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Navigating the Challenge of a New Competitive Threat

A number of photographers have reached out to me recently to discuss what might be a new threat to our field. With everything being shut down, it would appear that there is a high number of portrait/wedding/sports photographers who are pivoting to real estate photography. While I am very confident that in the long-run, this will be good for our field, in the immediate term, I think it has the potential to cause some stress and frustration within our community. As such, I’d like to offer my own two-cents.

Don’t Panic

First and foremost, don’t panic. In my humble opinion, I think that a vast majority of these shooters from other fields will go back to what they’re used to once the restrictions put upon us by Covid-19 are eased. After all, these shooters have invested much time, effort, and financial resources to get established in their fields. I don’t think they’re going to let go of that so easily.  In addition, real estate and interior photography is an entirely different animal and they will soon find this out.

Don’t Get Pulled into a Race to the Bottom

Probably the most common marketing tactic when getting into a new field is to undercut the competition. I’d bet almost anything that most of these new-to-real-estate-photography shooters will do just that. Whatever you do, don’t get inducted into slashing your fees! If you want to offer your best clients slightly reduced rates as a token of good faith during these challenging times, that’s fine, but don’t do a major slash-and-burn of your fee structure just because you think you’re going to lose a bunch of clients to a new influx of shooters. It’s my sense that a vast majority of these new entrants to our field have no idea just how difficult real estate/interior photography is and certainly have not anticipated the challenges of delivering dozens of edited photos to a client by the next morning. Even if they’re able to pull it off, the odds are that the quality of the images won’t be anywhere near what we have been delivering to our clients. At the end of the day, if you have a client who's willing to change photographers to save a couple of bucks, then they weren’t really a good client to have in the first place.

Focus on Relationships

In my mind, this is the key variable to focus on in good times and especially in uncertain times such as these. Why? Mostly because the actions involved in delivering great customer service are pretty much completely in our control. In terms of examining/improving customer relationships, I’ll simply refer you to a series of very thoughtful articles posted a few months ago by long-time PFRE contributor, Tony Colangelo. The series was entitled, "The Customers You Want", and included four articles, each covering a different aspect of customer relationship management. I’ve linked each one of the articles here:

Focus on Service Offering

It’s my sense that until an effective vaccine for Covid-19 is developed and administered, a great many homeowners will be very resistant to having strangers go through their homes at open houses and casual showings. To replace these lost marketing opportunities, I think we’ve already witnessed more real estate agents looking for other marketing services beyond the customary collection of photos for MLS. If you’ve been on the fence about offering additional services (i.e., video, aerial/drone, floorplans, 360-tours, etc.), this might be the time to consider incorporating one or more additional services beyond those that you’re currently delivering. Offering more services (one-stop-shop) can allow you greater latitude in positioning yourself as a “strategic marketing partner”.

In any case, these are my suggestions to combat the influx of “new” competitors to our field. What are your thoughts?

17 comments on “Navigating the Challenge of a New Competitive Threat”

  1. I have to chuckle when I hear "pulled in to the race to the bottom". Once these outsiders realize how bad the pay is here compared to what they make in their normal market, they may actually help pull our base pay up a few notches.

    When I transitioned from the other side, it was a shock at how much this market was under paid. That said, you don't have to deal with the drama that comes with that market and in the end, I always win the argument with the empty room...

    Bottom line... I do not see this as a threat. Most that are successful in there markets will go back as soon as things pick up...maybe a year. Some might stay, but then they will just have to deal with the low pay, but maybe help pull it up a notch or two

  2. I'm not worried. Arch/Interior photography can be technically harder than many other genres. We use a lot of our talents to tame the dynamic range of a scene and there is a certain aesthetic to it that takes time to understand. An agent with a newer iPhone may be able to make the same level of images as somebody coming into the field from another niche that hasn't studied the topic. The agent has the benefit of knowing what is relevant to photograph (many don't, but that's another story).

    One agent I visited at an open house bragged that the photographer that she used takes photos of Hollywood celebrities. The reason I went to the open house was the images of the home looked really bad. Another mother daughter team I talked to had the daughter's husband taking the photos as part of his day job at a car dealer is taking photos of the used cars they have for sale. Again, really bad listing photos and they are lagging way behind all of the other agents in their community. I know that I have no chance of competing against experienced wedding photographers or making fashion photos. I'm OK at product photos, but I'm not going to be taking work away from photographers working with major ad agencies and fortune 500 clients. I've gone decades driving without an accident, but I'm not going to be competent as a driver for VIP that needs somebody with escape and evasion skills. Nor would I be able to compete on the F1 circuit. They are all very different aspects of driving the same way as there are different aspects and skills in photography.

    Don't let competition for you to do things that are detrimental to your business. If you have spent the time to figure out what your breakeven point is and what you have to charge to earn a livable salary, you're going to know that somebody charging much less isn't going to have a sustainable business. They also aren't going to have expertise in delivering media the way agents need it. Beyond the aesthetic and quality of images, the key service/industry knowledge isn't something that can be learned overnight or even over a fortnight.

  3. Nothing that cries. No babies. No brides.
    Don't worry... If you don't love it. You won't do it for long.
    I LOVE what I do. I get invited into homes I would never be allowed in otherwise. I get to meet good people that are happy to see me... BUT.... I have helped more than a few photographers who wanted to get into Real Estate Photography. Not a single one is stilll photographing homes. WHY? because they didn't love it. I do.
    I have a degree in Computer Science. I spent 2 decades talking to angry people because their network was down. I don;t do that anymore. I also do make the money I made in the corporate world. Who cares? Don't sweat it. You have to enjoy real estate photography.

  4. IMO covid 19 is a crybaby excuse. I am working every day, all day. Today I'm doing over $2,000 in services. Any independent that can offer next day delivery and can do stills, 360s, floor plans and video will be much better off than those who don't.

    Btw, I am encountering more and more Realtors (there are many older realtors btw) who are over it (the virus). They aren't wearing masks or gloves any more. They are social distancing but that is all.

    The virus and how you decide to deal with it is up to each of us but, business will carry on. It has to.

  5. There is good reason to take heed. These are the very same people who sacked the portrait industry a decade ago. All of the major studios that had operated for years, who had the skills, the loyal clients over generations, the business savvy, and they all thought that NOBODY could compete with that, they were wrong.... they all closed their doors.

    Why? Because they refused to compete in the new rodeo that had no rules or regulations. Our industry has no qualifications required. GWC = guy with camera. They killed an entire status quo in less then a decade with regard to the portrait industry.

    Some of us survived by moving to other genres, like RE, which at the time had very few competitors. In the last 5 years, competition has grown. BUT... this industry is just as fragile. Too much unbridled competition will destroy it. Competing against a dozen guys is doable, but competing against 100s isn't. There isn't that much pie.

    If we do get an influx of competition, they only way to survive it is to reinvent your mode of business, because the business environment will change whether you like it or not. I've been in photography for 30+ years. I've have to re-invent this business 3 times so far to maintain it. Scale, efficiency, service, stealth, relationships. All of those things need to be redefined over time.

  6. This has been going on in my market for years. All the damn wedding photographers thought they could earn a few extra bucks by doing real estate photography and doing it cheap. They cut into my business quite a bit. Most of my good clients stayed with me, but some left to save a few bucks and get "good enough" photos. I've always wanted to walk up to one of those wedding photographers that is undercuting my price just to make a few bucks and say, "I think I'll start doing wedding photography and charge half of what you do." "How do you like that?"

  7. Tim

    My point is 2-fold. 1) Everyone has their own tolerance for risk. It seems mine is higher than many others and 2) all the tools are available to offer your clients everything the tour companies do. There is no reason to tell your clients you don't offer a particular service. If your clients hear you say that, they will be forced to go somewhere else.

    IMO, it is time to become a Visual Marketing Expert instead of just a photographer.

  8. It’s not such an easy transition for portrait photographers. I recently trained a portrait photographer to help me shoot RE during busy times. She’s great at portraits, but had no clue how to shoot interiors. Once we got past the verticals thing, then we were dealing with “too bright.” Once we got past that, then we were dealing with too flashy. My question to her when looking at her RE edits for a while was “where is the light coming from?” If it’s not coming across the frame from that big a$$ window over there, your ceiling bounce is too hot.

    Really, it’s not that easy to pick up, even for experienced photographers. You need to be pretty nerdy about optics and light to be a good interiors photographer, and most wedding photographers strengths are more bait making connections with people. Technical photographers they are not.

    Having said all that, Frank hit the nail on the head with his statement about becoming a visual marketing expert. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m up to my ears in RE video work since this lockdown started. Let’s see a wedding photographer shoot a wide angle, stabilized, slow motion, drone integrated cinematic property video. Good luck.

  9. I've always said that real estate photography is the toughest thing to shoot, because you are literally shooting images for a client (the Realtor) that doesn't want to buy them. Even a mediocre wedding photographer will sell a bridal portrait to grandma. But no Realtor is putting a picture of someone's laundry room in a scrapbook or hanging it on the wall.

    In regards to "Visual Marketing expert". I am sure some will disagree, but I hate it. When I sold real estate, our brokerage made a big deal of changing the name of our 19 year old receptionist to "Director of First Impressions". Ugh.

    Sorry, but I'm a professional photographer.

  10. Randy,

    A 19 year receptionist is quite a bit different than a professional tradesman, no? One tells people where the bathrooms are and the other delivers hard earned advice based on years of experience and education. Realtors need help understanding the different options that are out there. Consumers are becoming ever more aware of what's out there and a Realtor may have to appease their sellers in order to get a listing. Be their expert. People love experts holding their hands.

  11. "Director of First Impressions" is a horrible job title, but maybe not a bad way to think about the position. If you have a business where people are often going through that receptionist in person, on the phone and maybe through email, they need to have good people skills. Get somebody that hates the world and that attitude will hit your customers, vendors and staff right in the face every time. The janitor can be a cranky old B and people can say "that's just how he is", but not so for public facing staff.

    My job is photographer and now, videographer, but I need to have the skills and be thought of as a "visual marketing expert". If I'm not the expert, I'm just some replaceable cog that pushes a shutter button.

  12. Everyone always remember....

    Whenever you read the words “Race for the Bottom”...

    ...that’s code for “Capitalism working EXACTLY as designed.”

  13. @Brian, I disagree. I see a race for the bottom as an infection that will kill off a lot of healthy tissue before it's run its course. For Capitalism to work, there has to be some intelligence in the system. I know through my data that if somebody starts offering 25 images for $79 in my area, they aren't going to earn as much as minimum wage once taxes and expenses are deducted. I choose that number because I have seen it advertised. What I don't see is that person/company advertising 4 months later. They might have got a job at Home Depot instead so they have a job that pays more with a regular paycheck.

    If everything was only about price, we'd all be driving a Yugo.

  14. How about an old competitive threat that has accelerated that downward spiral?

    I just found out that Planomatic has slashed prices by 50% "to help the agents" and some other jackass competitor is doing the first shoot free for every agent in my office. Of course, their work is absolute crap, so they wont hold on to any of the business that they take in --- but how can they even get by?

    are they even paying their photographers???

  15. " but how can they even get by?"

    That's the point, they can't. I'm offering discounted walk-thru videos right now as an addon. I have so little work, that spending some extra time on the site of a job that's paying regular price for the stills isn't going to kill me. I'm also including a few more stills. Reverse angles that I didn't used to do. I am putting them down on the invoice and discounted them back. Make your service shine more than your photos.

    I had one job today for stills and video. The home was the brokers' (husband and wife) first home after they married and had been a rental for a few years. I was meeting him at the home and spent the time going through the house to replace all of the light bulbs with him to be a nice guy. Got a roll of TP as a tip. That was funny and we got a good laugh out of it. Two things there, I went the extra mile for the customer and wound up with all new lights that matched! I also received a box of tungsten bulbs to add to my collection. Ok, I'll be honest, the faster all of the bulbs were replaced, the faster I could chase him out so I wouldn't be waiting for him to get out of the way. I won't do this sort of thing for every customer, but a bunch of them are good people and always treat me right so I return the favor. Does anybody think they'll jump ship to a new photographer for $40?

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