the job. If a customer complained that I showed up on a job smelling like a brewery or with pupils constricted to pin heads and slurring my words, the company could ask me to explain what was going on or simply tell me they suspected I was intoxicated on a job and they would no longer ask for my services. At that point they could also ask me to submit to a drug test at my option.

    /rant

    Most of the tour companies I have looked into are indeed $10/hr or less jobs. There is no way to live on that level of income as an independent photographer. It doesn’t even make sense as an informal apprentice program. One has deduct expenses, a hefty self-employment tax and mandatory health care (aka Obamacare) out of that paltry sum. For anybody with a standard W-2 income, grab last year’s copy of Turbo tax and build a sample return as a self-employed photographer. You might be shocked at how Eternal revenue calculates the tax. Might as well get on track as a management trainee at a fast food joint. It’s pays much better and the hours are more consistent.

  • Agreed. I started out working for a large PFRE company and when you do the math it definitely worked out to minimum wage or less. I started my own business, and 5 years in I am now charging $199 per shoot (for 20 photos). I find 2 shoots per day is perfect, any more than this and I find it hard to maintain quality. With everything taken into account (prep, driving, shooting, post-processing, administration, etc) each shoot takes me somewhere around 4 hours give or take. I now have more work than I can handle and am focusing on better training my other photographer so I don’t have to turn down so much work when I am booked up.

  • Also, don’t be surprised if you try to do everything right, and still get no calls. In many business relationships, there is some customer loyalty which may have been developed years before you showed up. Many of my clients are anywhere from 5-30 year relationships- they know exactly what to expect, how it’s priced, how it’s delivered, that I will drop whatever I’m doing to work for them, and that it will be in their hands by the next morning, rain or shine, no excuses…. even if I have to drive personally to their office to deliver it (rarely, but if power is out, or internet is down, or whatever, they will still get it on time). In short, they know me, and my commitment to making them the best marketer’s on the planet. I keep my price reasonable, and my product as high quality as I can possibly deliver it, even for the “beater” houses. Around here, many of the beaters don’t get good photos, but the ones I shoot, typically draw a large response from buyers in that market, because there are 200 crappy looking listings, and one really nice listing. The agents that do that have the possibility of engaging with 50+ potential new buyers at that type of open house, so what I do is more of an AD for that realtor, then a listing for the house.

    You might ask why… they ARE my bread and butter, and… they are selling the most expensive product most people will ever buy – even the low end homes are easily the same price as a brand new Bently, so both I and the real estate agents I work for, treat every house, great or small, with that in mind.

    In any case, I would have to screw up royally for them to change. It is not as important to them what it costs, (they can write if off at 100% anyway), but it is extremely important to the top 10% to have their clients know they are marketing those homes full tilt, and stunning photos drive that message home (along with them being excellent agents in every respect).

  • @Beau – 10 shoots a day, 5 days a week? A single run n’ gunner would have problems with that schedule. I’ve tried to work more than 5 days a week and it doesn’t last for long. Errands and chores pile up until I have to take a day or two off. I’ve seen some people at tech companies have to employ house keepers and send all of their laundry out due to the hours they put in. At a certain point, the extra pay (if any) is negated by the extra expenses it takes to keep up with the schedule.

    @HEV – $50k sounds really good depending on cost of living where you are. If you were living in San Francisco, $50k is below the poverty level. Does that wage include holidays, weekends and vacation time? I’m saying good for being THE photographer and not the photographer/office slave/gopher/whipping boy.

    @Chuck – For some people, making $50k with regular paychecks and no significant expenses might be perfect. If they want to make more money, they could work weekends shooting other stuff. I would recommend not competing with the company that gives them their day job. If you are doing what you love and earning a living doing it, why would a promotion to something else be desirable? If you want more money, ask for it or take your portfolio and experience and go shopping for another company. I’m single and can weather ups and downs better than somebody that is married and supporting a family which makes it easier for me to stick it out on my own.

    @George – I have set my limit at 3 FULL shoots per day working by myself. That’s about all I can do and still deliver a quality product on time. I had one day that was 3 full shoots and 5 exteriors that worked out just fine, but that was starting out at sunrise and getting back in at dinner time. Lunch was stuffing my face with KFC will driving to the next job.
    If I had somebody working with me at the office full time and I could get them images to process as soon as I finish each job, I might be able to get to 6 properties. Anything more than that and I’m looking at hiring staff to handle the workload. I’ve had employees before and I’m not interested in doing it again unless I have a large enough company to be able to delegate responsibilities and work a regular 40 hours a week with days off. Otherwise, I have to work even harder to make sure I’m bringing in enough work to keep everybody busy and enough income to pay them (and me too). 7+ jobs per day is insane for 2 people.

  • Thank you Larry for posting this:

    One of the biggest points here is that profit margins are too tight to have a tour company in the food chain. Since they “hold the gold” they make the rules and the “rules” include poverty level helpings for the boots on the ground that do the actual WORK. If they didn’t do this they would have no choice but to actually charge a fee that is based in reality. Sadly, agents have become accustomed to these very unrealistic rates.

    Around here I can’t even match their prices, I have to charge MORE than they do to make ends meet. I live in a very expensive area in the county.

    Unfortunately, they get away with this because they don’t quote an hourly rate – just a rate/job. On one site from a very large tour company with a four-letter name that many of us love to hate – they actually state the following:

    1. they are looking for pros or amateurs – doesn’t matter.
    2. Photographing a HOUSE should take 30 minutes.
    3. Processing photos of a HOUSE should take 20 minutes.

    Naturally they are basing what they pay on that ridiculous criteria.

    No mention of compensation for equipment maintenance ($$$) Time on the road ($$$) Wear and tear on your vehicle ($$$) Gasoline ($$$).

    Without naming names, this sort of nonsense should be called out for what it is. At the least it is very exploitive, at worst it is predatory.

  • @Ruthmarie – There have been lawsuits on behalf of field workers that work on a piece rate. Courts have ruled that even if a worker has agreed to a piece rate payment schedule, the employer is still responsible for calculating that the piece rate will exceed minimum wage taking into account the average reasonable work rate of a moderately experienced worker and the working conditions.

    Unfortunately, Cesar Chavez isn’t fighting for rights of RE photographers so class action filings against a predatory tour company aren’t very likely.

  • @Ruthmarie

    LOL…..Exploitive, predatory?…… unfortunately that’s Business and its in every job field (see Walmart).

    Whining isnt going to make them go away 🙂

    If those companies are such a problem to you maybe you are in the wrong field?

  • @ Roger Owen… I initially didn’t react to your statement, independent photographer shooting 200 homes/businesses per month, but became intrigued when reading some of the subsequent posts. Suggestion: take a critical look at your website – I did, and don’t use mine as a model as it is in the process as I haven’t updated in over a year and in the process of a total re-design. Focus on you with a critical eye.

    You indicated that you were independent shooting 200/mo which subsequent remarks interpreted as solo. Reading testimonials, it appears you may be an independent business person with a staff of photographers (or a pool of second shooters) as more than one testimonial references your team of photographers being professional. Also, looking at the non-RE work, granted over several years, there is no way one person could do all that in addition to the RE work.

    Most photographers websites highlight their BEST work, not necessarily their delivered work as they are not constrained by MLS rules and can improve imperfections. Tale a critical look at you leadoff slideshow – the historic Dr’s Mansion. On the exterior look at the verticals and how the building is leaning, patchinesss of the landscaping from you balcony view, and power lines that could actually be removed, Interior – where to start. Each appears to be single exposure, available light. While color balance appears decent with white baseboards and ceilings, what about those collapsing walls and blown out windows and some easy paint repair. I didn’t explore the other RE pages beyond the thumbnails as it appeared to be consistent. My jaw did drop when I looks at commercial business examples, somewhat surprised that marketing departments would accept it.

    I don’t mean to sound negative, so please don’t get defensive or take it in the wrong light. Generally speaking, people gravitate here to learn and improve their craft and Larry does a phenomenal job facilitating it. Introspectively ask yourself how you can take it to the next level. I will end with a like I have actually started a speech with in Toastmasters – When do you stop learning?…Perhaps when you are 6 feet under but even that could be a learning experience…I’m just not going to volunteer to find out.

  • @Christian…
    Seriously – do you have anything better to do with your time than be a total jerk?

    Never said I was giving it up. I may have to find something else and do this PT for a while. My goal is to do only high-end. The wealthy in our area won’t tolerate the crap that these people are producing.

  • Sorry if I offended you Ruthmarie,

    Instead of focusing on how these “companies” are screwing you, focus more on showing agents why they should use you over those “companies”. Whether its through better services, different services, amazing customer support etc. Those companies you are ranting about are doing well for a reason, and dont kid yourself, if you could have come up with their idea and implemented it you would be riding the wave no questions asked, so ranting and bad mouthing them just seems like jealously unfortunately.

    We all have those companies in our area, some more than others of course. In my area there are 2 biggies and I get probably 3-5 agents a month switching over wanting services that I offer that they either dont, or dont do well (video being a big one). Once They use me they love the customer service and product they dont look back.

    I went to college for Computer Programming with the idea to branch off to web design. Things were great for about 2-3 years after college until web design started being killed by these big box companies who do sites for $20/month. It completely changed the business and trying to make the proper salary became impossible. I ultimately had to make the transition to IT to make a living. Like I said, it happens in EVERY field.

    When I got in this business years ago i told myself I would not let that happen again, i would focus on offering agents services the big box guy cant, on why they should be using me over the big box guy, what they would be getting from me that would make them stand out from other agents. Money is one thing, but you will also find many agents love to stand out, to be able to offer something besides the same old boring product that OBEO etc offers.

  • I think Christian raises a key point when he says:

    “focus on offering agents services the big box guys can’t, on why they should be using me over the big box guy, what they would be getting from me that would make them stand out from other agents. Money is one thing, but you will also find many agents love to stand out, to be able to offer something besides the same old boring product that OBEO etc offers.”

    Independents can give way better customer service, communicate better with clients and come up with new products faster than the big companies… these are your best weapons against the big guys!

  • So we have photographers making 50k -100k per year that don’t have to worry about phone calls, emails, servers, image processing, marketing, scheduling, websites and sometimes not even hardware. I’d say there is value in that. Not for everyone, but neither is having the weight of an entire business resting squarely on your chest. The others not making minimum wage…that’s just sad. It’s like those food delivery kids that don’t realize they are depreciating their car faster than they are filling their bank account.

  • @Larry – Another advantage of independent photographers over a large service company is consistency. An agent or office using one of the Big Box providers may have a different photographer each time they contract to have a property photographed. I keep a journal for each agent I work with so as we work together I can keep notes on the types of compositions that are important to them and what they don’t find useful in their marketing. After a doing a few jobs for an agent, most of them feel comfortable enough with what I will deliver that they will often just let me in to a property with our without a brief walkthrough or arrange for the homeowner to be at the home at a scheduled time.

    @Chris – It’s also sad when RE agents ask for 30 finished image for $30 and have never thought about what that might equate to in $/hr.

  • @Chris – But my understanding is you are not what I would call a big company. Aren’t you just an independent that has been successful and added photographers to grow? How many photographers do you have working for your company? And you are just in one geographic location right?

  • I hear you Christian about CS…and then web design. I was scientist for 15 years (molecular biologist with 3 advanced degrees). That’s pretty much gone down the toilet as well. Too much outsourcing and too many H1-B’s….Most of my friends from that time are unemployed or underemployed. Sadly, the powers that be are now encouraging kids to invest in STEM education. Are you kidding me? They won’t be able to pay off the loans.

    Having been an agent, I know what buyers are looking for and always keep that in mind while on a shoot. Most photographers haven’t worked with home buyers as much and it does make big difference. Consistency is also another thing I offer. What I found with the tour companies is that it is a crap shoot. They don’t know who they’ll get. Some are good – others not so much.

    I’m also adding on services as fast as I can afford to do so. It was a steep learning curve over the past year or so, but I did have a foundation in photography from my previous life in the lab. The subject matter was very different, but it did give me a place from which to start building.

  • Larry
    Yes everything you said is correct, thanks in no small part to your blog, Flickr groups, and blatant email pointing out serious flaws in my photography several years ago. 😉 I have affiliates in New Jersey and Houston but I wouldn’t say they work for my company, they are more like business relationships. In Tampa it is currently just my wife and I shooting full time. I feel we are stifling growth by not hiring someone at this point though and have been looking for a fair way to do it. I was glad you asked the question, I had been wondering the same thing. The positive stories are right in the range of what I was thinking could work.

  • @Chris – That’s what I thought. I just wanted to clarify to readers that your business is not an example of the BIG tour company, but rather the successful independent real estate photographer has gotten the marketing right and needs hire more photographers to handle business expansion.

    This is a great point for people starting out. If you can find a local independent that is very successful you are likely to get a much better job helping the independent expand than you would working for a BIG tour company. When you know the company owner and you can see they are trying to fair to the employees/photographers they hire/contract with, you are going to be better off than you don’t know or never see the company owner.

  • Great thread. I read and appreciated each and every comment. I’ll add my small 2 cents. I have been in and out of professional photography for 2 decades now – various genres and all stemming from my love for the camera. Last summer when looking to buy a house, I was appalled by the photos in the MLS listings (No doubt most were shot by realtors). I decided at that time to give real estate photography a try. One thing lead to another and I “signed on” to work with a tour company. This was perfect for me!! They would handle the logistics and I would get to do the fun part – shoot architecture/interiors photos – and I would get to build my real estate portfolio.
    9 months in…. I’m driving to a shoot for the tour company, I’m sitting in traffic, and I start to do the math. Hours of my life, fuel, wear and tear on car, equipment, and my body, liability insurance, equip. insurance….. On and on. Sitting in traffic, making 20-30 an hour ended up being very valuable. Because now, I am transitioning to working independently and seeing immediate positive financial results. I should add, I am not, and don’t want to be, a run-and-gun photographer. I really enjoy taking my time and creating a beautiful photo. Of course there are all sorts of variables that can interfere with a slow, thorough shoot (that is for a different thread).
    Anyhoo – I am grateful I joined the tour company to get on my feet and now I’m very happy to be moving into an independent mode in which my customer service and photo/video skills are appreciated and more fairly valued.

  • As a disclaimer, I am a realtor who does his own photography. I do this for several reasons – a) to get the shots that we want; b) to control the quality; c) to incorporate video.

    The discussion mirrors what we as realtors often say about the real estate industry. There are too many realtors doing crummy jobs – yet they still get hired. Whether you are the realtor or the photographer, this is an industry where it takes a lot of work and skill to really stand out from the crowd. Personally I think it would be great if home sellers did not hire shitty realtors. I would be great if photographers simply refused to work for tour companies. It would be great if agents never sent listings to Zillow or Trulia……but the sad fact is that the bar is so low in this industry and consumers have a hard time distinguishing the wheat from the chaff.

    This message is not meant to be negative, but rather keep on finding ways to rise above the masses. Quality always wins out, although it might take a while.

    Hang in there!

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