The Beauty Of Real Estate Photography: Low Startup Cost and Higher Than Average Wage

September 7th, 2015

field of spring grass and sunsetReal estate photography is an unusual business opportunity! It has relatively low startup costs, yet in most, but not all locations, you can earn more than the average local wage. I’ve become more and more aware of this as I talk to more real estate photographers over the world the last several years. This really hit home with me after reading a recent comment in the PFRE Flickr discussion where a Seattle photographer pointed out the same thing I’ve been observing:

I can’t think of many jobs that I could find where I work 9 months full-time and 3 part-time and still make more than twice the average wage for Seattle. I helped a friend get started shooting homes, he takes it very casually and still earns a good income on what amounts to a part-time work schedule.

This is a business you can capitalize for under $3,000 and start making money fairly quickly.

A day after I ran across this comment a voice in my head said, “yea, this is the essence of why real estate photography is so popular.” It’s a great summary of what I’ve been observing over the last 10 years that I’ve been promoting this blog. According to an op-ed in the New York Times, today freelancing is a huge trend going on in the US. More and more people are choosing to freelance because it offers the flexibility and independence that tradition jobs can’t provide. The benefits of real estate photography freelancing are the following:

  • Relatively not much investment required to get going.
  • Earn a better than average hourly wage.
  • Work for yourself.
  • You can start out part time or just do it to the level you need or want to.
  • Increase your income over time by either improving your quality or increasing your volume.

Sure, it takes the initiative to start and manage your own business and some technical know-how but wow, what a great opportunity in the overall scheme of things. In a world where college graduates that have spent huge amounts on their education have difficulties finding a job, real estate photography as a full or part-time job has amazing potential!

To make independent real estate photography work you need to:

  1. Be independent: That is, be careful not let 3rd parties like post processors and tour companies that do your marketing suck off your profits. There are 3rd parties that will help you scale your business but be careful having control of all aspects of your business is usually the best strategy in the long run.
  2. Learn to Market: Marketing skill is probably more important than photographic skill. Good marketing can sell average work.
  3. Focus on Your Passion: For some it’s the artistic or quality part and for others it’s the marketing/business part. There’s no right way. Both approaches work.

While there are downsides to freelance jobs, on balance freelance opportunities are pretty amazing compared to many traditional types of jobs. And the pay can be better!


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14 Responses to “The Beauty Of Real Estate Photography: Low Startup Cost and Higher Than Average Wage”

  • Great views there Larry, I think some other major benefits are the contact you have with lots of people at an exciting time in their life selling their home and agents that are always moving and shaking and fun to be around and great to become an essential part of their team. Its a real team feel and I love my clients. Some i’ve been with for over 8 years now. The financial side of things are great, you could build your own team of photographers should you desire to really grow your business and its just a great business to be in.

    I believe wholeheartedly that marketing your photographic skills becomes more important than your photography skills themselves! Once your skills are up to scratch, your marketing is what scales the success in your business. When beginning, start slowly, build your skills up with one agency, then once your kicking goals, then market yourself correctly and your set to grow!

    cheers for the article!

  • Yes its a great business, but its not an easy job. You make as much as you are willing to work. Don’t make it sound so easy to make it into the business, as that is not the case. Plus everyone tired of their office job, with a camera will think this is a piece of cake business to take up. Then we will have people competing with us that charge very little. I’ve been doing this business since 2001, totally by accident I fell upon it – but I work all the time and am always learning something new. I take no vacations and work about 18 hours a day. Just keep quiet — its our secret!!

  • I am willing to bet if most freelance RE shooters did an accurate account of their wages and do an “apples to apples” comparison you will find that they are not actually making twice the average salary. First you need to factor in tax. Most self employed in the US are taxed at a higher rate then salaried employees. So take 1/3 of what you make right off the top for Uncle Sam. The other element I think a lot of freelancers ignore is retirement savings benefits. Most people I know have some sort of employer matched retirement savings benefit. If you figure in this it also takes a big chuck out of a freelancers salary. Other cost of doing business items freelancers ignore is insurance. Most salaried employees get health insurance benefits. freelancer need to pay for their own on top of additional business insurance. I find using a 20-30% mark up a good number to shoot for if you have a goal salary. So if a freelancer wants to make the equivalent of a salaried employee with benefits making $60k a year, a freelancer would need to actually make $80-90k a year.

  • Let’s not minimize the need for skills – a good eye for composition, using light, or the most important skill of all: post processing! That’s what will separate the average from the good, I suppose. There are a few professional real estate photographers in my area who don’t seem to care if the verticals are vertical, the color corrected, or the room lit adequately. Not just anyone with the right equipment can be a good real estate photographer, in my opinion. Takes lots of practice, lots of hard work, and a continual learning curve.

  • @SusanLynch

    I completely agree. I’ve been doing this for 3+ years (PT with plans on FT) with over 300 listings under my belt and I’m about 1/3 of where I want to be in terms of skill + time management. Some people do make it sound WAY too easy! I have friends of mine ask me if I need help shooting because they’re “good at taking pictures”. This means they know how to set off filters to their Instagram photos on the iPhone. It’s actually quite frustrating how many people think I walk into a room, snap an image on ‘auto’ and hand it over on a memory card.

  • Yes, sometime working for a company can be bennificial over self employment I was one of the few photographers lucky enough to work in the defense / aerospace industry for 20 years at Sperry/ Unisys, later called Lockheed Martin.The assignment locations, benefits and overtime were amazing. When they closed the Long Island location, I was hired back as a consultant. Now, I had to pay for my own insurance, travel, equipment and any cost a freelancer incurred. I was reimbursed for my costs, but had to wait 30-60 days to get paid
    When I moved to FL and saw the terrible photography that realtors were doing themselves, so I started a real estate photography company with my friends.
    It’s nice shooting homes and working with so many great people, but it is not a walk in the park as many might think our job is.
    The hrs are long and you have short deadlines. You also have to know your craft well. I’m always learning new ways to shoot and process from this group.
    But real estate photography has given me some freedom to travel and not have to punch a clock, or wear a suit again

  • I agree with the above. It’s not easy. I does offer certain liberties in that you can choose your clients and when you work. I’ve been doing real estate photography since 2007 and though every year I have had more clients, I have yet to come anywhere close to an average yearly wage I could support my family with. I am fortunate to be on my wife’s health insurance and have minimal living expenses, so I keep at it – because I love it.

    Not only do you need technical skills in order to take quality images, you need personal skills to get and retain clients. Also, when big rush times like Spring arrive in St. Louis, time management is essential. For about a month last Spring, I felt on the edge of not being able to keep up.

  • Low start-up costs yes, but exceptionally high ongoing costs that beginners don’t factor in. Speedlights are only built to last about 2 yrs, cameras fall, tripods break, vehicle costs, fuel, insurance, taxes and the list goes on. And the hours are long. I’ve worked out that i actually earn less than minimum wage on some jobs. Still I wouldn’t change jobs as I love what I’m doing.

  • From what I can determine from here and on the PFRE blog, the only way a MLS/realtor photographer can survive is if they have a spouse/signif other with a “real” job paying the taxes, insurance, retirement, vacations and etc. Any additional free lance income is seen as spending money, which does not necessarily mean you are operating a legitimate “going concern” business.
    Also, I would be less concerned about additional competitors driving down prices than improvements in hardware and software technology.

  • Yes, the hours are long if you do it right and don’t cut corners – often 10 to 12-hours a day (4 to 6 jobs). Larry is right however, that the start up costs are fairly low, except that most photographers (me included) buy a lot of stuff they don’t need, never use, or would like to use, but don’t have the time. Over time your expenses go down, unless you drop the camera. Equipment gets cheaper if you buy the same model you bought new three years ago (still rocking my D7000 from 5 years ago, but have just “upgraded to a second-hand D7100 for backup). In the UK the first £10,000 earn is tax-free across the board, and if you are willing to work, get good at the required techniques, market yourself to more agencies (the last two called me), you can earn considerably more than the average income (about £26,000 after-tax). It is a bit like water-skiing – The hardest thing is getting up out of the water, but then it becomes a lot faster more fun (but watch out you don’t crash and burn).

  • Dear Rohnn Kostelecky,

    You have any data to back that up?

    A single, self employed PFRE-er who doesn’t rely on ANYONE other than herself to pay her bills

    ps: I also have lots of spending money and have traveled the world, all paid for by ME

  • Rohnn – I’m directing my response to you as I think your post was a response to my post.

    To clarify, I don’t make enough to support a family doing real estate photography. When I say this, I think of the average family with two adults, driving two cars, supporting two kids, ect…

    When I say I’m fortunate to be on my wife’s insurance I also mean that I don’t have the expense to worry about since I’m a self employed business owner. My business is legit as I’m a LLC in the State of Missouri, pay for business insurance, and pay taxes to my State.

    If we didn’t own our home outright, paid cash for our cars, live in the Midwest it would be difficult. In my case, I have those things taken care of already, so I don’t have a desperation to make a certain amount of income to get by. My wife and I are in our 40’s and send our kid to private school. We are quite comfortable.

    Yes, I love doing property photography, but love my free time more. I like making money doing it, but in my situation, it isn’t that necessary to make a living.

    On the other hand, I do try to keep busy and have never turned down a client (unless I wasn’t available).

  • @Jason and Rohnn – Also the demand for real estate photography and thus what real estate photographers can charge is NOT the same everywhere so blanket statements that treat all markets the same are not accurate. As I’ve pointed out before, the city link on this google trends page:

    shows the top real estate photography markets (cities) in the world. San Diego, Austin, Seattle and Denver are the only cities in the US that show up.

    Just because Jason is making what he is in St Louis doesn’t mean he couldn’t charge more and thus do better in San Diego, Austin, Seattle or Denver.

  • Larry is exactly right. The price you can get by with here in Missouri is totally different than on the coasts (the cost of living is much higher). I grew up in Philadelphia, PA. If I lived in that market, my minimum would be around $300 per basic shoot. Cost of living is of the reason why I live in the Midwest (live closet my wife’s family).

    My situation is different from a lot of people. If I had to make $85,000 to support a family (4 person) here in Missouri where the going rate is in the neighborhood of $150 per shoot, I’d have to shoot 566 homes per year. In the Midwest when it slows to a crawl in Winter, that would be a challenge.

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