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Overcoming Fear & Confusion for the New Real Estate Photographer

Published: 03/03/2014

FearGuest post by Tony  Colangelo, Victoria, BC: As I approach the end of my second full year as a real estate photographer, I can recall many times when I was confronted with a particularly daunting challenge at a photoshoot. I can also easily remember the confusion and feelings of being overwhelmed and, yes, even a bit fearful in those moments. It’s my guess, though, that all new real estate photographers have felt those very same feelings from time-to-time. So, using my background as a psychologist, I thought it might be interesting to take those experiences to write an article that examines the “psychology” of these strong feelings -- both in terms of why they happen and how to overcome them!

For many people, confusion and fear of the unknown is very powerful and certainly an impediment to achieving desired results. As in any new endeavour, when we get into professional photography, we don’t know what we don’t know and our work tends to show it! It’s understandable that poor results are likely to happen in the beginning and we take solace in our commitment to getting better at the next shoot. This is a very healthy and constructive way to respond to the disappointment of not producing Scott Hargis-like images right out of the camera! We all know that the lessons learned from failure are among the most powerful and enduring. In this regard, one could say that there is value in failure.

For many people, however, these healthy beliefs about failure get distorted. These individuals become extraordinarily hard on themselves, to the point where negativity and doubt take root. This starts a vicious cycle whereby they get increasingly fearful about what might go wrong rather than visualizing things going well. I’m sure that we’ve all experienced moments of self-doubt and negative beliefs about our work. So, how do we interrupt these thoughts when they come up? How do we re-align our interpretation of that less-than-stellar work so as to not be so hard on ourselves?

I’d like to offer the following suggestions:

  1. Recognize the “triggers”. Generally speaking, the work that I did as a psychologist revolved around a few simple principles -- one of which was that thoughts lead to feelings, which then produce behaviours. The key to overcoming a fear of failure is to try and recognize the thought(s) that triggers that feeling. Usually, the thought is related to an “inner critic” -- a voice that says, “Are you kidding me? There’s no way you’re going to pull that off!” Having an inner voice that cautions us can often be helpful, as it protects us in difficult circumstances such as when dealing with untrustworthy people. However, when that voice starts getting in the way of doing things that can advance us, like taking risks to improve our photography, then it’s not helpful at all. To overcome our fear of failure, we need to first identify this inner critic and what causes this voice to get louder (for me, it’s doing twilight exteriors and it comes out as procrastinating a practice session!) Once we’ve identified it, we need to use our own voice to put forth some rational rebuttals and affirmations that speak to a plan for achieving our goal! And the starting point to do this is ...
  2. Embrace your errors!  John F. Kennedy used to say that “a mistake is an error uncorrected.” When a set-back happens, we all have the choice to see it as failure or as an opportunity to address it and get better as a result. Indeed, there’s a great deal of research that shows that successful people don’t see failure as a negative, they see it simply as information they can use in order to get better in future attempts.
  3. Learn, learn, learn. If you are finding that colour casts are allows affecting the quality of your images, rather than beating yourself up over it, use that same mental energy to learn what caused those casts in the first place! Take the time to read-up on colour theory or why coloured gels over your flash-heads are used in certain circumstances. There are many ways to increase and expand our knowledge of photography. For instance:
    • Read voraciously! There are many good sources of information on the internet and, in my humble opinion, none better that Scott Hargis’s book, The Essential Guide to Lighting Interiors.
    • Read through the comments made in the PFRE Discussion Group.
    • Examine the comments made on photos submitted to the PFRE Flickr group ... or better yet, post your own images there and see what people think.
    • Look at architecture and design magazines not only for inspiration but to gain tactical knowledge as well (e.g., with each image, try to figure out how the photographer lit the shot.)
    • Find a mentor and meet with him/her regularly.
  4. Practice, practice, practice.  The best way to reduce fear (and build confidence) is practice. Yes, as stated above, we must always strive to increase our knowledge in a given area. However, it’s even more important to put the theory into practice, as that’s when experience and wisdom start to take root.
  5. Stay busy. This one is closely related to practice; it speaks to the need to maintain practice! If you know that your schedule will allow you an hour over the weekend in-between personal/family obligations, then use it to practice. Fear and self-doubt thrive in periods of inactivity, when they have time to fester.
  6. Have a back-up plan. Like many new pro photographers, I struggled at first with off-camera flash and rather than deal with my anxiety about it, I chose exposure fusion (EF) to produce my final images, as I thought it was an easier route to take. While my clients seemed to be pleased with the results, it quickly became clear to me that spending untold hours in post-processing wasn’t feasible (nor profitable) in the long-term! Yet, even though I’ve moved to utilizing off-camera flash for each image that I take at a photoshoot, I continue to shoot a quick 5-shot bracket (+2 to -2) in very tricky lighting situations that cause me some discomfort. This way, I have options in post, should my flash-only exposures not turn out exactly as I’d hoped. So, beyond the potential for producing EF/flash hybrid images, it also gives me the option to blend one or more of the bracketed images or use one or more of those images as raw material for masking-in certain elements of the shot to my base image. In my mind, giving myself these options constitutes proper risk-management toward producing images that will please my clients.
  7. K.I.S.S. “Keep it simple, stupid!” We’ve heard this acronym, since we were kids, right? Well, in those instances when everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, the truth is that more often than not, a simple solution is right under our nose. After all, the interplay between shutter speed, aperture and ISO don’t change just because things are not going as planned at a shoot! We just have to take a couple of deep breaths and quiet down our “inner critic” so that we can begin to think things through. Sometimes our nerves get the better of us in the field and we don’t discover that “simple solution” until we get home and start the editing process. That’s OK -- we can use that solution at the next shoot!

In closing, I can tell you after spending many years as a psychologist, working with thousands of clients and conducting countless hours of counselling, I’ve seen the benefits of what can happen when people work through their personal fears and doubts. Success and confidence gives people a sense of power and resiliency that can be called upon in many different types of situations in life -- including our photography!

I hope some of the suggestions that I’ve touched upon in this article will help you at some point in your journey. In any case, I wish you fearless shooting!

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

  1. An excellent post, Tony!

    Forty years ago I got involved in a Transitional Analysis (TA) group so I could figure out why I was doing what I was doing, mainly a strong feeling of rejection. For the ones here who may not have heard of TA, it revolves around the book, "I'm OK, You're OK". The most important thing I learned from it was It's OK to think anything I want too and if I turn my thinking into action, there will be consequences to consider. The consequences can be OK or not OK behavior.

    I've been in many types of professional photography for the last fifty years and only recently I've gotten evolved with Real Estate photography. I asked my first client, "What's the best way to find more clients?" She said, "Go to open houses to meet them." The first couple weekends were tough but I kept at it. Nearly all agents are people persons and I over came my fear of rejection and kept at it and in return, I found I very much enjoyed meeting every one of them. Because of it, I now have seven houses to photograph this week with more to come! Every home I've photographed up to now, all 12 of them, have been a real joy and I know I can solve any problem that may arise.

  2. What an excellent post!! Congrats on sharing your knowledge and experience with us. I am sure we have all had those moments on a shoot where we have doubted our ability to get the job done. It is your own self-belief that can get you though it, and yes, KISS!! And many times, just using logic, instead of cursing WTF. Accidentally pressing the wrong button on the camera or flashlight, and those moments arrive …what's going on here??? Retaining your "peace of mind" is so important, and Tony rams it home in this post. Great job!

  3. Thank you so much for this, Tony! You hit a nerve with me on a few points you made, and I think I may return to it as a reference/reminder piece often.

  4. @Jerry - I'm very glad you liked the post Jerry. And thank *you* for sharing your own personal experience in the counselling realm. Counselling may not be a panacea but I know that it can help a great many people if folks are open to a certain level of self-examination. And congrats on your burgeoning RE photography career!

    @Milton - Yes, that KISS method seems so simple but it requires a little self-discipline. It`s so easy to fly off the handle when things don't go according to plan ... and YES, using logic rather than cursing up a storm and trying to think things through when faced with a confusing challenge is always the way to go! Thanks for your comment.

    @Barry & @ Hans - thank you both. I'm glad you enjoyed the article!

    @Jim - I'm so glad this "hit a nerve" ... that was my hope & intention in writing the article! 🙂 And I'm pleased (and flattered) that you see this article as worthy enough to keep referring back to -- that means a lot to me. Thanks Jim!

  5. My fears & doubts right now aren't about myself (I know what I need to work on, and I keep practicing), but rather about the industry as a whole. The "it's good enough" mentality that comes from continually advancing digital camera technology is becoming pandemic, and I fear that all my hard work will be for nothing as the quality gap between amateur and professional slowly closes. Is it worth starting out as a photographer, or is the industry going extinct? Every day I see longstanding professionals complain that fewer and fewer clients are willing to spend money on high end results when they can get 80% of the quality on 10% of the budget.

  6. Great read. Although this touched on the physical aspect of taking the photos, I think there's a lot of fear for new real estate photographers of just running the business on its own. Whether it's finding new clients, dealing with clients who don't value your work as much as they should or figuring out your pricing. All of the points mentioned can be applied whenever we get ourselves into a zone that we aren't comfortable in. Thanks for sharing Tony!

  7. Jeff has an interesting point. I took the time and energy to give talk about real estate photography to a group of agents in a large brokerage. They couldn't get around the price. One agent kept challenging me on the "good enough" aspect saying quite loudly that she thought HER point-and-shoots and videos were actually BETTER than my DSLR work. Annoying in the extreme because she dominated the discussion and ruined the presentation. The "good enough" or "can you do better on the price" is rampant. I actually spent time trying to explain why point-and-shoots can't get you the same results a DSLR can no matter what the pixel density.

    At the end of the day, this agent was probably trying to justify the fact that she simply didn't want to open her wallet for what really is basic and appropriate marketing. In our area she is fighting a losing battle as more and more sellers are demanding pro-photography. In other geographical areas, this type of attitude may not have enough push-back for photographers to prevail. I think WHERE you shoot matters more than many think.

    The difficulty in our area is not the need for pro-photography. Too much push-back from sellers for that to happen. Our issue is the proliferation of big companies including one with four letter name. They pay terribly, force the photographer to take on all the risk, time, wear and tear on equipment and vehicles, and rake in all the dough for themselves. This is a real problem because these companies offer what looks like fabulous spreads for peanuts. It puts tremendous downward pressure on pricing. I have a few loyal clients. But I need to literally quadruple this to be viable as a full-time photographer. That means finding agents willing to pay for quality. Not sure that's happening.

  8. @Ruthmarie--I feel your pain. WHERE you shoot is a big part of it. Here in Wisconsin the concept of professional real estate photography is foreign to almost all agents, and even more home sellers. I have spoken to agents at weekly meetings (I think I've done 6 presentations), and have about 5-6 agents who use me on a consistent basis. I'm pretty sure the rest just give me the finger as I walk out the door.

    The key for me has been constant and varied marketing. Marketing, marketing, and more marketing. I finally joined Facebook, and have seen some pay off already. I think it's a way to reach alot of agents, but may take a bit more time. I have been investing in some money in Facebook ads and have had some luck.

    The agent I shot for today (for the first time) had a bad experience with another pro photographer, but wanted to give me a shot. I won't mention who it was, but it's a well-known company.

    I'm glad to hear that sellers in your area are demanding better. My next group to educate are sellers. Too many of them think the crud realtors give them for photos is acceptable. Keep at it!

  9. @Larry - It was my pleasure, Larry! Thanks for the opportunity to contribute.

    @Albert - I'm *delighted* that this article helped you to "break loose" ... your comment made my day!!

  10. I'm new to real estate photography and I must say the article was an affirmation of what I maybe already knew but just have trouble doing. My background is as a horse trainer and riding instructor. That "inner voice" that you spoke of really gets loud in the show arena. I have a number of things I always said to my students when their self doubt and inner critic was taking over. I find myself now in their shoes and the words "So, what makes you think you're a photographer?" seem to creep in frequently. When it does, I try to remember what I would say to my students. I will keep this article to refer to when my inner critic gets too loud.

    I know I have a long way to go but I certainly wouldn't be where I am right now without this site, the PFRE Flickr group and both books from Scott and Larry. Thank you so much for the great article Tony!

  11. @Dorinda - thanks so much for your gracious note, Dorinda. I'm glad that my article could re-enforce some things that you already knew. Keep at it ... believe it or not, this RE photography "stuff" does get a little easier (i.e., less scary) at some point! LOL Seriously though, it can be very rewarding on many levels and I wish you much success in this new venture for you!

  12. Tony, thanks for your great article, it was published at the exact right time for me. I'm just starting up in PFRE and while I have a very good opportunity I am consistently creating doubt about it for no real reason. Your suggestions are bang on and a worthwhile read to come back to when I feel things are not going so great!

  13. Thanks for the great article Tony.

    I am constantly plagued with my inner critic, always comparing myself to others, which causes me a lot of stress. So your words have helped me reasses a few things in my mind.

    I'm not a Real Estate Photographer, but I am thinking about pursuing it. In the meantime I shoot mainly landscapes, and am very new at that too. So it's quite challenging looking at other peoples shots and then looking at ones own and then thinking to yourself that you're no good and just give up.

    I know I just have to keep persisting and your article has helped reaffirm that for me.


  14. @Ryan & @Brain - Thanks so much for your heartfelt notes! I'm so glad that my article helped you both to be a bit more re-assured of things and focused on the future and on the potential for positive things happening, rather than giving in to that inner critic in the here-and-now. Keep at it! And here's wishing you much success 🙂

  15. @Tony - Great post. I was looking forward to this article and think that you've done a great service to the photographers who are struggling with the hurdles of progress and confidence. It's this sort of sharing that improves both the profession and community.

    @Mike, Ruthmarie and Jeff - I worked for a company that had the business model of "it's good enough." It basically looked to set that as a standard in town. I was actively involved in improving that standard and pushing to create a second tier. There's a fear that prevents companies and individuals from taking the risk that goes along with improving quality and pricing. One thing is scalability. Having a company means spreading out the work and profits. You can have 3-4 shooters driving around town with each shooting 4-6 homes and shipping all those photos back to an office from the field, where someone else processes and delivers them throughout the day. That's same day delivery and at a cost that can't be done by an individual. The quality only has to be good enough and can even stand to be bad enough so as to not affect the expense of running the business or result in the client to wanting to take even worse photos themselves. This business model serves to bolster the "good enough" mentality and pushes individuals scared to be different to compete in a market that they shouldn't be in.

    The "Good Enough" Company Model
    So just imagine 4 shooters with 5 jobs each at $115 a job. That's $2300 a day.
    You pay your shooters and a photo processor less than $20 a hour, let's just say $20 for simplicity in the example. That's $800.
    There are of course other overhead costs and factors to weigh in, but being overly simplistic, that's $1500 in a day that's being made.

    The "Must Compete" Individual
    You shoot 5 houses in a day at $115 a job. That's $575 for 8 hours work.
    You process those images and deliver them the same day. That's 20 minutes for 20 images, include transferring, sorting and delivery time. That's another 8 hours for a total of 16 hours work.
    Of course, you have to on-camera flash and dash and have no life whatsoever to do this.

    There is room for the "good enough" mentality. Be glad that it exists. Don't fear it, be thankful that it's freeing you from things you don't want to do, like work a 16 hour day all the time to produce sub par images to make decent money.

    Have a tiered package and make sure that you're serving your clients. Some people want point and shoot quality and don't want to do it themselves, they'll pay someone else what it's worth. Others want the best quality possible and will pay for it. Diversify or don't. Educate prospective clients that you'll give them what they want at the price they are willing to pay. Quality isn't always the angle, it's service. You save them the time. A realtor could spend less on camera gear and learning to do it themselves than constantly hiring someone. Get paid to teach those people how to shoot and help them choose the right gear and move on. Go in to the office meeting and say that for a cost you'll teach realtors how to use an iphone to create marketable images, but also let them know that you'll go and shoot well-lit, properly staged and professional images for another cost. Let them know that they can pay you to teach them how to do it themselves.

    Some realtors will pay good money for photos that are awful while others will pay no money for photos that are amazing.

    If you don't want to shoot images that you think are "good enough" then be glad that you don't have to, because you can rest assured that someone out there will be glad to do it for you. If you shoot images that are "better," be glad that you have a standard and can service the market that needs that standard. Be both of those people if you want to.

    WHERE you shoot really does matter. Make sure you know exactly where you stand and are headed in the ever evolving gap between pocket camera quality and a Hasselblad; not being scared, but excited by it.

    More importantly though, WHY.
    Why should someone change to your marketing images when the ones they use already achieve the results that they are looking for?
    Why are you trying to change/teach people to a new standard of seeing?

    Why do you want people to work with you?
    Why do you shoot?

  16. Thanks for the post Tony. Like you, we also shoot a set of brackets as an insurance policy. In complex lighting situations or when we're really limited on time due to the owner or agent, having these exposures really pays off. Personally I think it's a solid business approach because even in a terrible situation you can blend 70% of an exposure fusion image with 30% of a flash only layer in color mode and get a solid result. I generally try to use a single ambient mixed with my flash exposure, but in complex situations I'll use an exposure fusion layer @ 20% opacity layered on my flash shot to shift that ambient / flash mix in my favor.

    At the end of the day you need as many tools in your bag as possible shooting RE photography. Nailing it every time in camera isn't always possible, even for Scott admits sometimes you have to 'punt'.

  17. @Andrew - Thanks for the long and thoughtful answer. What we all have to do is realistically examine our markets and what is out there for us and how we can realistically make it work for us. I have seen fields of work implode before. So the "fear factor" is based on hard reality.

    Heck, I have a doctorate degree in a field that was booming in the 90s. Nowadays that degree can pay less than $50k a year for about 60-70 hours of work a week. It is topping off at less than 6 figures for all but those who were established before about 2003. Given the "investment" of 8 years full-time for the degree, that is really, really grim. Similar things have been happening to real estate agents where there is more and more outlay for less and less reward. Want leads? You have to pay Zillow through the nose for leads that would normally have come to you for FREE.

    The lesson here is that there are outside influences have the capacity to disrupt and destroy markets. They can turn markets that used to be the province of the full-timer to the domain of the of the point-and-shoot dilettante seeking pin money very quickly. The "fear factor" can then be perceived as a survival tactic so as not to throw money at something that isn't viable. What will or will not be viable may well depend on geography. I think each market will be different. I'm not saying that what I am doing is not viable. Truth be told, I'm not sure at this moment. But it appears to be maxing out at around $50k a year unless I start exploiting people. That might be enough in Boise , but this is NY - that's not enough to live on.

    Personally, I think everyone has to examine their market carefully and have a finger in another pie in case things don't work out as expected. This is the reality of markets today - and its universal - not just tied to photography or any specific field of work or entrepreneurship.

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