How Much Should You Pay A Real Estate Photography Contractor?

March 4th, 2015

ContratorPayChris posed the following question yesterday:

Our real estate photography business has grown quite a bit and I am anticipating needing to have 1-3 photographers on call for the busy spring / summer season. Does anyone have a recommendation of what to pay? I am scheduling the shoot and delivering the shots. I just need to pay for onsite photography and editing. I have paid 33% of the package price. Others are asking for $25 / hour. Anyone have a system that works well for paying? I’m talking sub-contractor work, and they have their own gear.

Excellent question! The big tour companies pay as little as $30 to $50 a shoot which most will agree is too low. I see from your site your basic shoot price is $249. I suggest that 33% to 50% of the billed shoot price would make sense. Although this only makes sense because your shoot price is relatively healthy. If you were charging $100 a shoot you’d be down there with the big tour companies. I’m sure where the $25/hour is coming from is average earnings data.

I think you should consider several things when deciding what to pay contractors:
  1. Travel costs shouldn’t eat up the contractors wage. Establish a service area outside of which you charge extra. This would control travel costs.
  2. I think contractors should be payed for the quality of work and reliability. That is, start someone at a lower rate until they demonstrate their quality of work and reliability. A contractor that can deliver the quality you want and be dependable is very valuable to your business and should be paid more.
  3. You should track what a contractor is doing to the point you know approximately how much per hour they are making even though you aren’t paying them by the hour. I think a business owners should know if contractors are making a living otherwise you could loose good people. Many newbies would take on a contracting job like this and not even knowing if they were loosing money. Many cities in the US (Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, Chicago) are moving towards a  minimum wage in the area of $15/hour.
  4. I would be concerned with maintaining a consistent high quality product that you show on your site when you are hiring short term  temporary contractors. I’d establish some quality standards and do some training so you make sure you keep your quality high.

How are others out there deciding what to pay real estate photography contractors?

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25 Responses to “How Much Should You Pay A Real Estate Photography Contractor?”

  • Ask most small business owners (and big one too) what the 3 biggest headaches they have and and I’ll venture a bet the answer to all three will be employees (or sub-contractors).

    In the photo business it’s difficult to clone yourself. Personally if I found my business growing to the point I needed more photographers, then I’m probably not charging enough. I would raise my prices, have less but higher paying clients and avoid the headaches (and expense) of hiring photo sub-contractors or staff photographers. At least in the real estate business. Of course that is unless you want to become a ‘shop’ and grind them out.

    Nothing wrong with hiring an assistant to help with shoots, but the quality of the final product is still yours. I don’t know of a single high end real estate photographer that works with sub-contractors. Most just grow beyond shooting real estate for agents and become architectural photographers shoot for higher end clients.

    At least that’s how I see it.

  • How would you go about preventing the contractor from poaching your clients?

  • I agree with Chet and Jay 100%. Raise your prices and enjoy your life. It’s difficult to maintain high quality and mass quantity at the same time. Look at fast “food”… would you shoot for $25-$50? If so, for how long before you started your own photo biz or found a better anything. If you have to do it, give the shooter 60%-70% of the fee and allow them to grow with you. That doesn’t sound very appealing either 😐

    My clients come back to me because of the quality of my work and the quality of their experience with me. I don’t know how I could maintain those two key factors in my business if I wasn’t there making it happen.
    Just some thoughts.

  • RE work is about 1/2 of my business with sports photography the rest. I am currently on assignment 1600klm from home for nearly 2 weeks. I have a sub-contractor who covers my clients while I am away and I pay her per shoot (around $50/hour). My workflow is bracketed images and exposure fusion which she shoots and then transfers to me for processing. This offers some protection from her deciding one day to approach clients directly.

  • The problem addressed here is not so much one of what to pay as it is how do I change my business model and is it worth it. You can’t expand your business successfully by hiring subcontractors. You have to start a new business and run it vs. deliver.

    Most professional RE photographers sell themselves and not a commodity. In order to expand you have to clone yourself. You can’t do that. It’s not the business model most have. You have to create an agency business model with yourself at the top managing and acting in a business development mode.

    That agency model requires a lot more business maybe 3 to 4 times as much before you are making what you can on your own.

    So… the advice of raise your prices and sit back and deliver what you sell is a good one. Once at capacity you can only work more efficiently or raise prices in order to earn more. You’re in a one man business model. Oh and frankly a realistic “one man revenue” capacity of this business is somewhere between $50 and $100k. Please note I’m not saying profit I’m saying revenue what you collect from your billing. If anyone here says that they are making more than $100k (in RE photography) they are not a one man show or they are working way more than they should or they have other more profitable revenue streams in their one man business. In order to hit that everything has to be hitting perfect all the time.

  • Not to offend, but it’s frankly none of your business how much a contractor makes per hour… that IS the nature of being a contractor, ie “own tools”, and hence, “own overhead, own healthcare plan, own insurance, own car, own expenses, own estimated tax payments, etc”. It presumtious of you to even suggest such a thing.

    All there is, is “how much do you charge?” and a simple yes or no to engage.

    I find the suggestion of $25hr completely absurd. This is a business, not a hobby. At the very least this service should bill out at $100per hour, which of course means the contractor must absolutely know how to do it well, and do it efficiently. That means if the realtor has a budget of $200, at that rate, the contractor has a total of 2 hours to shoot and process the job. So, I guess that means, that if the realtor had $50 to spend, I could do a 15 minute shoot, and 15mins of process… but I wouldn’t, because you can’t even climb out of bed for $50 and expect to make a living. What exactly could you accomplish in 15 minutes anyway? And that’s just a hypothethical rate based on what I bill out. Others charge more then I do, but none should charge less.

  • Interesting Kelvin, you open by saying “it’s none of you business…” then close to say in so many words, you charge $100 per hour and no one should charge less. Kind of doesn’t make sense. it was only a question posed by a person who wanted to hire a subcontractor.

    Now all that being said I saw you work and its very nice and in my opinion your rates are right on for your work. Your work however is not RE photography. It’s more architectural Photography, different use, different product and different clients.

    If you run a business and can get employees for $25 an hour (BTW that’s $50k a year) you should. Starting teachers are not paid that much. For an RE photographer that is subcontracting that’s an appropriate rate. An architectural photographer would not be applying for that job, their qualifications are much greater than the job requires. If you applied for a job as a portrait photographer at JC Penny’s your skills and qualifications would be far beyond the job requirements. You could not “demand” your rates. Most likely they would not think of hiring you even at their rates. You would be over qualified.


  • Newbie Here- While the discussion focuses on subcontracting and comparable wages what about staging? Does that enter the equation? If so how do subcontractor wages enter into the discussion? Thanks for your time

  • I think Frank raises an excellent point, once you expand beyond a single person/family business, the business model becomes different and there is a whole set of new things to think about and as several point out it is not all that clear that it’s worth it. I know there are people out there that claim to have made this subcontractor business model work.

    @Max – This discussion has nothing to do with Staging. Agents and homeowners decide whether to stage a listing and the agent pays for the staging typically. This discussion is about expanding a RE photography business by contracting with photographers to take on some of your shoots during peak times.

  • Frank, there isn’t any difference between being a contractor, and being a subcontractor. They are both self-employed, which means they both have expenses.

    From the POV of the IRS, a contractor must be able to show that a sub isn’t just an off-the-books employee, which means W9’s and tax ID’s, and if you don’t have that in place, they can make the contractor liable for employee obligations.

  • Kelvin I’m not sure where you are coming from with your reply. I don’t think your reply was directed at me. Maybe it was directed to Max.

    Your point about IRS etc. supports what I said. It’s a different business model than a Sole Proprietorship/LLC. It becomes a multi employee business with a different business model.

  • Chris,

    I normally don’t post on here but after reading through the comments I wanted to throw my two cents in.

    So far the consensus is to stay a one man show. That’s certainly a good option. But if you want to make subcontractors work, you can. I’ve been in real estate photography for many years and I quickly had to hire help to meet demand…I’m talking a few months in. No one in my market was offering this service when I started up and so houses that I photographed were flying off the market and my name got out there quick. I raised my prices and hired help at the same time. A few months later I raised my prices and hired more help. This has been the trend for years. My prices are triple what I started out at (admittedly I started very low because I didn’t know about resources like this website to help me figure out appropriate pricing) and I now have three photographers, a photo processor, an office manager, and two virtual assistants that help out with misc tasks. We shoot 100+ homes a month. This summer we’re thinking it’s going to land around 150 on average. It takes a full team to run that kind of operation. Since we have a dedicated photo processor, all the photographers images come out looking the same for the most part.

    Being a one man show was never an option for me because I think too long term. I loved photographing houses but I also love to go out of town for a week. Is that possible as a one man show? Sure. But my clients sure as heck wouldn’t like that much. Many of the clients I work for list multiple properties each week. They want photos yesterday. Not a week from today. And what about when I’m 80 years old? Do I really want to be out shooting houses and editing photos for 30-40 hours a week? I’d rather have a business that can work without me overseeing every single thing. And that’s what I’ve built. I’m not saying the others are wrong here but I am saying that if you want to hire someone, do it. There are precautions that you need to take and there are several good points that were brought up in the comments that you’ll have to figure out solutions for. But it’s possible.

    One suggestion I’d make…look at outsourcing your editing first. That’s an easy way to free up some time and still be the face of your company. Then if you need to hire photographers in the future you’ll have a consistent editing look at least. And it’ll be easier to hire help since they won’t have to have editing skills. It also helps with the whole “what if they try and copy your business” question. My people don’t have any editing skills so they couldn’t copy my business without first figuring out the ins and outs of editing. And my photographers make enough money that I don’t think they’d try and go out on their own and have to deal with shooting, editing, clients relations, invoicing, collecting payments, taking orders, etc. We handle everything for them. They simply show up and shoot and move on to the next house.

    Anyways, best of luck to you with whatever you decide.

  • Like Frank, I think this a fair and valid question. If one does not want to say how much they charge, I will just hire another subcontractor, but to Kelvin’s point, if I understand it right, that information is private and good business sense dictates that if widely known by your competition, they can use it against you. So be careful where you share it.

    To the question though, Larry suggested that the entry level package is running $249 for Chris’s business. So he has to work with that as a way to back out the costs involved in running his business…. A little backward for me, I would have researched what it was going to take to hire a qualified photographer that could deliver, than my other costs, then come up with a price for the package. Just saying….

    As the RE Pro’s know here, there is no magic number to pay because each area is unique with the demographics. You need to research your area as to what is going to fly and what is a pipe dream. Another factor to be concerned about is what are those “photographers” going to be doing in their down time? If they are good, then I would think they would have their own business going and your clients and theirs are going to cross. Before you come back with a “I will have a non-compete contract”, they are not enforceable in most US States.

    Just scheduling the shoot and delivering the shots is not that big a deal, so while I you might get someone who has no desire to go out and drum up business, I would question the enthusiasm that they would bring to your clients when they arrive. Most know that the client relations between the photographer and client are a key element in success.

    I am concerned with the tone of the statement “I just need to pay for onsite photography and editing…. I’m talking sub-contractor work, and they have their own gear.” Most pros have at least several thousand dollars invested in their craft and are updating all the time. The onsite photography, editing and delivery (to you) is practically the whole process, yet the tone of the statement, suggest that you do not value it that much.

    Bottom line, there are a lot of companies doing this, but I have not seen any that provide consistent quality work.

  • Bingo Phil, I could not agree more. You can build a business by keeping in mind the business model that you had. Unfortunately there does not seem to be any real in between. You build with that 100 plus homes a month in mind and with dedicated task employees (that takes volume) as you have. You can’t go half way. You can’t halfway jump off the cliff. It’s a big leap and all or nothing.

    Congrats on you growing business. I’m 67 and don’t want that. I’ve run a $100 million a year business as Director of Operations and quit when I was 59. This is fun for me and what I make goes to help those in need, but I still run it as a business with the mind that I should be making a living at it. It’s still business and I like business as much as art and photography. It’s fun when it all can come together.

  • If you pay by the job, you need to make sure that the pay exceeds minimum wage for an average amount of time spent on a job. To be safe, the pay should be well above minimum wage. More complex jobs should pay more and travel time should be part of the equation since the job site is not fixed. As you are likely expecting that the contractors will be supplying their own equipment, you should also factor in a rental price for that gear so they will be able to maintain their equipment and get repairs for things that break. Copyright assignments and other ownership/licensing agreements should be in writing in advance of having the contractor do any work.

    If the additional photographers will be hired as employees, get a copy of your state’s employer’s guide to find out about tax reporting, workman’s comp insurance and other notification/reporting requirements. If you are hiring people as independent contractors, be sure to fully understand how to maintain the legal framework to support that assertion. If you treat them like an employee, the IRS may reclassify them as employees and require you to pay taxes and penalties in arrears. If you search the IRS web site you can find a very nebulous booklet on Independent Contractor vs. Employee.

  • @Frank I was just trying to answer your concern, though probably doing it in a round-a-bout way.

    I just think there are too many liabilities should one decide to consider subcontractors, – legal, financial, and otherwise. How do you dot the i’s and cross the t’s with subcontractors?

    For instance, let’s say Darwin the RE Photo Contractor subs out a shoot to Harry the Guy With Camera. Harry shows up, and in the entry, there is a large nude Rodan sculpture. Being a perfectionist, Harry needs the proper angle to shoot the stairs, which puts him in close proximity to the Rodan, and sets up the tripod, but then notices a dustbunny halfway down the hall, and knows Darwin doesn’t want to clone out dustbunnies, so he goes to remove it… but, he forgot tighten down one of the tripod legs, so it falls over towards the nude Rodan, breaking it’s “winkie” clean off!

    Who’s liable? Contractor, sub, or homeowner? How does the contractor explain to the homeowner and the RE client that the sub doesn’t carry an insurance policy, and the contractor’s policy doesn’t cover subs? Can a contractor even buy insurance that covers subs? Will the contractor do due diligence and insist the sub has a tax id, liability insurance, and whatever else the state requires?

    It’s just not as easy as it sounds. I wonder if these big tour providers tend to operate across state lines, where maybe it appears the lines of liability are blurred? Or do they require their subs to be covered? And that begs the question: If a sub has to carry the same legal stuff that the contractor does, why work for less? IMO, the proper rate is whatever the usual shooting fee is, with the assumption that the sub will be legal and covered. And that may be why many of us don’t go that route. During the spring market, I work each day until my eyes bleed, and so far I haven’t had to turn work away, but I’m exhausted by July 1. I also make enough during the spring market that I really wouldn’t have to work the rest of the year, but I do, because I love working.

    In any case, my initial bristling to the question had to do with the way it was worded, as if hiring somebody to do the same work for less was a winning business model, especially if one could avoid all the legal hassle of paying workman’s comp, withholding taxes, etc that you’d have to do with employees. Maybe that wasn’t the implication… it’s just the impression I get when someone is suggesting per/hr rates with subcontractors. I don’t agree with the large tour company mode of re photography, as I think it cheapens and devalues this industry, which already has a certain amount of fragility to it, being completely unregulated.

  • Kelvin, Ok I got it and I fully agree with you. It’s complicated way beyond “what should I pay someone.” That’s that last thing to worry about. If you haven’t got those others things figured out and do them right you will pay in the end.

    I agree these big tour companies are a scourge but they are a legitimate business. Fortunately if anyone cares about quality you will win. For those who don’t care about quality these are an option. For me I don’t want to work with anyone who doesn’t care about the quality they get. Those folks tend to be bad clients anyway.

  • I would say, “you may not get what you pay for, but you rarely get what you don’t pay for”. In other words, don’t pay so little that you get the poorly-skilled bottom dwellers from the outset because it will take your time, energy and money to train, then replace them. Rates are very, very region-dependent, so what is fair pay in San Francisco is probably crazy high in the midwest.

  • “frankly a realistic “one man revenue” capacity of this business is somewhere between $50 and $100k. Please note I’m not saying profit I’m saying revenue what you collect from your billing. If anyone here says that they are making more than $100k (in RE photography) they are not a one man show or they are working way more than they should or they have other more profitable revenue streams in their one man business. In order to hit that everything has to be hitting perfect all the time.”

    Dude…where are you getting your facts? SO MANY examples of people blowing your imagined revenue cap away…these are people I know personally.

    Ultimately, there are two kinds of people here – entrepreneurs, and photographers. The entrepreneur thinks first about the money. Some of them do really well. Most don’t. Many don’t want to put the work in to actually learn Photography (with a capitol “P”) and end up in the high-volume, low-fee rat race, where it’s incredibly difficult to really make much money for the medium-to-long term. There’s always someone who’s willing to do the exact same mediocre work for less money.

    The real estate photographers I know who make the most money are the ones who focused first and foremost on the Photographs. They just love making photographs, and would be doing it for free if they weren’t getting paid anyway. And coincidentally, because they’re constantly obsessing about making really, really great photos, they also attract a (much) better client, and ultimately make WAY more money than the “savvy” businessman who was ‘interested’ in photography but mostly wanted to build a business.
    For the really good photographers, subcontracting isn’t an option. Bruce Springsteen doesn’t hire a backup guy to do his “little” concerts. The fans want Bruce. That’s how it is for a photographer who has worked hard to really learn the craft, and who produces a product that can’t be easily replicated by just anyone. And when you have a unique product (or service), you are in a position to charge pretty much what you want. Kind of like Bruce does…

    My advice is to not subcontract at all. If you have that much work, double your fee, drop half your existing clients, and use the extra time to ratchet your photography up another notch. At which point, you repeat the process.

  • Scott, “DUDE”? you called me, really? You want to have a respectful realistic discussion? I guess not. I’ll play your silly game.

    First San Francisco is not on this earth.

    Second, read what I said not what you think I said.

    Third, OK name me MANY examples of people (one man shops) “Blowing away” over 100k a year shooting Real Estate (houses) photography. I’m not talking about Architectural photography. I’m NOT talking (nobody here is) about a mixed bag offering of graphic Design, art photography etc. I’m talking about shooting houses in the real world as a single (that means one person). I’m talking about a 40 hour week doing everything from travel to shoots to post processing to billing to collecting to your own taxes etc.

    Fourth, Of course you could work 80 hours a week and do better but you will not “Blow it away” and make $200k in the real world.

    Remember I said REALISTIC. You just did not read what I said. That’s typical of Left coast logic. But I’m sure you don’t read Earth language.

    By the way Bruce Springsteen is an example you bring up.? Get a life and come back to earth. The when you land, try to have a respectful conversation without the “Dudes.” Then again it San Francisco.

    Furthermore I did say produce a really good product. I said have a good business plan. I said if your not making enough look over your business process, or charge more. I know what I’m doing. I focus on the best image the client is willing to pay for. I do turn away business because I don’t want to work that hard.

    Finally advice from people that call others “Dude” as rule should be ignored because what normally follows ‘Dude” is some smoked filled delusion of twisted reality.


  • Oh BTW Scott you are a great photographer and your work is not RE photography.

    Your client base is not RE agents. I suspect the “Many” you quote are not either. Yes Good Architectural Photographers and Ad Agency photographers and even good food photographers can “blow it away”

    We are just not in your league, nor are we in your business… nor was the discussion about your business.

  • Frank, I can tell you’ve been deeply offended by my use of the word “Dude”. Words certainly have the power to hurt, and you’ve clearly been somewhat shaken up by this. I’m very sorry. I hope you’ll recover soon.

    Now, with that resolved:
    I not only read what you wrote, I quoted you, verbatim (copy, and paste). You certainly don’t have to believe me, but while I have reputations for many things, lying is not one of them. There are many real estate photographers, scattered all over the United States and abroad, who are making more (in many cases MUCH more) than $100,000 US, shooting nothing but real estate. Not selling floor plans, not printing flyers, not shooting “Architecture” — residential real estate, the subject of this blog. I was one of them (I no longer shoot much real estate). Some of them are operating in markets that would surprise you.

    The math isn’t hard to do. Charge $400 per shoot, average one shoot per weekday (take 2 weeks’ vacation every year) and you’re there. There are real estate photographers operating in nearly every major US city that are charging more than $400 per shoot, and averaging more than one shoot per day. But if you think that’s not possible, then try the math again at the very commonly accepted rate of $200/shoot. Now you have to average 2 shoots/day…which would be about 6 hours of work, including travel, shooting, and post-production by my methods. Hardly an 80-hour workweek.

    Oh, and I don’t think Frank Sinatra had a backup performer, either.

  • @Chris, With reference to my previous post, your doing the scheduling could be a strike against you in the employee v. contractor arena. It’s not a killer, but the more control you have, the less the IRS will accept that the person is an independent contractor.

    You might want to explore an outside photo editor. There have been several that have commented on this blog and some good ones at that. That could free up a bunch of time for you to do more photography since that is where you are the most visible and will have the greatest impact. If you are still turning down work (after raising rates), how about an assistant? An assistant would be easier to get up to speed quickly and can load in/out while you are doing your initial walk through and post shoot schmoozing. I would have loved one on a shoot earlier this month where I had flashes down stairs that took some moving to get the lighting just right. I can use the exercise, but not the extra time to walk up and down stairs a few times. Local colleges with a photography program might be a great place to pick up the odd assistant looking for some experience. They should know the gear and might have some skill already. Some colleges will offer credit to students that intern (for free/cheap) with local companies.

  • You guys are awesome. Such great ideas. Thank you everyone!!!

  • I know this is an old thread, but thank you guys for the comments. I read every last bit of it and it was very helpful! 🙂

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