Words of Wisdom From A Long Time Real Estate Photographer

August 15th, 2010

Larry Andrew of Kansas City, Missouri posted a comment recently on a post I did back in Feb of this year titled “What Should I Charge for a Shoot?“. I the story that Larry relates is important enough I think it needs to be raised from the level of a comment on a 6 month old post to a post of it’s own.

Larry says:

I started shooting real estate images in 1995. At that time as a Commercial photographer my day rate was $1650.00 per day for a 10 hour day. I could and did shoot 10 interior views per day/house via set up, light, tear down, move on etc., etc. This was all digital as I discontinued shooting film in 1990. The cost of not shooting film, Polaroid, and processing helped the profit margin. I also charged for travel mileage and drive time. I settled into shooting for one local publication here in Kansas City Missouri, but to get all their work I needed to lower my fee to $125.00 per view plus travel fee of $60.00 per location average. I would average 15 views per month for that publication. We had 900 builders in KC Missouri western metro area of Kansas and all surrounding communities. 2009 economy tanked. There are probably a total of 100 builders now. During the high economy page count stood at 60-80 pages. The present issue was page count of 16 pages.
Last week the editor requested that I not charge a travel fee and reduce my imaging fee. I asked what she thought a fair fee would be…..she said XXXX photographer could shoot for $75 per view/shot and not charge a travel. I suggested that she should schedule her next assignment with XXXX photographer because I could not afford work for her any longer.

My point is, do not treat your work as a hobby but as a business. What are your expenses? Fuel, drive time, equipment, replacement cost, business insurance, medical insurance, office expenses, etc., etc. and do not forget paying yourself. Pencil to paper, you may find you are working for pennies per hour. If you undercut your peers you are really not hurting anyone but yourself. The best thing that happened to me in my 42 years of imaging is the digital camera. The worst thing that happened to me is the digital camera. In general, the quality of imaging has gone in the toilet for the bottom line as every real estate on site agent has their own digital and they shoot their own images. They also do their own hair cuts and brain surgery. Because you own a hammer does not make you a carpenter.

Larry’s comments relate a feeling that we’ve all felt and have been touched by in various ways and various extents in the last two years. Before the end of 2006 we were all living in an economic bubble. This bubble was in more than just real estate. The bursting of that bubble has forced all businesses to become more efficient just to keep going. Anything to do with print media has particularly been hit hard. Print media is disappearing from real estate marketing. Print media wasn’t particularly effective in the early 2000s but since  budgets weren’t very tight no one was forced to make changes.

Since the barrier to entry for digital photography is low and marketing budgets are tight, competing successfully is as much about customer service and selling your product as it is about the images.

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12 Responses to “Words of Wisdom From A Long Time Real Estate Photographer”

  • I hear these same kind of stories in all the photography forums over and over and I think a big factor is that the gap between high quality professional photography and “good enough” has gotten a lot closer. It sucks for us photographers, but I honestly have to side with the people wanting “good enough”. Why would anyone pay significantly more for only a small gain? I could buy a Phase One P65+ to do my work, but my cheap Canon Rebel for a fraction of the price suits my purposes just fine. Sure the quality isn’t going to be as good, but it is “good enough”. Sorry to be harsh, but for those photographers that can’t seem to make a living doing what they use to do need to adapt, or get out of the way.

  • I agree with you Brad. For quite a while I immersed myself in learning exposure blending, the use of off camera flash and fretted whether my skills were worthy of getting paid for real estate work. Then I saw the services, prices and caliber of work that’s out there.

    I think some of the folks in the RE photography community live in a rarified- somewhat detached from reality world. I not saying we should all dumb down our skills to fit in but we must realize that probably 95% of the homes we’ll end up shooting don’t look like the ones we feature on our websites and see on flickr. In addition 95% of the people who look at our pictures don’t know there is a difference between high quality professional photography and “good enough” . Once I accepted this it made my life a lot easier.

  • Brad and Dan, you both raise an interesting (and mostly valid) point. Much of RE Marketing Photography has fallen to the “Good Enough” level. Fortunately, most of the agents using “Good Enough” as a standard are (in my market) typically using outdated and effective marketing techniques, or losing out to more successful colleagues.

    Let’s consider the primary logic behind using the best possible images to market a home. The obvious advantage is that great photos will attract slightly more attention than photos that are “Good Enough.” Is it worth it? I have to concede that it depends on the market and pricing. A single-digit increase in traffic is well worth a few hundred dollars to many agents. Low-end, REO, and short sales may not yield the same results, so it’s not quite a blanket suggestion.
    So, how about the second reason an agent should consider using a top pro for images? An agent with a perceived edge in marketing should be able to leverage that advantage to get more listings. Most agents make similar claims about listing the property, advertising/web presence, open houses, etc. Some promote themselves by offering to bring in a professional photographer. A rare few insist that only the top RE Marketing Photographers will shoot their listings. Want to guess how these agents rank against their peers?

    I have built my business by providing the best possible images at 2-3x the price point that the “Guy With A Camera” or mass-market RE photo companies offer. Considering the secondary reason to use a top pro and spend a little more may be considered an adaptation or just part of the sales process. Either way, it’s the reason why I will be hard to convince that there is any real erosion in our field. Yes, we’re certainly facing overwhelming dilution of the profession, but there will always be a need, a demand, and a budget for something that far exceeds “Good enough.”

  • I agree with Daniel. I am constantly striving to improve my product and aiming for the top tier agents. Anything less is leaving money on the table and I hate doing that!

  • “..Fuel, drive time, equipment, replacement cost, business insurance, medical insurance, office expenses, etc., etc. and do not forget paying yourself….”

    Well, I’ll play devil’s advocate here. $75/view x 10 views per house is more than I charge on a typical RE shoot. Yet I’m insured, I have the gear I want, and I’m making several times the national average wage for freelance photographers (and way, way more than I earned in my former corporate life). I take vacations, I do pretty much what I want, I’m happy as hell. So what’s wrong with that picture? I kind of resent it when someone else tells me that my income has to satisfy THEM, and not ME.

  • “..Fuel, drive time, equipment, replacement cost, business insurance, medical insurance, office expenses, etc., etc. and do not forget paying yourself….”

    Well, I’ll play devil’s advocate here. $75/view x 10 views per house is more than I charge on a typical RE shoot. Yet I’m insured, I have the gear I want, and I’m making several times the national average wage for freelance photographers (and way, way more than I earned in my former corporate life). I take vacations, I do pretty much what I want, I’m happy as hell. So what’s wrong with that picture? I kind of resent it when someone else tells me that my income has to satisfy THEM, and not ME.

    The market has changed, and RE has split off from traditional architectural day rate work. If you don’t recognize that fact, then sure, you’ll be bitter and angry. If you adapt to it and provide the product that your clients want, (“pretty good” for RE agents, “Excellent” for day rate clients) then you’ll do very well.

  • DSLR’s are wonderful! Over the years I’ve unloaded all of my dark room equipment, thanks to Ebay, but have kept all of my antique SLR Nikons.

    I am both a professional photographer and a real estate agent, and I teach architectural photography at one of Houston’s real estate schools. I maintain a few clients, but not too many. I mainly rely on my photo skills to compliment my personal listings.

    If photographers think that they will make a really good living shooting properties for real estate agents by charging excessive amounts for photos, then they are in the same boat as book publishers and newspapers who are still competing with Kindle and the Ipad. Times are changing. DSLR’s are becoming more easier to use by the day as well as photo imaging software.

    As an example of shooting a home, in my last class, I presented a listing I shot entirely with my new Iphone 4, and used the photo apps that are available for the iPhone, most of which sell for less than $5.00, to make them presentable. Granted I didn’t have the wide angle views I could get with my Nikon(s), but they weren’t all that bad. I wouldn’t use them in a real live listing but I say this to state that photography hardware, software, and presentation is changing, and doing so rapidly. Complaining about it just won’t help.

    My first P.C. had two disk drives, a 10 MB hard drive, and 256K of memory. It was top of the line, and cost over $3,000. You know what a P.C. costs today, 10% of that amount, and are light years ahead of the old ones. My iphone is more powerful than my first P.C.

    Times are a changing and we gotta change with ’em.

    Doug Scott

  • As a full time real estate agent in a market with an average home sales price of under $200,000, I can tell you, I can’t afford to pay a professional photographer. I am, however, armed with enough knowledge about photography to create images that are satisfactory, better than most of the agent’s pictures in my market, and yes, good enough…

    I have seen high-end listings with CRAPPY, and I mean CRAPPY pictures SELL. Why? Because the pictures weren’t the hook; the location and price and other specs of the home WERE. Photography is but one small part of real estate sales. It’s really a small part. If a property is in a good area with an aggressive price, it WILL sell even with only 1 picture.

    Real estate photographers may not like my comment, but it’s the truth. I’d like to say that my awesome pictures of a thrice expired listing sold the listing (the buyers said they fell in love with it based on the pictures…) BUT we also have to factor in that I corrected information (previous agents said it was only 600 square feet, instead of 1500!) and we brought the price down by almost $30,000. I’d love to be cocky and say it was just my pictures (they were awesome compared to the previous ones) but the truth is, it was the combination of the right price and the right marketing….the pictures were a part but not the major player.

    It’s very frustrating to me, as I take time to make my pictures good – I sharpen them, lighten/darken them, enhance the saturation, straighten them, use the clone brush to eliminate stray cords or other temporary distractions, correct backlighting….I spend a LOT of time. Then some schmuck who can’t even be bothered to lighten and sharpen his pictures posts something that looks like the home of a vampire, and gets the listing sold….

  • @ Karen,

    No doubt what you’re saying is true for your market, but there’s a HUGE difference in urban areas. What works in rural America does not necessarily apply in the city. It’s an entirely different ballgame.

  • Karen Rice, what? What applies to you and your market must apply to the rest of the world? Of course homes that are priced low relative to the market (I mean with respect to actual sales, not homeowners’ fantasies about what they think the market should be) are going to sell. And, if the photography that you are using is indeed significantly better than the competitions’, that may very well be all you need to get by.

    Housing is much more expensive in my market than in your area, and using professional photography (albeit with major differences in quality) for listings is common practice. Furthermore, my market area and and its homes, on average, tend to have relatively high aesthetic appeal, which can only be conveyed effectively through the media with quality photography, and which is impossible for the vast majority of realtors to create themselves. For example, I just shot a rustic 700 square foot cottage way up in the mountains above Silicon Valley, priced at $600,000, which is pretty low for this area. The house itself was perfectly mundane, but the wooded surroundings were pretty. My fees are a bit higher than those for mainstream professional real estate photography in my area, yet the realtor was happy to pay my rate and was ecstatic about the results, not only because I conveyed the obvious appeal of the wooded surroundings, but because I showed the modest interior to its best advantage.

    The point is not that listings that do not have professional photography will not sell. It is that quality professional photography can help homes sell faster. So, even if using professional photography for listings is not common in your area, if you could tell prospective clients that professional photography was helping you sell homes much faster than your competition (still assuming realistic listing prices of course), might that not gve you an edge and help you get more listings?

    You argue that the low average sale price in you area doesn’t leave any room in your commission for hiring professional photographers. However, because of the low average sale price, I would assume that your area has a relatively low cost of living, which, I would think, would enable local professional photographers to offer lower rates than in areas with more expensive housing. If the overall cost of living relative to housing in your area is high, that is of course another matter.

    One last thing to think about. Your photos may be decent with respect to the competition, but are they really compelling marketing photos or merely clear documentary ones? Photos that are, clear, well-exposed overall and do a reasonable job of showing the details of the property are certainly good, but actually making a property look attractive is another matter completely. The most attractive properties in the world will look pretty mundane with merely basic, competent, informational photos. Conversely, a highly skilled photographer can make an ordinary home look, if not like a luxury property, at least like some place someone might actually enjoy living, instead of just basic shelter.

  • This is a very simple example of the sales food chain. The “good enough” photographers seem to gravate towards the good enough agents, and vise virsa. The agents who are at the top of the market and are making the big bucks in any market are using photographers like Hargis, Milstein, and others of such tallent, its not rocket science its just smart. A very successful agent here in Oz once told me he surrounds himself with people with greater skills than he would ever have and then uses those skills to build a platform for him to stand on ……

  • Great real estate marketing photography will not sell a property. (Yes, I said that!)

    The primary reason to employ the best photographer you can afford for your market is to help sell a property faster and for more money than comparable offerings in the same area.

    The best agents will often tell their clients that the photos they use don’t sell the property. The photos simply help the property stand out against others with poor images used by the competition.

    Most of us know what a fast food cheeseburger tastes like. In theory, we should all just buy the cheapest burger. Do we? More often than not, we buy the burger that appeals to us the most. Sure, the price has to be in the correct range, but there’s no way we’re going to flock to buy something that looks less than appealing in the marketing photos.

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