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Author: Brian Berkowitz When it comes to real estate photography, the first thing that always comes to mind are phrases like “how big is the home?”, “what’s the listing price?”, “will the homeowners be there?”, or even “will the agent/client be there?” ...

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A Short History of Real Estate Photography

In: 
Published: 20/09/2017
By: larry

Jody who has been in real estate for a long time says:

I know you've done a lot of articles on the new/correct ways to photograph real estate but I haven't seen any articles about how the process is really changing.

Just 15 years ago, you weren't even able to see a house for sale online. Now, that's how most shoppers find their house! Some shoppers never even see the estate in person. They are across the country, and put in an offer "sight unseen".

Now, more than ever it's about the photo; about what you say in the ad. Along those same lines, more and more computer manipulation is involved. I've seen so many over colored photos and surreal looking pictures done with various computer programs it makes you wonder what it's hiding. Or how about the silly photos in an ad that show a cutesy sign behind the cooktop or a closeup of a faucet, not going to sell a house! It may be your only opportunity to show what's on the market. Photos are becoming much more important than open houses!

That's an interesting idea. I've been intimately involved with real estate in Seattle's Eastside market ( Bellevue, Issaquah, Redmond, and Sammamish) since 1984. Here are what seemed to me to be some of the significant historical events in real estate photography:

  • 1984 to 1999: The primary role that photography played in real estate marketing was flyers and brochures. In 1987 Aldus Pagemaker was released and we used it on the Macintosh with an Apple LaserPrinter to make real estate flyers.
  • Before 1999: The Northwest Multiple Listing Service (NWMLS) published a B&W phone book style catalog of listings. The MLS would do drive-by photos for each listing. The listing book was only available to MLS members.
  • Circa 1999: The NWMLS started a timesharing service (not the internet) via dial-up communications.
  • Circa 2001: MLSs started to be accessible via the internet and listings started to be viewable online on broker's sites. Our broker (johnlscott.com) provided a unique URL for each listing. About this time most internet access was dial-up. During this time, there was little to none professional real estate photography.
  • 2003: I first heard of the concept of professional real estate photography. I knew of three or four professional real estate photographers in the Seattle area.
  • 2005: Regional and nationwide real estate websites like Realtor.com and Zillow.com started.
  • 2009: Canon introduced the 5DMkII, the first DSLR that shot video. People started creating real estate video.
  • 2009: Many nationwide real estate photography companies like Obeo, CirclePix etc. started operation.
  • 2010: Zillow introduced a smartphone app that allows you to stand in front any home for sale and get photos and information on the property. This is clearly a "killer app" for MLSs.
  • 2011: Many Realtor friends working in the Seattle market told us that they had to promise professional photography before sellers would sign a listing agreement.
  • 2013: Drones start being used in real estate photography.
  • 2017: More listings (58%) were sold in King County that were never listed on the NWMLS than were listed on the NWMLS. And this percentage increases every year. This suggests that Zillow and social media is replacing the function of MLSs.

Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first browser and web server and ran both on his desk at CERN in 1990. I can clearly remember the first time, sometime during 1993, that I installed the Mosaic browser on my PC at Boeing and first started clicking on hyperlinks. I clearly remember immediately thinking that this was earth shaking! I stayed at work late that night clicking hyperlinks browsing around the few sites available at that time.

What does this have to do with real estate photography? Everything! The web created real estate photography. I was talking with Scott Hargis this afternoon about the history of real estate photography and describing the way my wife Levi created listing flyers and listed homes in back in mid-1980's when MLSs were not online and there were no broker or regional websites. The MLS published a weekly phone book looking listing of all the local listings. Each listing had one black and white photo of the listing that was so bad that most of the time the home owners wouldn't recognize their home. The way agents would get those awful looking exterior shots was just check a box on the listing information form they sent to the MLS that indicated they wanted the MLS to shoot a photo. The MLS had a team of people that would do drive-by-shootings of your listing. Literally, they wouldn't get out of the car and most wouldn't even stop the car. Before the late 1980s photography just wasn't a significant part of real estate. I remember helping Levi get one of the first Macintoshes in 1984 so she could create better listing flyers. In 1985 we got one of the first versions of Aldus PageMaker and one of the first Apple Laserwriters so she could make even better flyers. Because scanning film was uncommon, we would have the photo finisher print hundreds of 4x6 photos and then pay the kids use spray glue to attach them to the flyers we created with PageMaker. Levi's broker was so impressed the the flyers he would show them at the weekly marketing meetings. She was the only agent in her company that had a computer at the time. Color photos on marketing flyers were unheard of. We continued to use the spray glue technique for flyers until the first color inkjet printers became available in the late 1990's. We printed so many flyers that we had several inkjet printers that we ran continuously to produce enough flyers. Those little printers would work so hard they would only last a couple of months before they would just give up and die.

The first step towards a web based MLS was dial-up. You had to have a special MLS issued application on your computer that would dial a time-sharing system that had a database of all the area listings. Most agents still subscribed to the phone book version of the MLS because at that time most agents didn't have a computer. It happened at different times in different locations, but by 1999 when I quit Boeing to work with Levi full time in real estate the Seattle area NWMLS was web based and most large Seattle area brokers had their own websites that were fed all the local listings from the NWMLS. Only agents had access to the web based MLS. Once all the local brokers had websites where home buyers could browse through listings themselves it became clear that the web was going to be a central focus of buying and selling real estate. The last development to drive real estate completely to the web was the wide spread availability of DSL and broadband cable. Once most people had high speed web access and a web browser, color photos immediately became and essential part of marketing a home. Home sellers were also dazzled by great looking flyers and brochures but it was clear that it was the photos on the web that got the buyers to the home. Showing potential listing customers glitzy flyers and brochures just helped get the home seller to sign the listing agreement but the didn't sell the listing.

Today it seems like the web is a natural phenomena and has always been there. It doesn't seem like the web is just 20 years old and that the web in a form that created the blossoming of real estate photography as we know it today is only about 10 years old. There's no mistake about it; there wouldn't be the demand that there is today for real estate photography if it wasn't for the web protocols and the web server and web browser that Tim Berners-Lee invented. Now days Tim has some serious concerns about how the web is evolving that he describes in his recent article in Scientific American.

I'm sure I've missed many important events. And some of these dates are a bit fuzzy. What did I miss that was important to you?

12 comments on “A Short History of Real Estate Photography”

  1. I have been a commercial and residential real estate appraiser since 1989; mls was a teletype machine with printouts, no photos. Public records required a trip to the county assessor. Soon data became available on CD's (I remember buying a machine that could hold 8 CD's) But still no photos until mid to late 1990's, and then only in MLS books.
    Now the MLS and the web is a portal to not only photos, but current and historical data, zoning, google earth and street photos. I don't remember the exact date but I think the bulk of the transition happened around 2010; Zillow and market demand pulled the MLS out of the dark ages.
    The amount of data buyers and sellers have on their smart devices is a driving market force. Not just photos but real time sales information, what brokers are most active in what neighborhoods, and what market trends are.
    Many brokers require professional photos and agents that have advanced designations.
    What amazes me is that I spend a lot of time looking at MLS photos and many are still crappy cell phone shots. What these agents don't realize is that those crappy photos are all over the web, and home sellers and buyers see those photos, and the bio of the agents who posted them!

  2. Real estate photography didn't come into existence in 1984 and it does not just involve shooting for real estate agents, for the purpose of marketing individual homes. For a long time, property developers and owners or managers of multifamily rental properties have used professional photography to market their developments. For new residential developments of this kind, the marketing can be more extensive than that for marketing individual homes and may routinely involve paid advertising in magazines and newspapers, billboards, posters, etc. In the past, when high-quality photography was needed for this purpose, developers commissioned architectural or advertising photography specialists to produce the photos.

  3. The first film that I know to use DSLR was Slumdog Millionaire which was shot in 2007 and released to film festivals in 2008. There seems to be conflicting information on the web about which camera it was, a 5D or a 1D. I am a filmmaker and my memory is that I read they rigged up a 5D and a backpack and the camera guys were incognito in the crowd during the slum chase scene at the beginning of the movie. They had overheating issues.

  4. Back when Dinosaurs roamed the earth 🙂 I remember buying our first home in 1987 and all the listings were in a book that looked like the phone book. If you wanted to look at the book, you had to go into to the Real Estate office and that book never left the office. One page per listing one photo per listing. If you could find an agent who knew how to use the computer, they'd run a report against a data base and print out specific listings that met your price and number of bedroom criteria and print it out on a printer that had a continuous roll of paper. When the printer stopped printing you'd tear off the sheet, hence the name tear sheet which some agents still use today.

    Professional residential real estate photography was used back then but was pretty much relegated to only high end homes where they engaged professional print companies to produce multi page flyers with more info and photos. 35MM cameras using film was the order of the day but the print quality was lacking and this was a very labor intensive process that took weeks not days. That and the news paper listings that would occupy 15 pages of the classified sections with high school head shot photos of Real Estate agents plastered all over. Some things never change 🙂

    Yes the Real Estate industry has come a long way but lagged behind other industries in terms of applying technology for a very long time. I think the reason for that was 2 fold.... The lack of technology professionals in the industry to apply and use technology and brokers and agents wanting to keep that information under lock so you had to come to them to get at it. After all, information is power and control.

    Fast forward to today and we still have some Dinosaurs roaming the earth and the issues are the same. As mentioned in a post above, Zillow dragged the MLSs out of the dark ages and brought the word transparency to the industry... There is still a lot of animosity there since they put all that information in the hands of consumers so they could make informed decisions. How dare they?? To prove my point, just mention the "Z" word to an agent or broker and many will give you a look like you just farted in church:)... Then you'll get the industry talking points.... "The information on Zillow is out dated, incorrect etc". I just sit back and smile knowing that information is pulled out of the MLS and I no longer have to wait for you to give it to me and I likely know about a new listing or a sale before you do and have just as much information.

    Getting back on subject, it's technology and companies like Zillow who created the need for Professional Photography. If not for them, we'd still be looking at tear sheets and 1 low resolution photo in a phone book. We now have the information we as consumer need to make screening properties much easier and the information we need to make more informed decisions. The Real Estate agent role has changed from information broker to a transaction facilitator. The smart agents embrace and get that while others try and cling to their old ways and become extinct.

    Sorry for the rant and getting off subject.... I had to get that off my chest and I feel much better now 🙂

  5. Larry, thank you for this. As a newbie to real estate photography, my history only starts at 2012 so it is very illuminating to be exposed to the evolution of this market.

  6. Started in 2000 with Virtual Imaging Corporation in the Monterey Peninsula CA. I took just the exterior front images of homes two days a week for the MLS. The other three days I did virtual tours using the IPIX Bamboo Technology with a fisheye lens. I did not have to process any of the images. I mailed the cards to VIC. The MLS had a link to the virtual tours that were approx. 640 x 480 in size making the images much smaller. We added still images around 2001. After gaining the experience and having a client base I became independent in 2002/3 with a Konica Minolta Dimage. Back then you had to build your own web site and virtual tours using Dreamweaver. This profession has had huge changes since then. We got away with carrying the camera with flash on top until approx. 5 years ago. We all know the history since then. My wife became an agent in 1999 and hired Circlepix to take her images. That is why I got into the business.

  7. 23 years ago the daily MLS info would spit out of a machine on the wall sometime after midnight. I'd race into the office to be the first to get it. There's was only one other guy as hungry as me - if I got there at 5 am he'd have have it all, and a plan how to use it that day. It got to the point that 3 am meant only a 50/ 50 chance of beating him to it...

    Fast forward: He's still in the business, one of the top 2% producers in the country. No surprise I guess. But here's what is, at least in my mind: These days he delegates listing photography to one of his army of assistants. They simply call a 'big company' that sends them a random photographer and they hope for the best. Sometimes the results are okay, other times laughably horrific - BUT - no one on his team seems to care. Because the photos are ***good enough*** and trust me - He makes good enough work. Which brings me back to the recent Zillow (sorry about dragging a dead horse) conversation, when someone mentioned Zillow teaching agents how to get [good enough] from their personal phone or camera. My SWAG is that'll happen, at least for the bottom 2/3 price point. Love 'em or hate 'em, Zillow is not a photographer's friend.

  8. I got started in this industry in 1982. At that time, the MLS was king. Only RE agents had access to MLS listings, but there were other options available. Newspapers had large sections devoted to real estate advertising. Grocery stores had racks of free magazines advertising homes for sale. I was an " independent contractor" for Homes and Land Magazine, a national franchise based in Tallahassee. Brokers would submit their ad copy, we would compile a list of addresses and we would do "drive-bys". Move the garbage cans and cars from the driveways (if possible) and shoot a quick shot of the front of the house. We published up to an 80 page magazine advertising for Brokerages, agents and their listings. A photo of the front of the house, a few lines of copy and a phone number. I remember shooting up to 150 houses a week! This ended in the early 2000s with the internet and digital photography. MLS went online and required realtors to submit their own photos. This morphed into what we have today, We work directly for the realtor, shoot 15-50 photos per listing, aerial and videos!

  9. @Dave Clark - In 2000 we used IPIX Bamboo in Seattle for 360s. My wife fell in love with 360s so I figured out how to shoot them for her listings and then did it for years.

  10. Before digital, I was making "flyers" by printing scrapbook like pieces on photopaper, letter size. Made a small fortune doing that. And that was the evolution of a typewritten and photocopied sheet with photoprints glued on top. No computers were involved...

  11. "This suggests that Zillow and social media is replacing the function of MLSs." Holy Cow . . . I knew this transition is coming but had no idea it was so prevalent in some areas. Guess I'll be looking for work soon . . .

  12. I started working as an agent in 1995 and had a very limited sphere of influence, most of my friends were actors and other struggling artist types. I did an inventory of my skill and knew I could do photography.
    I saw an ad online for a Sony Mavica in 1997 and I was sold on the idea of using it to make videos of homes to put on the MLS. That didn’t work out great, without a gimble or sound editing, the walk-throughs looked like found footage from a Slasher Movie. With the wide-angle adapter Sony sold, it could produce some passable interior shoots.
    I figured I could stand out from the rest of the Realtors by offering my clients ‘Virtual Tours’. I would also photograph properties I previewed and send my Buyers images of all the available properties in their price range. I started to offer agents in my office free tours, if they would allow me to post there listing to my real estate site, seattlehometeam.com. I had very few takers, until I started to charge $50 for the service, I guess once I put a price on them they were worth something.
    I also invested in the IPIX kit and offered those. I then switched to using the kit’s Nikon 700 with the Nikon wide-angle adapter to do the interior images. I upgraded a couple of times adding in remote SB80 Flashes, until the D70 hit the market in 2004. I paired the D70 up with the 12-24 f/4G added in some more flashes.
    Once I figured out I was making more money with the photos than the Real Estating-thing I quit that and went full time with the photography in 2005.

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