The Purpose Of Real Estate Photos Is NOT To Sell Property

January 21st, 2015

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This is a guest post by Scott Hargis. Scott posted  a version of this a couple of days ago on the post about how many photos photographers deliver on a shoot. From my personal experience working with my wife who was a top listing agent, I think this concept is right on and is important enough to be a post.

A few years ago, I was having lunch with a photographer friend of mine (we’ll call him Josh). We get together a few times a year and catch up. He does stills, video, and manages social media for companies, individuals, and real estate agents.

Josh and I had many real estate agent clients in common, with him managing one aspect or another of their marketing, and me doing exclusively still photography. We were “talking shop”, and frankly gossiping a little about the quirks and personalities of some of them, and when a particularly difficult name came up, Josh grunted and said, “That guy. He still thinks he’s in the business of selling houses.”

Josh loves to roll out these pithy little gems, and that one was so perfect that I’ve stolen it and used it many times since.

As real estate photographers, we do well to understand that the “real” goal of our clients, whether they know it or not, is gaining market share and getting more listings. Our photos help to market and sell a house, of course, but the obvious truth is that excellent photos are not really necessary to the process. We see many, maybe even a majority of houses on the market with truly horrendous photos…and those houses, most of them, eventually sell. The statistics are pretty clear that professional photography will sell a house faster, and for more money, but just how good do the photos need to be, to accomplish that?

Not very good, it seems. Even the most basic photography seems to be enough to clear the bar and get the house sold. So why, given that, should photographers (and their real estate agent clients) want to go the extra mile and produce photos that are not just “good enough” but great? What’s the point?

The point is to be forward thinking. My best real estate clients, the ones who listed the multimillion dollar houses all the time, would do the exact same thing even when they had a $150,000 condo to sell. That crappy little condo got painted, staged, photographed, and marketed like it was a trophy listing. Why? Because my client could not afford to have ANYTHING with her name on it that didn’t look like a million bucks. Better yet, FIVE million bucks. She knew that she would be sitting on a couch in some living room next week, trying to land a bread-and-butter listing, and the sellers would want to know that they were not going to be treated like an afterthought. They would be doing their research, looking to see what this agent really did on her listings, and they would not be disappointed.

Real estate photographers are in the exact same position. We have to treat every shoot as if it were Buckingham Palace. If we aren’t putting out effort every time, no matter how depressing the house, we are never going to rise above the crowd. We’re never going to be able to compete on anything other than price, until we can demonstrate that we can, and WILL, outshoot the competition.

It’s hard. You can’t get hung up on the fact that you’re only getting paid $150, or whatever number sounds too low to you — you have to be thinking about what you want to shoot next month, next quarter, next year, and act like that’s what you’re shooting today. Because ultimately, if you’re completely bogged down in today’s sweaty, frantic scramble, you’re never going to get where you want to be.

Our best clients are thinking this way – so should we. The goals are mutually compatible – we both want to look good for the awesome clients we’ll be chasing next year. The best real estate brokerages and the best agents, function like an ad agency. They understand that they aren’t selling houses — they’re a marketing firm. It’s the difference between doing door-to-door encyclopedia sales (which I did while I was flunking out of college) and building Google. A great example of this in the real estate world is Fantastic Frank, a Swedish brokerage that treats every listing, even the little crummy rental listings, like a feature article in Dwell Magazine. They hire cutting-edge stylists and photographers and make every listing look glamorous and swank. The photography may seem shocking to “real estate” eyes; there are tight angles and broken rules (verticals! OMG!) and utterly weird things going on in these photos — but they’re GOOD. Really good. These images would be very much at home in a Style and Design magazine like Elle Decor or Vogue.

The top 10% of agents are always focused on their brand, first. Want to shoot for them, and bill them a lot of money for it? Start thinking in those terms.

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27 Responses to “The Purpose Of Real Estate Photos Is NOT To Sell Property”

  • Larry/Scott,

    Thank you for the great blog post. From the day I started shooting I never relented, I always photographed my homes with the utmost care and to the best of my ability even though I was doing it at a very low rate. Thankfully I found PFRE and was able to learn from Scott and a host of other photographers in our industry that have contributed to my education and skill. I still shoot the same way, every home I photograph gets extremely well crafted images with no corners cut.

    To reinforce the message, I have always told my clients that you are not paying me for the current listing, but for all of the future high end listings you will now get with the beautiful images I capture for you. Some get it some don’t. I now shoot some of the most expensive homes in the world with agents who understand the value of high quality images.

    Warmest Aloha,

    Ethan

  • Clearly that is not the case here in Atlanta. I just checked the homes for sale in an upscale zip code (not far from where you had your workshop). There are 332 homes for sale and of that, only 13 are over 2 million or about 4%. Unlike the SFO area where there are probably 332 homes for sale and only 13 are below 2M. Of those 13, six are listed by the same real estate firm (not the same agent) and of the 13, maybe one has anything most of us would call great images (and that’s a stretch), most are between poor and good. This is the top agents in Atlanta selling the top priced homes. SO. apparently here, the agents subscribe the to the good enough philosophy regarding photos. None are branding to the level that perhaps the agents are in other areas. At least not with the photography part.

    Now, I totally agree with the photographer comments. That is great advise and often overlook by most. I include myself in that. Not every RE shoot gets my best effort. I can only spend so long to get 25 images for the price I charge so sometimes I rush and it shows. I try and do my best, but If I had a whole day to shoot 10 or so images, of course they would be better. For me, it’s a balance. However, IF I intend getting higher paying clients and jobs the time to do that is on the next shoot. I will have to work on that. As I said it’s great advise. But I don’t think those clients are going to be Atlanta real estate agents.

  • Thanks for sharing your professional opinion, Scott. However, I’d like to hear the professional opinions of others.

  • It sounds like there is a opportunity for you there Chet to tap into those luxury agents. All it takes is one of them to raise the bar with their marketing then the others will follow suit in order to compete. Once one of them looses a listing because the home owners really liked what they saw from the agent who stepped up his game it has that downhill effect. That is how our business grew fairly quickly. Offered a great rate to show a few agents what we could do to help raise the bar and then all of a sudden the direct competitors with them started reaching out to us to stay competitive. Loosing $100K plus commission because the other agent has better photos is quite the eye opener! All it takes is 1

    Cheers

  • @Michael……amen!

  • Right on Michael!!!!!

  • Thanks for reposting Larry and thanks you Scott for taking the time to write it. As a realtor, I agree 100%.

    @ Chet – All cities have different levels of standard. I saw Seattle take off about 12 years ago with progressive and innovative picture taking. Now it’s rare to not see good photography in the Seattle area. When I moved to Colorado, there was nobody taking decent pictures in this town. But it’s caught on too over the last 3 years. I’m guessing that if a few agents started using quality photos in Atlanta, then other agents would follow. Once the buyers and sellers see the difference, and the demand increase, it’s like slow rolling wave. Agents are a little slow to catch on . . .

  • Chet, there are agents in Atlanta that ‘get it’ and I say that with confidence because I have shot for several of them for years. True, they may not be instantly recognizable by looking in the MLS but that really isnt that great of a gauge imo. I’ve found about 10 that Ive worked with for the past few years that use photography, among other things like design consultations and staging, to basically get listings for them. Ive had agents tell me multiple times that the listing I was shooting next was a direct result of the new client seeing one of their current listings and being so impressed with the marketing that they choose them. Once an agent experiences that a couple times, they start to see the light.

    Im not saying that the majority, or even a healthy percentage, dont subscribe to the ‘good enough’ philosophy. They do. The good news is there is something like 30,000+ agents in GA and all you really need are a handful to keep you busy and profitable. They are out there, perhaps you just havent ran across them yet…

  • Great post, Scott!

    Much like Ethan, I always put 110% into every shoot I do – whether it’s a crappy trailer park home or a multi-million dollar estate, it makes no difference.

  • @Iran, yes I know you and Josh have the right agents. Actually I had a listing presentation from one of Josh’s agents (but gave it another). Never questioned that. My only point was they are few and far between, at least here. Most don’t care! But since I’m leaving Atlanta in June, I will start with a new market (even worse than Atlanta, if you can believe that) and find that ONE agent down there and work the program of one losing to another because of better photos. You are right, I just seem not to have met the right ones.

    And to clarify, I do give it my best on every shoot, within the time frame allotted for that given job.

    Thanks to all the others for your comments!

  • Great post Scott and good thread. I too give 100% to each and every job, no matter the size. I am very lucky to have a robust and loyal customer base. I have about 20 agents that use me on everything they market from $100K single family homes to multi million dollar mansions. Early on I created an online portfolio for each of my clients. Originally this was Smugmug based but not is iPlayerHD based. Every job I do for them is automatically posted to their portfolio. Now when they go to a listing presentation they simply pull out their iPad and say “this is what I do for all of my clients”. They show them the high quality images and they invariably get the listing. This strategy works for them and has bred loyalty to me. Win-win!

  • Solid post, some of the comments will serve as kernels for a few good posts and marketing pieces. Helpful and appreciated.

    I’ve subscribed to Scott’s basic premise since I started: Always do the best I can for each situation, since that’s where tomorrow’s work comes from. It’s true no matter the business we’re in.

    I’ve lost a couple shoots, one already this year, from potential clients asking if I’d do something of lower quality. “We don’t need lighting or anything, we just need some quick pictures…how much?” I don’t do inferior–for me–work. That’s not to say different jobs have different expectations, discussed up front, just don’t ever ask me to do ‘cheap’ work for a cheaper price. Won’t happen.

    In the Detroit Metro market, sounds much like Atlanta and some others I’ve researched. Nothing like a $15M mansion with 15 pics taken by a Nikon Coolpix and no lights. Fortunately, a few realtors do get it. I view part of my job as growing my client base through educational efforts.

  • I would agree entirely. I have not been in the real estate photography business for more than a few years having been an advertising photographer for many years before. But I have the luck to work with a few high end, well placed agents who handle the multi million dollar properties. I have learned from them. Not only does the photography have to be at high standards but so does the actual advertising in which they appear. And without question, while they are to sell properties, the main function is to gain new owners as clients. That applies to local and regional magazine ads, Virtual Tours, videos etc as well as the actual photographs. I have managed to introduce my clients, at least some of them, to using virtual tours and then have a video made from the VT to give to their clients. Added value. All of this is their own advertising program more to gain clients than to sell properties as the thread of this article maintains. I think we are all here adding to the credibility of this thought.

  • Scott says that “the statistics are pretty clear that professional photography will sell a house faster, and for more money, but just how good do the photos need to be, to accomplish that?” He further states that “even the most basic photography seems to be enough to clear the bar and get the house sold.” I am not sure whether Scott intends the second statement to directly address the first one.

    Homes will sell eventually if the asking price is consistent with the market, regardless of the quality of the photos. However, valuing real estate is not a science, and there is no guaranty that a home will sell in a specific period of time, during which period the seller still has to make mortgage and property tax payments, and possibly payments for rented staging furniture.

    Until a property actually sells, it has a range of reasonable values (the asking price typically being a point somewhere toward the middle of that range). It is in the seller’s interest for their home to sell at the high end of that range in the shortest possible time. Can better-than-basic-quality photos help significantly to achieve that goal? I think they can. Furthermore, I think that the more the aesthetic appeal of a home is a major selling point, the more the quality of the photos matters for conveying that appeal to prospective buyers.

    I am not trying to say that the purpose of marketing the real estate agents is unimportant. In fact, it is often a part of the marketing pitch of top agents that their listings tend to sell faster and for more money than those of their competitors, in large part due to their marketing prowess.

  • @ David Eichler,

    Thanks for your input, I agree with everything you say, as usual 🙂

  • “I know you use flash and try for single shot, but I can’t afford to do that with what I am getting paid for this shoot”

    Well, I can’t afford not to. If I shoot like I am getting paid “only $100” then it is I who am setting my value in the market.

    Great article by Scott.

  • To be able to attract the top 10% of realtors, you need to be able to consistently produce images that match the top 10% of photographers.

    And while this is true, like many other markets, there are viable tiers of realtors below the top 10%, like maybe the 11-25%, who could be marketed to with less-then-premium images.

    It’s true of weddings, graduation, and other genres as well. When I first started shooting portraits, I did a hella lot of business shooting folks that didn’t or couldn’t engage with the best shooters in town. No biggie. You usually don’t preduce stunning work on day 1 anyway.

  • This is one of the better discussions and I, again, find myself wishing for +/- or Like buttons :).

  • Thanks, everyone. I do think this is an important point that’s lost on a lot of photographers, and real estate agents, alike.

    @ David Eichler — Might be some confusion here. Maybe you thought my little essay was about the impact photography has on the selling point of a house? I did mention that in passing (one sentence; 4th graf). I think I’m probably a better photographer than I am a writer…sorry!
    What my article was SUPPOSED to be saying had nothing whatsoever to do with that. I was trying to talk about the impact photography has on a real estate agent’s overall portfolio, and career path, and how that parallels the path, and the goals, of photographers. My premise is that while competent photography certainly benefits an individual listing, there is (at least) a law of diminishing returns, in that a set of “world-class” photographs are unlikely to move the selling price much higher than a set of “good enough” photos would have. Whether or not that’s true would certainly be debatable; I don’t think the data we’ve seen really says anything one way or the other. So I went on to propose that the real benefit to “world-class” photographs — going beyond the minimum quality level needed to sell the damn house — is not for today’s listing, but for tomorrow’s, and the ones after that. It’s about branding the agent as one who does everything first-class, no matter what.

    Maybe someone else can phrase this more clearly…

  • I think the primary reason an agent should be using pro photography is for the reason Scott mentioned, but I also think there is a benefit many times in selling an individual listing. I have a couple agents who have told me since working with me that their number of private showings, on average, has gone up. Both agents also make it a point to mention to home sellers at listing presentations that their homes sell, on average, 33% faster than other agents in the area.

    Photography is not a magic wand that will automatically sell homes, but in my area it is having an impact on the number of private showings a listing is getting. However, this is all a very nice side benefit to the REAL reason agents should be hiring us–the same reason Scott discussed.

  • The often quoted studies of WSJ and Redfin on higher and faster sales due to better photographs are not the end of the story. Since I am active in the marketing field for almost two decades I have learned that at some extend (greater that one may assume) sales success consists in excellent visual presentation. For this reason better photographs help a lot to present any sales participant in this value chain as a real professional, dedicated to his subject matter and to his clients and furthermore even to others interested in services of such kind. And this is something that most agents neglect since they only look at their numbers. Marketing success in most cases cannot be quantified in real-time – but competition is the driving force.

  • No we, as photographers, don’t sell houses. So what is it that we do sell?
    Here are several things:
    1. We help to sell the showing. When most home buyers start the process they gather all their information (i.e. bedrooms, baths, area, schools, etc) and plug them into the different browsers and bring up several homes. The first time they look at these homes they do not try to find the perfect home but… (AND GET THIS, IT IS IMPORTANT) but to eliminate the homes they do NOT want to consider. The images are the first influence that they have to consider any property and it is been verified by the different studies the last few years that quality is important in that decision.
    2. We help to sell the listing agent. Let’s face it, they are in a very competitive business. Especially when inventory is low. When I talk to brokers and agencies I tell them to put me on their team and explain to their listing prospects that they are willing to do everything to help them get the most money in the least amount of time and that one of those things is to bring in their professional photographer … in other words, that they are going to do more to market their home better than any other broker that they talk to. We can give them a competitive edge.
    3. We help the listing agent build their credibility – that is as long as you live up to the standards professed here and photographically misrepresent the properties.
    4. We sell ourselves and our businesses. When I captured 6 different properties I had no idea that they would be chosen for the covers of different magazines promoting real estate and luxury lifestyle in the area. And those covers brought me respect, credibility and NEW CLIENTS – TOP NEW CLIENTS.
    5. We sell our communities and regions. Please understand that these websites are GLOBAL. When your images go on line they represent your community to the rest of the world. We need to be able to comprehend beyond the county line.
    When I started this business 4 years ago, I did it with the foundation that the images HAVE to be excellent! Otherwise, everything else I do to market is a waste of time.

  • Scott, I get it that the main point you are trying to make is that the primary goal for real estate agents, when they desire photos of better than basic quality and are willing to pay more for that, is often to market themselves. I agree with that point. However, I disagree that photos cannot play a significant role in helping to market a property for sale. Furthermore, while it may be hard to quantify the extent to which high quality photos may affect the selling price, that does not mean there is no effect. It is hard to quantify the financial benefits many types of marketing, including using photos to market a real estate agent. Nevertheless, even when all that is available is anecdotal evidence, quality marketing imagery appears to work well in many cases, and the only question is whether the expenditure for such marketing represents a reasonable investment risk.

    As for photos selling homes, photos of Kias don’t sell cars. Sales professionals do that. Manufacturers such as Kia use high quality photos to help attract more potential customers for their products, and greater demand can result in higher selling prices for those products. At the same time, such photos also help to enhance a manufacturer’s brand image.

    When it comes to real estate agents selling homes on behalf of homeowners, it is really the homeowners who have a much more significant financial stake than real estate agents in any upside that might come from enhanced marketing of the homes, since homeowners receive a much greater share the of the sales price of the home than real estate agents. When we are talking about homes that sell in the millions of dollars, even a very small percentage increase in the sales price of a home can represent a significant amount of additional money for the homeowner. Furthermore, if the home sells more quickly, that could mean that the homeowner has to spend less on property taxes, mortgage payments and rented staging furnishings while waiting for the home to sell. While the potential percentage increase in the sales price or selling a home more quickly are not nearly as significant to real estate agents, pleasing their clients is very significant to them, since client referrals are a major source, if not the major source, of business for real estate agents.

  • Good points David–in my area I understand Scott’s point that whether or not I photograph the home, it will probably (not definitely) sell. But the agents I work with on a consistent basis have told me their average number of private showings has gone up since working with me. It is only logical to believe that some (not all) of those homes sold faster. Two agents have actual data that they sell homes 33% faster than the average agent in my area. That’s a significant number that they can take to listing presentations to win sellers over. I see both Scott’s point and yours.

  • […] name in the world of real estate photography, wrote a post with the rather provocative title:  “The purpose of real estate photos is not to sell property“.  It was a tad misleading, because Scott doesn’t deny at all the ability of a […]

  • I agree with all that Scott wrote, and almost everything I’ve read in response. The only thing I could add though, is a large factor yet ignored– the positive impact of quality photos on the seller’s state of mind.

    I hope my photos can help the sale, just like the agent hopes the house will sell quickly. But his first goal is to make the seller happy. If my photos please the homeowners and help convince them that they’ve chosen the right real estate agent, then I’ve done my job. After all, I’m usually the first subcontracted professional who will show up after the listing papers are signed. We’ve all witnessed the emotions that come up when someone opens their home for public scrutiny. They range from vanity to anxiety, and all in between. Folks know what bad photos look like. They’ve taken plenty themselves and they fear that’s what they’re going to get. It’s a pleasure to watch people’s concerns reduced when they see what’s on the back of my camera. My realtors notice that, and make mental notes to call me back for that next listing.

    I’ve always said that I prefer to overdeliver on quality because I can’t work and faster and I won’t work any cheaper, and those are the three ways we compete. I think Scott would agree.

  • Scott’s on the money. In Los Angeles, the market is absolutely RED hot. Properties will sell without stellar photography. Good photography will likely suffice. But every single bit of marketing an agent does is not just fodder to sell the house. It is part of the agent’s own branding and it helps provide the agent with evidence of the expense and care to which they are willing to go to ensure a property is presented not only adequately, but in its best possible light. Appealing property websites and quality imagery help agents present tanglible, readily appreciable deliverables when pitching for new business.

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