How Should Real Estate Photographers Handle Modifying Property Photos?

December 3rd, 2014

EthicsDave from New Zealand asked the following:

Any feedback on how far this has gone in the USA, I think its a bit over the top re “grass” ( attached photo from a Property Weekly in NZ had label on the grass “digitally enhanced grass”) … Surely this is not in the same class as Power Lines as in the removal of them from property shoot?

Reason I am asking was it only seems a year or two back when someone in Canada or US was driving around in a truck with a big tank on the back and they were painting lawns green specifically for RE shoots.

Over the years, we’ve had a lot of heated discussions here on the PFRE blog about ethics of image modification in the context of real estate photography.  I think the subject is important enough that I have a separate page dedicated to summarizing the consensus that has evolved out of these discussions over the years.

Here is a general outline of that consensus:

  1. Real estate photographers typically work for the listing agent and in some cases will be asked to modify photographs of properties for sale.
  2. Listing agents everywhere have a legal responsibility to not “materially misrepresent” a property. That’s a meaningful expression to lawyers since it keeps popping up every time this subject is talked about.
  3. Modifying or removing temporary objects like garbage cans, cars, overcast skies etc is customary and generally not considered materially misrepresenting the property.
  4. Removing permanent objects like power lines, telephone poles, neighboring homes etc. are customarily considered materially misrepresenting the property because they hide undesirable permanent property features.
  5. Landscaping seems to be an area where not everyone agrees. Landscaping seems to be in between permanent and temporary. Many people believe that fixing defects in the grass or landscaping is OK whereas others believe it is not OK. When there is some question about if a feature is permanent or temporary it’s safest to treat it as a permanent feature.

In summary the photographer is working for the listing agent, not the potential buyer and representation of the property is the listing agent’s legal responsibility, not the photographers. However, prudence suggests that if the photographer is asked to modify photographs they believe materially misrepresents the property, they should document in writing the fact they are modifying the photograph at the agents request.

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19 Responses to “How Should Real Estate Photographers Handle Modifying Property Photos?”

  • I’ve had a few agents ask about altering some photos, but they’ve been unwilling to pay my retouching charge so I have not had to deal with actually saying “no” or asking for indemnification. I have installed a lawn and upgraded a garage door. In those cases I had no problems with doing the work. The lawn had been seeded and the grass was just starting to poke out. In another month it would look like the photos given some care. The garage door was on a property that was being renovated and the new one was on backorder. The investor was anxious to get the property on the market.

    It makes sense to CYA and have an agent sign a disclaimer. While an altered photo might be used for something other than marketing the property, we typically know going in what the photos are for. For me, it’s important that my customers know that I don’t do the work for free and they will have to sign a statement taking responsibility. When I photograph a home, I will do my best to not highlight any defects which will include trying to find exterior views that don’t show power poles or high tension lines. I agree that I am working for the agent and not the buyer. I always wonder about agents that take their own snapshots and capture every broken counter tile and stain. It doesn’t appear that they are working for their customer.

  • I live in Palm Springs… where twice a year we scalp (cut the lawn down to almost dirt) and reseed the grass… because our summers get up to 115 F to 120 F (46 C to 49C), you need special grass for the summer… and the summer grass doesn’t grow in the winter and winter grass won’t grow in the summer… so I always digitally green the grass… houses and golf courses… otherwise the lawns are nothing but dead grass. Also, for some people with vacation rentals and designers, I have removed telephone lines… at their request and additional costs… I have never been asked to do this from a realtor… that would be a no-no.

  • Bottom line, if it is the agent that is asking for the enhancements, it is on them and YOU the photog have no obligation to anyone. Suppose the agent asks you and you turn them down on an enhancement ($$$) so they just ask another to take your image that you sent them and ask that it is enhanced?

  • RE photography is documentation and advertising at the same time. Thus some post production corrections may be permitted others may not. Last week I wrote a piece just about this topic over on my blog at http://www.primephoto.de/how-much-creativity-can-a-real-estate-photo-take/ where I explain my point of view in detail. Conclusion: We advise our clients only to have photoshopped things that are not permanently connected to the property or its environment. On the other hand any photographer has some creative tools at his disposal to camouflage minor flaws already during a shooting (perspective, trees, furniture, time of day …)

  • This is on every invoice and in an email to the agents before I shoot the home:

    NOTE: Photographs that are to be used to present a property for sale must comply with the Property Mis-Description Act 1991. As such, we can remove For Sale signs and other temporary objects, but we cannot touch up the appearance of the property, nor remove unsightly permanent structures or objects from either the property or surrounding environment.

    This is easy for me to answer for myself: I am doing something to this image (grass) that when a buyer comes to view the property would give them the impression that I have misrepresented the condition of the home (grass). In your gut you know if you are stepping over that line or not. Follow your instincts and view the home as a buyer would.

  • I have a question regarding the trend to paint with light that is increasingly appearing in marketing twilight images. Unless the agent clearly states that these images are an artistic rendition and do not show the real view of the property then has a buyer grounds to withdraw, or if purchased a right to legal recourse if they have not seen the property under those light conditions. Have they the right to expect that the property is illuminated as displayed in the marketing images if a disclaimer is not posted ?

  • Dave–I understand your point, and it’s a pretty good one, but could you apply the same logic to any interior photo that has been lit with multiple flashes, therefore making the room look much brighter than it is in reality? I think either way it’s part reality and part fiction.

  • there was one shoot that came back to bite me on the butt.
    I had a shoot to do of a 2 story beautiful small home on a river. The shots from the street and my ladder looked great. but I just purchased my new 40′ elevated pole system, and were trying to talk agents into spending the additional $75 for an elevated image. after much coaxing and explaining how beautiful the elevated shots would be she agreed to spend the extra $75. once I found the best location and went up 40′, I noticed you could see the smoke stacks from the power plant across the river. the images looked great but now I was in an embarrassing moral predicament. Do I remove the smoke stack, or do I now tell the agent, the elevated image was a bad idea on my part? since I was new at this, I just cloned some trees from the shot and placed them over the smoke stacks.
    I figured, that no one would know since this was an angle that they don’t see from the ground, only from a helicopter. after that, I always assessed the shoot first, before encouraging an elevated shot.

  • I have seen the practice that is being referred to as painting grass. It really is not painting grass. It is a type of grass seed product. It is mostly made from recycled paper that help keep the seed from blowing away. It is colored green to blend into it’s environment not to create a greener grass. You see this stuff used along the newly constructed highway ramps as well as people’s yards. It works very well in areas that are problematic for growing grass. I have never seen someone just paint grass for a better RE shot. I suppose some people will try anything. Though I would think it would be much easier to fix and a lot cheaper to change the grass color in post.

  • I have not had a lot of realtors ask for modifications, and the ones I have had hint about it or ask about it I simply discourage them of doing such things because it represents the home in an “untrue” fashion. I don’t think it is ethical for the realtor to want to do or to request such things nor is it ethical for the photographer to agree to them. I believe it is our job as RE Photogs to show the home to it’s best but true fashion. If the home has certain cosmetic issues that are already in the works to be fixed, that would be the only concession I could agree to.

  • In the 42 years I have been in the photo industry I have only been asked a few times to remove unsightly structures, power lines, telephone poles, dead grass spots etc… I have always explained why it is not ethical to do this and that there could be legal ramifications for the listing agent. That has always stopped them for moving forward or insisting. And if that doesn’t work I explain that they will have to sign a waiver that states that I have advised them but they request I do it anyway. BTW: I have never had to pull out the waiver!
    The key I have found with new clients is that you just have to explain this up-front and they are good with that. I try and make the property “pop” in the photo so that the eye sees that and not the subject of concern.

  • It may be all well and good to say that the realtor asked you to make the modifications to the photo – you may even have this in writing – but the simple fact is that lawsuits tend to include all involved. If it’s not in writing, and even if it is, the realtor is likely to throw you under the bus. You may be completely blameless and have everything in writing, but if you are brought into a lawsuit you still have to defend yourself and that could be very costly.

    As an agent who used to also teach the MLS rules for our association, I simply remind agents who ask me to modify permanent aspects of the home or property that they may be misrepresenting the property. That is usually the end of the discussion.

  • Chet,

    FYI, you may want to update your reference in that notation to reflect the current regulations since the act you reference was repealed.

    http://www.boltburdon.co.uk/blogs/estate-agents-update-end-of-the-property-misdescriptions-act-1991/

  • This brings of the issue of latent-patent defects which real estate agents in my state are taught about and should not be asking for removal of things like telephone poles or damage to the house. Yes hiding the defect may cause more buyer traffic to come to the house since those who would avoid the issue won’t see it until they are at the house. But a buyer coming in and seeing the defect in person would likely be turned off and not want to consider that house at all. Since if there are things “hidden” in the pictures who knows what else may be hiding as well. That does not mean agents won’t ask. Things that will not stay with the house when sold are reasonable to edit out since often times during staging for photography items can be moved and is usually put right back where it was afterwards.

  • Does anyone actually know or know of a photographer being sued for enhancing photos? My understanding of the law is that only the person who actually published the images… or in this case, placed them on the Internet, would be liable.

  • @Patrick – In Real Estate the listing agent has the legal responsibility for marketing the property. A photographer is just a contractor of the listing agent.

    I’ve been in real estate since 1999 and doing this blog since 2005 and I can’t remember of any suits in the US regarding misrepresentation of property with photos. I have heard and posted about suits in AU and NZ… this is an issue that’s more prevalent down under.

  • I find it easier to just shift perspective to avoid unsightly or distracting objects. Photography is also about what you don’t include, correct?

  • […] for listings. Here is a quote from one of the blogs that I follow. Photography for Real Estate http://photographyforrealestate.net/2014/12/03/how-should-real-estate-photographers-handle-modifying…; “Over the years, we’ve had a lot of heated discussions here on the PFRE blog about ethics […]

  • Context is important. In over 15 years as a real estate broker in the St. Louis, Mo. area I have never seen a situation where a photograph has been questioned or challenged about misrepresentation. Just the simple fact of rendering a 3d image through a camera lens onto a digital sensor manipulated by the photographer changing reality into 1’s and 0’s subject to “post production” is an interpretation of the “true” scene. Which interpretation is the correct interpretation? Is Ansel Adams Moon and Half Dome the correct interpretation of Yosemite?
    Every image can be improved, the camera cannot capture the entire dynamic range in one image without manipulation with lighting and/or post production. Recognize the limitations and plan accordingly.

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