Pursuing Success in Real Estate Photography – A Few Thoughts From Brandon Cooper

June 13th, 2016

This is a guest post by Brandon Cooper of realpics.ca:

I’m writing this article today for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, to offer a heartfelt “Thank You” to everyone in the PFRE community who’ve shared their good wishes, prayers and support to me and my family, as we try to rebuild our lives after the terrible fires in my hometown. As I’m sure most of you have seen on the news, the fires have been devastating. My family and I got out just in time and it has been so comforting to have people in the PFRE/Flickr community reach out to offer their support. It’s amazing (and humbling) to have people from all over the world reach out to express their concern and offer best wishes. It has meant so much to my family and me.  The recent outreach has allowed me to start new friendships in our great community; and has strengthened existing ones – and I’m very grateful for all of them and for the opportunity to share conversations/emails with colleagues in the field – talking shop with other shooters is always a great time. Throughout these conversations, a number of colleagues have asked me if I’d ever consider writing an article about how I started as an exposure fusion/HDR guy and then transitioned to using more off-camera flash. I reached out to Larry for his blessing and he gave me the green light, so here’s my story!

Even though I’d been shooting RE for a few years, I was doing the exposure fusion/HDR thing, with batch-processing, and while I was doing between 500-700 shoots per year and my clients were happy with the photos, I had a deep desire to get better but I just didn’t know how. So, a couple of years ago, I decided to get some coaching help and I reached out to Tony Colangelo; and I think that’s when I opened my eyes to figuring out the type of shooter I wanted to be and how I could use that to drive my photography business. Tony and I started working together in late-August of 2014.  At our first session, I presented Tony with some pretty average compositions, filled with the usual muddy walls and serious colour casts that tend to happen when using EF/HDR. Tony listened to my concerns, asked about my aspirations and then suggested a plan to get me there. He introduced different things that I could try, to help me move away from HDR/EF and more towards off-camera flash shooting. The results of our time together were immediate and within six months I won my first POTM contest.

When I started thinking about writing an article for PFRE, I reached out to Tony to ask some questions about his memories of our early coaching sessions and my progression at that time. The back and forth we shared was great… And then it hit me – why not make the article about my conversation with Tony?!  So, here is a quick recap of our recent conversation, which I’ve put into a ‘Q&A format’.  Once again, many thanks to all of you who’ve been reaching out, curious about my work and how I do certain things. I hope this article helps to answer some of your questions.

Q: Tony, when you and I first started working together, I remember being very hard on myself because I wasn’t getting the results that I wanted. Do you remember how you helped me to turn this around?

A: I think that one of the reasons that many people get down on themselves when they don’t achieve immediate results is because they attribute their lack of progress to some sort of failing in themselves, rather than accepting the simple fact that learning new things takes time. What makes it worse is that, psychologically, many people will then go one step further and begin to think that they are the only one that could possibly be having such trouble learning the new skills they’re trying to acquire. The truth is, there are very few “naturals” at any endeavour. In photography, very few people can pick up a camera for the first time and start fiddling with off camera flash and immediately start producing stellar work, in-camera!. So what I tried to do with you when we started our coaching was to “normalize” your frustration and try to remind you that most photographers wanting to transition more into off-camera flash also have the very same frustrations. I seem to remember telling you many times that you had to be more gentle on yourself and, to your credit, you did just that… you moved more into a “solution-focused” mindset, and away from beating yourself up about this photo or that result. That made my job a lot easier, too!

Q: I remember that you kept talking to me about “transitions” rather than jumping headfirst into the deep-end with off-camera flash. Can you talk more about that?

A: When trying to get better at something, it’s my opinion that for most people, it’s a more natural progression – and often, a much less stressful one — to make gradual but purposeful advancements, rather than jumping into the deep-end. So, in your case, rather than have you stop doing your exposure fusion thing, cold-turkey, we started your transition by having you introduce more and more attempts at off-camera flash at your photo shoots. Then we got you doing a straight opacity blend of a fused shot with a good flash exposure. From there, you then started doing more hand-blending of multiple exposures and using masks (which you’re now excelling at!)

Q: Based on what you saw in the sample photos that I showed you in our first couple of sessions, do you remember how you came up with your game plan for improvement?

A: Yes, first and foremost, we needed to improve your compositions. Given your background as a real estate agent, you obviously had a really good sense of which selling features in the house you wanted to highlight in your photos. The issue, though, was that you would often put the selling feature in the dead-middle of the shot, which is usually not a favourable position.  So, we started talking about compositional techniques, with a lot of emphasis on using rule-of-thirds as a good starting point, making sure to place key features in the space at the ‘intersecting-thirds’ points. It was really important to improve your compositions first. The way I see it, you can be shooting a great space that has been perfectly staged and is beautifully lit, but if your composition leaves people guessing at what they should be looking at, then the potential for that shot to make a deep impression on the viewer is greatly lessened. 

Next, as we started introducing more flash lighting in your work, we had very intensive conversations about getting you to be more thoughtful in your lighting – and by “thoughtful,” I mean thinking through how the light *should* affect the scene being shot. For example, if the front of a sofa is getting hit by the incoming light, then it stands to reason that the back of the sofa should be noticeably darker, given that it’s facing away from that light.  In other words, it was important to get you to see the “directionality” of the light.

Finally, we talked about the absolute importance of taking advantage of your lens’s focal length and you did this right away! In fact, there was a huge improvement in your work when you started focusing most of your attention on creating good comps and then zooming in a bit more – and this happened *very* quickly. The lighting took a little longer.

Q: Based on what you just shared about my own early work, what’s the single most important piece of advice you could offer someone who’s starting out in real estate photography?

A: Learn how to create effective compositions (leveraging ambient light as much as possible) … and practice, practice, PRACTICE!! I know that’s two pieces of advice but the second piece is really important, too! You can have the best coach in the world but if all you do is talk about photography, then the only thing you’ll get better at, is talking about photography!

Q: I seem to recall you scolding me whenever I talked about the next piece of gear that I was wanting to buy. Do you remember that? 

A: Ha! Yes, I do! To be honest, the reason I got on you so much for that is because I didn’t want you to make the same mistakes that I’d made re: spending money on photography stuff that I probably didn’t need. I remember going into serious debt in my first couple of years in the business because I thought that getting better gear would somehow lessen my own fears/insecurities about being a “newbie” professional photographer. So, I scolded you because I didn’t want you to make that same mistake.

Larry has done a number of great articles over the years on this very issue and the bottom line is that you DO NOT need to spend a lot of money to make really great shots. There are so many terrific photographers in our community who shoot with older-model cameras, using third-party lenses and “knock-off” flashes and yet they consistently produce outstanding work. Let me put it this way, I’d rather submit, to my RE agent client, a beautifully composed shot taken with an 8-year-old, 15mp Canon 50-D, than a very poorly composed shot taken with Canon’s latest 50mp camera, that sells for thousands of dollars!

Q:  One of the things that we talked a lot about in our coaching was the importance of always being aware of my brand. Why is it important for a RE photographer to develop a brand and how is this most effectively achieved?

A: My favourite definition of brand says that it’s a “container for a customer’s complete experience” that he or she connects to you and your business. This definition is very important because it reminds us that the things we typically associate with a brand (e.g., our photography, our website, our brochures, our logo, etc.) are NOT the only things that make up our brand. Yes, they are very important and certainly do influence the client’s “experience” of us but there are other things that are just as important — and first and foremost among these is the personal connection that the photographer has with his/her clients. Any real estate photographer worth their salt can produce great images, but if the RE agent sees a photographer as being a little bit of a ‘diva’ and difficult to work with, or shows up late at each shoot, then these behaviours will ultimately have a far greater impact on the client’s “experience” of that photographer, than how nice his/her photos might end up being.  Yes, our photography impacts our customers but at the end of the day, most of the impact will come about by how we treat them – and this comes from you! This is why I kept saying to you, in our coaching: “YOU are your brand!”

If you are your brand, then it’s vital that you fully understand you and your motivations/aspirations for your photography business. For instance: what personality characteristics do most people notice when they get to know you? What are the core values that you bring into every interaction with a customer? What kind of images give you the most satisfaction? What is your vision for your photography business? Answering these questions honestly, is vital because having a full understanding of who you are, what you want and why you want it, lays down the foundation of how you will approach virtually everything in your business plan, including the types of photographs you capture; which customers you choose to target; how you market to them; and how you communicate with them, to name a few.

Q:  My goal, like many other photographers in our PFRE community, is to start doing more work for high-end interior designers and builders. I know that you’ve made this kind of transition yourself. What advice can you offer?

A: My first piece of advice is to be very clear on the type of photographs you want to produce and that you’d like to be known for. For me, I remember looking through countless interior design magazines and putting a sticky-note on each page that showed a photo that just stopped me in my tracks!  I would look at those pages over and over again; and after a while, I found that the photos that I really loved had a few common themes. For instance, they tended to have more contrast than other shots. I also found myself strongly preferring more vivid and warmer colours, and rooms filled with lots of natural light. I then started to make more *conscious efforts* at producing these types of shots in my RE work – both at the shoot and in my post-processing. For me, the key to transitioning into shooting for designers was that, whenever I was lucky enough to shoot a home for an agent that had some great spaces or interesting details, I would make a point to spend a little extra time in those spaces. If the RE agent was in the room with me, I’d simply ask for his/her OK to spend a few extra minutes in that space. Then, once I’d taken the shot that I knew would satisfy the agent, I pretended that I was shooting for an interior designer. I’d try to think through what features in the room a designer would want to show off. Then, I’d set up my comp accordingly, zoom in and take the shot. My goal was to create a healthy portfolio of those types of shots so that I could more confidently approach designers for some work.

Once I had what I thought was enough of the types of images that would impress an interior designer (and nicely represent my preferred shooting style) I started reviewing many interior designers. Just as I’d done with the magazines, I spent time on their websites and made notes as to which ones had images that resonated with me and were *somewhat* similar in style to my own. I figured that if these designers already had photos of these types of images up on their website, they’d be more inclined to view my work more favourably. These designers became my ‘A-list’ target group and these were the ones that I reached out to first. I just happened to get lucky in that the top designer in my marketplace took me up on my offer of a free, 8-image photo shoot so that she could see, in real-time, how I work on-site and what I could produce. She had me take 8-shots of a kitchen reno she’d put together and I’m pleased to say that she ended up winning an award for that particular project (with my photos used as part of her nomination package!)  Since then, she’s called me back to shoot numerous projects for her; and she’s also introduced me to many of the builders and millworkers she tends to work with. Thankfully, I’ve been able to develop good relationships with these folks, too, and they’ve called me in to do shoots for their own projects as well.

……………………………..

So there it is… A glimpse into my progression as a photographer as well as my working relationship with Tony Colangelo.  I hope this article has been both interesting and helpful. My thanks to Tony for taking the time to answer my questions. I have to say that, for anyone who wants to improve their photography in a very concrete way, working with a coach is a great option. And I’m not just saying that because I’m now doing coaching myself! 🙂  I’m saying it because getting a coach was the best investment and hands down the biggest contributor to the success of my photography and my photo business. There are so many great coaches on the PFRE coaching site, I think that it would be a wise investment in yourself and in your business, to give any one of them a call.

And, finally, *thanks again* to everyone who’s taken the time to express their very kind wishes during this crazy hectic time for me and my family… I’m forever grateful and will be sure to keep you posted as the rebuild begins.

Lots of love from Canada’s North,

Brandon Cooper, Realpics.ca

Share this

9 Responses to “Pursuing Success in Real Estate Photography – A Few Thoughts From Brandon Cooper”

  • Thanks to Brandon and Tony!

  • Great Article, thanks for sharing! Brandon, was just curious on the impact to your business in relation to estimated number of additional shoots that you got for the increased quality, price improvements, different market expansions, etc… I know this is a big switch in process and effort, just wondering how you measure results other than the improved quality you deliver to your clients. I know hard data is not always easy to collect on quality / process improvements.

  • Man, Tony has a lot of useful suggestions! Like the interior design magazines. I’ll buy a couple at the store, leaf through them, and tear out pages of images that I think are particularly strong or eye-catching. Then I’ll study each one carefully to break down the composition, placement of certain elements in the scene, and try to figure out how it was lit. I imagine myself in that space and mentally reconstruct what the photographer might have done to produce that shot. Sometimes it ends in frustration because I’m convinced I could never reproduce the shot even if I had a week in that house, but it’s a good mental exercise anyway.

  • Thank you Brandon (and Tony) for your comprehensive coverage. Like Anthony, I’m wondering what effect the transition has had in terms of the relative change in benefits versus costs compared to the old way you were doing things. For example, have the number of shoots per year increased or decreased, is the time and effort taken to do each shoot (including editing) different to when you were doing exposure fusion/HDR, have your fees per shoot increased or stayed the same, has your clientele changed, overall are you happier/less stressed than before? In other words, are you better off, all things considered?

    I’ve often wondered whether my best course of action is to concentrate on aiming for 100% in terms of quality doing 1-2 shoots a day (and charging more) or 85% doing 5-7 a day (and charging less), especially if the latter resulted in more revenue. Which one would make the business more successful?

  • Well written, Brandon!

    I totally understand your desire to move up the ladder and be ambitious!
    Interesting to hear that you got the help from a fellow photographer. It’s always good to have an experienced mentor and that is something that has helped me a lot as well in the last years to continue doing what I love.

  • @Dave

    “Success” is an enigmatic concept. For some, money equals success even at the expense of everything else. For others, being able to constantly push themselves creatively is success. Find out what aspect of photography makes you happiest, then work from there to figure out how to turn that into a career.

  • @Anthony
    @Dave

    Thanks for your comments! The initial transition from HDR to 100% off camera flash was a little painful and time consuming but once I got a good grasp on what I was doing I was able to improve my efficiency and quality of work very quickly. Since I was able to offer a better quality/consistency of work without spending more time I actually decided to keep my prices unchanged which I believe was instrumental in strengthening my relationships and solidifying great loyalty from my clients. Did moving to off camera flash increase my business? I can’t say for sure, but I can say that it gave me the confidence to approach higher end clients with a true belief that I could offer them a service no one else in my market could AND it instantly set my looks/style apart from my competition. I did lose one client when I went away from HDR but within six months she came back and we do a ton of business together now.

    When I was shooting HDR I remember waking up and praying for cloudy days. If it was cloudy out I could fly through a home and end up with great results. What bothered me most was that it was impossible to create a consistent style while at the mercy of the weather, different interior lighting etc. When I first started using off camera flash I was terrible at it but I did get an instant glimpse of what adding flash can do for an image and how it could help me take full control of my photography and not have to worry about variables that were out of my control. This glimpse was exciting enough to keep me pushing forward. I feel 100% confident now that I can deliver consistent, high quality images regardless of the different environmental challenges I face. By getting comfortable with off camera flash I have actually been able to decrease the amount of time per shoot because I can get ahead of so many of the post processing issues that arise when using HDR.

    The other thing that I’ve found interesting throughout this transition is how little gear I actually need. By utilizing some very basic post processing techniques and leveraging ambient light whenever I can I actually shoot 90% of my homes with no more than two lights.

    At the end of the day moving from HDR to flash was CRITICAL to taking my photography to the next level. Not only am I more confident when marketing my work but the additional creative satisfaction I get on a daily basis is worth it’s weight in gold!

  • Brandon,

    Thank you again for taking the time to reply. You totally answered my question.

  • Great article! I’m in the middle of coaching sessions with Tony and this is a great reminder for all the things we talked about regarding my work and my goals. Tony is fantastic to work with and a wealth of knowledge. Thanks for posting this Brandon.

Comments RSS

Leave a Reply