Should Real Estate Photographers Contract to Shoot for a Marketing and Post-Processing Company?

September 26th, 2018

Colin in California asks:

Has anyone here heard about Meero? I have an opportunity to shoot a bunch of real estate for a French-based technology company who contracts photographers to shoot listings. Presumably, Realtors or brokerages hire this company to get the job done, and Meero hires the photographers. You send them RAW files, they process them and deliver finished photos.

I like to shoot flash, process my own photos, and maintain my own relationships. Would a company like this potentially put us out of business? I don’t want to say no to (potentially) a good chunk of work, but I also don’t want to cede all creative and potentially business control to some company either.

Your question is a classic one for people wanting to increase their business. The general question is: “Should I contract with another company that does the marketing and post-processing?” I know nothing about Meero (haven’t even heard of them). The full answer to your question has much more to do with the approach of working for someone else than it does this particular company. Here is my general take on the question:

  1. There is not a huge profit margin in real estate and interior photography so the more parties that get in the process of creating the end product, the less the photographer makes.
  2. There are many companies like this. Most do both the marketing and the post-processing work (to assure a consistent look). You, the photographer, just do the onsite work and get a small cut of the income you would get if you did the whole job end-to-end.
  3. Many photographers just getting into the business are great creative people but are not so good at the business and marketing so a company like this that does the marketing work is attractive. It turns out that the marketing and business side of this business is more important than the creative side.

My advice is to be careful and consider where your marketing and business skills are before you get involved with a company like this. Our success stories here on PFRE show that the best way to proceed is to do the marketing and business part yourself. You can always outsource your post-processing if your volume demands.

Warning: if you do choose to contract with a larger company to supply you the work, be very cautious about signing non-compete agreements that say you will not compete with the company in your local area. You likely will someday want to quit and shoot in the local area on your own. If you’ve signed a non-compete agreement, you can’t!

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23 Responses to “Should Real Estate Photographers Contract to Shoot for a Marketing and Post-Processing Company?”

  • There are a lot of companies that act as a middleman for photography services. So far, I haven’t seen a nice word about any of them and the contracts I have seen (both posted and after an inquiry) have been very bad.

    Larry has already pointed out the non-compete clause. Other things to look for are if signing up with the company creates a “Work Made for Hire” agreement. If that is the case, you are assigning your copyright to the images and are not even legally allowed to use them to advertise yourself. The pay is often very low but it may also not be due for as long as 90 days. It doesn’t matter what the rep tells you, the written contract is the final word. You will often be asked to indemnify the company. If there is any issue with the photo shoot, they throw you under the bus. This can include somebody claiming that the images infringe on something or another, the company just settles with them to swat the nuisance and you are liable for the settlement amount with no say in the matter. I’ve had a company want a full background check (Driving, credit, criminal and an open ended agreement that they can search anyplace else, forever with signed permissions). The same company also had a “zero tolerance” policy that would require submitting to a drug screening upon notice within several hours. Where I live, it can be an hour or more to drive to an assigned clinic to provide the “sample”. These companies also do not promise any work at all. They don’t give you exclusivity on your area and can hire several photographers if your area gets a bunch of customers. That’s good for them as it helps dispel any claim from the taxman that your are a de facto employee rather than an independent contractor. Just to add to the unbalanced nature of the contract, it’s usually the case that you have to have gear that meets their approval and may be required to buy new gear at any time. The big thing to watch for is if you are required to buy certain equipment from them up front.

    PFRE is a service business and how well you do is related to the quality of the service you provide. Only a small portion of that is image quality. Many top RE photographers will admit that when they look back on the images they made when they first started out, they cringe at the abysmal quality of their work at that time. That they are still around and earning a living likely has a lot to do with showing up on time, being cheerful and professional, delivering on time and being a good business person. Pretty much all of the things you would have to do if you worked for a big company. The only thing you cut out is getting the jobs. You can always outsource the editing if you don’t like doing it or you get so busy that you don’t have time. Perfectly a good workflow should knock down editing time. A few posts back, Scott DuBose admitted that his usual time to edit a job is 20 minutes. Uploading a batch of photos to an editor can take that long. It goes to show that capturing good images on site and knowing how to process them quickly can really pay off. For help with marketing, you can hire somebody or you might be able to get a student intern from a local college that can earn some extra credits.

    Some people like working for a big company as a hired gun, but you have to go into it with your eyes open. If you think you might want to go that route, spend the time and money to have an attorney go over the contract with you. If they grimace every few seconds while reading, you have your answer. Nobody I’ve ever talked to would change a word on a contract, but you can always ask.

    Oh yeah, there is always people worried that these companies are going to put the independent operator out of business. Don’t worry about that. I’ve had customers try to save a few dollars with them and they always come back. They know me and have no problem sending my out to a home without having to be there themselves. I either get a code for a vacant property or the owners will be there to let me in. With a photography service, they never know who will be showing up and how good their work is.

  • I’m with ken on this though, in an unusual flash of simplicity, I’ll use fewer words.

    First determine if you want to build a business or are looking for a job.

    In the job described, there is no way to get ahead. It’s going nowhere.

    In this Great Country. Build your own business and you will learn business and will be afforded the opportunity to get ahead and be great.

    Of course you can do it in other countries but the USA is the true land of opportunity. Here you can be as great as you want to be. Working for someone else you can only be as great as they allow you to be.

    Go forth young man and be great!

  • Re: “Meero hires the photographers” – By signing up to such a contract you will find that your are being hired as an employed person and not freelance or as an independent entrepreneur. This means the copyright will NOT belong to you but the company who hired you. You could possible clear this up in a contract but I doubt if they would be prepared to sign same! Be very careful with this. In addition, there are far too many middlemen involved which means you would be working for peanuts. I don’t know what you charge but a fair rate would be; €300 for the first hour, €100 per hour up to 10 hours. Thereafter would be a 50% surcharge per hour. License fees for the images are of course extra.
    With my price structure I don’t work for real estate agents as they only want a couple of quick pictures paying as little as possible for them. In fact most of them take a couple of pics with their cell phones for this purpose.
    The one and only time I did work for a real estate agent was disappointing. They wouldn’t even pay for post. As such, I have never worked for an agent again. When they call I just quote my fee. They usually answer with, “your expensive!” I answer, “yes, but I am dammed good!” – that is usually enough to take the wind out of their sails.

  • By signing up to such a contract you will find that your are being hired as an employed person and not freelance or as an independent entrepreneur. This means the copyright will NOT belong to you but the company who hired you. You could possible clear this up in a contract but I doubt if they would be prepared to sign same! Be very careful with this. In addition, there are far too many middlemen involved which means you would be working for peanuts. I don’t know what you charge but a fair rate would be; €300 for the first hour, €100 per hour up to 10 hours. Thereafter would be a 50% surcharge per hour. License fees for the images are of course extra.
    With my price structure I don’t work for real estate agents as they only want a couple of quick pictures paying as little as possible for them. In fact most of them take a couple of pics with their cell phones for this purpose.
    The one and only time I did work for a real estate agent was disappointing. They wouldn’t even pay for post. As such, I have never worked for an agent again. When they call I just quote my fee. They usually answer with, “your expensive!” I answer, “yes, but I am dammed good!” – that is usually enough to take the wind out of their sails.

  • I am the owner of a regional real estate photography company based in York, PA with about 15 photographers in different locations around us. I’m sure many independent photographers will speak negatively about a company like ours. So, I’ll try to layout why these types of relationships can be beneficial to both parties. As a quick background, I was a realtor for 9 years before committing full time to RE photography. I started with just myself shooting in 2009 and just naturally grew to different areas around my base due to increasing demand.

    I talk to photographers all the time that are looking to shoot more houses but don’t really know how to go about finding more business. Over the years, we’ve come up with tons of strategies to take to a new market area and be successful with generating new clients. From email campaigns, to SEO, google adwords campaigns, social media advertising, postcard mailing, flyer/coupon drop-offs, open house visits, etc…. We also completely handle the business aspect of the operation, so our photographers can focus on shooting, uploading files and calling it a day. From that point, our operation takes their files and completes the rest of the job including culling, editing, building tours, delivering images, sending invoices, collecting payments, follow-up email campaigns/postcards, etc… What I’ve found is not all photographers want or have time to run a business operation. They just want to do what they love, which is taking photos.

    We also have a reputable brand (4.9 stars on pretty much all relevant sites) that provides a level of trust, even for a new photographer. We have a full time staff that answers the phone and editors that can make adjustments to an image in a snap. Independent photographers don’t always have the ability to answer the phone, make image adjustments, collect payment information, etc… As they are out shooting. We never want a clients call to come in and go to voicemail. We also have tons of other services and marketing products that are attractive to agents. For example, we can custom design print materials for them and have them professionally printed and delivered to their office next day. Realtors value this level of service and convenience. They don’t want to have to call 1 person for photos, 1 person for virtual staging, 1 person for flyer design, 1 for aerial photos. They want to be able to call one place and get it done. Realtors want EASY, FAST, GREAT QUALITY and AFFORDABLE.

    I view the relationship with my photographers as more of a partnership than an independent contractor agreement. My job is to run the business and get you more jobs. Your job is to provide excellent customer service and great photos.

    I agree in the fact that there is not much margin in RE photography and too many hands in the pot can make it not worth it. But I think my business is successful because we’ve found a great mix that provides the photographer a lot of value in what we do for them and we treat them with a high level of respect for what they do.

    Note: we do also have different relationships with photographers. Some choose just to be “REX Trusted”. They receive a higher payout per job, but we don’t have dedicated ad spends pushing in their territory. They can still also shoot for their own clients outside of our relationship. Though many choose to run those jobs through us anyway because of the time it saves them.

    We are continually looking to grow our business and add talented photographers to our team. I’m happy to discuss our relationships we offer to anyone who has questions. My website is linked above for any of you to view.

    I hope in writing this, it will give you some insight into the positives a relationship like this can have.

    Jimmy Plessinger
    Real Estate Exposures

  • Your actions have consequences. You might think of it as just making a few extra bucks, but it is much more than that. Companies like Meero and Jimmy’s company are putting independent photographers out of business. Period. Sugarcoat it all you want but facts are facts. If you work for them you do it at the expense of your peers.

  • @Scott – I would argue that there is not only 1 possible way to run a successful business. Whether it’s RE photography or anything else. My best photographer will make $100k in shoot commissions this year and hasn’t edited a photo all year. And she has her own full time photography coordinator and editor at her disposal. I now also provide her health insurance, a car, gas, equipment, etc… Different relationships work for different people.

  • As mentioned by most of us on this blog, there is not enough margin in RE photography to be able to make a living or much money working for an outside company.
    when I lived in NY, I had a wonderful photographer assistant who helped me on commercial photo shoots, weddings and events. she became an outstanding, all around photographer and was approached by a real estate company to shoot for them. When I asked how she was doing with RE, she said she hated it, was sometimes doing 2-3 homes a day, wasn’t being paid much, not even travel money for gas, but needed the extra income. I am trying to encourage her to join this blog, shoot higher quality, and shoot for herself to actually enjoy doing the real estate photography and making 3-4 times what she is getting.

  • Congrats Jimmy I hope you can be the Walmart of RE photography. And I call BS on those stats but whatever.

  • @jimmy – I am not judgmental person and am not criticizing you or your company. Many of the independent photographers on this blog are more than happy to express how they feel about a large real estate company.

    I am impressed that you have a photographer that will be making $100k, gets a company car, and benefits. I’d like to know how much she shoots to earn that kind of money. But, may I ask you what your average contracted photographer is paid for their service, what you expect from them, and how many images you are asking for an average shoot of a property about 2500 sq feet? Do you also train them to shoot and light a certain way so that all your photography has the same feel? also, How much time do you ask them to spend in the home? if they are asked to shoot the amenities (clubhouse, community pool, tennis Ct) do they get paid extra? and, do you pay all of your photographers travel besides their fee?

  • Thank you for all the kind replies. I felt kind of gross about the whole situation, which I why I emailed Larry in the first place. After I responded to the email with questions about scheduling, copyright, and how many jobs to expect per week—I got no reply. So that’s that! I got into this business because I love the work and wanted to be independent. Take away the independence, both in terms of business relationships and ability to shoot and edit the way I want, and it looses a lot of the appeal.

    They were also demanding the use of a full frame camera, something I don’t currently have… I’m not sure why that matters to them, and while I plan on getting one at some point (for the broad availability of good super-wide angle lenses), I was not about to buy one just to work for them.

  • @Jimmy – I second Eric’s questions! I’d be interested to know how much you are making from a photographer that is making $100K? Perhaps we should all be converting to your business model? Most of the photographers that work in this kind of situation tell a completely different story!

  • My head photographer, who is in the territory we are based in will make $100k this year. That’s not a joke. Yes she works her but off and shoots a lot of houses. This is not typical for sure. But I do have other photographers that are able to make a more modest salary and not have to worry about getting home at night and editing all their shoots and running a business. Some just want part time work to fill in with their portrait/wedding business.

    We have 5 pricing tiers that the photographer can choose based on their skill level and the market they are in. Pricing starting from $119-$199. On average, an exclusive photographer (marketing budget included) makes about 45-55% of the billable work they perform. If they choose just to be a “trusted” photographer and not exclusive with us, it’s more like 60-70%. With the only difference being that we are taking that 15% difference and directly using it in marketing spend in the photographers coverage area. We do this by geo targeting google ads and social media marketing, as well as email. It’s really just about discussing with the photographer what their minimum is they need for a shoot and then matching that up to the appropriate pricing to make that happen. And seeing it the market would support that pricing. If it doesn’t, then it’s not a good fit. If someone needs $150 per shoot, and most competitors are charging $125-$150, then it’s not going to work. If someone can take $80-100 for a shoot and we charge the client $139-159, then we have a better match. My net margins on most shoots are only $20-$25. As we know, there isn’t much margin in RE photography. We make it work with high volume.

    On average I try to keep photographers travel range about 30-45 minutes from base. So an average drive time should be about 20 minutes each way. Shoot 20-30 minutes. There’s plenty of people out there happy with $40-$80 an hour.

    Many photographers that work with us have stated that they reduced their time in houses in half once they started working with us. On average, our photographers spend 30 minutes in a property. Sometimes 15-20 if it’s empty and ready to go. Larger homes may be more like 45. But rarely are we there longer than 45 minutes. Our photography coordinator also works diligently to schedule properties close together to reduce travel time.

    I’m not going to go into too much more detail on this site with my marketing and business tactics, but I’m more than happy to move the conversation over to email to chat privately. I’m always more happy to help photographers be successful. It’s the foundation of my business. If someone sees that as a negative, then they just don’t understand this sort of business.

  • I “understand this sort of business” perfectly Jimmy. Go troll for minions somewhere else. The folks here are interested in building their own businesses. Not yours.

    And she has a masseuse and a personal chef and she rides a unicorn to work and… man you’re hilarious.

  • Comical Scott… You are a true professional.

  • I don’t buy this assertion that somehow doing post production and “business” etc. is such an evil thing. We hear from lots of people right here that they actually *prefer* doing post, and the actual shooting is secondary for them. I personally don’t love post production, so I shoot in a way that allows me to minimize it. But either way, and this is a huge point, there is NO FREAKING WAY I would let that much creative control over my photographs leave my hands. If you never see the process through to the end product, how can you even assess your own work? That’s just crazy.

    I also don’t find the running of a small business to be all that onerous or intimidating. We aren’t engaged in a particularly complex business, in fact it’s really simple. I license you photos, you give me money. That’s pretty much it….we’re not peddling securities derivatives, we’re not trying to build better smartphones, or even selling real estate. Photography businesses are pretty straightforward, and relatively few of us are even incorporated.

    There’s no question that a skilled, motivated photographer can do far better on his or her own than via a company whose only real function is to vacuum money out of the system. But not everyone really wants to do that. In the end, it comes down to what you want to be: a Photographer, or a Camera Operator. Some folks are just looking for a job….and that’s their prerogative. Personally, I wouldn’t do it, it sounds wholly un-satisfying, and I think there are WAY better jobs out there that pay much more for the amount of work you have to put in…but other people could reasonably feel differently.

  • @ Colin – thanks for bringing that subject up. It’s interesting to hear it from both sides and hope that Jimmy truly does take good care of his photographers.
    mostly, I just hear very negative feed back from the people (and my assistant) who have worked or are working for an outside RE marketing company.
    @ Jimmy – I’m sorry if I missed the answer. But did you say you pay the photographers travel fee also, or is that part of the regular fee you are paying for the photographers service? thank you

  • Sorry, but I forgot to mention, that I had to raise my fees, as gas and travel have been an issue. so far, none of my agents have complaind

  • To clarify, non-compete agreements are VOID in California. Great read from Rukin Hyland & Riggin LLP (San Francisco):

  • @Jimmy, Your operation sounds much different than the bulk of photo middleman operations if you have the possibility of somebody earning $100k/year. More telling would be what the average gross is for somebody working near full time and the span as well. If everybody else is making $36k/year, that $100k is statistically irrelevant. I agree with Scott Hargis that the business side isn’t as big of a big deal as many places make it out to be. The chart of accounts I use is pretty darn minimal especially compared to what was required when I had a manufacturing company. I also like taking images all the way from concept to delivery. I don’t have a problem taking calls while I’m out working and it’s infrequent that I am in an area without cell coverage. I won’t interrupt an in-person conversation to answer the phone, but I’ll call back as soon as that conversation is over. It gives me bonus points with lots of people that I don’t take calls when I am talking to them. Every customer knows that I am an independent contractor and they don’t have an issue with leaving a message for me since I am good at calling people right back during business hours. Nobody has ever needed me to send them anything office related before I can get back home either. As long as it’s taken care of before the next business day, all is good. The devil is really in the details. I have a tendency to be verbose, but it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out what my concerns are. If your contractural terms are reasonable, that’s a point in your favor. Most of the contracts I have seen aren’t reasonable. Since you are providing a car, requiring a DMV report is fine since you likely have to insure the car as well. I am nearly always told that I have to provide a driving record even though I’ll be driving and be responsible for my own car. Nearly all of the time they want a credit report even though I won’t be handling money on their behalf. If there were a report from a client that I appeared to be drunk or stoned on the job, I wouldn’t be too offended in being asked to prove otherwise, but having to drop everything and visit a clinic because my name came out of a random generator as the next contestant is silly and wasteful. If you know how to hire good people and retain them, there isn’t a need for the things that burn my bottom. Hopefully you do and continue to have great success.

    @Bill Baughman, Some non-compete agreements are valid in California. It depends on scale. When Leo Fender and Don Randall sold Fender Guitar to CBS, they both signed non-compete agreements where they agreed not to re-enter the musical instrument market for a period of time. I knew Don and he was a great story teller. He opened Randall Amplifiers when the non-compete period expired. Since Leo and Don were both well compensated in the sale, it is far different than when an employer is limiting a lower level worker’s ability to get a similar job elsewhere. Some US states are very pro-employer and will uphold non-compete clauses so it’s always a good idea to check the statement about which states laws will be used to interpret any clauses of a contract. There is also the possibility that if you take work independently from a client you met through a job with the company that a court might interpret that under a different clause than non-compete. If you have to go to court, you’ve lost. I only enter into contracts that I am comfortable with as much as possible. I have to take what the insurance company shoves at me to sign since there is no way I could afford an attorney to review it for me and the complexity could actually work in my favor. Only your attorney’s opinion counts since they have to back up their advice. Legal advice in blogs on the internet are great for learning about a topic, but you will notice they have a paragraph of disclaimers and the writers aren’t going to go to court with you if what they wrote gets you in trouble.

  • @Bill Baughman, I have to admit that I didn’t read the link you posted before I commented. When I did read it, the writer was specific about non-compete clauses being void in the case of an employee. While Jimmy might do things differently, other companies point out in their contracts that the photographer is NOT an employee, they are an independent contractor so any non-compete clause could be valid in California. So in one sense, you are correct, but if you sign a contract with non-compete clause where you are an independent contractor or a DBA business providing services, you MAY be incorrect. A lot could hinge on which side’s lawyers are better before a judge.

  • @Jimmy Plessinger – re: I now also provide her health insurance, a car, gas, equipment, etc… – sounds to me like she is your employee and not a freelancers who can pick and choose their own work?

  • I’m definitely in the minority on this one, BUT I do feel that FOR certain people it does make sense to work as a freelancer thru a company like Meero (although I’m familiar with this specific one). Certainly you need to make sure that you understand all of the ramifications of the Non-Compete and that it has a specific time limit. I have had a Non-Compete with one of these companies, but I made sure that it only applied to specific realtors, NOT the entire company they worked for. I also required that I have permission to use any photograph I shot in my portfolio of work. They agreed to both in writing. I think for someone new to this area (given these additions) it’s a great way to build a quality portfolio of work. It also gives a newbie a chance to see if this is something that they really want to pursue in the future.

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