June 26th, 2007

Proposed Real Estate Photography Guidelines for Image Modification

These guidelines for image modification are meant as a reference for discussion and synthesis of a number of posts on this blog as well as comments made by blog readers. I’m attempting to document a standard of practice that represents a large portion of photographers currently working in real estate photography.

Real Estate Photographers should not modify images of properties such that the images no longer truthfully and fairly represent that property. In particular, the permanent physical features of the property should not be modified. On the other hand, real estate images are intended for marketing purposes and therefore present the property in the very best way possible. So image enhancements that do not materially change permanent physical characteristics of the house or surrounding environment are considered standard practice. The following is a list of what clarifying examples:

Standard Practice

  • Removing temporary objects like garbage cans, cars etc.
  • Changing image saturation, brightness, contrast or color balance
  • Fixing converging verticals, lens barrel distortion or color fringing
  • Removing refrigerator clutter i.e, the photos, post-it’s etc sellers typically have on refrigerators or removing furniture that is not part of the house.
  • Sky replacement or enhancement
  • Use of ultra-wide-angle lenses

Considered Modification of Permanent Physical Characteristics

  • Removing or modifying power lines, antennas or power poles
  • modifying any part of the house or landscaping that would not naturally change within a few weeks

Use of Ultra-Wide-angle Lenses
Although some people find the use of ultra-wide angle lenses (below 24mm effective focal length) to visually overstate the size of rooms, use of ultra-wide-angle lenses is generally standard practice. It should be done with discretion.

Use of Telephoto Lenses to Enhance Views
This seems to be a borderline practice. That is, some do it and some don’t. There doesn’t seem to be any standard practice in this area.

Use High Dynamic Range (HDR)
Adjusting and expanding the tonal range is standard practice.

Modifying the grass
Some feel that grass is a temporary property feature and modify irregularities or bare spots as required. This seems to be a borderline practice. That is, it is not done widely enough to be considered standard practice but some photographers will add grass if it will be included in the sale of the home but not present at the time of the photo. At the same time some consider modifying any part of the landscaping.

Document the request for photo modifications
Real estate photographers should document any request by their clients requesting any modification of marketing photos.

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22 Responses to “Ethics”

  • This is my first post here, so Hi, everybody.

    Photojournalism requires that there be no adjustments to the photo whatever. On the other hand, I think the “whatever it takes to sell the house” position is the opposite extreme. Somewhere in between lies a set of guidelines that’s honest and fair for the Realtor, the seller, and especially the prospective buyer. It allows us photogs to earn a living and sleep well knowing that we haven’t compromised.

    I don’t think that allowing a hamburger joint to establish our business ethics is the way to go, either. Remember, these are the people who call thousand island dressing “special sauce”.

    My personal rule is that I don’t make any alterations to the photo that “materially affect the property”. I’ll swap out the sky, no problem. I’ll green up the grass, but not a lot. The grass can change with the next rainfall. We’re experiencing a drought in Ohio and, with sprinkling bans in effect, most of the lawns look like shredded wheat. Not very appealing. I generally don’t repair bald spots on the lawn. Brown spots, yes. Bare earth, probably not.

    Other than the grass thing, if I could have (or should have) changed it before I took the shot, I will. I’ll remove a towell that’s been draped over an oven door. I’ll move a box of kid’s toys out of the corner. I’ll remove a bunch of tangled wires running up a wall. I won’t patch holes in the wall, change the color of a room, repair a window or garage door, or blow out the doghouse with Sparky’s running trail in the backyard.

    I try to take the prospective buyer’s viewpoint. If the photographs don’t fairly represent the property, he’s likely to lose trust in the Realtor. We haven’t helped anyone then. My clients are generally Realtors, and I won’t do anything that could embarass them.

    We must establish our own code of conduct based on our personal moral compass, but it doesn’t hurt to have some guidelines in writing. When I first began my business, I had no clue that taking power lines out of a photo was a bad thing. Hey, I was new!

  • Hi Larry,
    Recently I was talking to an agent who was annoyed that another photographer had given one of his competitor’s information on listings. Which lead me to write a privacy statement incase an agent ever asks me about confidentiality.
    Might be something to add to the ethics, as confidentially is an ethical topic?

    Just an idea.


  • This is an interesting issue. My two cents….

    Many of the comments on this topic seem to be treating buyers as victims. When I am shooting real estate, I’m not working for buyers for buyers. I’m working for listing real estate agents. In this respect, they are calling the shots. I have removed power lines, dead grass, and neighboring homes (once) from exterior photos as per the agent’s request. When they ask me to do it I verbally warn them that it’s not the hottest idea and that the image will be degraded to some extent and may look “fake”, charge an additional fee, and then alert them in writing (an e-mail) that they should be prepared in case someone makes a “stink” about it.

    At the end of the day, “truth” in listing photos is the listing agent’s responsibility. If they are willing to risk their reputation by posting doctored photos then more power to them.

  • Aaron,
    Excellent points.

    Yes, I’m not a lawyer but, I believe the listing agent ultimately has the responsibility for all aspects of the presentation of the home for sale and in the worst case they probably risk more than just their reputation, I can imagine a situation in today’s litigious society where buyers would file suit over undisclosed property defects where photos were doctored and the buyer felt they were deceptive.

    I think handling a request for photo modification as you describe (Documenting the request in writing and advising the agent of the downsides of the modification) is an appropiate way to handle such a request.

  • Aaron, I’d be pretty careful about some of those things — if the listing agent (your client) gets a disclosure lawsuit slapped on them, it’ll take them about 10 seconds to decide that they never told you that was ok, and that it’s all your fault, etc. etc.
    Even if the agent as an individual remains loyal to you and supports you, his/her office will not hesitate to throw you in front of the bus. I’d get a waiver in writing absolving you of any liability.

  • Dan you are right that the PMA does tie your hands on some things. Wide angle lenses are not one of them, but you could contravene the act by purposefully leaving out of a photo or taking out in post process something that would affect the price of the property.

    For example I would never clone out anything that is permanent. I would replace grass and a blue sky but I leave pretty much everything else alone. What’s tricky is, you could get into trouble for shooting a property and picking an angle that leaves out something undesirable, for instance a house next door to a petrol station if your image does not include the petrol station it could be interpreted as misdescription.

    However I believe its the agent that generally gets hit not the photographer.

  • Dan, I couldn’t agree with you more regarding the grass. “Greening” is the most I will do to modify lawns – which is generally taken care of during my color corrections. Temporary feature or not, patching lawns or visually altering the layout of the lawn is a big no-no in my book.

    I’m the in-house creative at my RE agency and often photograph the homes. This makes me partially responsible for the trust built between RE associates and their clients.

    One caveat to this gray area is the use of the label “Similar To . . .”. For example, if an associate comes to me with a photo of a house from a certain subdivision and wants to use it to represent another house currently being built in that same subdivision, I generally place “Similar to . . .” on the photo.

    I would certainly appreciate any feedback on this practice. I’m strictly a marketing person – no background in RE at all, though, I have learned a great deal about the industry in the past two years.

    Thanks in advance!

  • @Matt,
    The “similar to” photo thing you mention is standard practice in the new home construction business in the Seattle area. It’s very common for builders to use variations of plans (mirror images etc) and use previously built model home photos to market the variations. I’ve never heard of any problems or even buyer complaints from this practice. Buyers actually appreciate seeing photos of a similar home.

  • Hi. I am a Home Stager–I spruce up homes on the market so they show well. When I staged my own home for sale in Yuma, Ariz., I Staged it first and then hired my Journalism professor who was also a professional photographer. He had a strobe light that illuminated my front door, which needed lighting since the house was a north-south facing home and the front door never got natural sunlight. It looked great when he photographed it. Our house was also a basement home, and after I painted it a light (not white) neutral color, ( and Staged it), he shot it with lights, and it looked like a well-lighted basement, and I didn’t think that it was misleading at all. In the other posts that I’ve read about putting kids’ toys away and getting rid of visible wires, etc., —that is a part of Home Staging, and is not deceptive in any way. Staging is presenting a house in its best light, and I recommend it to everyone who is selling a house. My house sold to the first family who toured it. Other homes in my area took many many months to sell, and ours sold in two weeks in a slowing market in August, 2007. Thanks to my husband’s home improvements, my Staging, my Realtor’s marketing, and my professor’s photography.

  • here in The Bahamas, I make it a practice to photgraph a home on a sunny day and at high noon. It might mean multiple trips to the home but it is worth it to me. If it is a waterfront home, I always use a depiction of the water as my lead shot, even if it does not show the home or, especially, if the home is not “all that”. I do level the horizon and crop. We have a practice here of posting our colleagues listings on our own sites (we do not have an MLS that is available to the public). I often have to edit other agent’s photos in the these same ways. The most I will do is clean up seaweed on the beach although my colleague raises the water level if the tide is low!! I stage homes and the property outside, putting garbage cans back in the garage and coiling hoses, etc.. To me, anything to sell the home means I do everything I can that is ethical.

  • As photographers I think we are there to make the best shots of the home possible. However I do not “tweak” my shots with anything more than saturated color and maybe some sharpening effects. I think its best to show the home in the most flattering but also the most realistic also approach.

  • We are commercial photographers who create images used to advertise market listings. We are not journalists nor are we recording documentary/historical information. The purpose of advertising is to generate interest in products. High-quality, attractive photographs create a competitive advantage for clients. This is true for fast-food products as well as for property listings. Viewing a professionally staged and produced photo of a hamburger creates interest in that product. Why shouldn’t listing photos use similar methods (excellent lighting, compelling composition and professional post-processing techniques) do the same? How many clothing catalogs contain photos of models who are much more attractive (as judged by the marketing director) than the general population? All of them do. Why shouldn’t home photos look as attractive as possible? I see no teleological difference between a Big Mac [tm] and a $1,000,000 listing when it comes to the fundamental purpose of commercial photography: create interest in the product as effectively as possible. If a photo is modified to make a hamburger appear twice as big as is actually is, this is not effective as buyers may not return due to disappointment (then there’s the FTC as well). Removing power-line poles is self-defeating as well. In real estate, misrepresentation and deception is especially counter productive because there are laws as well as codes of ethics that listing agents and brokers must follow.

    In some cases the Reator [tm] is the defacto marketing director responsible for the ad content. In other cases a brokerage marketing director is responsible. Photographers can choose not to work with advertisers (marketing directors) with ethics and practices the photographer considers incompatible with their personal ethics.

    I believe that Larry’s guidelines are reasonable and prudent. They should not be confused with a code of ethics. I think Larry used the word guideline purposely. A code of ethics has no meaning if there are no consequences for violating the code. So, the only ethics directly relevant to PFRE (unless the photographer is also the listing agent or is employed directly by a broker) are the photographers personal ethics. At the least, the photographers ethics must be compatible with the person who approves of the advertisement before it is published.

  • I cannot agree with removing items like power lines. Buyers do sometimes buy homes sight unseen but certain they have seen the photos on-line and buy based purely in that basis. I have heard anecdotal evidence of buyers threatening to sue because someone cloned out power lines or even power poles. The rest of your comments are on target.

  • Very interesting blog. I will come regularly here. Thanks the author

  • are photos documents or marketing? since there is so much varilibility in cameras and processing for appeal, I think it should be the latter…anyone who buys a house without seeing it is an idiot! at the price level a home is sold at only an idiot would expect that a group of photos shows everything. It is not unethical for a agent to shoot the home in the best light and maybe not get the trailer next door in the shot…that being said how can one be held accountable for leaving out the undesireable view. In New York, we have agency that tells the buyer who represents who…so why would they think the selling agent is on their side. I think major photoshop stuff is getting close to misrepresentation but that is what a property disclosure does it is a leagl document, it documents the major potential problems (legally only what the sellers knows about)…besides who owns the electic line surely not the homeowner ….so why the expectation to dislose somones else’s property next door…if a buyer buys it unseen they get what they should expect marketing, not legally enforceable documentation.

    Even old black and white photography has “grey” areas

  • […] can see differing viewpoints on the issue of doctoring photographs in the comments to a post at Photography for Real Estate, a site that's popular with real estate […]

  • As a home buyer, I would be very upset if a photographer removed high power lines, although I’m likely to see the house anyway.

    I have no problem with making grass greener … it can be green on a given day.

    What DOES disturb me is the use of photography to make rooms look much bigger than they are. Over the last summer when we were houseshopping, we went into many houses which had what I considered rather deceptive photos. I would much rather enter a house and think, “oh this is bigger than I thought it would be” rather than “omg, this is so much smaller than it appears in the photos.”

    I just don’t think it’s a smart practice to disappoint the buyer before they’ve even had a chance to get past the first room.

  • I’ve been looking at mid-range homes (800k-1.3m) in Montana for a couple of years, and the closer I get to retiring the more focused my search. There is one unnamed NW Montana Realtor/photographer who advertises HDR photography that is so ‘color enhanced’ and GROSSLY distorted that (in my opinion) it constitutes fraudulent advertisement. As a result, I immediately pass on any listing with his photos. When a ranch exterior changes from brown to green and back to it’s actual tan color, it’s not a true and honest representation of the product. When a photo shows a bench large enough for two, and the next photo shows it’s just an undersized footstool, it brings into question the integrity of both the photographer AND the listing Realtor. When the intimate Roman tub suddenly turns into a lap pool, I wonder what’s wrong with a house that it can’t be sold with honest photographs. I hear the excuse that ‘higher end homes demand this type of photography’, but I can guarantee that homes in my neighborhood (Palm Springs… not known for ‘moderately priced homes’) do not use this in their marketing. To anyone with an advertising background, it’s like putting marbles in the bowl of Campbell’s Beef Soup. Not to sound arrogant, but, like my comments or not, I AM THE CUSTOMER. And for the few people who, like me, who voice their displeasure, how many don’t say a word and just go to a different listing or A DIFFERENT REALTOR?

  • I understand Bob’s frustration. I am a real estate photographer and often shoot with my 16-35mm lens, which causes distortion. I try my best not to be at 16mm all the time, but in some cases (especially small bathrooms) it’s required to get the shot. I think most buyers understand this kind of wide angle shot when they see it, but when main features (like bathrubs or pools) are rigged to look bigger than they really are, I get the displeasure. BTW Bob, for most photographers, you are NOT the customer, the listing agent is. We shoot things the way the listing agent wants them, and if we don’t, they hire someone else to do it.

  • Thank you for the great real estate photography guidelines. I see all kinds of different photography stunts in my local area. One of the common things here is to take an ocean view picture that is not even from the property. Sometimes I shake my head at at the false representations and wonder what the broker is thinking. Other times I feel sorry for the property owner trying to sell their home when their listing pictures are blurry or as tiny as a thumbnail. I enjoy using my photography skills and use them to sell my services as a listing agent. I always try best to portray properties in their best true form.

  • Hi , Recently I was doing a shoot of a property that did have views of water , although distant. About 1.5 klm away. I took the shot , chimped it and the vendor who was present asked to see the chimp on the back camera screen. It was shoot with a 14-24mm lens set to about 18mm, she was horrified that her home looked so far from the water and told me the photo was in her word “garbage and I can do better than that”. I said ” i’m always willing to learn, can you show me how you do it”, so she went and got her little pocket camera, turned it on and went straight for the zoom button and set the camera to maximum zoom. I said “no, no, no. you are not allowed to use telephoto zoom lens in RE photography”. She said “why not”. I said ” well its like this, if the first potential buyer fronts up to look at the view that was shown in the campainge and you stand there at the front door and hand them a pair of binoculars to see the view, because that’s how it basically was taken. She shut up after that and let me do my job. Wide angle, no problem, a 14mm sees almost what one eye can see, after all, a camera only has one eye(unless your into 3D), but be very careful about using “Big” zoom lens to enhance views.

  • How about giving a before and after photo showing the potential the property has?