Real Estate Photography Is a Combination of Photojournalism and Documentary Photography

May 10th, 2017

This is a guest post by Michael Yearout of Breckenridge, Colorado.

I have come to believe property photography (be it architectural, real estate, rental management, interior decorator, builder or designer) could be considered a combination of photojournalism and documentary photography.

The traditional definition of photojournalism is defined as a unique and powerful form of visual storytelling originally created for print magazines and newspapers. But it has now morphed into multimedia and documentary filmmaking. Through the internet, apps and the mobile device explosion, photojournalism can now reach audiences never before imagined with immediate impact.

The traditional definition of documentary photography is defined as a popular form of photography used to chronicle events or environments both significant and relevant to history and historical events as well as everyday life.

When we photograph properties we are “documenting” the property, i.e. showing the property in pictures, including the rooms, decorations, style, location and so on. At the same time we are photojournalists and are telling (or should be) the properties story, i.e. what the property looks like, how it feels, its style, its location, its uniqueness.

Keeping those two things in mind when photographing a property will produce images that are compelling and eye-catching. The images will produce emotion. And emotion is what makes people act. The images will be engaging; they will engage the viewer.

This type of thinking will alter the way you compose your photographs. It will alter the way you think about your photographs. It will alter the way you approach property photography in some very meaningful ways.

So, the next time you are taking pictures of a property, take your photojournalism hat along with your documentary hat along with you and really think about each and every shot you take. You might find the images you create much more compelling.

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7 Responses to “Real Estate Photography Is a Combination of Photojournalism and Documentary Photography”

  • I describe RE photography to potential clients as “highlighting” a property rather than “documenting”. The reason is that I am showing the best features of the home from the best angles and not showing defects or odd features. I agree that it is close to photojournalism in that the images shouldn’t be radically altered. It does differ a little. The images I submit to Reuters must be recorded in .jpg (not converted from RAW) with no more than cropping applied.

  • Michael, I am with you up to a point. But I think there is also another level that has to be there for real estate photography. As a photojournalist I worked worked for newsprint, which means I had to tell the story in one decisive moment and for magazines where I got to tell the story with a number of photographs, my whole focus was, as you say, on visual story telling. I had to have light to register the image on my film, but that was secondary to the story. It is also added to the story by being soft or hard and dramatic, that was a plus but the visual events ruled, not the light. And on top of that, I could identify good light but I could not create it. Flash on camera caught what was happening and illuminated it so it would reproduce on the soggy newsprint of the time at 50dpi but it was harsh although often necessary.

    But after studying advertising photography and working in fashion,and learning about the power of light not just to illumination but to communicate, flatten or abuse, I came to realize that light is another tool to communicate just as is color or black and white. Not just color but the type of color. And graphic design that controls where the eye goes and how. All these things are the visual forms of language that will either not only tell the story but attract the viewer to the images or rebuff them, hold their attention or loose it. The story is meaningless and useless if the image turns people away before they register the story that is being told. We need eye candy to hold the attention so the brain will absorb that story.

    So while I do not light my properties, I carefully choose the light for my images with all of the above in mind. So I completely agree that we are all story tellers and it is our job to control the story we tell. And in that we are using the foundations of photojournalism to tell it, with photojournalism we want to tell the story that is unfolding with as little personal point of view as possible. If being objective is even possible. But in real estate our job is to show a property so it looks its best whatever it may be. We are not only telling a story but telling the story that will sell the property. In other words we are using the look and feel of photojournalism for advertising just like shooting an annual report or facility brochure. The cachet of photojournalism is telling a visual story that is believeable to the audience, that does not appear to be manipulated. And that is why images that appear to be photojournalistic are more believable than slick ad shots which are clearly manipulated and we all know it.

    So if you use newspaper and magazine visual style people are more likely to believe the story being told. If it has high grain, even more so since it would suggest that you are pushing the ASA instead of using lighting, are not concerned with crisp detail but with capturing that decisive moment. We don’t do that with real estate photography. We want as much clear detail as possible. We don’t need to see into the shadows with photojournalism unless import story information is in those shadows. But in telling the story of a house and grounds there is always important information in many of those shadows.

    So yes, the core of the images we produce I think should be less about litteral description and more about capturing the heart and soul of a home but it has to be supported by the lighting and technics that also provide the detail, the textures, the colors, the shapes, the richness of wood, the coldness of grey ceramic tiles, the glitter of fixtures that take carefully crafted lighting to register on the sensor all of which together tells the story of the house and it’s setting. In all of this, we should draw, to my mind, more on communication and less on technique as priorities, but without the technique and skills of lighting, exposure, color and visua design, our images will likely fall short of the doing what they are meant to do – grab the eye and sell the house.

  • This is exactly how I approach a home. Note I said a home and not a house. I do take the prerequisite images expected but include, in sequence, those features and subtle items that highlight the heart and soul of the home (if it has any, some do not).

    I use natural light and ambient light from existing figures. To provide special lighting to me does not capture the feeling of the rooms or scene. I have had many people say “wow look at that it looks so nice. it doe snot look like my house” as they preview the images on site. I tell them to take another look at the room we are in and look at the image again. Look at the different color casts on the walls, the highlights of reflections from the fixtures on the walls and ceilings, images reflected in the mirrors. They take a look and say “Oh my you are right, I never noticed that.”

    They may not have noticed but it meant something to them and had a sub conscious impact on their mood. That’s what I look for and try to capture. For some reason it comes out more visible in 2D small image format than in the owners present mindset.

    It’s that subconscious impact I want to capture. Every home has a few of those even if the owner doesn’t know it.

  • I consider real estate to be product photography, not unlike a Big Mac, though considerably more expensive 🙂 i’m not documenting a home, that’s something in appraiser might do, I am photographing a product for the purpose of advertising it for sale. My job is to make that product look enticing.

  • Great post Michael! I have just one additional thought based on an experience yesterday where the virtual tour company I use was quality checking the photo order of my tour and asked me to change the order because I took the viewers through the entire home in 10 pictures – then dug in deeper with additional room shots after. They thought it was disorganized. 90% of my clients will list images in the MLS in the same order I send them in the tour photo delivery system. So if I send brokers 5 views of the front, some of them would make viewers suffer through shot after shot just to get in the front door. This is painful storytelling at best!

    In other words, I am saying that I love the idea of photojournalistic real estate photography and it IS all about the story. But, my clients don’t always translate my story so well. Many brokers see it as a MLS copy and paste excerise. So, my point is that I need to take this idea one step further by working closely with brokers to help them interpet the story line through the picture order in the MLS. That may mean only sending 1 or 2 LR views since I know they will load 5 ontop of each other. The brokers that want 5 views of each room may need another photographer since their listings will probably not be a quality reflection of my story line.

    This post comes at a great time for me since I have been moving towards lighting my interiors and I definitely need to be more selective about what I shoot and deliver. When it comes to real estate photography less is more. A post recently said most listings are loaded with filler shots. So combining the two styles that Michael suggests is a great first step – but the method of delivery needs to be crystal clear about the best order for the story since most agents will use the order I deliver.

  • Micheal, I completely agree with everything you said! Problem is were I live, 98% of the 1,000+ agents/brokers don’t really care how the photos look as long as they are really cheap, like $75 or less per property.

  • It’s a showww!!!

    The realtors, property owners and potential buyers are the audience and I’m the performer, perspiring under the strobes and giving his All make his best presentation.

    Why only last week, I grabbed my 10 foot ladder and arborist chainsaw and cut those nasty mesquite branches that blocked the beautiful entry to the front courtyard spoiling the street view.

    The audience loved it.

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