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Real Estate Photography and The Truth

Published: 05/04/2007
By: larry

Earlier today I was talking to a Realtor about where the line is for how much photo-editing it's OK to do on a marketing image. I've done a post on this subject before over a year ago but I think it is worth re-visiting. The composite image above shows an image that I modified to market one of our listings. I sharpened up the edge of the grass and changed the foreground perspective somewhat.

How much editing on a marketing image is OK? Is there a line that shouldn't be crossed?

My take on this question is as follows: Marketing photography is different than photojournalism or documentary photography where accurate photographic recording is assumed by the viewer. The purpose of marketing photography is to make a product (in this context a home) look good. So I feel it is ethical to replace skies, remove power lines or what ever you can do to make the home look good? Some of these “modifications” are done before the photo is taken like controlling the light, moving furniture, adding attractive furniture removing clutter and generally styling the space to look attractive. Other modifications are easier done after the photo is taken in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements.

You frequently see architectural drawings used to market new homes. Architectural drawings are very stylized, have dramatic skies and don’t show power lines or other ugly, realistic details so why not think of your interior/exterior photographs of a home as architectural drawings?

John Dvorak over at did an article on this general subject that's worth looking at. John's bottom line is:

"Photos are representations, nothing more and nothing less. Sure, taking a head from one picture, dropping it into a porn photo, and saying that it's real is obviously wrong. But enhancing and interpreting photographic data has its place and is an important communications tool. Just stop believing everything you see."

13 comments on “Real Estate Photography and The Truth”

  1. Interesting question - When Realtors look at my images they often say "this house does not look this good", or words to that effect. Obviously my job is to make the home as appealing as possible without going over the top. Buyers often look at my brochures and are surprised that the home does not look as good in real life as it does in the photographs. I have just done my job.

    I like to try and find angles that compliment the house that don't show Powerlines and Junction Boxes or Garbage Cans in the Driveway. I spruce up bushes and remove mailboxes from time to time but mostly I like to have what I want from the camera. I am going to take this a step further. I shot a home several months ago with a great river view. Unfortuantely on the other side of the river is the Vero Beaach Municipla Power Plant and it's Giant Stacks - right next to that is the Waste Water Treatment Facility. I know Prime real estate and we have a super toilet and some steaming stacks. Ok the raiver at that point is very whide and you can't really see the Waste Water Plant but the stacks are right there. My camera solution was to strateically shoot with the trunk of a palm tree on the side of the frame sheilding the stacks and building (Did I mention the building is Bright Turquoise color) yet showing the great water view. The realtor thought about using another image where the building was in plain view and having me PS it out .... I thought that was pushing the boundaries and persuaded them to go with the Palm tree sheild. Do you think removing a building is appropriate marketing ?

  2. As you know I'm a big blow hard on this issue. 🙂
    IMHO, if you clean up a pile of gravel, remove a sale sign, punch up a sky, airbrush and clone out an spot a pot or roll off, then thats cool and isn't out of line. Ive been asked to do the above and I usually do it anyways since nobody wants a 400k spot a pot on their new lawn.

    Ive also been asked to clean up landscapes, "can you add some trees? fix those cracks in the driveway" . My standpoint and my Main broker who pays my bills feel the same on the issue...

    Truth in Advertising.

    If the changes are misleading or not apparent on the property then its not accurate. A roll off or spot a pot will be moved by the time thew buyer moves in. But the powerlines that block your view of the ocean will still be there. Im asked to clean views up all the time and I wont. I will be glad to shoot from a better angle etc. Unless in an extreme example, most power lines that cross the home can be cleaned up, but the main service line is there, will be there unless they are burying the cable or have wireless electricity. Major color shifts are a big no-no.

    I will concede that I have overworked a few photos in the past but as I have learned what is required from the agents and Realty Commission for my area, my work and marketing materials have complied better and there are no issues and less revisions which I enjoy.

    Thats my 2 cents.
    Drew King

  3. The specific purpose of real estate photography is to get a showing for a potential sale. Not too many folks buy a home sight unseen... not to many folks want to see more of a home if it looks unattactive. A poor photographer can easily highlight all the negatives that a property has... some are more skilled at this than others! Enter the professional real estate photographer. Job one is simply to present the home in its best possible light- without misrepresentation. I always look for the best perspective and avoid distractions whenever possible but I would never remove objects that can't be worked around. Likewise, I would never add object that don't exist. This is the challenge of a good photographer and what seperates the pros from the point and shooters.

  4. I must agree with the general consensus. I won't remove a "permanent" fixture or item from a photo, but I don't mind cloning over waste cans or things like that. Likewise, I don't have a problem with replacing a cloudy gray sky with a bright blue one...skies change from one hour to the next. I have also fixed patchy lawns. Now that it is Spring time and bright green grass is popping up everywhere, filling in brown spots has become part of my regular routine. These types of "fixes" are completely appropriate, in my opinion.

    Often times, you can shoot from an angle that will omit the unwanted object from the scene anyway. However, I find it somewhat difficult to liken a photograph of an existing home to that of a architectural rendering. Often times, builders use renderings to show what an incomplete house will look like, but the buyer usually has a choice of the location where the house will be located (at least in the developments where I live). The buyer can choose to place a particular style of home on a particular lot, one that has overhead powerlines, an unattractive view or one that has no visual obstructions.

  5. The mls has some rules about how photography is used but I have not seen them. And ultimately it is the realtor's responsibility. There has actually been a law suit as a result of the use of the cloning tool. If something is temporary, I don't have a problem altering to it's ideal. I make rooms lighter than they are and frequently that is not temporary but I suppose they could paint the home a lighter color and increase the lighting fixtures. As one realtor told me after requesting a little magic on a charming but dark place, 'Make it appear lighter. It will attract buyers and when they see the place they won't have a problem with the lighting level.' I'll also zoom in a a view (or tight crop). That also makes sense to me as you can't really see the view well in these little images on the mls.

  6. This is where photography wins over video and virtual tours. It's rare to find a property that doesn't require at least a little tidying/enhancing on PS and this is very difficult and time consuming on video.
    I think if your marketing a holiday property it is more acceptable to enhance an image, remove hanging cables etc as you're competing with hotels etc that have glossy brochures and altered images.
    When marketing a sale property you have to be careful not to misrepresent otherwise you end up disappointing prospective buyers and wasting everyones time, not to mention damaging your reputation

  7. Many good points have been made here. I see both sides. I wanted to add my two cents as a Real Estate Broker/Owner. I don't run my business from a scared perspective, but misrepresentation is a big deal and can cause many legal issues. When people get angry for whatever reason they try to take-out each link in the chain of the home buying-selling process. This ranges all the way from the previous owner and Realtors down to the landscaper.

    To that point, I can see replacing a sky due to inclement weather because it can be sunny, unfortunately the day I was there it was not. Any permanent fixtures like power lines, cracks in a driveway, etc. come with the home and therefore should not be removed. As someone said in a previous post, it is the job of the photographer to take the most flattering images from angles where you do not see these things. The potential buyer will ultimately tour the home in person and notice any flaws or positives first-hand and then make an informed decision with all factors considered. No one forces you to make a multi-hundred-thousand dollar purchase, it is a process with many steps.

    To remove flaws as if they do not exist is just not right. We as Realtors are held to a strict set of rules, standards and ethics, pointing fingers at the photographer when a problem would arise just won't cut it. We know better and we are the professional trusted to represent a seller and their property in the most flaterring, but hones way.

    As the saying goes, "Honesty is the best policy".

  8. I have to agree with D Young, and certainly appreciate Ian Vonesh's perspective.

    The purpose of a real estate photographer is to get the people who would want to buy the house to visit it in person. A bad photo will not do this, but a photo that is misleading or raises the potential buyer's expectations beyond what the house can deliver has also failed. Even worse, it wastes time for everyone involved and can create ill-will toward the listing agent. Buyers are sellers too, and they're potential leads for the LA.

    My contract includes a clause that reads: "Photography is an interpretive process and as such the photographer will make every reasonable effort to portray the subject in a flattering and realistic manner appropriate for the client's use. The client or a representative is requested to provide direction and approval at the time of the photo shoot. If not provided, the photographers' decisions will be accepted."

    Replacing skies and correcting perspective distortion are two modifications that simply re-create how the house is actually seen 'in person'. Colour balance and saturation are subjective and interpretive, but the "flattering and realistic" still applies. I won't completely clone out power lines, but I will remove them from one layer in photoshop and blend in back in at a lower opacity. Potential buyers still have the fact of their presence available, but their visual impact is reduced back to the background level of our 'in person' awareness of the visual clutter of daily life. Cameras see in ways that people do not, and photography is an interpretive process. My job is to create an attractive interpretation that can be (and often will be) viewed when the buyer is actually at the property, and have them say, "this looks right."

  9. I agree with the majority of the posts. I have shot about 500 homes in the last 3 years and I have a rule: don't change anything that couldn't be true. Therefor, I don't remove power lines, etc. since a potential buyer couldn't physically do that. But since the human eye is millions of times more sensitive and the human brain millions of times "smarter" than even the most advanced digital computer chip or brain, I think it is perfectly fair to do things like enhance color saturation, lighten dark areas in a landscape, etc. After all, that's how we see it, our cameras just can't usually replicate it.

    I think making grass greener (especially if it's really brown or in bad condition) and changing the contour of a landscape is a gray area since that involves money to the buyer to replicate. I would love to have some of your comments on that issue.

    Matthew has the most important point, which is, that misleading people is not a clever marketing strategy and diminishes us and our client.

  10. I'd like to thank everyone for a very thoughful and useful exchange on this subject. It's clarified where the line is for me on this subject. I particularly like Matthew's phrase "making every effort to portray the subject in flattering and realistic manner" and the concept of reducing the opacity of powerlines instead of removing them.

    I also like the concept of distingusing between "temporary" features and material or permanent features.

    Susanne's question about modifying grass is interesting since this is exactly the gray issue that got me started on this post. After this discussion I can see both sides of the argement on grass being a temporary feature that it's OK to change. I think it's essential that the client (presumably a Realtor) would have to be a party of that decision.

  11. I feel as long as you keep it looking natural it is good. But many go way too far and we wind up with replaced skies that look like an H bomb just went off. This one is bad

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