How Do You Compete When You are A Beginning Real Estate Photographer

January 29th, 2015


I just got a great question from Jason, a beginning real estate photographer reading my Business of Real Estate Photography e-book:

I’m finding that the top listing agents already have professional photographers they are loyal to.  I’m curious  how a newbie, like me, breaks into doing business with this small “top agent” circle.

How you deal with this situation is key to getting started in markets where there is high demand for real estate photography. Here are my suggestions for Jason:

  1. Understand your competition in detail: What do they charge, what kind of work do they do, what kind of product do they deliver… tours etc. What kind of customer service do they provide. The more you understand your competition the more you will know what you need to do to compete with them. You may be competing with the tour your competitors deliver rather than the photography.
  2. Expand your target: If literally all of the top 5% or 10% of agents in your market have a photographers, expand your target until you get to agents that aren’t using professional photography. You probably need to shoot for less successful agents for awhile before you can compete directly the top shooters in you area
  3. Make sure your quality is as good as your competition: That is, look as good as your competition. Be careful though, many agents are not that visually sophisticated… they may be choosing their photographer based on other criteria other than photo quality.
  4. Customer service is typically more important than how your photos look technically: A big, big part of your product is customer service… how fast you deliver, how easy you are to work with, how easy you are to schedule with etc. Don’t assume that because an agent uses a photographer that they are happy with them. They may be looking for a change… market the top agent even though they have a photographer.
  5. Deliver a quality tour included with your shoot: Tours can be a big part of getting business especially if the competition isn’t supplying a tour with their shoots.
  6. Try teaming up with a stager in your area: Try teaming up with a stager to offer a combined deal. Many upper-end agents use stagers and this is a good way to connect with top agents.
  7. Dare to be innovative and different: To compete in a market where there are well established photographers you need great marketing and you need to come up with something that sets you apart from the rest… this takes innovation. This could be free introductory shoots or other incentives to make you stand out in the crowd.
  8. Don’t just lower your price:  I suggest that you carefully consider not just competing by lowering your price. Honor the pricing that has already been established in your market area. Think about being socially responsible and not undercutting established photographers.

What other ideas/suggestions do you have for competing in a high demand market? I’m sure there are many other great ideas out there.

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14 Responses to “How Do You Compete When You are A Beginning Real Estate Photographer”

  • This happened to me A LOT when I was starting out (I swear there are AT LEAST 100 real estate photographers in Seattle!). I always told the realtor that I appreciated their loyalty to their photographer (and really meant it) and asked them to keep my contact information if their photographer was ever too busy or they needed a back up for any reason. I also started offering same day delivery which, at the time, no one else was doing. Over time I started winning agents over.

  • Be different…

  • Once you have determined the price you HAVE to make to be a viable business, stick with it. If it is lower than long established RE photographers in the area charge, try to see what you might be leaving out. You might not be setting your sights high enough or have forgotten something in your SG&A (Selling, General and Administrative costs). Always leave some room to offer discounts to agents that book lots of jobs with you. I have a minimum price for a standard home in a particular city. If the agent can book another job or two on the same day, I’ll drop the price to reflect my lowered travel costs.

    Service is the key. As Mailia wrote, a quicker turn-around than everybody else could hold much value for some agents. I’m not a fan of “Virtual Tours”, but there may be other services you can offer with low costs in time and/or materials that still have a high perceived value. If you are good with graphic design, a portfolio of standard brochure templates would be nice to have where agents can submit a blurb for the property and get a brochure(.pdf or inDesign or … except Publisher, which print shops hate) with their photos ready to submit to the print shop. Never promise anything that you aren’t certain you can do or agree to a deadline you may not be able to meet. It is much better to say no than to say yes and fail to deliver.

    If the listings in your area use very little to no professional photography, you will want to start slowly. Ie, don’t quit your day job. What may look like a target rich environment could be the complete opposite. Many agents are not going to change unless they find they have to. If the listing photos on the local MLS are all horrible, then they aren’t falling behind the curve and, why should they spend any money, the homes wind up selling anyway. I’m always amazed at the lack of drive most agents have in an occupation that can richly reward their efforts. Most other jobs pay you a salary and you’re lucky to get a raise each year regardless of how much extra you put into your work.

    The technical quality of images will top out at some level in the eyes of the non-photographers. The difference between the quality I can produce and what the agent is taking on their cell phone is very obvious. My work compared to what I would consider much better photographers might be lost on many agents. Even if they do see the better quality, they will not likely be willing to pay 3 to 4 times the cost. The value isn’t there for their intended usage. This is especially the case where even using a newly minted RE photographer is going to out shine the photos on every other listing. You will want to keep this in mind when selecting equipment. After a point, another 10 megapixels at several thousand dollars premium isn’t going to attract more clients or a higher price for your work. A Yongnuo flash system will look exactly the same to the agent as the latest Canon or Nikon speedlites. I do suggest going for the best lenses you can afford. Top end glass will make the most quality difference and it will hold it’s value over the long term. The benefit of staying to the middle of the road on bodies and accessories is that you might find enough budget to purchase a back up body and flashes. My back up is my previous main body and while it’s long in the tooth now, I can finish a job or make it to my next appointment if something happens to my primary body. My goal this year, besides more glass, is to sell my oldest body and purchase two of the best crop frame Canon’s being sold when I make my purchase. My current main body will act as my second backup and “risky business” body.

    There is no one way to establish yourself so try a bit of everything and keep track of what works for you in your market. Advertising is worthless if you don’t track the return you are getting for your investment, so ask everybody how they heard about you (and write it down). Getting out and meeting your customers in person is always a good tactic. We may buy products from complete strangers, but we prefer to purchase services from people we know and trust. Always have a ready supply of business cards to hand and store them so they don’t get dirty and dogeared. I keep a business card case in my pocket and another stack of cards in a zip lock baggie in the car. I have good quality Polo-style shirts embroidered with my name and “Photography” and wear them everywhere I go professionally. It’s a good icebreaker and starts conversations with agents when at meeting and mixers.

    Nothing screams “unprofessional” like a Gmail, yahoo, hotmail or other free email service. Get a website with your own domain name and email addresses. Get a business telephone line. My Blu smartphone has two SIM cards (two phone numbers). There are even models with 4 SIM capability. With the family plans available from all the service providers, the second line won’t be as expensive. You many even wind up with more total data allowance. If you stay away from the latest iPhone or Samsung offering, you will have several hundred dollars left over for an Android tablet that makes for a good camera interface and presentation device.

  • I should add that you should keep track of what is most important to your clients individually. While your competition may be offering added services with their packages, find out if those services really do hold any value to the agents. While one agent may weight the number of images over the quality, another may value quality and turnaround time over sheer quantity. The first question I am usually asked is how much I charge. I counter the question by asking what the agent wants. If I had an all-in package with a tour, brochures, uploading services, etc., I’d have to charge for all of my time where the agent’s office might already have a staff member to perform those functions at no cost to the agent and all they really want is higher quality photos than the office photographer/janitor/gopher can manage with the old office P&S.

    Do what you can to get in the Rolodex of the agents that already have a steady photographer. That photographer is going to be on a vacation, will have an equipment failure or be out sick some time when the agent needs photos made. Without being too much of a pest, you want to be remembered on that opportunity.

  • Do something no one else is doing. Be good at what you do. Hustle.

  • I love this question because we ALL start out being the newbie and have to find our place! I started out joining my local Realtor Association and attended all there meetings/mixers/events. I remained loyal to the meetings, therefore I started to get to know everyone and they trusted me because they saw me so often. It took about 1.5 years to really see the fruits of my labors. It’s never easy being the newbie. I definitely recommend creating a team for yourself. I have a go-to person for Staging, Title, Escrow, Mortgage/Lender, Handyman, etc…. I refer them and they refer me. Sometime we will even do a presentation of our services at a local real estate office together. NEVER lower your price, remain firm in that it’s worth the cost. Goodluck!!!

  • “I’m finding that the top listing agents already have professional photographers they are loyal to. I’m curious how a newbie, like me, breaks into doing business with this small “top agent” circle. ”

    Simple, don’t start at the top.
    Start developing your own loyal circle of agents who aren’t top producers yet.

  • Also, be realistic. I live in a small market where only 1800 – 2000 homes sell annually. Of that, as the top shooter, I do 300ish homes for the top agents. That means there are 1500 other possible opportunities theoretically, and the question is how to get those other homes. Many of those agents P/S or even cell phone those properties, because they are cheapskates, or they don’t see the value that pro work adds, or who knows… It’s not that all those properties are inexpensive, many list just as high as the homes I shoot, it’s that the agents doing the listing aren’t marketing them as well as they should be.

    I did a shoot for free for a realtor last week just to show him the difference… and he had a buy-sell the next day, to his surprize. But, will he invest in more? God only knows.

  • i agree

  • It can be tough starting out as a professional photographer, regardless of you’re chosen specialty or general area of expertise.

    It’s more than luck, greater than skill and better than you’re best efforts that lead to success. Regardless, you need to consider the fact that sometimes tenacity is your best friend. As long as you keep trying, nothing is out of the realm of possibility.

    I’ll share a little secret… it took me 42 years to become what I would consider a success as a pro tog. Does that mean I earn a decent living? Does that mean I work with a stable of top clentele. Does that mean I find reward in my career?

    Yes, yes and yes. Take the time to try everything, fall on your face, become what you always believed you could be. Be fearless.

    No one here knows any better than you. Follow your instincts, fail a lot, lose all hope, then try again. This is your life, think out loud and take every risk that you can imagine.

    Lastly, don’t listen to everyone on the internet. Take what you need and leave the rest in the dust.

  • Try a newsletter to remind (future) clients you’re out there. MailChimp is a good one. Most letters are free if you can live with a tiny attribution on the bottom, very inexpensive if not. You’ll be astonished by how effective a once per month email blurb is ***if*** you follow some best practices:

    #1 Once a month (actually, about 3.5 weeks is optimal). More and you’re a pest headed into a spam folder, or worse yet unsubscribed.

    #2 Keep it short and give them something. How perfect for photographers! Send an awesome picture and a relevant paragraph under it. Just keep it s-h-o-r-t.

    #3 DO NOT just add an email on your list – Get their permission up front. Go shake hands, offer a card and embrace the rejection; “we’re already using Joe, he’s been our guy for 10 years” etc etc… then say this: Okay darn-it, but I’m going to send you 1 favorite masterpiece picture a month, in case you ever change your mind, is that okay? (SMILE BIG when you ask). They’ll say yes. They always do. Add them to your list.

    The only cast-in-stone rule for the (couple sentence) paragraph below your masterpiece pic is that you NEVER talk about yourself. Best paragraphs will make them laugh or think or gasp or grimace… Don’t be bashful, smack them right between the eyes.

    My ***simple*** newsletter averages over 70% open rate (real estate industry standard is exactly 20%). I get return/replies and even “I liked your letter” phone calls every month.

  • Well said Dean! That’s the recipe for success in any industry.

  • All my estate agent clients were using another pro before me, or continue to use other pros as well as me, so I wouldn’t worry at all about that. I don’t know about your market but in mine I wouldn’t even bother approaching anyone who wasn’t already paying for photography as that would mean their listings would probably not be the standard I want to shoot. When you get told they already have a favoured pro just say that you appreciate it, although you’re not looking to step on their current photographer’s toes and would be happy just to receive the odd instruction. Suggest to them that they try you out on one property just so that they can be convinced that you’d be a good photographer to turn to when their regular one goes on holiday or in case of emergency. I would even ask them what they did last time their photog went on holiday.

  • “Money talks,BS walks”.The way I did it was very simple,Just business cards,no emails no promotions no nothing,just go and undercut every body else and if you have to do it for 80 or 100 dollars so be it………the idea is to get your foot on the door and if you good they are going to find out pretty soon and an no time you are going to have plenty of work…….after a while you can then start raising your price by then they already know who you are and they will have no problem to pay more because you are worth it.All the suggestions in this forum are good specially the one from Dean Evan Francis,he’s right on the money.This is the way I did it and it works,I did it for almost a year and then I did pump it up little by little,now I am comfortable with what I am making and am very confident to say no when they ask me to do it for $80…I just tell them those days are gone .Bottom line is THEY HAVE TO KNOW YOU FIRST………….I wish you all the best

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