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How Do You Deal With Success In Real Estate Photography?

Published: 15/12/2015
By: larry

SuccessJake recently posed a classic question that successful real estate photographers have to deal with:

I’m curious what you recommend when it comes time to bring on additional help.

My business has exploded over the past year. I grew 178% from ’13 to ’14 and I should close out 2015 with another 142% growth. I took nearly a month off this spring due to a family crisis, so 2015 could have been even bigger. With the crazy local market real estate market, I expect 2016 to grow even more. I’m starting to feel stretched a little thin when things get busy.

That being said, I’m very intrigued with bringing on a part-time photographer in 2016. I seem to get an inquiry from local guys just starting out every few months, but I’m not exactly thrilled about teaching someone to become a future competitor. Could I create a non-compete contract? Have you seen others do this?

For real estate photographers that are doing things right in areas with hot real estate markets, this is a classic question. Finding good people to join your team is more difficult than you would think. It is hard to connect with the right people. We've had a couple of good discussions in the past about this subject: here and here.

What always comes up in these discussions is do you want to focus on high quality and charge more for it or do you want to do high volume and keep your prices low. It's possible to control the amount of work you do by raising your prices. Here are a couple of suggestions:

  1. Hire support people - don't try to replicate yourself
    The way you photograph (quality, your eye, how you relate to people) are central to the success of your company. It's damn near impossible to replicate you so it's easier if you hire someone to do support work, not the key work of shooting and relating to people that you do. This way, they can't quit and compete with you because only you do the key work.
  2. Have you thought of raising your prices? Ultimately you have to decide between high quality and high volume. This trade-off comes up every time we talk about this subject. The top shooters swear that to retain quality you can't just hire a bunch of contract photographers. Most big name Architectural Photographers are one person shows with some assistants that support the key shooter.

I see too many high volume operations taking advantage of contract photographers in various ways (pay them too little, onerous non-compete contracts, not paying mileage, etc) high volume multiple photographer operations are hard to get right. What are others experience with expanding a successful real estate photography business?

9 comments on “How Do You Deal With Success In Real Estate Photography?”

  1. I'm in the exact same boat. I've been doing this 7 years now with 2015 being my first year doing it full time. My business has doubled each of the last 3 years. I expect to finish 2015 with 260+ shoots. I just added Matterport 3D virtual tours a few weeks ago with 75+ committed jobs from clients. Oh and did I mention using the Matterport data to create floor plans? Offering that now too (with clients onboard). When I think about spring of 2016 I get very excited which is then followed by fear and dread.

    I've raised my prices 3 times over the last 7 years and I really feel like my current pricing ($150 - $350 based on sq. ft.) is not only the highest in my area but is also the limit my clients would be willing to pay. Especially now with the Matterport which will essentially doubles what they are currently spending on photos per listing.

    I've thought several times about bringing on another photographer but always go back to the same issues Larry stated above. I am my business, I can't duplicate myself, and I don't want to train my competition. So, there's a few options that I am planning on pursuing if I get to the breaking point and really just can't do it all myself anymore.

    1 - 3rd party photo processing: There have been several discussions on here about various photo processing companies that specialize in Real Estate. They all work with you to duplicate your "look" and really aren't that expensive. My plan is to shoot all day, process all night, and when I get to the point that i just have to call it quits, upload any overflow jobs to these guys and wake up the next day with processed photos.

    2 - Matterport Assistant - Seriously considering hiring an assistant to run the scans on one floor while I'm shooting another. Matterport scanning takes almost double the amount of time as shooting stills, so doing this simultaneously would be a huge time saver for me. Luckily there's no post processing involved, just 15+ mins tweaking the 3D tour and adding client info.

    If anyone has any other ideas I'd love to hear them. I'm probably going to have to do #2 sooner than later. I'm reluctant to do #1 but when push comes to shove I'm keeping it as an option.


  2. There's nothing wrong with hiring help as long as you do it right! You're only one person, you can only do so much. If you want your business to get bigger then you'll have to have some help. The first step for me was outsource editing. It took a good 3-4 months to really nail down the exact editing I wanted done by my outsource company but it was time well spent. I send off my images at the end of the day and receive them fully editing by the next morning, thus allowing me to have my evenings to spend with family, AKA a life! If you don't want to outsource then maybe you could extend your turnaround time for images allowing you to have full control over the final result. Up to you! I just know that I became a much happier person when I finally gave up a little control and got that time back. Do what you feel is right!

  3. Keep track of the time you spend on each activity you perform and see how much non-customer-interacting parts of it you can have somebody else do. I'd be happy to have somebody else ingesting the photos into Lightroom, investigating the best times to photograph using "The Photographers Ephemeris" or other sun tracking application, exporting edited images into the formats I deliver and uploading them to my FTP site for customer download and sending the customer the link(s). The idea is to get the assistant doing all of the peripheral jobs that can be done without much ongoing supervision and that doesn't have them communicating with customers. It might be useful to have an assistant on jobs to load in and out along with moving equipment from room to room.

    Depending on the country and state you are in, most all non-compete contracts and clauses are not upheld. They are usually only accepted in court for highly compensated executive staff and in situations where a owner is selling a business. You could win, but chances are that you won't and it would likely have to be heard in a municipal court rather than small-claims, so there will be much higher court and attorney's fees involved. You will absolutely be training potential competition, but if your customers don't interact with them, they won't have the chance to get known by them.

    I shoot and edit all of my own work and would be uncomfortable farming any of that out to a third party. If it gets to the point where I can't keep up, I will raise my prices again and lose a few clients or do only their high-end properties. I've had businesses with employees and I don't want to do that again. I feel like I'm working to keep the employees paid more than doing what I enjoy and being compensated properly for the work I perform.

  4. For me, this comes down to a simple question: How do you want to spend your time?

    I got into photography because I loved photography. It's as simple as that -- the thing l like doing more than anything else is making pictures. I like working with lenses, lights, and locations. I tend to my "business" rather grudgingly because the last place on earth I want to be is in an office, managing papers and schedules and (worst of all) other people. So if I could choose between doing photography vs. "running a business" -- Photography will win, every time. There's just no way I'm going to purposely create a situation where I'm doing more "running the business" and less "photography".

    If the only goal is to build a business and make money, then for gosh sakes go buy an Amway distributorship, or a Dunkin Donuts franchise, or build a better mousetrap - there are SO MANY ways to make money that are easier than photography. Especially if your photography is built on some sort of "system" that doesn't rely on an individual's aesthetic sense.

    All of which is to say: if you are faced with too much photography and can't keep up.....double, or better yet, triple your rates. Be the photographer you wanted to be when you set out.

    Cameras are awesome. Excel sucks. 'Nuff said.

  5. I have been doing this 15 years now, I have tried it all, including having staff at one stage having one full time editor/PA and 4 Photographers, personally I will never try staff again, my customers wanted me and would just start asking if I would be their photographer, so after a near mental breakdown managing people I undid the expansion and took some time off, only went back to work for my clients who begged me to work for them again, put up my prices massively and it worked, I am still flat out but only for a small group of very successful clients who love me and I love them, I am the most expensive by far in my area and my diary is full.

  6. Good on you. And congratulations. Those figures are great. It sounds like you are already a good and successful photographer, so you are now curious about expansion. There seems to be mixed opinions on what is best on this thread. Everyone has different needs and goals. You should read all threads and assess what suits your own goals best. I am first and foremost a photographer. But I love business and servicing clients. I am also a family man so love time with my kids and grandkids.

    First thing I think you should do is a Small Business Course. This will help you decide your 3-5 year plans, cash flow projections and exit strategy, amongst other things. There is a huge difference between being a sole trader photographer and running a business. I went from being just me, shooting all day and retouching after dinner, to having 4 full time staff and 3-4 casuals and becoming a pty ltd company. You don't have to go that far but there are principals that are relevant to all stages of business. First year was about 180 properties and the 4th year was nearly a 1000. We were shooting around 20-25 a week. You need to do the sums to see when hiring help becomes economically viable, there is a threshold to reach, you need to find yours.

    I started by outsourcing my retouching to a local professional, so I could spend the evenings with my family. Then eventually I hired and trained my own part time retoucher who worked half days and also manned the phone to make appointments. it was cheaper than outsourcing.

    To help provide a one-stop shot for my clients, I recruited and trained a freelance, casual floorpanner. They were a variable cost and I put a mark up on their work. About 50% mark up (30% profit). This was added value. I did no extra work but increased my turnover and profit. I did the same with copy writers. This now gave more added value and my profit was increasing with no extra workload except admin/management.
    Then I got a full time admin person. I started with my daughter, straight out of University. She handled bookings, checked floorpans, paid bills, wages, accounts etc. The retoucher worked on a call out fee and per shot rate for me. It was his incentive to get in early and work hard and fast so he could earn the same amount in half the time, keeping my clients happy. And it was a variable cost, VERY important.

    After that I got a couple of like minded freelance photographers that already did what I did, but in different areas of the city. Sydney, Australia, is big enough for that, so they weren't interested in business on my patch. We worked together, 3 of us, covering overflow for each other, during holidays etc, but not crossing the line to take each others clients. Yes, we signed and agreement. Absolutely essential in any business. One lady was a young mum who had stopped shooting for another company to bring up the kids. She could only afford childcare a couple of days a week so she worked Tuesdays and Thursdays for me and my admin booked the extra jobs those days. We met at the end of the day for coffee and hand over memory cards. It's nice to social with like minded colleagues.

    There are photographers out there that are very good at shooting, and happy to work for others, that are not ambitious about running their own businesses. I call them 'grunts'! Infantry. They will work hard, happily take a salary or invoice you as a casual employee, but have no interest in progressing to running their own business. You just have to find them.

    The outcome of this was that 5 years on my wife got sent to Europe on an expat contract for three years. I had a business. I had something to sell. I did! I sold the whole business and made money on the sale. I went with her and spent three years shooting in Paris, on a quiet freelance basis, and am now back in Australia working in-house for one of my old clients. Exit strategy. The reason I always tell people not to put your own name over the door. Too hard to sell a company that is your name.

    Good luck. And I hope you find help so you can spend time watching your family grow, or start one if you haven't already.

  7. I'm in a similar situation--business exploded this year and some days I know I did too much. I raised my prices twice (maybe not enough) and it had no impact. I do not like the idea of outsourcing my work--I'd rather up the prices again and shoot less homes. Wedding stuff I outsource, not a problem. But with layers and masks, etc, I want to control the final output. Having an assistant would be nice, but I'd have to really jack up my prices to justify it. In a few months I will raise my prices again and see what happens.

  8. Your most valuable commodity is time. For us it's pretty simple. We want to spend our nights with our families so we temporarily took a pay cut and hired the best local retoucher full-time. It took about 3 months to fine tune our process and establish editing guidelines based on project budget. But with the retoucher working full-time we started accepting more jobs, ended up with shorter days, made more money and improved our overall product. If you're out shooting five days a week you just don't have the time to edit everything you shoot, but I could pay a retoucher to edit the day following my shoot. In the end my clients get their images faster (which increased referrals because every agent wants their images yesterday), I can have even the most ridiculous F/16 ocean-front windows masked and I'm working a 6 hour day.

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