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How Do Real Estate Photographers Handle Properties That Are In Poor Condition?

Published: 10/02/2016
By: larry

StagedNoAaron brings up one of the classic problems for listing agents and real estate photographers:

I was recently contacted by an agent who took over a property from another agent, who didn't/couldn't sell the home. By no surprise, the house was vacant, dirty, all the light bulbs were missing or burnt out. They left all the childrens stickers on the walls and there was a huge garbage pile out back. Well, I made the best use of my A6000, wide angle lens and flash and I was happy with the outcome. After I got home, I viewed the previous agents photography, as they also hired a photographer, and their images were much better due to the condition of the home, and furniture being present when the owners were living there. No surprise. I know that this is not my fault but it is important to me that the agent understands the difference between the two outcomes and the cause of them. It almost makes me want to tell the agent to not worry about my fee for photography, as their future opportunities outweigh any one time compensation. My question is, how do we handle this situation?

Having worked, with my wife listing property for many years, I know exactly what you are talking about! Many home sellers are not in touch with the fact that some due diligence on their part can make a huge difference in selling the property. But In the end, it is the listing agent's job to get it across to the home seller that the property needs to be parade ready before it's put on the market... NOT the photographer! This is what listing agents get the big bucks for! I know from experience that some home sellers are difficult to impossible to work with but the listing agent needs to be able to take charge and deal with the issue. Simple as that. It's not a problem the photographer can fix!

The worst situation is when a property is listed on the market with a renter still in the property! Then, frequently even the home seller can't control whether or not the property is a mess.


14 comments on “How Do Real Estate Photographers Handle Properties That Are In Poor Condition?”

  1. This situation is easy to handle for those that have been in this business for awhile and enforce their terms of service. The key is to set your terms of service and ENFORCE them. As Larry said, "it is the listing agent’s job to get it across to the home seller that the property needs to be parade ready before it’s put on the market… NOT the photographer!"

    The concern I would express to this photographer's statement: "I know that this is not my fault but it is important to me that the agent understands the difference between the two outcomes and the cause of them. It almost makes me want to tell the agent to not worry about my fee for photography, as their future opportunities outweigh any one time compensation." is that they are giving control of this situation to their client, NOT standing up and enforcing the terms of their agreement. This is just a invitation to further problems down the road. Enforce your terms the first time and you do not have to relive them again.

    That said, these types of situations happen to most in the field once in awhile. The few times I have come across this, I inform the agent that the property is not ready and I can shoot it as is or there will be an additional charge to come back when it is ready. If they chose to go forward, I will slap on a flash and snap a few. I will NOT take the time to do the normal service, it won't make a difference anyway. The fact is I will be pissed that I was put into this situation in the first place by an agent that dropped the ball.

    Just saying

  2. It's a good idea to have a discussion with new clients about what they would like you to do in these situations and keep notes. An agent might be unaware that a home isn't ready for photos if something has changed since they visited the property. All of my current clients ask that I photograph a property in the condition that I find it unless it looks like the property has been recently vandalized. I've photographed two homes that were in rather sad shape, but the owner's were more interested in selling fast than investing in repairs and upgrades to get the best price. I knew this going in and concentrated on showing the space as best as possible. I don't downgrade my service when photographing DIY specials. I still want to deliver images that are exposed properly, color accurate and geometrically correct. The homes are a challenge since there isn't a lot of inspiration to be had. All of that said, I will go the extra mile on very nice homes if I have the time and energy.

    My bread and butter work is homes that are extremely middle class and boring. I'll offer to reshoot or apply a credit on the next job if I've made some technical mistakes, but never due to the subject matter presented to me. If you are photographing newborns would you offer a refund on a session because the kid is funny looking?

    Agents should be more impressed by how well you do on a problem home more than what you submit from a elegant mansion. It still takes skill to photograph the mansion, but a lot of "mistakes" will be overlooked due to the quality of the subject.

  3. One saying I have always liked is "Real Estate Photography is as much about what you don't shoot as what you do."

    When I was first starting in this business I got plenty of properties that were a hot mess when I got there. I wasn't clear enough to the agents about my expectations regarding staging, so either they didn't know or took advantage of that and expected me to perform magic on a substandard listing. After considering the time that was being wasted by moving stuff by myself or waiting for the real estate agent / homeowner to stage in front of me, I decided to create some terms of service and a list of FAQs. In them I explain that if a house is not ready for photography I will move on to my next appointment and still expect payment - that was enough to take care of most of the problem.

    There are still instances, though, and some agents just want pictures and really don't care too much about how good they are - they feel they are going above and beyond by just hiring a professional photographer. I have learned to be wary when I hear these key phrases:

    "Just do what you can"

    "The place is tenant occupied"

    "We are going to have to move some stuff from room to room"

    One time I arrived at a home where they stated the third one above (they knew about the appointment for three weeks) and truthfully the shoot didn't go too bad. Some of the decor and the exercise equipment in the living room was not to my taste, but hey, they said they were ready. I was able to shoot around the two elliptical trainers in the living room. The exterior could have been neater, especially the garden areas and there was a crack in the blacktop driveway that I really couldn't avoid from one angle. There were two more angles of the front to use, so no biggie.

    Two days later I got an e-mail from the listing agent asking me if I could return and re-do some of the photos. She just forwarded her client's e-mail along with her message, so the earlier message was attached below hers. I kept reading and was appalled at the homeowner's disparaging comments regarding my skills as a photographer included in their message. They were extremely disappointed with the photos because - get this - they were not ready and I shot their ugly furniture anyway. They really didn't like the fact that one of my photos showed the large crack in the driveway, as well.

    Of course I refused to do anything ever again for that family. They turned out to be too much of a pain in the rear for the agent, too, as she gave them the listing back in three weeks. About a month later one of my biggest clients contacted me to buy the original package of photos as he just picked up the listing. I explained to him the situation and he hired another photographer to re-shoot the whole thing. This all transpired about 16 months ago and the home is still on the market.

    I should have just walked away when I heard "We'll have to move some items from room to room."

  4. I'm rarely surprised when a property isn't photo ready. It's one of the questions that I ask up front; is it ready, has it been staged, what do you need? Perhaps it's because I'm also a Realtor and I know some of the challenges involved with difficult selling situations (illness, aging sellers, job loss, tenants).

    My 21 Tips is always shared with new clients so that they can educate their sellers (and themselves). Most Realtors are with me at the property. They will do whatever it takes to improve the situation. My experience/patience is part of my service. Especially if it's an otherwise good client. Having said that, I have ended relationships where a client routinely takes advantage. If they tell me it's awful. Just do your best. That's what I do.

  5. @Reed Radcliffe If I walked away from a property every time I heard "we're going to have to move some stuff from room to room" I would no longer have a business. I've only walked out on a few jobs but when I have it was completely warranted and got no backlash from the agent. To be honest, after explaining to the agent that it's in every ones best interested to postpone the shoot I feel that I gain some credibility with that agent. I want the property to show well as much as I want their check.

    But back to the topic. I unfortunately deal with this often. If the agent is there and throws out one of these comments and she wants to clean while I shoot I can handle that. I'll typically do a quick walk through and throw out a bunch of suggestions/comments on certain spaces and the agent will get to work while I shoot other parts of the property that are photo ready. I typically don't physically assist with this process 90% of the time. I do however do basic arranging on a shoot. Thing such straightening chairs, adjusting blinds, pulling small carpets/throw rugs, etc.

  6. Listings that are not 'photo ready' have been a challenge from the start. I learned quickly that supplying a 'pre-shoot checklist' gave the seller and the agent something to work from.
    If I come across a listing that I don't think is ready, I'll discuss options with my agent before jumping in.

    The wildcard for me has always been a seller with rental tenants living in the listing. These 'renters' have zero motivation to have the listing ready, and in most cases have just the opposite motivation. Nobody enjoys moving and being forced into it is even worse. Because a third party lives in the home, many times the agent has not even had a look inside.
    In all but one of these I've been able to shoot around the clutter, relying on the agent to move things as I walk through.
    I'll help some with very small items that stand out, but moving items around for the shoot is not my job and I have a hard and fast line that I won't cross.

    I like Jerry Miller's post... "slap on a flash and snap a few. I will NOT take the time to do the normal service".
    Because I blend multiple images with LR enfuse, I find this a great idea that will save me time.
    Thanks Jerry!

  7. First off, if your client isn't there, then they take what you deliver...period. That's called a "Client Representation" clause and it should be in your TOS. Don't show up for the shoot....don't complain about the pictures.

    If you arrive, and your client isn't there, and you think they won't be pleased with the condition of the house, then shoot a few camera-phone pictures and email or text them to the client. Let them decide if you should shoot, or not. And remind them that your cancellation fee is 100%. You shouldn't be expected to waste your time because they (the RE agent) were too lazy to make sure the dishes got washed and the laundry picked up off the floor.

    If they say, "Shoot it" -- then do so. And do the best work you possibly can. In my opinion, this is where you separate the men from the boys, the women from the girls. Just because they didn't do their job is no reason why I would fail to do my job. Doing my best, no matter what, is a form of autonomy, and I will never cede control of that to some incompetent RE agent.

    As for the "we'll clean it up as we go" crap --- again, make sure they know that you have about 2 hours (or whatever it is) booked for the shoot. After 2 hours, you're going to be leaving to go to your next appointment.

    Ultimately, you're going to be held fully responsible for the things you own...which is the photography. And as photographers, we're fine with that. I stand behind my photos, no matter what. But I'm damned if I'm taking the hit for a clueless homeowner, or (worse) a RE agent who can't be bothered to call his sellers the day before and tell them to make the damn bed in the morning.

  8. I'm glad it's not just me that suffers this sort of thing. I've prepared "Advice for preparing your home for photography" as a PDF and sent it to all my clients. Even so I've occasionally found myself shooting a dreadful dump of a home. I just shoot for evidence and let the agent discuss the situation with the Vendors.

  9. I agree with Scott's comments. It's our job to ADVISE the agent on what is necessary to get good photos of the property. After receiving our advise, it is up to them to determine if they wish to proceed. Like wise it is the agent job to ADVISE the owner on what needs to be done to sell the home. Like us, the agent can only advise the owners, they can't force them to preform any action. And like us, they need to do the best with what is presented to them. In some cases an owner may wish to take a discount and sell a home as is, in those cases it is our job to inform the agent that the photos will represent how the property looks and we will do our best to present it in the best manner possible. Above all, remember we work for them, demanding our customer do something is poor service - period.

  10. A list helps the agent prep the seller. Ultimately if you gotta roll up your sleeves and move some things, I think it's worth it for the sake of reputation. I've vaccuumed, moved diaper pails, hid dirty pots/pans in empty ovens... whatever. Get in and get it done. It happens to me maybe once every other month that I get a challenging one. Task the agent and tenants/sellers with things to do while you're shooting a ready room. 🙂 I draw my line though at litter boxes and laundry!! Agents who know I bust my butt to make their listings look nice are loyal to my business. It's not always about pricing and editing, work ethic pays back.

  11. Read each comment through and appreciate each you taking the time. The key to my business, any business being successful is customer satisfaction leading to repeat engagements.

    Providing good customer service can be very demanding at times. And, as discussed here, this can be one of the most-demanding in our line of work. How we successfully deliver can directly impact the flow of 'easier' repeat revenue afterward. So, I read-through comments to see what other best practices I might find.

    The one 'contribution' I'd like to add: Having experienced these situations reinforces why for almost all my clients I demand full payment before first-click. I've only a few commercial customers I will invoice (no RE agents), everyone else is pay first. Range of reasons for holding fast to that rule.

    The crux of the issue is: if you do not have payment before hand, you have no leverage at the time of the event.

  12. I just charge for everything beyond the normal shoot. If I am told to "move what you want because you're the pro" which has happened a few times, I just gently remind the agent that we have agreed to a list of things I will do and I charge for all of them. They all have the list and it spells out cleaning, moving furniture or other things, prepping, washing mirrors, making lamps or lights work, etc. I get great pay for those services and usually only have to do them once per agent. The important part is we have agreed before I got there. My two cents. Paul

  13. @ Scott--I love your idea of "Client Representation" on TOS, and have been contemplating this for a while. Do you have some sample wording you could share?

  14. A big part of our action is sales too. I find that Larry's sheet in the "Business of Real Estate Photography" " How to Prepare your Home for a Photoshoot" is important to get into the hands of all your clients as early as possible. When we first start doing business I explain, "Like my dear sweet mother used to say, 'you can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear.'" (yes, she did say that), and explain that in order to benefit the most from all my expensive gear and talent, the home must be looking good. another analogy that works well is, "You wouldn't expect Van Cliburn to beautifully play a Mozart sonata on a grand piano that was out of tune." I ask them to include the checklist in their listing packet. So most of the time, the homes are in great shape. However, when I do get one that is not looking good, I consider the broker. I will call the broker with pictures and try to minimize the areas that are trashed. This subject is best handled before it can happen, and Larry's checklist goes along way in doing that.

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