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Removing Objects From Images - When To Do It And When Not To

Published: 06/03/2014

AppleGateA couple of days ago I got a link to Photoshop Product Manager Bryan O'Neil Hughes's video about some advanced features for removing objects from images.

It made me think of a shoot I did last spring for an agent in Portland that called me after the shoot and didn't like the fact that I didn't move the moveable basketball hoop and tether ball pole that was in the front shot (the stuff flashing on the right photo). He was right, it looked crappy. I should have paid closer attention and dragged both of them to the backyard before I took the shot. But I ended up dazzling him because I said, give me 15 minutes and I'll send you a new front shot without that stuff in it. I used content-aware fill in Photoshop CS6 to remove the hoop and tetherball pole,  sent him a new front shot and called him back in 15 minutes. He was very pleased and impressed, no one had ever done that for him before. I was pleased because I didn't have to make a trip back to correct my mistake.

There are many times you need to do this sort of thing so it's important to stay in practice so you can do it quickly when you need to. But there are limits. Over the years we've discussed this subject a bunch. Here is a page where I've summarized most of these past discussions. The agent is ultimately responsible for misrepresentation so make sure the agent is deciding what to modify.

Larry Lohrman

22 comments on “Removing Objects From Images - When To Do It And When Not To”

  1. Love content aware! But I think it's also important to set proper expectations. I agree that the hoop and tether ball pole shouldn't be in the shot, but I also strongly believe that the agent should educate the seller on preparing their home for the photographer. If they are worried about how their brand is being displayed, they should play a stronger role in making sure the home is ready. It's different for all clients, but my concern when photoshopping one thing out, is the continued requests to photoshop even more things out. They get lazy and just say "oh photoshop can take that out", when in fact it should be removed before the photo.

    I actually had a home that had two huge built-ins in the family room. I don't know if the home was a short sale or what, but the one built in was missing out of the wall. The agent asked if I could photoshop a new built-in next to the one that was there. Nope, sorry! The last thing I'm going to do is disregard my ethical obligations when representing a property, and I surely hope they (the agent) feels the same way!

    (And also, I simply am not good enough in photoshop to edit some things! So it makes it difficult when you try to draw a line of things I can photoshop vs things I can't. Therefore I just opt to set the expectation that I don't do it at all.)

  2. I found this somewhere along the way and put it at the bottom of every quote:

    "Photographs that are to be used to present a property for sale must comply with the Property Mis-Description Act 1991. As such, we can remove For Sale signs and other temporary objects, but we cannot touch up the appearance of the property, nor remove unsightly permanent structures or objects from either the property or surrounding environment."

  3. I try to let customers know that it's much easier to get it right in the camera than to try and fix it later in Photoshop. It's also much cheaper. I'm not a wizard in Photoshop and it takes me a while to edit complicated things out without it looking like a hack job.

    Anything permanent or semi-permanent like a satellite dish, power lines or utility boxes I won't touch. I did "install" a lawn once. The house was refurbished and the lawn was just starting poke through after being reseeded. In a short time it was going to look like the picture. I do get asked about power lines once in a while, but the most I will do is to pick my compositions to try and leave them out.

    My best weapon for not having to say "no" is to quote a very high price for the retouching. Agents that whine about the $150 to photograph the home aren't going to fund an additional $500 of Photoshop work on top of it. I'd still say no to unethical retouching if pushed.

  4. Sorry Larry, but with all due respect, I disagree. By removing the hoop and pole from the image, I think you've just raised that agent's expectations unreasonably. Now he will most likely EXPECT you to do the same whenever he thinks or feels that something should have taken away, modified or added to (i.e. "just photoshop it"). You've potentially blown out the time spent at each job moving stuff or on editing the photos afterward, and time is money. What you've done is reactive in that you're relegating control to the agent and it's likely that you'll find yourself spending more and more time editing things in or out.

    I agree with Lance that it's very important to set expectations up-front. Unless a property is vacant, I get the mobile number or email address for the owner and text or email them two pieces of information: confirmation of the date, time and place I'll be attending and a link to my web site detailing what must be done before the shoot (i.e. what should be tidied, cleaned or removed). The message of the website page states clearly that it's the responsibility of the owner and/or agent to ensure this is done. If, for example, the hoop and pole are in the picture, why wasn't it moved before I got there? If you want it changed, I'll need to charge accordingly to re-visit the property or to do extra editing. By educating owners, and agents, who's the real winner here? Owners and agents because they stand to get higher prices and quicker turnaround and because the place will be decluttered at home opens and me because I don't have to spend as much time at a property or doing editing. It's the ultimate win-win-win situation. I'm trialing a similar but cut-down version for tenants.

    I'm in the process of also giving A5 pads to agents containing the exact same wording in case the owner doesn't have internet access. Sign up a vendor, phone me (between 7am and 10pm 7 days a week) and give them the sheet, all at the same time. If they choose to ignore it, that's their choice - you and I have both tried our best.

  5. I understand that we have to balance between making a home look as attractive as possible and not misrepresent the home. Is an MLS photo expected to be a legal documentation of the home as if it were for an insurance company? Since few people buy a home based on photos alone, when the potential buyer inspects the home prior to purchase does that relieve the agent/photographer of responsibility of photo accuracy?

  6. Larry, I think you provided the agent with customer service above their expectations. You accepted responsibility for not having seen the objects when you took the shot, and fixed the issue. Regardless of who is ultimately responsible for having it removed, we should be partners to the realtors we work with, not adversaries. For when all else being equal (the quality of the images we provide), it will be the customer service we provide (or don't), that will give us the edge over our competition. They don't HAVE to work with us, they choose to, let's not forget that when things like this come up.

  7. It may be hard to believe, from my previous post, but I agree totally with Tim with regard to providing excellent customer service. I often spend more time decluttering than actually shooting. However, I've been to that many properties where the owner says something like "OK, I've taken the day off; what do you want me to do?" (and, by the way, just as many who are happy to be typing on their phone or tablet while I'm doing all the work) and I'm tempted to say "Well, the dishes in the sink might be a good start". Honestly, I've lost count of the number of home owners who don't have a clue (and I mean that nicely, because no-one's told them about the importance of decluttering).

    I recently had this same conversation with an agent and we both agreed that it was a real uphill battle to educate home owners on the importance of getting everything just right for photography. I showed him my web site advice and promised to sent it out to all owners (except in vacant property situations). He asked what he could do and I said to say to his vendors:

    “What would you say to making several thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars for a few hours work? No, nothing illegal or weird. That's the POTENTIAL difference between the sale price of a messy, cluttered house and one that’s not. Think about it - if you saw a house on real estate web sites that had stuff lying everywhere, what’s your first reaction? Most people wouldn’t even considering looking at it further. The sellers wouldn’t know they lost a possible sale. And less people interested is likely to mean a lower sale price."

    By the way, unless asked beforehand, I would have no problem leaving the hoop and tether ball pole in the shot. Presumably the property is most likely to be sold to families and lifestyle objects could be the trigger that says to potential buyers "Buy me", much like a pool, spa, entertainment area, etc.

  8. One thing we learned at Scott's seminar this week was that the agent, owner, or stager are responsible for having the shot ready for you. If they don't want it there, they should move it. That's my opnion. That said, you earned bonus points with what you did in this situation and probably earned more work out of it.

  9. Tim, I agree. In a market where competion is getting tougher by the day and agents looking for the cheapest photography available it is the little things you do for them that will make an agent stick with you when others offer their service. I overheard a phone call to one of my best clients last week when i stopped by his office, without him knowing i was there he simply answered the phone and after a minute or so simply declined service from another photographer by saying " I have my photography guy and we make a good team, so thank you for the offer but I am all set. " he chuckled when i walked in a few minutes later and said "wow, 6 months ago there were no photographers around and now i get calls from them all the time. " With that in mind i know now that I have a loyal client when it comes to other photagraphers wanting to snach him away. I do everything i can for this particular agent since he is by far the top producer in this area and keeps me busy.

    Larry, are there some advice on how to keep agents happy and stick with you. I asume some readers here have worked with agents for several years and I'm wondering what all they do to keep thier clients.

    I made a binder for two of my best agents to take with them when they go on listing appointments. I have recieved a few texts over the last few weeks thanking me for the binder. They mentioned that it sure helps to close a deal when you have that binder for them to look at. Is there other ways to help them improve their marketing and also to improve my business selling more shoots?

    Thanks everyone for all your input on all the content Larry puts up.

  10. In general if it was a bad day I would add clouds and blue sky in one front image and not charge. I don't do that anymore. I charge for touching up photos like that. Not a large charge but I do charge. They don't gripe. Like everyone said I won't alter the property. I will add a greener lawn or a lawn for a builder provided it is going to be put in or is in the midst of growing. Nature changes the scene all the time (spring, summer, winter, fall) and it's not unethical.

    The key is have them pay for it, but make it easy and reasonable and ethical. You can remove wires from lamps. You should not remove outside utility wires or poles. You can remove a picture from the wall. You should not remove mural painted on the outside of the home. You should not remove a hole in the wall. You don't have to include it in the frame.

    I also have a pamphlet called "Preparing your home for the photographer" Agents are free to print and provide it to their clients. I won't go through the expense of printing it myself.

    I have walked out of homes that were so bad they were not ready. Of course I gave the agent a chance to have me shoot they way it was for full payment or just pay for the extra trip and time and have me come back later for the real shoot. It's ok and sometimes helps the agent if you agree to play good cop bad cop with the client. That way it's the professional image maker telling them they are not ready and reminding them of the competition they are up against and how important it is for you to be able to capture the spirit and character of their fine home. Tell them it's their choice. Shoot it like it is and not be better than the competition or do a little work that will really pay off. It has worked for me recently.

  11. Great bunch of comments, I agree, it's best to make sure the agent understands they are responsible for getting the home ready to shoot. Responding to the agent the way I did is mostly the result of having spent so much time working with my wife shooting our own listings... clearly this kind of thing is not the way to run a high volume business. The agent was there when I shot this and had worked very hard with the seller to get it in top condition for the shoot.. I was mostly embarrassed that I didn't see the problem and take care of it.

  12. I too agree the agent is responsible for educating his seller to the importance of de-cluttering the home and ready for photography. I always tell my agents it’s easier and cheaper to have the property ready before hand, than to “fix it in Photoshop”. One agent asked me to remove the smoke stacks and power lines from the electrical plant across the river, which showed in the elevated image. I told him it was un-ethical, and just cropped the image tighter. Yesterday I shot a beautiful waterfront property on an island, with a new agent. When I got to the home, there were toys and dog beds all over the floors and in rooms. The agent and the home owner moved the clutter from one side to the other while I was shooting, but it took me twice as long to shoot. After leaving the property, I told the agent how nice it was meeting and working with him, but to please make sure that all properties are ready for photography in the future.
    On another note, since reading Scotts book, I have changed my shooting style and am using more lighting and shoot through umbrellas, which has helped my window blowout issues. I wish Scott was doing a seminar here in FL.

  13. Has anybody had any problems with "family photos" on walls and mantel pieces appearing and privacy issues. To over come this I ask vendors if they are present at the time of the shoot if they would like a pixelation put on the images to take out the definition of whos in those pics. Most say yes and as it only takes a couple of seconds to do in PS CS6 i recommend it purely from a privacy point of view. This can be done to certificates of a personal nature and computer screens that have anything such as data etc on them.

  14. What happens if the photographer moves an object and damages result? In other words, what if the basketball hoop falls over and breaks a window or hits the owner's car or the photographer is injured? I would be hesitant to move anything, inside or outside, that could be broken or cause damage.

  15. @curtis - yes, that's the primary reason nobody wants to touch anything. Actually using Photoshop in my case with the basketball hoop and tether ball poll was way easier and faster than moving the physical objects. This is the case with many situations. For example, my wife always wanted me to take all the photos etc stuck to the refrigerators for listing photos and put the stuff back in the same place until I showed her in a fraction of the time I could do it all in PS without touching the sellers precious stuff.

    I've also had people leave cars in the driveway that they didn't have the keys for... am I going to remove the care with photoshop or through a tantrum and piss off the seller because they didn't follow my photo-prep instructions? I'm going to use PS.

  16. In one property I did recently, there was a car right in front of the entrance and doorway, the car was locked and the keys were with the son who was out of town. The rep, who was there, asked if I could Photoshop the car out. I explained that to do so, I could clone some nearby brickwork over the car but the perspective and sizing of horizontal and vertical lines in the brickwork changed depending on the relative distance from the viewer to each area of brickwork. Sure, I could warp the cloned area but that would take many hours per photo. Plus, there were areas entirely behind the car so cloning would be impossible so the exercise could result in accusations of misrepresentation. I'm sure some people think that a single click in Photoshop can let you see what's inside a sealed box or parcel.

  17. @Ray
    I wouldn't call it a 'problem', rather a process of doing business and I frame it two ways. First I ask them is there is anything that they are particularly proud of that they want me to include. Then I follow-up with 'anything you want me to exclude.' Only had a couple of unique requests - as small items, like photos on a shelf they can remove. Automatic exclusion are things like gun safes, and if they are a protected class, like judges and law enforcement, where their home doesn't even show up in public records, special care not to photograph their name or awards with their name/picture on it. I have had a couple of request where those automatic exclusions did not apply. One had a handicapped child with his name in big bold letters spelled across his bedroom wall which I removed in post, making a blank wall above his bed. Another had a huge family portrait over the sofa in the living room that they didn't want on the internet. They were from India and I got a cheap stock landscape photo of India that complimented their décor, dropping it into the existing family photo frame.

    The common denominator in virtually every request is that none involve items that would remain with the house, or environmentally impact the house like wires and poles. About the only time I took the initiative to 'remedy' the environment like the basketball hoop above, was a home where they had just installed a sprinkler system. I 'grew the grass' over the trench lines, but it is rare as I don't want to set the expectation beyond very simple tasks - temporarily remove the home security sign or coil up a garden hose and/or hide it behind a bush, etc. Easier than Photoshopping, and while a hose strung out in the grass is easy to remove, I am liable to forget it as I quickly move through post and distracted by other post issues.

    I am very careful NOT to be too free with Photoshop adjustments where it becomes an expectation and it was reinforced a month ago. It was the first shoot for an agent who wanted to micromanage an review every shot during the shoot, but she had to leave. Then of course, she didn't like them stating I should have removed the exercise equipment (treadmill etc) from the bedroom that was functioning as an exercise room (ahhh no), and a host of other stuff - 2 walls, not 3 like she wanted but never voiced. Then of course gets personal and degrades me with "I thought I hired a photographer" and I just bit my tongue not to enflame her but wanted to say - you did, but you didn't hire a mindreader - and did offer to come back and shoot a couple of rooms for her which she declined. I shoot for several others in that same office and inquired about her learning she is extremely high maintenance and can't keep photographers or other contractors - and I will turn her down if she even asks me again.

  18. @Dave
    Great article on high maintenance clients!
    I'm currently dealing with an interior designer that is constantly asking me to perform design corrections via Photoshop. Some of these corrections have been easy like making sure the drapes are touching the floor because the contractor didn't install them correctly or I didn't mean to place that Asian vase on the end table - please remove it. My latest challenge, "could you make the stainless steel refrigerator match the other black appliances?" Good grief! Fortunately, the designer is willing to pay for these changes. She is also becoming more aware of the limitations with Photoshop. Sometimes we just have to educate our clients on expectations and limitations.

  19. Gun safes were mentioned not showing in a photo, is this a personal preference or an MLS requirement as I just included one.

  20. Hi All
    one of the things that I have tried to remove in the image is the sweep hose that is in the pool.(limited success) I would like to here the ways others deal with this issue.
    David Jones

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