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Real Estate Photography is MUCH More Than Knowing How To Take A Great Photograph

Published: 03/01/2014
By: larry

ShowcasePhotographyToday Matt Van Emmerik of Kelowna, BC commented on the post and poll I did a couple of days ago asking readers how business was in 2013. Matt's comments are so on target and well stated I think they deserve to be a post so the get more visibility. Here are Matt's comments:

Happy New Year everyone! I was one of the ones to claim a great year, and I’ll try to explain why I had a good year and the business model I have built and stand by.

I shoot in a relatively small 4 season city in the interior of British Columbia with just over 100,000 people. It is however a 4 season paradise and very desirable place to live in Canada which has kept the market stable even through the crash…barely. This business is a tricky one to get involved in this late in the game especially in smaller markets since they are already established with lots of competition, but it doesn’t mean you can’t squeeze in and make a go of it if you’re creative and persistent. A little history on me, I started my company in 2007 while also working full time as a graphic designer and was not aware of anyone else in the market specializing in real estate. In 2010 I quit my full time job and left the country for almost two years and the business obviously fell apart which I was ok with (soul searching trip). When I got back in early 2012 I went full time with the photography and I had to work my tail off marketing again, and one thing I spent all winter working on was HD Video in a way no other company was offering (more on this later). This is what got me back into a front runner position.

The KEY to this business is fairly simple because unfortunately most realtors don’t care as much about quality as we do so don’t waste your breath trying to explain why you’re better than the other guys and deserve more money. At the end of the day PRICE is the most important thing to them. Next comes SERVICE, and they don’t realize it at first but this is the number one winner over any price in the end. I too have realtors complain about price, but I stand firm knowing they will eventually come knocking and most do. When they go with the bottom feeders, eventually they will get tired of never reaching them on the phone or waiting days if not more to get their images. Another thing I don’t do is to force realtors into contracts, let your work and work ethic speak for itself. I have an open door policy.

If I receive a call anytime of day I take it or return it asap as well as text messages and emails. You MUST make this a priority to stay competitive. Time and time again I get compliments on how easy it is to reach me and how quickly I make bookings and turn around the images, and videos and the great quality is an added bonus at that point. I also will work 7 days a week with almost no time restrictions. Realtors may not practice this same business model, but they certainly do expect the moon from every service they hire, so give it to them and you will have a loyal, repeat client every time and watch your business grow.

HD VIDEO – It was slow to start (winter) and one of the most difficult parts was pricing it right and every market will be different. During the summer the video popularity grew rapidly, and word spread so I gained about 20 new clients because of it all of which left their existing photographers because I offered the whole package at a discount (convenience factor). By the end of my first year making HD Video I have completed 150 unique videos ( which added substantial income to my business and allowed me to double my best previous year in the business which was 2009. HD video is not the future of Real Estate marketing, it is the present and if you don’t learn it well and offer it, you will eventually be weeded out of the market I firmly believe. It’s not easy to do, is time consuming and there are many pitfalls and expenses with a huge learning curve, but it’s incredibly fun, creative and lucrative so my advice would be to get started now instead of thinking a good photo is all you need. In my area I gave myself a one year jump on the competition and now it seems every Tom, Dick and Harry is trying to crack into the market so I have to keep ahead of the game. In this game quality wins over price unlike the photo market because any realtor can use their internal video systems to put together iPhone videos so they need something with WOW factor to convince them to open their wallets. Do NOT cheap out on video gear as it will show in your work.

Another great tip is to be incredibly kind and genuine to the home owners. Talk to them and make them feel comfortable when you’re in their home. You don’t know why they are selling, and it may be a very stressful time for them having all these people coming through their homes, so be kind and put them at ease. That feedback will get back to the realtor guaranteed and make them very comfortable knowing you are representing them in a professional and courteous way.

Also don’t stay comfortable with what you’re doing. There is always somebody below you trying to climb the ladder so keep climbing it or they will go right over the top of you. If you have a financially decent year, then invest more money in gear, marketing and education. Some might buy fancy cars and vacations with their profits, but I personally invest 25-30% back into the business and will continue to do so every year.

Real Estate photography is MUCH more than knowing how to take a great photograph, and the same goes for any profession. So don’t focus everything on price. Market yourself with incredible service and the word will spread, just give it time and don’t expect instant results, and you’ll do fine.

This is all great advice! I think all of Matt's advice is all right on target. Great service is a reoccurring theme that I hear over and over from successful real estate photographers. Thanks Matt for sharing your business insights and experiences with everyone!

18 comments on “Real Estate Photography is MUCH More Than Knowing How To Take A Great Photograph”

  1. Great advice i just bought some lighting this year to start photographing interiors here in Chicago.Marketing will be my focus.Meanwhile learning lighting setups with flashes on friends and family homes.When the snow and cold clears i will be ready.( P.S. I got both Scott Hargis E-books)Love them.

  2. Amen! More than that, I think Service comes even higher than Price. Things like same day turnaround, being on-time always are immensely important. Then, following up promptly. Then, comes price... Keep it decent and you'll be full time working... Talking about quality is only relevant to High End segments.

  3. Matt - Thanks for taking the time to write this. As a realtor and shooter I agree with you 100%. Like photographers, it's a defining time for realtors too. Assuming quality is there, service IS everything. Those in the game do work 7 days a week and reply with minutes on all inquiries. Information is everywhere and communication is and needs to be instant.

    The referral base of social media is only exponentially gaining ground. So the service you provide to a client / home owner / realtor today will only gain you business tomorrow. Drive forward. Happy 2014.

  4. Preach it! Great advice about being customer service oriented and everything else falling in line behind that. Almost happens naturally and your confidence grows over time doing it that way.

    My only concern is something I learned growing up watching my father work 7 days a week, all hours of the day as a CFO of a major music company... Becoming a workaholic. I am married and spending quality time with my wife and friends keeps me sane in a lot of ways. So to the people who work 7 days a week doing 800+ homes a year (I did over 400 this year with over 60 new clients); How do you balance work and personal life? I can't see doubling my output and having any time for myself or my relationships. What do you do to break away psychologically to avoid getting burned out? Has working 7 days a week affected relationships for anyone? I love my career and what I do and wouldn't trade it for much of anything. Just looking for advice as I am growing my business regarding the work/life balance. Thanks for sharing!

    To a great 2014!

  5. Hello Chad, et al.,

    I shoot 6-days, and avoid scheduling Sundays.

    For a large chunk of my career I worked 7 days/week, and it was not uncommon to have days run 5:30a till 11p at times. As the global program manager for a major engineering software company, I was directly responsible for the programs at 3 automotive OEMs and 2 major suppliers. As with this discussion here, Service was all-important.

    The easiest way to keep a customer happy, is to make them believe they're happy, whether they actually are or not.

    Strong Service, is almost invariably supported by excellent communication (accessibility, timeliness, transparency). Transparency can be a big one. Too many folks want to hide what's going on. Customers don't need to know (or care) about the nitty/gritty. However the more open you are with them, the more they can begin to relate to you (and you, them), and the beginning of lasting relationships can emerge. (In the vast majority of fires I've been called in to put out, the root cause almost w/o exception, comes down to poor communication.)

    I have often expressed the opinion that the purchase order (or PFRE call) is a byproduct of your relationships. Some scoff. Fine. Run more AdWords. But closing the deal is a lot easier to do with friends, than with complete strangers. Your relationship may -be- the reason you even -get- the call.

    The Go, go, go, approach took a toll which I only 'fully' appreciated in recent years. I'll save the nitty/gritty and simply say, 7-days leaves no time for 'you.' You need to recharge. You also need to do your bills, catch-up on maintenance or remaining work, as well as simply spend time with those you love and appreciate. Don't make the time, eventually you won't need to worry about it.

    Stepping away from JT's own philosophical soapbox... Yes, I block Sundays (w/rare exception) out. Beyond that, if I need time to do something (install a new computer, take kids somewhere, whatever), I simply block it out on the calendar. Its important to remember that 7 days/week does not mean all days are 18 hr days. Maybe 2 of them are just 4 hours each this week.

    Of course, its even easier when doing something we enjoy. I'm really enjoying myself right now. 🙂

  6. Behind every success story is hard work, 18 hour days are not uncommon and days off are far and few between. Burning eyes editing late into the night come with the job in order to get your business off the ground. In the beginning you will be educating yourself with every spare moment you have between shoots. You will work 7 days a week because it's a sacrifice to get the business going. Once you've established yourself in a year or two then you can concentrate on hiring help and stepping back to focus on specific tasks that need more attention like marketing and of course spending time with loved ones. This business fluctuates in every area differently but you'll find that certain times have lulls each year at the same time. Most people don't want to list their homes during times like Christmas, Kids going back to school etc. This will give you some predictable time to get caught up. Also the more you work the more proficient you become which will free up time.

    I currently don't have children and if I did would have to make the most of every second of work in order to make time to spend with them as often as possible because children only have one childhood so you may have to grow your business a little slower. My spouse appreciates when she sees the glow from my monitor in the office late at night that I am making a sacrifice for our future and she understands what is required to make it happen. If you explain this to your family, they will understand and be supportive and excited to watch it grow rather than resent it which can be the beginning of the end of the business or relationships.

    Finding a balance is critical and I like what JT says regarding blocking sundays off. I too try to take sundays off whenever possible. In fact I try to take weekends off completely to get caught up on editing videos otherwise I would sacrifice the turn around time on photos which I'm not willing to do as that is the foundation of the business and a strong foundation is important. Besides a lot a realtors have families too and appreciate taking most sundays off, so they won't be offended to hear that.

    I want to thank everyone for your comments and that emailed me and I'm sorry I can't reply to all the personal emails I got but would like to share a few more tips here that I hope help your start. When a new client calls and asks about your service, do not stutter, waver or hum and haw on the phone as this will make them think you're unsure of what you do and are unprepared. OWN IT, be CONFIDENT and PREPARE ahead of time for the calls. Practice with a spouse or friend and write down potential questions they will have for you and embed the answers in your brain. You MUST come across as a PROFESSIONAL that knows exactly what you're doing and be able to act as if you've been doing it for years and that it's second nature to you. That confidence is EVERYTHING in any business.

    Once you have a client no matter how long you've had them and they call requesting a shoot which usually goes like this "Hi I'm wondering what you have available early this week?" and my answer is always "what day works best for you?". Whether or not you can squeeze them in on the day they request, that answer makes them feel you're on their team and afterwards if you absolutely can't fit them on the day they need (which you do your best to do even if it means working late) then the next day they're ok with because they now feel good about your first reaction. Instead if they ask and you say "oh man I'm SOOOOOO busy let me look at my schedule…..hmmmm, how about friday" that answer is going to piss them off to put it bluntly because you've given them no options or control. In other words let them think they are in control of your schedule and you'll have a best friend or you can make them feel like every time they call you you're complaining and making things difficult and they will stop calling you I promise. Realtors are busy people too and will not feel bad for you that you are busy so act as if you're not even when you are because they have enough scheduling dramas of their own to worry about. Sometimes I'll ask them if it's ok to look at my schedule and call them right back. This gives me 5 minutes to see what I can do without having to make a quick decision I can't follow through with which is the worst thing you can do.

    LIFE / WORK balance is everything and unfortunately when starting a business on your own the scale will tip drastically to the work side. Be careful as JT points out, not to become a work-o-holic which is very easy to fall into. I personally get addicted to the creative side of the business more than the money. I see blue skies and I want to be out shooting lifestyle footage rather than kite boarding or spending the day with family or friends which is a slippery slope. Remember to keep things as balanced as you can because we only live once and need to enjoy time on the other side of the lens!

  7. I too had a business where I worked seven days a week. Looking back, that was probably the wrong approach to take even when the business was new. Time off can be just as important as time on.

    Setting regular working hours and letting your customers know what those hours are is a good precedent to set. Answering business calls late at night or on holidays just reinforces a customer's impression that you are always available and will often lead to abuse. Regular business hours do not need to be 8 AM until 5 PM Monday through Friday, but they should be set so that your customers know when you are available. There is nothing with real estate photography that could be considered an emergency. If agents know that you have regular hours when they can contact you and know what your booking lead times need to be, they will plan ahead instead of calling at the last minute.

    Good service is the cornerstone of a professional service business. Returning calls and email promptly is going to lead to more repeat business from ustomers. At the same time, interrupting the conversation that you are having with an agent or interrupting the work that you are currently doing to answer a phone call does not convey a professional attitude. Have you ever gone to lunch with a friend only to have them chat away on the phone the entire time? If your customers know that you will respond to them promptly, they will leave a message.

    I've always found that any business that consistently requires working 10 or more hours a day is not a viable business. If customers are not willing to pay what is reasonable for the work being done perhaps a reevaluation of the business model is needed. With me, if I am working more than eight hours my work tends to get very poor. I also like to have time for personal projects, learning and spending time with family and friends. What's the point of working every waking hour? Also, if I'm not completely booked for the entire week, I like to have some wiggle room in my schedule to either accommodate somebody's last-minute needs or extra time to work on completing commissions that were more difficult than originally anticipated. There is a practice with hotels where they will advertise they have no vacancies but, if a "platinum" customer were to ask for a room, one would be available.

  8. WOW, 24/7, at a realtors beckon call, what a life!
    I hate to be the fly in the ointment, but there is more to life. If I were to guess, the “package at a discount” barely compensates you for your efforts. At the end of the next 10 years where will you be in regards to the important things in life, relationships?
    As someone that will be eligible for social security in a couple of years, I can say with absolute certainty: be careful of how you invest your time and energy, you do not get any more.
    Remember what Cat Stevens said in his song “Cat's in the Cradle”:
    “And as I hung up the phone, it occured to me
    He'd grown up just like me
    My boy was just like me

    And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon
    Little boy blue and the man on the moon
    When you coming home son, I don't know when,
    But we'll get together then, dad
    We're gonna have a good time then”

  9. Great blog with tons of valuable advice!

    I hate to be the fly in the ointment, but that song is not by Cat Stevens, its by Harry Chapin.
    Not sure how you got that mixed up, just because it has "Cat" in the title, doesnt mean Cat Stevens sang (or wrote it)

  10. I also hate to be a fly in the ointment, but the song " Cat's in the Cradle" was a poem written by Harry Chapin's wife Sandy and put to music by Harry.

  11. Great tips here. Especially the bit about being friendly, and genuine, and making the homeowners comfortable. This does get back to the realtor, and goes a long way to building trust. As for being available most of the time, I think the majority of us have our smartphones with us much of the time, so answering emails or texts regarding booking 7days a week does not seem that bad to me. I am curious what Matt would charge for photos and a two minute video. I'm not asking for an exact amount, as I am sure it varies job to job somewhat, but perhaps a ballpark figure? Under a thousand dollars, or more, or much more? It seems to me that shooting stills and a video would take at least 5-6 hours, or more, just to shoot. I'm guessing at least another entire day or perhaps more, to then do the necessary editing.

    Lastly, I would just like to comment that I really like Matt's video style. I have been looking at many different real estate video styles, and his style of shooting with a mix of dolly, or slider shots, mixed with a few panning and locked off shots thrown in to the mix, is exactly what I will be offering soon. I would perhaps add a few small jib shots into the mix too. That, and keeping video's at two minutes or less. Less is more when it comes to video…

  12. Hello Matt - couldnt agree more with what you are saying about video - I am the ONLY person in my town offering it

    can I get an idea of your pricing ?

  13. Great advice guys.
    What equipment you will recommend for someone who is thinking to start recording video and especially what editing software?
    I am in North Canada and there is not enough light inside in homes.

  14. @Ken - Unfortunately realtors don't have set hours. This business runs on the same time frame as realtors and there's no changing that. I never receive calls late at night ever, but do get the odd text which is no problem at all. If you can make set hours work for you, well you're very lucky. When I go on holidays I let my clients know to email me to make bookings upon my return. Replying to a few emails each night is no problem for me at all and takes very little time and keeps me in contact with my clients always when I'm away. I get emergency shoots pop up every now and then but all my clients respect me, so they never abuse that. I would never let a phone call interrupt what I am doing or if I'm talking to someone. I will make damn sure I call them back immediately though. The point I'm making is that fast replies to texts emails and phone calls is essential to stay in the business. You say "I’ve always found that any business that consistently requires working 10 or more hours a day is not a viable business". I couldn't disagree more with you on this. I'm talking about getting started here and any successful business requires this and more. Every waking hour is required to get established because I'm not saying you will be working every hour, but when you're not working you're developing marketing materials or educating yourself on software and on and on. Do you think Mark Zuckerberg only spent from 9-5 each day developing Facebook? Strong example I know, but shows my point. Time is valuable as is speed of getting the company off the ground. Down the road there will be time to sit back and relax and live life which is the MOST important thing absolutely. But to build the company I'm sorry there has to be time sacrifices.

    @Rohnn - Nobody said 24/7. Balance is everything and in 10 years from now I will be successful in life because I accomplished the things I set out to do. I make sacrifices but make up for them in other ways. I travel often in down times and make the most of time off with family and friends. I have zero stress yet run a busy schedule during peak times. I have no stress because i am my own boss and truly LOVE what I do. It doesn't feel like work at all. I get excited with every shoot and video as it comes together and stay up late not because I have to, but because I want to. I do appreciate your comments though and hope others read it because you're right, we only get one kick at life and never would I want to be on my death bed with regret and that is how I have always lived my life.

    @Christian and Dave - You guys crack me up.

    @Tony - Thanks for your comments and questions. I appreciate your understanding that sharing my rates on here is not the right place but I will give you a ball park. It's under a thousand for video and stills. It should be over a thousand, but it's all about pricing it to the market and that is what I have done with new changes coming this year for add ons like lapel mic on camera intros and script writing and voice overs which will be extra add ons. As for time, I am on site for 1.5 hours for an average shoot. 2 hours MAX total for photos and video. I move very fast and have a system that I've worked out seamlessly. Efficiency is key and this year I will hire a student to shoot with me cutting my time in half on site. Editing is the time consuming part and the more you edit the faster you will get. My first video took me almost 10 hours to complete but now I have a very fast computer and have edited a lot of videos so I can complete one in about 2 hours from start to finish. The script writing takes about 30 min and voice over about 5 min. My first script took me 3 hours to write so you get the point that at first you're going to lose your shirt on time, but as you get better, you have more free time. I shoot with combination of slider and jib and sometimes steady cam and that's it.

    @Jerry - To me, my work is a highlight of living and I really mean that. I enjoy my work immensely so I feel I'm benefiting from every hour of every day no matter what I'm doing. I spent 11 years working as a graphic designer where I became jaded and bitter. I had the same outlook where work was only a means of allowing me the other 16 hours of not working. After work and sleep we only have 8 hours a day to ourselves and of those 8 we only really get 4-5 useful hours if we're lucky not including weekends. We are all different but I personally always knew that working in a job I didn't like or couldn't have a creative outlet through was not the life for me. Since making that change, life has been better in every way!

  15. So much fantastic wisdom and advice on all of the replies.

    Thank you all for pitching in and sharing, especially to Matt. Couldn't thank you all enough!

  16. I agree Matt and since I love what I do, I don't consider it work. I have found though that if you have others in your life, they may not share the same feeling and want you to spend time with them. We have all heard of the absentee parents in kids lives, those that spent all their time at work. I just want to point out that if there are others in your lives, don't forget them.

  17. @Chad - My pleasure. I wish I was able to find the same advice when first starting so to be able to share what I can is great.

    @Jerry - Couldn't agree more. Keeping a balance is key and hiring help is my number one priority this year which will allow me to step back a little bit. I'm going to submit applications with the government subsidy programs offered and see if I can't get a student to help and not have to break the bank training him or her. Life, family and friends are the most important thing!

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