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Ethics Considerations In Real Estate Photography

Published: 15/02/2011
By: larry

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

Here is a general outline of that consensus:

  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.
  3. Modifying or removing temporary objects like garbage cans, cars, overcast skies etc is customary and generally not considered materially misrepresenting the property.
  4. Removing permanent objects like power lines, telephone poles, neighboring homes etc. 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 where as 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 photographers. However, prudence 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 agents request.

11 comments on “Ethics Considerations In Real Estate Photography”

  1. I think your list sums up the point of view of most. I have been asked to replace or repair lawns (major landscape work). I always have it confirmed in an email. There are major fines for misrepresenting a property here. I lean towards the view that a major overhaul of the lawn is not ethical. I also believe in the view that the one writing the checks makes the rules. So this puts the photog in the middle a bit. The typical response I hear - "They'll see the lawn when they tour the property" or "we plan to hire a lawn service".

    It escapes how someone selling a property at the million dollar level would not pull the grass/weeds out of cracks in the sidewalk/driveway. Another pet peeve is to arrive on site and see a foggy green pool with the owner pouring in the super shock... That equals a return trip.

    There are more subtle issues that come up. For example wall damage, bad wall repair, major carpet stains, cracked cement.... Well, you can photoshop it (consider this a wrong) or shoot around it.

    In the end if you "pull the wool" over a potential buyers eyes, when they do see the property a whole bunch of trust will be lost and that could easily kill a sale. Worse yet, a relationship with a buyers agent could be damaged.

  2. I follow pretty much the guidelines above. When I get asked to repair cracks, or otherwise do something I think goes "over the line" I tell my client that it's entirely possible to do it, but I need an email from their broker specifying exactly what they want done to the photo. At that point, I figure I've got some backup when the sh*t hits the fan later. There have been a couple of high-profile lawsuits here locally that revolved around material mis-representations, and I don't doubt for a second that as the photographer, I'd be one of the first to be thrown under the bus if it happened to one of my clients.
    In one case, things fell apart after a deal had been struck, the buyers were looking for any way to get out of the contract, and discovered that the photo of the view had actually be made from a quarter mile or so down the road, not from the rear of the property itself. That was all they needed to get the lawyers involved. Truth was, no one cared about where the shot was made, it was just a good, legal excuse when they needed one.

    Be safe. Get it documented.

  3. One thing that has come up in my discussions with other agents about what is legal and/or ethical is what you crop out of a photo or shoot around. I would like to know other's opinions of this. For example, do you not show a cell tower or power line that you can shoot around? Obviously, if you photograph the front of the house and there are power lines dangling behind the house and above the roofline that stays in the shot.

    Thanks for the feedback on this.

  4. @Daniel- Yes, my job is to get you to eat your broccoli and carrots! And yes, if you can get the domain grab it! Also, would be good;)

  5. @Henrique- Composing a shot is completely different than modifying in Photoshop. Photographers have been leaving out stuff since photography was invented... that's fair game!

  6. I try to follow a simple 7 day rule. If whatever you Photoshop can be made to look exactly that way in 7 days you can do it. That means removing plants, unwanted cars, basketball goals, and other temporary objects. Since you cant remove power lines, fix most major structural damage, or install completely grown trees/gardens in 7 days I will not do that.

  7. I have exactly the same 3 monkeys sitting on my desk to remind me everyday about what we should/shouldn't be doing.

  8. i think the consideration comes down to answering the basic question "Is a picture either Marketing or a Document? i think of it as always been a marketing feature because of all the different ways a picture can be represented. variations in composure, lighting, differences from one camera to the next... the lens used is not the way normal way people see it....two eyes compared to one (lens)... with or with out eye glasses for the viewer...differences in exposure the picture taker uses...wide angle distortion or panoramas are not real ways the actual scene is viewed either...movies or stills which do it more justice than the other? digital adjustmnets on the viewing monitor are thing we don't control. Besides who buys something they won't look at in person especially at the dollar level being spent? know what they say "a fool and his money are soon parted" my opinion is that it should always be considered marketing because of the endless variations inherent in photography intentional or you believe in UFO's? even if the picture exist you would want to see it your self, right?...if you insist a real estate picure is documentation then you should never lighten or darken your photos or even think about using using a flash or not ethical...who has not shot or readjusted his frame to get a better view of the subject and therefore a better pciture? yes it is best to not place a tree where it isn't, that is a major intentional misrepresentation that crosses the line intentionally, but to remove the dog bowl or garbage can i think is fair game. As a photographer you are an advertiser not a certified legal document should keep your clients needs in mind but not make a legal judgement, and ethically you can't because you are not a lawyer...common sense should prevail not the threat of a lawsuit...(just my opinion) just a side note to consider...when a builder uses an artist rendition of a building that is not built, is that an inforceable document or just an artist hand drawing to enhance marketing. Did the artist fail to put in the power lines or curb? or the tree they added is that misrepresentation? when your wife or girlfriend uses make up is that a misrepresentation? Politicians coverup grey hair all the time is that a violation of ethics or a misrepresntation? hmmm...
    PS... my dad used to say... "law is for lawyers, not for justice". they get paid when they are right or wrong, how ethical is that? ...did OJ do it? or not?

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