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Are There New Rules In California For Real Estate Photographers?

Published: 04/09/2015

rulesMicah, a real estate photographer that recently moved to California asked the following:

I heard something interesting today that I hadn't heard of before but thought maybe you knew: Someone was telling me that photographers who shoot real estate in California need a real estate license in order to do it legally. Is this true? I can't seem to find any information on it but he claims he's a real estate broker.

After doing a little research and talking to some long time real estate photographers in California, I can find no evidence that suggest you need a real estate license to shoot real estate in California.

The probable cause for confusion is that when photographers are licensed Realtors it allows them access to listed properties without being accompanied by a Realtor. This is a big advantage and some real estate offices may be looking for photographers that are licensed Realtors. So yes, it's a rule in most MLSs that photographers cannot go in a property unaccompanied to shoot the property so the custom all over the US is that the licensed Realtor (listing agent) comes to the property during the shoot and accompanies the photographer.

My experience in Oregon and Washington is that Realtors routinely ignore and work around this rule and a long time real estate photographer in California tells me that:

My understanding has always been that, officially, no one is supposed to be in a listing unless they’re accompanied by a licensed agent. EVERYONE ignores that. I’ve never met an agent who brought it up (but this is why they use those blue “Supra” lockboxes. And it’s why they get around the rule by having another lockbox that just uses a combination - e.g. a “contractor” lockbox.

So my conclusion is that: No, you don't need a real estate license to shoot listed properties in California but legally you need to be accompanied by a licensed Realtor to be legal. But expect to have your clients completely ignore this MLS rule.

What do you California shooters think?

Larry Lohrman

17 comments on “Are There New Rules In California For Real Estate Photographers?”

  1. As a Realtor, i have that advantage of access using the lockbox. However, it's still not legal for me or any other agent to enter without an appointment or permission. I believe that a non-realtor would not be breaking any laws if they have the homeowner's permission and presence for their photo job -- even if the listing agent cannot be there. Most of my jobs are done before the property is listed -- there is no lockbox -- no restrictions other than normal permission needed to enter.

  2. I'm in Oregon, and your "experience that in Oregon and Washington Realtors routinely ignore and work around this rule" rings true here.
    Personally I've never felt comfortable without the realtor being there. If the listing is unoccupied I'm fine, but walking into every room of a complete strangers home is never something I've enjoyed. Especially if the owner is not walking with me as I work.

  3. I often am accompanied by the listing agent for the first couple of jobs I do for them and only occasionally thereafter. The only time I'm given a code for a "contractors" lock box is for vacant properties. I'm often met by the sellers and work while they do some final straightening ahead of me after some guidance. I'm sometimes let in by the homeowners who then leave to run errands while I make photos.

    Just recently somebody posted a snippet from a real estate association (MLS) (in the Flickr group, I think) that prohibits agents from using their lockbox access cards in conjunction with a business other than showing the property for a seller or to a buyer. That would preclude a licensed agent that also works as a listing photographer from having an advantage over a photog that isn't an agent.

    I must have an honest face and people trust me. I don't do anything to violate that trust. I feel more comfortable if there is somebody else at an occupied property just so there isn't any questions later if something turns up missing. I'm fine with being alone at vacant properties.

  4. I'm not a licensed Realtor, but I have an agent who offered to say I was his assistant so I could get my own Supra key which allows me access to homes without an agent or anyone else present. It has been a huge bonus to me to be able to tell agents I can do that, most love the flexibility of not having to be there if they don't need to be. I do need to have an additional code, the CBS code, in order the access the keybox, however. That's the only difference.

  5. I have much the same experiences as those stated above. But then too, I live and work in a small community where many people still don't lock their doors at all although that too is changing. When I first work with a client, they always accompany me and get some work done in another room. If the house is occupied, the owner is usually running around in front of me doing some last minute decluttering. But I have usually done a pre-shoot walk through and have met the owners so we already have a sort of relationship and I guess I too have one of those trustworthy faces. I always try to establish some sort of bond with them quickly. Chat about something I see around the house or property that they are clearly interested in.

    But almost always the agent opens for me even if they just leave afterwards. With most of them, they are long time clients and know I will not be a bull in a china shop although that is always my fear.

    But I would imagine that "stagers" also have this same issue. I doubt many have real estate licenses either. I have seldom had an agent strictly follow the MLS rules because they are rules but if they stay for the whole shoot it is because they are interested in the process or want to make sure certain shots are captured or features captured.

  6. Ken Brown's post: --"... {MLS rule] prohibits agents from using their lockbox access cards in conjunction with a business other than showing the property for a seller or to a buyer."

    I don't think this is possible, nor, IMO, is the CA law mentioned in the original post. As a listing agent, I use my lockbox card to let in appraisers, stagers, contractors, carpet cleaners, buyers after the sale for pre-close walk-through, and, in the case of a pre-foreclosure, the bank's agent for a price opinion --- all are examples of NOT showing to a potential buyer. I guess it is true that it is "...for a seller..."

    With my photographer's hat on, I also use my lockbox card -- but always with permission of the listing agent and owner. In most cases one of them accompany, but in many cases, they don't.

  7. I have been photographing real estate in California for more than 10 years. Suggesting that I need a Realtor's license would provoke looks of astonishment from all of the agents and brokers I work with. I am routinely left alone in properties if I have not been given a lockbox code. Sometimes an agent will be present but as a rule they want to leave as quickly as possible.

  8. The norm for me is I pick up the key, get the alarm codes and go. I have never had a realtor be with me, I do sometimes have the home owners present but mostly not.

  9. You don't need a license and you don't need a realtor present either. You're just a vendor performing a service like a painter or a gardener. The only thing you need to be careful about, is talking to buyers and sellers of real estate, not to make any representations about the house, about the neighborhood, about who lives there, about any pending transaction or offers even asking price because you need a license for that. The best is just not to talk to them.

  10. @Sarah - During the 10 years that I had a real estate license in the Seattle area (1999 to 2009) and was a member of the NWMLS, there was a $5,000 for any NWMLS listing agent that was caught leaving a contractor unattended in a listing (it's a NWMLS rule, not a State law). I don't know if that is still the rule. I'm acutely aware of this because it was one of my jobs on our listing team to accompany contractors in our listings... it's quite a boring job!

  11. I don't think "Legal" or "Illegal" have anything to do with this. Since when does State Law dictate who can, or can't enter my house? People have plumbers, painters, electricians, nannys, and cleaners in their homes all the time when they (the homeowners) are absent. There's no law that I'm aware of that speaks to who can and can't enter a house, unless they're trespassing.

    However, there may or may not be a rule in the California BAR about this, to protect the industry from repercussions in the event of a bad actor robbing the place and the lawsuits going all the way up past the brokerage and to the trade group they belong to. If the listing agent breaks the rules, they can safely say, "He's the bad guy, he violated our guidelines."

    But I don't think it's a legal question.

  12. One agency I've worked with has contractor boxes at many houses where the home owner has moved out of and the houses may or may not be furnished. They would give me the lock number and I'd be the only one there. This happened maybe 1/3 of the time. Another 1/3 of the time the home owner would be there and the last 1/3 the agent would open the door and leave me to photograph and lock up. All most never would they stay more than 10 or fifteen minutes.

  13. I was a realtor but dropped my license because of to much photography work. I just stayed a member of my local MLS board which allows me to have a Sentricard which is the lockbox system we use here.

  14. They ignore the rule quite often... A good percentage of the listings I shoot, the agent is not present. Once I've established a relationship with the client, I have no problem taking these jobs. I make sure the agent provides the homeowner with a list of my guidelines, and remind them that the home will be photographed "as is." Additionally, I'm often given lockbox codes to access vacant "investor" listings. Again, no agent present.

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