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Ethics Considerations in Real Estate Photography

Published: 25/05/2018
By: larry

Last week, Dave in California raised the issue of how far real estate photographers should go when removing things from real estate images.

Over the years, we've had a lot of heated discussions here about the ethics of image modification in the context of real estate photography.  I think the subject is important enough to have a separate page dedicated to summarizing what has evolved out of these discussions over the years.

Here is a general outline of some guidelines:

  1. Real estate photographers typically work for the listing agent and in some cases will be asked to modify photographs of properties for sale.
  2. Listing agents everywhere have a legal responsibility to not "materially misrepresent" a property. That's a meaningful expression to lawyers since it keeps popping up every time this subject is talked about.
  3. Modifying or removing temporary objects like garbage cans, cars, or overcast skies is customary and generally not considered materially misrepresenting the property.
  4. Removing permanent objects like power lines, telephone poles, and neighboring homes are customarily considered materially misrepresenting the property because they hide undesirable permanent property features.
  5. Landscaping seems to be an area where not everyone agrees. Landscaping seems to be in between permanent and temporary. Many people believe that fixing defects in the grass or landscaping is OK, whereas others believe it is not OK. When there is some question about if a feature is permanent or temporary, it's safest to treat it as a permanent feature.

In summary, the photographer is working for the listing agent, not the potential buyer and representation of the property is the listing agent's legal responsibility, not the photographer's. However, diligence suggests that if the photographer is asked to modify photographs they believe materially misrepresents the property, they should document in writing the fact they are modifying the photograph at the agent's request.

14 comments on “Ethics Considerations in Real Estate Photography”

  1. The image is pretty an egregious case of POV being used to cover up an ugly edifice. Reality is likely in between those two images as the Google StreetView camera are mounted highly that what an average height person will see.

    Part of a photographers job is to find a composition that portrays a property in the best light. We would be doing our customers a disservice if we choose compositions that highlight that their are high tension lines nearby or adjioning homes that aren't well kept. Hiding something through compositional choice is lying by omission. Editing something out in Photoshop goes over the line.

    Landscaping is a big gray area. A lawn isn't going to look it's best in the winter. The home may have been refurbished and the grass is seeded and growing but hasn't filled in. I don't have a problem greening up a lawn or adding some flowers to a rose bush out of season. I'll also do some pruning of wild branches or shoots. I won't go as far as adding shrubs, trees or other plants that aren't there when I photograph the property even if there are plans to put them in later. If I am making teaser images for a property that isn't on the market, I am much more lenient. I have a couple of agents that work with flippers who want to have nice front exterior photos to put on their "coming soon" pages to generate interest while the home is under renovation. So far, those agents have me come back to me when the home is ready and have me make images to be used for the actual listing if they haven't secured a buyer already.

    If an agent is requesting heavy modifications that could be deceptive, you might want to consider whether you want to work with them or not.

  2. I keep it simple, it's the agents issue, not ours. If they want something done and it looks like it is getting close to the ethical line or over it, then I suggest to them that it could be an issue of miss-representation and insist on an email requesting what they want done. Then we do it. They are the paying clients and this is a business.

    All that said, if I felt that the client was trying to cheat someone else, then I would just decline to work with them.

    Clients that I work with know that I do not play games with ethical questions.

  3. I'm kind of with Ken and Jerry with this. Difference is, I charge to make some of those mods so in the end they get invoices with "add green lawn at agent request $xx" on the invoice. No need for requesting email.

    If an agent said "erase those towers in the background" I'd mention "are you allowed to do that?" I hate to call an agent unethical to their faces. However as mentioned, if they insisted, the charge would be on their invoice along with that wording. The next time I just would have no availably for a shoot for that agent.

    All that being said if I can do it with composition I do it automatically. I am careful with editing skies. When I add Blue Skies and Bunny Clouds on a rainy day I make sure the wires remain. Those of course, sky and lawn changes, are an extra charge.

    Then there are those pesky holes in the wall that I know are being taken care of in the next few days. I patch those for no charge as long as the agent and owner tell me they are having them fixed.

  4. Only if the realtor or whoever commissioned the shoot asks for retouching should it be carried out. Whatever the case, you MUST get this request in writing!!!! Why? Should the modification be the subject of a court case, and you don't have anything in writing the realtor or whoever will flatly deny giving you the order to retouch/remove xyz leaving you, the photographer left holding the baby.

    So colleagues, the utmost diligence is required for your own protection. Don't forget IN WRITING and with EXPLICIT INSTRUCTIONS what has to be modified/removed! Trusting someone is good but control is always better.

  5. What I find amazing is that the "misrepresentation" high horse doesn't go full circle. Are not blown out windows with dark dungeon like rooms a misrepresentation of the property yet it is almost standard fare for those that do not hire a photographer. Likewise slanting walls presenting a house as structurally unsound? Another, I caught a Realtor (reported by my client) using my front photo for their "Just Sold" fliers and on their and broker's "just Sold" web page. Sent both a (hefty) bill which they paid and took down as I also threw in the misrepresentation label misleading potential prospects as they don't use a professional photographer on their current listings.

  6. Our FB Group came up with this False Misrepresentation list:

    Putting a sunset in the wrong direction in an exterior photo can misrepresent the property physically.
    Removing a crack anywhere in the home is a violation.
    Altering the landscape by adding or taking away grass shrubs or trees that would not naturally change within a few weeks.
    Modification of Permanent Physical Characteristics .
    Removing or modifying power lines, antennas or power poles.
    Putting in new carpet. Painting a floor to cover scratches.
    Fix broken glass in windows.
    Fix broken or flaws out of fixed mirrors.
    Replace a missing piece in a stain glass window.
    Paint out dirty spots in carpet and remove dents in carpet caused by furniture.
    Put in new carpet or flooring.
    Replace or add stones or bricks.
    Adding new or fixing light fixtures.
    Fixing broken fence or holes in fence.

  7. When the agent ask's to remove permanent objects I respond with "I can do anything you want and you are on the hook for it...sign here." and they get the point.

  8. If an agent asks me for certain things, I have a standard speech.

    "Sure, but understand something. I'm a photographer with the ability to alter an image. That is what you are hiring me to do. I am in NO WAY an expert on what the real estate industry will or will not allow. You are the contracted agent that represents this property, and these images are part of your representation."

    Just last month I was asked to add fire to a gas fireplace that didn't actually work, and in the end it cost the agent a $1500 set of gas fireplace logs.

  9. Not to muddy the waters but virtual staging would seem to be the ultimate misrepresentation of a property.

    Any time an agent asks about modifications, I usually respond: "Yes I can do that but what are you going to say to a potential buyer when they view the property and (insert whatever) doesn't look the same as the photo. All you've really accomplished is to upset a buyer because you wasted their time if it is a big enough issue to kill a sale."

    It seems that the only situation that could result in legal steps would be if the buyer makes the purchase sight unseen. I'm sure that happens but my guess is not that often. The example photo would be a prime example if a buyer did not visit the property. There is clearly a misrepresentation of the property and caveat emptor would be tough to argue.

  10. Pretty much everything that is done is a misrepresentation. It is very subjective where the lines should be drawn. Someone mentioned staging, that is a great point. Wide angle lenses misrepresent. I feel everything we do, from white balance to sharpening, could all be considered misrepresentation.

    So, my conclusion is, do whatever the heck the client is willing to pay for and make the best damn photos you can in the alloted time. That is it. The best answers are usually pretty simple.

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