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Are the Big Companies Taking Over in Real Estate Photography?

Published: 31/07/2017
By: larry

Kathy in the Baltimore area asks the following question:

I am looking into manning a booth at our local realtors EXPO.  I am wanting to get ideas from others that may have already done something like this as to how to jazz up a booth to get people to come to you, and if a booth is a good idea for marketing your services.  Any ideas and info would be greatly appreciated.

I am getting slammed lately by larger companies building up around here. They have employees that do brochures, or editing, etc. I have a few photographers that work for me and my business has been going well since I started in 2002, but lately I feel these corporations are taking over. They are young and vibrant, have fancier websites. I’m just feeling that maybe I need to do what they do.

I think any venue where you can talk directly to Realtors is a good marketing opportunity.

To me, the solution to the problem you describe is not just looking jazzier; it's doing what the larger companies can't do very well.

I think the key to competing against these larger companies is focusing on customer service. Large companies such as who you are competing against have a much harder time providing great customer service than you could because they have a hard time training their people (who they pay a low wage) to do great customer service.

Their website may look cooler and they may have more services but they are likely not as good at customer service as you might be. Emphasize your customer service in your marketing.

Does anyone else have advice for Kathy?


15 comments on “Are the Big Companies Taking Over in Real Estate Photography?”

  1. Focus your attention on customer service. There is nothing better than the one on one consulting you can do with your clients. I came from one of the larger RE photo companies and I took them head on. Although we didn't get everyone to convert to us we certainly put a dent and have more business than we know what to do with.
    Most of this success came from the best photos of course but also the level of customer service we were able to give that the big box companies have a hard time competing with.
    Don't worry too much about a "fancy" website, most successful realtors want to see some examples, see peer reviews and have a quick and robust ordering system.
    If you kill it out there, word will get around for sure. I would be glad to help you in any way. Competing with these guys is not as hard as you think but you have to believe you are the best and the rest is just hard work and perseverance.

  2. I think Larry's advice is dead-on. When it comes to customer service I try to be as nimble as possible - I'll take the time to move things around a bit, chat with the broker's clients a bit (if invited) preview some of my shoots and even return later for a shot or 2 when the light might be better - things a large company can't (or won't) do during the hectic pace of stuffing the day w/ appointments to maximize short-term profit.

    I also believe very strongly that fancy websites aren't effective for selling photography services. I've built from silly-simple to pretty sophisticated but, as with selling most things, simple easily wins out. If I didn't use WordPress I'd do Squarespace and I'd challenge anyone to find a more elegant solution for that kind of money.

    If you do better work and provide more service than the big boyz you have absolutely nothing to worry about.

  3. Service, Service, Service. The large companies pay their photographers so poorly that agents/brokers may wind up with a new one for nearly every session with very little consistency. It's difficult to provide the range of products they can such as flyers and custom web sites, the average agent may not need those or want to pay for them. Be proactive and ask your existing clients if there is any visual marketing that they are outsourcing currently or would like to see you do. Flyers can be pretty simple to do if you offer 6-12 different one that you have purchased or made a template for. Drop in some photos and text and send out the pdf with the photos. I save templates with customer information already populated so all I am doing is dropping in the photos and copy/pasting the text they send. It's not a huge profit center, but it buys a few lunches.

    Be sure your clients and potential clients know that you are available for pick-up shots, teasers and stock community images. These can be things that the corporate entities have a hard time doing. I have one client that just loves it when I can get a front exterior of a home being rehabbed that they can start pre-marketing before the work is done. I do these when I am in the area shooting other properties and do a bit more editing than I would feel comfortable with when I'm making images to go on the MLS. Things like removing power/light poles, utility boxes, installing a new lawn, etc. I do caution them to drop the teaser when the home goes on the market and I have provided a less edited version after the home has been refreshed. This has lead to homes being sold before I get a chance to do a full shoot, but I send an invoice for the teaser if I won't be doing a full job. Honestly, I make more per hour on the teasers by a wide margin.

    Show up on time, dress well, be professional and you will be way out ahead of those large shops.

  4. This sounds like I'm a contrarian, but I'm not.

    I think its a bit misleading to think that good service wins out against the larger companies. Not that the advice is misleading but that assumes that big companies have poor service. Not all of them do. In fact, as the market consolidates these larger companies are often made up by the very people who when they were independent provided great service.

    Larger companies get to take advantage of economies of scale that individual artisans can't afford which makes it tough to compete. I'd like to think that if individuals perfected their craft and could create a look that they might be able to charge more for it and would provide a competitive advantage. But I'm not sure if realtors are willing to pay more for either quality or better support?

  5. Strive to become part of your best client's brand. I have a particular style that my best clients like and they have made it part of their marketing. They will use no one else because the photographs will not look the same. When I have to suggest a substitute due to some unforeseen circumstance these clients will change their schedule to work with me. When I ask why they just didn't use another photographer, they say "He's not you."

    I have cultivated these relationships over the course of years. I go above and beyond for them and I feel like I am part of their team. Even when booked two to three weeks in advance I always have availability for them if they have a short-fused listing and they always ensure the homes are ready to shoot when I get there. If you have three or four of these clients you will have plenty of work.

  6. I agree with Reed. I've built my business in this manner as well. The agents I work with include me as part of their marketing services, some along with staging and one that even includes a cleaning service before the photoshoot. If you haven't already, have a brochure that you can give to the agents you work with that shows the importance of professional photography so they can give it to their clients.

  7. As far as the booth goes... You need a reason for people to stop so you can engage them in a conversation. Do a spin the wheel. Have a few tiers of prizes to choose from to keep your costs low. Hand out post cards with your information on them. (Bigger than a business card and won't get as lost in the pile of papers they will collect.) I use an art display grid to hang samples of my work. You can get them printed on foam core. I was really impressed with the quality of PrintMoz. It's graphic and will be another way to get people to stop and look. Know your "elevator speech" and greet EVERYONE that walks by. (Pet peeve of mine is having a booth attendant act like they are bored or you are bothering them!) And be sure to network with the other vendors at the event! You can get business/referrals from them as well!

  8. The trick seems to be offering realtors services that bring them onboard and keep them there. For example, drone aerials are starting to take hold in this area so we've arranged to work with a local drone pilot who can shoot listings for us. We are also advertising for virtual tours. Combining these services into a package lets realtors know we are competitive with the larger companies and also provide personalized service.

  9. I've been thinking for a long time that the small and/or independents are going to lose ground to larger companies. Just look what big box stores have done to small retail. Big box stores are on the stock exchange and I'm not sure a tour company will ever make it to that level but who knows. Anyway, independents lose out to the larger guys/gals in 3 ways (imo). 1) Marketing $ 2) proprietary processes/software etc and 3) office staff/service. The independents can compete if they really look around and fill the holes of 2 & 3 with online services. I think marketing is the toughest one. The large companies spend lots of money on this.

    Where I think independents can really make a push to convince Realtors to use them is 1) personal service 2) Realtor is assured to get the same photographer every time and 3) you know how many times an agent is told by the photographer..."I don't know, you'll have to call the office"? Or..."I'm not allowed to do it that way"? Or..."We don't use that method"? Or..."We don't offer night shoots"? Or, fill in the blank.

    I hear some rumblings of a new service (I've received some emails) that is going to make it so an independent can literally market themselves and everything else is done online. It will be as if you have your own office staff with your own pricing, your own scheduling and more. Like I said, I haven't received the whole rundown but I hope it will be what I've been needing. I am a little worried about the large companies also.

  10. I would personally single out two things to concentrate on, but this will sort of apply to anyone you're competing against, not just the larger companies:

    1) rapport with clients - there's no doubt in my mind this is the number one aspect of whether you're getting called back or not. And I'm not talking about small talk either. I'm talking real rapport; you got that and it's a done deal. One of the greatest quotes I've ever heard "people don't refer or hire you because you're good, they refer and hire you because they like you".

    2) image quality - I know that sort of contradicts point one, but I think if you've got these two things, again it's a done deal.

  11. In response to your first question about manning a trade show booth

    1. In your booth, get the biggest TV and hook it to up an apple TV box and iPad. Have your best work showing in a loop. Second if you use flash and strobes have all your gear out and bring all the tripods you have with all your cameras mounted. Fill the booth as much gear as possible.

    2. Handout printed media - I like postcard or bookmark size, keep it simple and easy to read.

    3. Have a prize drawing for a luxury shoot (with well defined terns and conditions) and use it to collect business cards. Send an email to every person that gave you a card (even if they are not an agent!)

    4. Put A LOT of cookies, water, candy and such in an easy to "avoid you location".

    5. Press the flesh, don't stand behind your table, stand in front of your booth. Don't block people so they will be cornered into talking to you. Smile and hand out your marketing material and collect business cards.

    6. A trade show is about marketing and branding. It's about increasing your visibility in the community. I like tweeting during live event - Real time posts will really help.

    In response to your second question about competing against the big boxes: Don't.

    We are a mom & pop boutique photography house since 2009. We provide personalized service and socially enabled products and tours (Read: their branding not ours, lots of functionality, easy to use, and help as much as we can). We have a niche, find yours and celebrate it.

    We once did a golf event and live tweeted a photo of every golfer at our hole. We used a wifi card to push photos to our phone and tweeted it with event hashtags. Another photographer drove around in a golf cart taking photographs of EVERY OTHER vendor's hole and human being who would stand still. I can't say we will ever recoup the investment we made that day, however, we got noticed buy some very big dogs. Today we still reap the rewards of the event, but I don't think we will ever recover the full investment in direct 1 to 1 sales. Any large marketing event is about marketing, not sales.

    I wish you the best at this event, they can be lots of fun!

  12. Wow, a lot of comments and ideas here! I do have wonderful personalized service. My customers all love me and they know my style of photography and are happy. I've been wanting to expand my company so that I can get more photographers and have business for them. Thats the biggest reason why I was considering a booth. I will probably consider the booth again for next year as the convention is in Ocean City in September, and I'm just not prepared yet.

    Thank you for your input - More heads are better than just one and I'm always open to suggestions!! I'm not positive of what "floorplanonline" is. I'll have to look more at the website. I got really busy this week and did not have enough time to investigate it. But if that is another big company, I will probably stay away. I don't want to give away all the clients I've worked so hard to get over the years to another company.

    What prompted all of this is I had two clients leave me, and I'm hurt over it still. I take it all personally. But one left because either #1 I raised my prices or #2 because I like Trump and she saw some Facebook stuff on my personal Facebook - not my business one. I recalled she did not "Like" a post - it was a mad face.

    The other client left me for the bigger, more "cool" and "young vibrant" company. I've been with him since he was a new agent, now he is big and selling water front mansions that I loved to photograph. But I guess I'm too outdated for him. I offer what the other company has, he just never ordered it from me. Thats the one with the "cool" website. This prompted me to update my website -- its still being worked on.

    Anyway - I was with this agent from small to large agent now. So this is a big chunk of income from my company. I look at the pics he receives, from the new listings he has gotten, and they are all over exposed, and not like I would give him. I just don't get it. We never argued, he was always satisfied, never asked for more, I was always doing extra things like photographing his parties, and when he moved to a new office I took photos of it for him for free for his website, his clients I spend a lot of time with to make them feel comfortable. I just don't get it.

    Well - on that note. Thanks so much for all the input friends.

  13. Kathy - Good photography, personalized customer service along with competitive pricing usually trumps everything else and those are the major starting points with most agents. With all that being equal or close, it then comes down to what other services they want on top of your photos that can help them win listings and promote themselves and their listings.

    If you think about it from an agent perspective, a listing is the perfect opportunity for them to market themselves to the public. Take a yard sign as an example..... Have you every seen one without an agent's name and phone number on it?? No and that's because agents use listings to get their name out there and get name recognition which in turn drives more buyer and seller leads. How can an agent leverage your photos and have them associated with their brand? If they could they'd probably want you to put their name and number on every photo you take so people shopping on line would see their branding. However, since the MLS doesn't allow branding and most of the photos on zillow and trulia get pulled from the MLS, if all and agent does is upload your photos to the MLS they get no brand recognition.

    The key here is to offer them services which allow them to associate themselves with your photos in places like trulia and zillow, where the vast majority of home buyers and sellers are looking. Same is true for the printed materials they give out at open houses. They want their brand associates with everything.

    Virtual tours allow them to get that branding since your photos will be framed in a website that features their branding. Now your are not only providing them great photos and customer service, you're also allowing them to leverage the money they paid you for photos into a marketing opportunity for themselves.

    If you can scratch the agent branding itch, that's one more arrow in your quiver that will definitely resonate with agents.

    There are a lot of virtual tour companies out there to help you provide agent branding but they have very different business models. Many of the big box companies set the prices, bill the agent, provide customer care and pay you a set fee for photography. Others will allow you to white label tours and you set your own prices and pay them for the tours but no customer care or billing. Other like us have hybrid models where you set prices and are paid a revenue share and we provide, hosting, billing and customer care.

    If you want to delve into providing tours with agent branding, you need to think about your business model and choose a tour company that lines up best with how you want to do business and what you want to offer your agents.

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