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Ethics Considerations in Real Estate Photography

June 15th, 2017

EthicsBob in Michigan asks:

How much to remove from photos? Flying my drone for real estate photos, I’ve followed the philosophy of removing or cleaning up anything that could be done with a broom, a hose or picked-up (dirt on a driveway, yard signs, cars and trash cans). Yesterday I was asked to remove overhead wires.

Should I remove wires (and their shadows), green phone boxes (at the corners of the lot), moss on a roof or repair a patch of bad lawn grass?

As another example, if you’re told that the homeowner will be removing their swimming pool in two weeks but they need the photos today, should you cover the pool with green grass today?

What are the legal and ethical guidelines that should be followed?

Over the years, we’ve had a lot of heated discussions here 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 what has evolved out of these discussions over the years.

Here is a general outline of some guidelines:

  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 is customary and generally not considered materially misrepresenting the property.
  4. Removing permanent objects like power lines, telephone poles, and neighboring homes 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 photographer’s. However, diligence 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 agent’s request.

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12 Responses to “Ethics Considerations in Real Estate Photography”

  • As a rule, I don’t remove anything unless I’m told to do so by the agent. Even then, I reserve the right to hold my ethics above that of the owner or the agent.
    I removed a TV tower that was behind a beautiful home per the agents request. I made sure that she would be the one to explain to the potential buyers that she did not want the tower to be shown.
    I do not install grass where there is none UNLESS I know that grass will be planted or sod will be placed at the time of the open house.
    I do remove trash cans, always. I either move them or remove them. I physically move items if I can in order to make a better shot.
    You have to take the bad with the good.

  • Give the agent both images if you edit something out that materially misrepresents the property. I will not edit out something that is a permanent unless it will be fixed by the time the images go public. Let the agent make the decision about what image they are going to use.

  • Heck I’ll remove or add anything. It’s not my problem/ liability… I explain to the broker that a very skilled Photoshop expert commands about $160 per hour, and, since I’m not quite there yet I’ll do it for half that.

    Included: Ugly extension cords? Sure. Obvious problems I missed? Of course. Trash cans? Depends if I like the broker. Spots in the lawn? Why.

  • Removing anything like power lines is not a good idea. Might make for a better pic but sometimes shoppers will have issues with the things that are actually a part of the property. None of my realtors want to waste their time taking potential buyers to homes only to waste a trip because the home was located next to a power grid or the photos told the buyers that the rooms were massive yet in reality they were cozy.

    Its not ok to manipulate any physical part of the property including the lot. with that said, I will sometimes take liberty in moving a power box lets say if my only position to get the shot had to have some of it in the foreground… I will remove it because it can be argued that I was zoomed past it in that position so not a prob but if I edited it out of a wide shot showing edge to edge of property then I would be misrepresenting the lot. Anyway, easy to just stick to your guns and let clients know that some things are unethical to remove and if you think you CAN remove or fix something that would be a non-issue to the sale and were asked by agent to do so, then charge for your extra time on the invoice.

    As a rule little things like trash cans and debris in the driveway… give your clients a checklist to follow to prep the home before photos and let them know that you will not be responsible for anything in the photos that the owners or agents wouldn’t or couldn’t take care of them selves. Trash cans are easy to hide in the garage or pull across street BY THE OWNER/AGENT and debris is easy to be swept BEFORE I get there.. I take no excuses on that stuff and hold the agent in high expectation to have the property ready for me to photograph to the best of their abilities per our Terms of Service and our Preparation Checklist.

    That being said, on rare occasion will I fix or clean something in post if asked… and that is when I decide to do it, or when it is something easy and have been assured by agent or owner, will be fixed like a small blemish on a wall. If you agree to remove something ethically, then CHARGE for the added service!!

  • Yep. Same rules here in Australia, regarding misrepresentation. Though the photography can be called up for responsibility too. I never alter anything that misrepresents reality, apart from the above mentioned temporary things. Yes, people have been brought to task for it here.
    If in doubt, just ask the realtor to put their request in writing to you so you have a record. That normally sorts them out and makes them think if they are doing something unethical. Wires, phone boxes, in my book are permanent things and it would be misrepresentation removing them.

  • One memorable modification I made to a large framed print in a town home owned by an older couple from India. I “photo shopped” it out. It was an ancient religious symbol used in the Indian subcontinent, East Asia and Southeast Asia for thousands of years. Throughout history it symbolized “well being”, or “good luck”. However in the 30s it was appropriated by the Nazi party as their symbol — the swastika. The agent and I (and the homeowners too) agreed that it might be misinterpreted by potential buyers.

  • Bottom line it folks…..you are working for the client/agent, not some third party warlord. If the client requests it, do it. What they do with that altered image is on them. Just because you have the talent to do this or that … does not make you a party to the clients restrictions.

    Get over yourselves, you are not the arbitrators of what is right or wrong.

  • Our local MLS (RMLS) has specific legal guidance for real estate photography.

    We cannot remove/modify anything that would not change throughout the normal course of events across a period of 2 weeks.

    By that definition, one could reasonably put forth an argument that an owner/agent could patch/reseed a chunk of dead lawn.

    An owner/agent could not take down a power pole or remove powerlines in the normal course of events in a given 2 week period.

    Removing/cloning out bark dust from a driveway? Sure.

    Removing garbage cans? Sure.

    Removing leftover nail holes in walls? Sure

    Changing the sky? Yup

    Taking out a tree? Nope

    Removing trees or other objects from a view of the cityscape? Nope

    What it comes down to is that making minor cosmetic changes is ok. Anything else? My thought is probably not. If someone wanted to be a stickler about it and cause some legal problems, they’d have reasonable cause to do so.

  • I look at removing permanent items much like using an ultra-wide lens. You’re misrepresenting the property. Just don’t do it

  • I learned during one of my first-year law classes that real estate is defined as that which “…includes the land and anything fixed, immovable, or permanently attached to it such as buildings, walls, fixtures, improvements, roads, trees, shrubs, fences, roads, sewers, structures, and utility systems.” [Law Dictionary: What is REAL ESTATE? definition of REAL ESTATE (Black’s Law Dictionary)]

    I take photos of real estate so I use that as my guide to leaving those things in.

  • There’s no ethics consideration here. It’s the Realtor, not the photographer who agreed to and signed the Code of Ethic with the National Association of Realtors, their state association and their local association. I work for the agent and follow the agent’s requests. I deliver both altered and unaltered images to the agent.

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