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Overcoming Fear & Confusion for the New Real Estate Photographer

Published: 27/08/2019
By: Brandon

As with any new endeavor, when we get into real estate photography, the first challenge is that we don’t know what we don’t know--and our early efforts tend to show it! It’s understandable that poor results are likely to happen in the beginning and we take solace in our commitment to do better at the next shoot. This is a very healthy and constructive way to respond to the disappointment of a shoot where we didn't produce the types of images we’d hoped for. Indeed, we all know that the lessons learned from disappointment and failure are among the most powerful and enduring. In this regard, one could say that there is value in failure.

For many people though, rather than seeing a disappointment as an opportunity for improvement, it serves to create negativity and doubt. This starts a vicious cycle in which one gets increasingly fearful about what might go wrong, rather than visualizing things going well. While this can happen to shooters of all experience levels, it tends to happen most often (and most intensely) for newer shooters. When we produce less-than-stellar results, our challenge is to find a way to interrupt these thoughts of self-doubt and fear.

I’d like to offer the following suggestions as to how to do so:

  • Recognize the “triggers”. In a previous career as a psychologist, one of the core concepts that I tried to convey to patients was the notion that thoughts lead to feelings, which then activate behaviors. The key to overcoming self-doubt and fear is to try and recognize the thoughts that trigger those feelings. More often than not, such a trigger comes from ourselves! We all have an "inner critic" that can be pretty harsh at times and tends to say things like: “Are you kidding me? There’s no way you’re going to pull that off!” And regardless of whether this is said in your head or out loud under your breath, after encountering a challenging situation at a shoot, this "inner voice" only serves to intensify the fears that were simmering below the surface, anyway, for a new shooter. To overcome such fears, in real-time, we need to counter them with a more positive mindset; and the starting point to do this is…
  • Use the K.I.S.S. Approach (“Keep It Simple, Stupid!”) We’ve heard this acronym since we were kids, right? Well, in those instances when we feel stumped and we don't know what to do next, rather than beat ourselves up with thoughts of "I can't" or starting to get panicky, take a moment to realize that, quite often, a simple solution is right under our nose. After all, the interplay between shutter speed, aperture and ISO doesn’t change just because we're feeling stressed and fearful! Simply taking a couple of deep breaths to calm our minds, will go a long way to quieting our “inner critic”, which can allow us to begin to think things through. Even if our nerves get the better of us in the field, we can use this same calming approach when we get home. In fact, even if it's not ideal, there are often "fixes" that we can discover in the editing approach that can get us close to the shot we want. However, finding these fixes is easier if we can simply try to stop/mitigate the negative self-talk! Taking such a dispassionate approach will allow us to see the errors we made on-site, so that we can be more mindful of not making the same errors at the next shoot.
  • Embrace your errors! John F. Kennedy used to say that “A mistake is an error uncorrected.” When a setback happens, we all have the choice to see that setback as a failure or as an opportunity to improve and get a better result next time. Indeed, there’s a great deal of research that shows that successful people don’t see failure as a negative; they see it only as an information source they can use to get better in future attempts.
  • Learn, learn, learn. If you are finding that you’re intimidated at the thought of doing your first twilight exterior shot or using multiple off-camera flashes, for instance, you have a choice. You can continue ruminating on why you won’t be able to pull it off (which, in turn causes more fear), or you can use that same mental energy to research and learn the appropriate techniques! There are lots of wonderful learning materials out there including books, video tutorials, YouTube clips, discussion groups, etc. One of the best ways to learn is to go through the juror comments made to the many entries in PFRE’s Monthly Photography Contests. Better yet, submit a photo yourself and see what kind of comments you get! Another great way to get better and address certain fears regarding your photography, is to hire a coach. PFRE also has a list of coaches that can support your growth.
  • Practice, practice, practice. It's been my experience (and I know a great many others will concur) that the best way to reduce fear and build confidence, is to practice. Yes, as stated above, we must always strive to increase our knowledge of course, but it’s even more important to put theory into practice as that’s when experience and wisdom start to take root.

In closing, I can tell you that after spending many years as a psychologist conducting countless hours of counseling, I’ve personally witnessed the benefits of what can happen when people work through their personal fears and doubts. Increased self-awareness and a plan to improve can allow you to confront these feelings head-on, rather than letting them fester. This, in turn, can give you a sense of power and resiliency that can be called upon to generate the confidence needed to tackle future obstacles in your photography!

To the more seasoned shooters in our community, I hope you'll take a moment to share your experience (and practical examples) on how you've been able to address the fears and concerns that came up for you early in your career, that eventually led to increased confidence in your abilities.

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 “Overcoming Fear & Confusion for the New Real Estate Photographer”

  1. The wise Professor Bernardo De LaPaz said that when confronted with a complex problem, solve the bit of it you do understand and look at it again. (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein). Trying to go to a complete lighting solution in one leap by setting up your flashes and setting the camera can be disappointing much of the time. Over time with lots of experience you get a feel for what you need, but it's still prudent to build the exposure step by step. I often find that I arrive at something I like with fewer lights than I originally thought.

    Shooting vacant homes can be nice if you like to voice your internal dialogue. I find talking out loud to work for me. Another tactic is to get beyond not liking something and being able to articulate what about the image bothers me. It's so much easier to find a solution to a well defined problem. If all you can do is yell at yourself that the image you just made sucks, you are going to get stuck. It may also be better to deescalate and say "I do not like this image" in a calmer manner and then work out some ways to get it where you want it.

    Knowing what changes in settings are going to do from first principals is foundational. If you have internalized that flash isn't affected (below sync speed) by the shutter and that aperture affects both flash and ambient, it's easier to find the best balance. If you have an exposure with the light balanced but it's too dark, you can raise the ISO. If it's too bright, you can lower it while keep the ratios the same. The exposure triangle is a straightforward concept, but it's so simple that it gets ignored when it shouldn't. It has to be remembered that it's still possible to have a dynamic range in the scene where there are no settings that are going to work and you have think about how to make the final image in more than one exposure and "shoot for post". It may also be possible to do something like add a scrim to a bright window to knock down the light level. The simplest solution is the best.

    PFRE isn't simple. The light isn't always exactly the way we want it. We aren't given enough time to do a job. There often isn't a good way to vary prices to match the effort involved in conquering jobs where everything seems to be working against you. It can be good to remind yourself that it's hard and if it weren't there would be no way to making a living doing it.

  2. Great response, Ken.

    I also believe it's important for new shooters to realize that VERY few RE agents can identify a spot-on image from a mediocre one. That's not to say that they wouldn't be able to if given an A/B comparison of a bad image and good image side by side, but as long as your images look like they belong together (similar white balance, brightness, etc) they are still many times better than most agents do with their cell phone held at head height tilted down in a dark room. Just the fact that you know what verticals are and you know that flash can help balance a window will make your images marketable. All the other technical stuff you'll learn.

    I cringe when I look at my first few jobs but I think that's a good thing, and I hope in a couple years I'll cringe again when looking back at jobs I do now. When it's all said and done, just be reliable, cool to work with, and a photography enthusiast who tries to better their product with every shoot. You WILL get better and better, and with that comes confidence.

  3. The first thing you have to know is.....The best images are not straight out of the camera. If you want to start off with the best images then do 5 raw brackets and outsource the editing. However you cannot survive without knowing how to fix / edit images in Photoshop. You can save a lot of time and heartache by doing the above and start out marketing once you know about composition by looking at 1000s of great real estate images in magazines and by established real estate photographers.

  4. My advise- Don't double-down and go all in. Keep your day job, do an occasional home on the side. Figure it out before you attempt to rely on it. And keep in mind, those of us that have done this since the lord and savior left Omaha, are continually improving on our skills as well, because we LOVE it and we are addicted to it. This is not a process you master overnight, it takes years, and even after you know everything and have totally and completely mastered it and can do it with your eyes closed and both arms tied behind your back, there is still room for improvement.

  5. @Kelvin. Absolutely right. Even well known actors take lessons. Neil Peart, drummer for Rush, still says he has lots to learn and that when he found a good teacher after 20 years with Rush that he was able to take his drumming to the next level. It didn't matter that the average fan wouldn't notice. Neil felt he was playing better and that's all that counted. He found the teacher through Steve Smith, the drummer for Journey and well known in jazz circles.

    If you are prepared, you can jump in with both feet, but you need to have the financial cushion to support yourself for a year and set a point where you jump out if your goals aren't being met. People that open restaurants often fail when they find it's going to take some time to develop a clientele.

    @Dave Clark, Outsourcing images right off the bat could be very risky. You wind up with a look that isn't yours and have little idea about the process being used to get there. Many lower cost retouchers are overseas in different time zones with different holidays. If you don't know that there is a big 4 day weekend and promise a client delivery on a job, you will look really bad and scare yourself to tears when nobody at the retoucher is getting back to you and the automated reply on their email is in a different language and character set.

    If you can spend more time on site getting good exposures, the post processing shouldn't be such a huge chore. Just like learning how to make those exposures, you have to learn how to process them too. If you really wanted to, you could outsource everything and just do the marketing.

    One of the things my customers really like is I can turn jobs around fast. I get a call on Thursday night, shoot the property Friday afternoon and links to the photos are in their email box first thing Saturday morning. I can promise that because I control everything and I'm not relying on anybody else. If I can't deliver, then all of my rushing is negated and I can't collect on the expedite charge. I've also earned a downcheck from the client which is worse. Last year I was looking for a drone operator and couldn't find one that had my attitude to service, made photos to my specs and was reliable. I had to put out the money for a drone and get licensed so I could do it myself. Yes, I like to be in control. That's the only way I can make good on my promises to customers.

  6. Jump. If you have a parachute great, pack it. Otherwise ya better learn to fly quickly 🙂

    Spend literally every waking moment for 2 years learning, apologizing, considering and vowing to get better - while you're doing it. Find out, now, if it's for you.

    Planning and analyzing are wonderful excuses if you're scared (as you should be), are they're really dreadfully wasted moments of your precious time.


  7. As a young commercial photographer one of the best lessons I learned is that visual impact is the key to a successful commercial image.

    That boils down to composition and lighting.

    My suggestion is first get the composition right. Poor composition well lit is still a mediocre image.

    Once you've got the composition, look at the light that is there. Then, carefully, add light to enhance the light to add visual impact.

    The final image should be visually impactful without being able to see the added light.

    You will not get it right the first time, and probably not the 50th time.

    Keep working at it.

    I'd suggest, that the first video tutorial you watch it Tony's composition tutorial that's available here.

    Then Scott Hargis on lighting.

    There are tons of video tutorials on YouTube but the two I mentioned are the best for your purposes.

  8. A couple of things I should have included in the first post.
    A) Its a prerequisite that you know how to make a proper exposure with your camera equipment. Including proper focus and sufficient Depth of Field.

    B) With sophisticated editing software its possible to use blending techniques, combined with making bracketed exposures on site, to make images with complex lighting solutions without having to do it all in one exposure on-site as we did with film. A great resource for learning about how to create and blend multiple frames into a visually compelling image are Mike Kelley's tutorials available on F Stoppers.

    C) Top of the line camera and lighting equipment isn't necessary. A sturdy tripod is required.

    Most important, in my view, is a desire to set a personal objective to establish oneself in the upper 20% of real estate photographers in your area in terms of craft. And an understanding that outstanding customer service is a minimum requirement for success.

    Keeping a client, once you have them, is much easier than finding a new client. Its outstanding customer service, combined with solid craftsmanship that ensures faithful clients.

    None of this can be accomplished overnight. All of it can be accomplished with focus on an objective and a willingness to invest time, effort and a few dollars.

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