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Be Careful, It's Possible To Physically Misrepresent A Property With Sky Replacement

Published: 31/05/2016

CrossSunsetRandy makes a great point:

I’ve been doing sky replacements on homes shot on days when the sky is just not exciting to look at or it was a real dreary day, and needs some big billowy clouds overhead. I recently have noticed photographers offering twilight conversions where daytime skies are being replaced with beautiful red sunsets. This makes the house look very attractive, but also misleading to some respect. I’ve seen images of some local homes shown with beautiful red skies with the sun setting over the backyard. They look wonderful, but the sun actually never rises or sets in that direction. A prospective buyer may think they are going to enjoy gorgeous evenings sitting on their deck watching the sun go down over their pool, but in fact they will never see it happen because the sun never sets there. Adding clouds is one thing, but adding fake sunset skies? I would want to make sure I have a 'proper sky' for the angle in which I take the shot. What are your thoughts and what are others doing?

Randy, you make a good point! Putting a sunset in the wrong direction in an exterior photo can misrepresent the property physically. The photo above is an example. It's a listing my wife and I sold in 2000. I went back to the property many times to get a shot that wasn't rainy. Since it was November in Seattle I never did get a good sky shot. Fortunately, at the time, I didn't know how to do sky replacement. This sky replacement was done several years after we sold the property. When I was learning how to replace skies. This shows the sun in the North which if used as a marketing photo would clearly be a misrepresentation of how the home is oriented!

One thing real estate photographers should be aware of is that real estate agents (everywhere) are legally required to not physically misrepresent a property. So photographers should have a discussion with clients before they change some physical feature of a property. There isn't total agreement about what should be Photoshopped and what should not. Here is a summary many discussions we've had here on PFRE on Photoshopping ethics over the years.

Larry Lohrman

15 comments on “Be Careful, It's Possible To Physically Misrepresent A Property With Sky Replacement”

  1. I have often wondered this, having seen many obvious, over the top sky replacements. I think it is a huge misrepresentation in some cases. We generally use sky replacements which are fairly impossible to tell where the sun sets, or if we do use one with the glow of just after sunset, match it with where the sun is actually setting. Any time there's a nice twilight sky and we are for example, in a highrise, we try to get a few different angles to add to the twilight sky folder. They always seem to look better matching the photos when they are from the same type of camera than from the net.

  2. It's a slippery slope starting with electrical cords and blue skies. Next comes better lawns. Then there's paint or carpet spots... Missing trim. A cracked window... One day a small corner of the neighbor's is ruining a perfect composition; where on that list did you really cross the line?

  3. Skies? No problem. A sunset/sunrise photo in the wrong place would cross the line. I've installed a lawn before. The property was a rehab and the new seeded grass was just starting to sprout, so the lawn was on its organic way.

    Some blatant "Photoshopping" is self-limiting. I charge $50/hr and up for PS work. Most agents won't spend the money on average middle class homes. It could be cheaper to correct defects than to have me alter photos.

    Many of galleries have images that are not possible. I often eliminate the camera from bathroom images if there isn't a way to position the camera so it doesn't show up. One could argue that the camera is not a permanent item, but it could also be argued that if a person put their eyes in the same spot, they would see their reflection. I explain that I am undead and that's why I don't appear in mirrors. That always gets a laugh.

  4. Typically on twilight shots, I use natural "golden minutes" only and if the sun happens to set I(or rise in morning shots) in that direction...great. In my refusal to alter the skyscape, all I have to do is use the work "misrepresentation" and the discussion stops. As a Realtor, I have also called out a few to the listing agent where I didn't take the photos but showing the property to buyers. Do I do daytime sky replacement - absolutely, afterall, this is the "Sunshine State" and arguably, showing a cloudy sky could be a misrepresentation. It is also part of my reply to the "clueless know-it-all loudmouth" who asserts any and all Photoshop is bad and should be banned. I also green the grass (primarily hue adjustment method) as it is only brown 2 months out of the year. Again, arguably, it could be misrepresentation to show healthy grass lawn as brown 10 months out of the year and no one has complained during those 2 months as they don't know when photo was taken. I avoid major Photoshop removing items, and many times it is easier to lift out the signs and Photoshop grass over the hole than be limited by angle and/or reconstruct window or garage door detail. On mirrors, that is a whole different issue as I try to stay out - self timer and Photoshop out the camera is easier than Photoshopping myself out. Realtors appreciate that as that is their frustration with their DIY shoots and wanting themselves and the flash glare out but don't know how. Typically that is in bathrooms, but on occasion full wall mirrors in living areas. That is where I developed my "Go Big or Go Home" presentation playing on the Realtor's frustration with the self photo in bathroom mirrors. That is when I start with two umbrellas and myself in the mirror, then show the end result after masking two or three and cloning out the camera. My favorite, in video is fishing line to open a door as I transition from exterior to interior. Really catches the attention of the realtor - particularly when a clear glass door and sidelight, where I told her I was auditioning for a remake of the invisible man. If they are present, they are the ones pulling the fishing line as I walk through the door.

  5. I'm with Ken. I routinely replace skies and lawns (if seasonally burnt out or freshly seeded).

    I'm surprised at what wasn't mentioned in the OP... I am careful however to make sure that power lines, towers etc., that are in the original image, remain in the photo shopped image after sky replacement. I even keep the original shadows on the lawn so you can tell the direction the sun is shining.

    Misleading sunsets and hiding permanent objects should be avoided.

  6. My opinion may be in the minority here - but I think Photoshop sky replacement, lawn patches, electrical cord removals, etc...etc... are all fine. The reason I think they are all fine is that they are not permanent parts of the house and can change from day to day (minute to minute in the case of a sky). I could sit there for eight to ten hours waiting for the perfect sky to appear - or I can just replace it (I choose to replace it). I could unplug all those devices and take 10-15 minutes removing & re-plugging that rat's nest of wires or just clone them out (I choose to simply clone them out). I could bring my own box of assorted light bulbs (yes, I used to do that) and replace that one burned out bulb in that 4-bulb fixture - or I can just clone in one of the other bulbs (I clone them now). In my opinion, as long as we are not changing anything to do with the house or structure (not fixing paint or holes or cracks) Photoshop fixes are no different than paying a stager to come in a add furniture or "dress" a home.

  7. Changing the apparent orientation of the home to show a sunset is crossing the line. Making the sky blue, fixing dead spots on the lawn and hiding power cords is not. The latter is acceptable because there are times when all those things are possible... the grass can grow or be replaced or will actually be green in a few weeks, the sky is often blue, and you can unplug a power cord and move it. To me that's the difference between misrepresenting or not. You can't move a house so that the sunset is behind it. I tell my clients that I can fix broken trim in the photo if they intend to fix the broken trim before listing the house. At the end of the day, I will use enhancements if those things are actually possible in the home. How is that any different than using flash to light up a room that isn't really bright or using exposure fusion to bring out the texture of a room. All those things are enhancements but are not misrepresentations of the property.

  8. It’s a long story that you really don’t want to hear, but basically – A realtor that refuses to pay for photography, in the same office as one of my clients, complained to the broker/owner that my client was misrepresenting properties by “Photoshopping” pictures. The situation forced me to do a little research. I’m not a lawyer, and don’t want to be one when I grow up, so do your own homework, but here’s what I found.

    As long as the buyer physically visits the property before making an offer, they can’t complain afterward about the pictures. It’s only when a buyer makes an offer based solely on the pictures that he can make a misrepresentation claim. And in that situation, their claim will most likely prevail.

    I’m not sure how far this line of thinking/logic applies. As professionals, we all do something to make our pictures look good. It’s where we stop that becomes the argument. I use Lightroom for all of my pictures, and Photoshop for some. I do a lot of blending, enhancing, shading, lightening, darkening and so on. It’s when it comes to “replacement” that I get cautious. But, there are companies that exist on virtual staging and “replacement” work, so what do I know?

  9. I personally think it's fine to put a sunset in the wrong spot. The sun sets and rises over quite the range of degrees anyway, so it would almost be hard to find a spot that isn't at least feasible for a sunrise or a sunset. On a different note, these extravagant relacements almost always enter the gaudy territory for me, and they don't even look good. They just enter the realm of tastelessly overboard for me most often. So I'd say avoid them more because they usually look quite tacky, not because they are misrepresentative.

  10. It seems to me there is a lot of nashing of the teeth when it comes to photographs misrepresenting the property. With all of the photoshoping done in real estate and architectural photography has anyone ever been sued for it?

  11. What about the practice of light painting exteriors at twilight shoots? That might suggest hidden lighting sources when, in reality, the house may be quite dark at night.

  12. @Rohnn - unfortunately I can answer that. There was this terrific view lot.... With a power pole on the lot below it....

    Blocking the perfection of a postcard-perfect [dare I say iconic] view of Puget Sound. The seller owned both lots, promised the agent he'd bury the power line in the near future and was delighted with a marketing photo for the upper lot that didn't include the pole.

    Rock-solid 30+ year agent. Rock-solid local seller. And, a story with a r-e-a-l-l-y bad ending.

    @Larry Gray - Not asserting all PS is bad - I do plenty every day, including items on that list - only suggesting the line isn't as sharp as you might assume.

  13. Dave Williamson has a good point about light-painting exteriors, but it could be argued the same way as using flash indoors to light a room. Whether it's overhead lights, a desk lamp, or the camera's flash, the point is that we will generally need to modify the lighting in-camera or in post-production (or both). Using a flash (or several) to light an outdoor space doesn't seem unethical if the same standard is applied as when the flash is indoors. And positioning those flashes artistically is our job. The problem I see is less with a potential misrepresentation claim and more that it's just a huge letdown if a potential buyer goes to see the home at twilight and there are no landscaping lights at all, which may actually suffer the goal of selling the home.

    I think all of this does firmly underscore the need for us to reference this sort of issue in our contracts, stating that the client holds us harmless in the event they receive a claim pertaining to any modifications they requested.

  14. @Brandon - I seem to remember a lawsuit about that very thing. A full page ad in the LA Times, out-of-state buyer. Perfect twilight shot. The strobes were hidden in the bushes and landscaping to light the exterior of the home. Great shot! Buyer came out for inspections and wanted to know where his landscaping lighting was. I do not remember the exact details but I do remember reading that someone paid to add the lighting for him based on the image.

  15. Living in the NW - Vancouver USA - I do a lot of sky replacements. I guess I am a little OCD on this point. My sky and twilight folders are cataloged:morning, afternoon, evening,and the 4 compass points too. Yes, it's overboard but my replacements are somewhat realistic that way. I thought of adding the seasons. As for permanent structures? no way! Your broker's and your credibility are one of your most important assets. Grass? Possibly, like in new construction where the landscaper just doesn't have it in yet, or it has been planted but not yet sprouted. Other non permanent things? One of my favorite, was one of my first. In a Mural project of the murals on Alberta St. Portland,OR. I had to remove a Chevy Tahoe that was parked in front of the beautiful Community Cycling Center mural.

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