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How Early-Career Setbacks Can Set You Up for Success!

Tom, in Louisville, KY writes:

“I’ve been shooting real estate for just under a couple of years and I’m crazy busy, shooting an average of between 7-8 houses a day, most days. I think it’s starting to catch up with me though. Last Monday, each of my scheduled morning shoots went longer than I’d expected and it pushed back every other shoot to later in the day. Unfortunately, it forced me to have to completely reschedule my last two shoots of the day to another date. One of them was for my top client and he was really upset because he got an earful from the homeowners for asking to reschedule. Apparently, they'd spent the weekend cleaning a 3,000 sq. ft. house. They told him that, with four young boys under 8 and two large dogs, it would be impossible to keep the house clean and they’d have to do a full clean all over again. I’ve already apologized to my client over and over and after he calmed down, he said it was okay but I still feel horrible. Any advice?”

Well Tom, I feel for you. I’m pretty sure that most of us in our community have done something that caused a client/homeowner to be upset. So, given that you’ve probably done all the things you need to do to patch things up with the client, including apologizing profusely, rather than give you some additional input about customer service, I’d like to take another tack and let you know that, somewhere down the road, this situation will help you!

I stumbled across an article online published in Nature Communication that talked about some scientific research on the value of what they called, “early-career setbacks”.  In short, the research found that such setbacks can contribute to making your career stronger in the long-term; even when compared to those subjects in their study who reported never having had a major early-career setback.

The study examined the careers of two groups of scientists who’d been rated as “statistically identical”. One group of scientists were successful in winning a research grant while the other group narrowly missed the same grant. After following the careers of both groups of scientists for 10 years, they found that the group who’d narrowly missed the grant, had significantly better careers than the group who’d won the grant. The researchers tried to rule out a number of potential mitigating variables but the results came back the same. Dashun Wang, a professor at the renowned Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, in Evanston, IL, and co-author of the study, surmised that the actual failure to be awarded the grant was used by the scientists in the failure group to inspire themselves to achieve more.

I'm not surprised by these findings as intuitively, I think that many of us know that accepting our failures and trying to learn from them is usually a key factor in any successful career. In fact, I’ve read that it’s becoming a popular practice to document failures (and the things you’ve learned from them)... it’s called a “failure résumé” and it serves as a touchstone for people to remind themselves of how much they’ve learned and grown in their career.

I’ve actually written about a variation of this technique in a number of articles, most recently, here, where I talk about the importance of analyzing those shots that we think we’ve botched when we get home after a shoot (see item #2 in the article). I hope this helps, Tom!

So what about you? Do you have a a story about a time when a very significant failure contributed to making you a better photographer and/or helped you to run your business better? It would be great, if not inspirational, for all of us to read about these sorts of experiences in our field!

Tony Colangelo is a residential and commercial photographer, as well as a photography coach, based in Victoria, BC, Canada. He is a long-time contributor to PFRE and is the creator of The Art & Science of Great Composition tutorial series.

9 comments on “How Early-Career Setbacks Can Set You Up for Success!”

  1. Hey Tom, I guess you can free up some time by outsourcing your editing to a reliable company like Cross Digital. They deliver consistent quality and a Turnaround of 12-15 hours. They learn your preferences by 2 or 3 trials and your feedback. They also allocate dedicated editors to you considering you have a large volume of work.

    Many professional photographers in US, Europe and Australia are using them and am sure you too can stand to benefit to a great extent. You can contact

    You can also look at hiring an additional photographer to ease out the stress.

  2. I don't have a specific situation which I can point to but more of a mindset which modified my business model. 4 years ago I was all about the quantity of work and found I was nearly killing myself to be everything for everyone. I was traveling further than I needed and I was taking jobs from agents who loved the quality but were cutting corners wherever they could, which meant they were not purchasing packages that represented the homes in the best possible light. 4 years ago began to become more selective of the types of agents I work with and will only shoot a certain level of quality package.This meant turning away work which is a difficult proposition for independent contractors. What I found is I started to attract a better level client and I have the time to service them more efficiently, it has also allowed me to develop committed relationships with the agents I work with based on mutual respect. I am current shooting 3/4 the volume of homes while making 3x the revenue of what I was doing 4 years ago.

  3. I have pushed jobs to a later time, but haven't had to reschedule to another day. But the question that begs to be asked, is how does that top client handle rescheduling you?

    Now, I'm not talking 100 percent of the time, but a top client will handle their clients better, and hold them to a commitment, as they know your schedule is as important as theirs. Mark is also correct, packages are where the profit comes from. I have been reinventing my original company into a package store. For a year or so, my biggest competition will be me. I would much rather shoot 2 $400 jobs than 4 or 5 $175 jobs.

    The future is being full service. You become their marketing guru, not a picture taker.

  4. man this brings back memories! i did that 7 days a week for about 6 yrs... until i really started realizing that all that effort and crazy long days in the field having to move super fast was just wearing me down... in the beginning i considered it paid practice but it soon becomes much harder to physically keep up with and realizkng you can’t give what it takes to create better images over more images without affecting your schedule. i do think it has its good points in the beginning... you learn how to make decisions quickly and how to get comps easier by doing so many of them but to become better and offer an improved product takes time and considered effort...

    just as others have said above- when i started to charge more and slow down it all started getting better... less homes allows you to spend more time and focus to each job while keeping your schedule open enough to account for delays as well as opening your days up to include your life away from work. If your shooting that much on your own you are in demand so raise your rates and work hard for the clients you know you want to have more of all the while getting paid more for less hours on your feet... i’d rather be doing post at home with my wife and dog with coffee in hand and music playing than be shooting ridiculous amounts of images and properties only to come home and hand off to an editor and not really be happy with the end result... i feel a sense of accomplishment by completing the job all the way through from site to post. it’s why i do this... i love creating great images that will communicate to buyers not just a ton of work to document every nook and cranny available... when there’s matterport that can do that ...

    so i’m great full for all those years cranking it out but am so much more greatful for being able to create long lasting relationships and better work because i have control over my time

    good luck and i hope things improve!!!

  5. Everyone commenting so far is overcomplicating the matter with a lot of advice that is not really on point. The issue here is the very basic one of time management. With a very tight schedule, it is unprofessional to not build enough time into your schedule to ensure that you can complete each assignment within enough time to keep to your schedule, and it is unprofessional to not inform your clients about the time limits for each assignment or to enforce those time limits.

  6. I disagree with @David Eichler - there seems to be a lot of good input and it often helps to hear people's stories to relate too.

    Tom - I'm just recently shedding that type of schedule, so I can relate. I'm heading in to year 8 of shooting RE full time, the first 5 years were a hectic, similar schedule to what you are maintaining. A few quick hits that have helped me these past two years or so:

    1. Maintain a tighter radius of service. Turn down shoots that take you out of your primary market or charge a significant fee (I charge a half or full day rate for anything over an hour away from my primary market area, the rate depends on the distance and type of shoot).

    2. Raise prices a bit across the board. If clients ask, site increased cost on your side.

    3. Outsource editing.

    4. Add a little leg work before your shoots. Always get the approximate square footage and details about the home before you finalize the schedule. For example, find out if the property has any amenities (pool, guest house, sports court). Find out if the sellers are going to be present (this can slow you down sometimes). Knowing these details will give you the opportunity to add a little time to the shoot on your schedule. The inverse would be shooting a vacant home with a lockbox, you know ahead of time you can zip through the property and schedule a little less time.

    5. Schedule an "admin day" or full editing day. I often block off Monday's on my schedule to give a full day to admin work. E.g. invoicing, spreadsheet work, website updates, schedule confirmations, unique client requests, etc.

    6. Most importantly, conduct a thorough analysis and cull of your client list. There are a few ways to approach this. Find the red flag clients, ones that reschedule/cancel frequently and show little respect for your time. Clients that want everything cheap or ways to cut corners. Widdle them out and move on.

    Good luck and in the long run be thankful that you have the high demand of business!



  7. Everybody is going to make mistakes. You should think about scenarios where something could go wrong and how you will handle it when it happens. The other thing is to try and back up the issues you can anticipate. Do you have extra batteries in case you forgot to recharge? Do you have a charger for every battery that goes out with you? This can be very important if you have switched from Yongnuo speedlights that take common AA's to Godox that takes a custom Li pack. Do you have plenty of memory cards? Extra body and lens? Is your gear organized in cases where you will have a hole if something isn't in place? Do you have a standard way of packing your car so if you leave your tripod you will see it's not in the car right away?

    The OP writes about slipping the schedule first thing in the morning. PFRE is a service business, so being on time, every time is crucial. If you are booked so tight that any delay means being late or having to reschedule an appointment, it's going to happen. It could be something as simple as getting distracted and leaving a piece of equipment at a previous job and needing to go back and get it. It could also be as normal as an agent showing up late or sellers trying to do last minute cleaning and organizing that slow you down. If you book tight schedules, you also have to hold clients to that schedule. If you are let in late, you have to cut short the job even if you can't get everything done. They either have to accept an incomplete job or pay for a return visit. If YOU haven't built in enough time and find yourself faced with a very difficult home to photograph, you have to let the customer know immediately that you will have to return. This could give them the option of telling you which rooms might be hard to maintain or re-clean and you do those first. Those are the cases where it's good to have a toolbox full of tricks that save you time on site in exchange for more time spent in post. You wind up spending more total time on the job, but the photography is done so nobody has to arrange a return visit.

    Booking heel and toe can mean you have priced yourself too low as others have mentioned. You leave yourself with no buffer and wind up irritating customers that will not give you any slack for the low prices that you charge. If anything causes you to lose a day, sickness, family emergency, gear/car broken, weather, fires, locusts, cats and dogs living together, etc, there is no way to catch up leading to more unhappy customers. It's not just the number of jobs, it's the number of photos on each job.

    I used to photograph homes for a leasing company and would book up to about 8 properties a day. They were all vacant, I could do them in any order that made sense, they only wanted 9-12 photos, no twilights, no detail shots, very basic editing. Because the bar wasn't very high and there were only a handful of photos, I could get through each home very quickly. I could also make my life easy and do the front or back exterior when I did the interiors and return the next day to do the opposite side when the sun was in a better place for the photo. Just doing that could save 30 minutes or more in post every day and I would get better photos. A resort area that I would get jobs in was similar. The agent, since retired, would have me come up (4+ hour drive) to photograph one or two properties for sale and fill in 2-3 days with photos of the vacation rentals she managed. Again, small number of photos per property and most photos of the rentals were documentary more than sexy. The high end rentals got better treatment, but still fewer images than would be expected if it were for sale. I could do the number of jobs because the amount of work per job was less.

    The very best thing about having room in your schedule is you can go that extra mile when needed. My terms require that a home is photo-ready, but I will pitch in and do a bit more if I need to occasionaly. I have the time budget to wait up to 20 minutes on a busy day and still have enough time to get most jobs done without too much rushing. It also gives me the chance to spend more time on jobs that are very nice and come away with portfolio images. If a contractor is on site, I also have the chance to sell them and make a couple of extra photos specific to their needs at a fat margin.

    I've always been good at playing the devil's advocate. When I was in aerospace, part of my role was the safety officer at the company. I had to anticipate all sorts of things going wrong and develop plans on how they would be handled including training staff. Everything was written up and often had to be submitted to government agencies so we were allowed to use their facilities or public airspace. Developing that mindset has stayed with me and I'm always playing "what-if" scenarios. Probability plays a big role. The chances of a Presidential motorcade making you late to a job if you are in a big city isn't zero, but would be fairly low on the scale. The chances of an agent being late to an appointment is nearly 100%. You could probably find a route around the blocked roads, but there is nothing you can do about the tardy agent. If you've anticipated some points where you might fail, you have a better chance of not letting anybody else see it happen.

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