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Should You Photoshop The Grass In Real Estate Photos?

Published: 06/12/2012

I got an anonymous question today about photoshopping the grass in listing photos. Here is the question:

How far can retouching go before it becomes dishonest and a misrepresentation? The images in question (one of which is the one to the right) show VERY obviously fake PS grass, to the point where it is almost carpet-like. I agree with sky replacements, and slight adjustments (missing light bulbs, hanging TV cables etc etc) but this just looks way over the top to me. The real estate agent who obviously approves of the practice. I was recently in the area and passed by some the properties to view the lawns for myself and found them to be NOTHING like they were in the pictures! and in some cases almost non-existant. I can deal with filling in a few patches and lifting the green, but to me these images are way over the top.

This is a very common question and point of discussion. We've discussed many times on this blog for at least the last 6 years. After doing a couple of posts on this subject I decided to create an Ethics page where I've summarized the attitude of commenters on the general subject subject of photoshopping listing photos. There's a link to this page on the right side-bar under the title "Other Links".

There is no black and white answer. It is generally not standard practice in real estate photography to modify permanent features like power lines, antennas or power poles and physical property features. But when it comes to modifying impermanent or semi-permanent features like landscaping (grass, bushes and the like) there is a variety of opinion. Some will argue that grass and bushes are seasonal and it's not a big deal to Photoshop them and some will vehemently take the other side of the argument. I feel especially qualified to present the fact that opinion is split on photoshopping grass because my wife, the 26 year real estate agent in the family, is usually on the other side of this argument than I am. She has asked me to do this kind of thing many times. As the family Photoshop guy, I resist, argue and sometimes do what she wants and sometimes weasel out of it.

I think as real estate photographers it's important to understand that in the end it's the listing agent that is responsible for deciding where the line is in photoshopping listing photos. Don't loose a client over refusing to Photoshop grass (as the anonymous questioner did) if you are asked to Photoshop grass, document the fact that you were requested to do so and take care of business. You are not victimizing the buyer my modifying the grass. What buyer is going to buy a property without seeing it in person!

Larry Lohrman

15 comments on “Should You Photoshop The Grass In Real Estate Photos?”

  1. First, Larry, you are a brave man to weasel out of your wife's requests (a/k/a demands). 🙂

    Altering the photo - grass in this case - creates a delima that ultimately comes to the core reason for outstanding real estate photography. It is not to sell the home as no photography can do that. Rather it is to get people to the home and it's job is done, as it hands off to the staging, which then supports the sales presentation of the Realtor. Just because you take a publication quality of a kitchen, master bath or bedroom is not misrepresentation when they arrive and there are stacks of dirty dishes, unmade bed, and razors and toothpase on the counter. The photography presents in the best possible light...a chamber of commerce moment.

    That said, there are limits of which photoshopping in the 9th green at Bay Hill for a front yard (buy Arnold Palmer's house and you can look at it from your back patio) or putting in new landscaping. Such major material changes better be there when the home sales. In such situations, that is one of the few situations where I offer to do a free reshoot of the front AFTER the resodding or landscaping is completed.

    In keeping with the 'chamber of commerce' moment - I'm in the Sunshine State, so overcast skys are suddenly blue. Likewise with grass. Unlike northern fescues and Bluegrass that stays green all year but prone to funny white stuff, southern grasses turn brown at first frost. Worse, brown grass tends to date a listing when looking at the picture in July. Locally, brown grass lasts about two months, so arguable, it may be a misrepresentation to present it brown as it exists 1/6 of the year. Most people don't think of the reverse as misrepresentation. That said, my grass greening is limited to hue adjustment, turning the EXISTING blades of grass green as it would be with spring warmup, or the first rain following a drought. About the only time I have cloned grass from one area to another is when the sign company got there before me and had to remove the real estate sign (branding), or one instance where a sprinker system was put in and the trench lines had not grown over yet. It really gets to be a judgement call.

  2. Agree with both although I think you do what you are hired to do within reason. Turning existing grass to its best season color seems fine. Virtual resodding of large areas seems borderline unethical without disclosure or indication the property will be improved in such a manner prior to sale. In portrait photography retouching... my goal has always been to make a person's face look like they are well rested and at there very best, not 20 years younger, although I will do what I am hired to do. For the most part this isn't journalistic photography where even the smallest truth matters.

  3. I personally think its fine. It is just marketing. It is NOT a disclosure of the property. If someone doesnt look at the property with their own eyes or a representative of theirs then thats their own fault.

  4. I'm with Larry, my job is to create an interest. Its the agent who sells the house. That said, finding that line where editing makes the property look like it really doesn't -- can get to be pretty wide. I once shot a house where in the front yard sat two telephone poles and all the wires from Knoxville seemed to congregate right there. The agent wanted them out; I told him it changes the whole property but this is what he badly wanted, so I, with an understanding that if anything falls from this its all on him. This was a couple years ago, he didn't turn out to be a regular client, and nothing ever came from removing power poles and lines. My regular, all the time guys, are also my friends who I can talk to about the reality of altering images so much that its a different property, so when we have a problem of distractions in the scene we can come to some compromise, I can alter to the point the property looks like itself but without some of the distractions -- also I find if I spend a bit more time looking at the scene I can Sometimes, find angles that really aren't that obtrusive and I can make editing changes that really aren't that big a deal, again sometimes. As far as providing grass, I have no problem filling in patches but when it starts making the property look not-real, not like itself, I do speak up, this is when that line starts to widen, and I have to decide how important that customer is to me, or maybe how this might come back on me. I'm dealing now with a new client who wants the front exterior shots to be the only property seen in the picture, lately its been small homes or condos, in tight neighborhoods, I'm hoping when she sees how this limits me to what actual outside front picture I can take she'll realize it might not be helping her efforts. I want to be honest in all my dealings and in all my property pictures, I don't mind making grass a little greener, but sometimes, albeit, its kinda hard to tell a client that I don't want to put grass in their dirt front yard (or even the back yard) cause it makes the picture different from whats really their and would probably piss-off a possible buyer when they see they've been deceived.

  5. To me, real estate photography (from the marketing aspect) should follow these two rules:

    1. Get customers to the house!

    2. Don't piss them off when they get there!

    If you walk the fine line of drawing customers without driving them away once they see the actual condition of the home, then you have done your job as a marketing strategist.

    Ethics aside, I agree with Jason that it is up to the customer to make the informed decision. If you green up a dead lawn and the house sells, then apparently that customer didn't find the lawn to be a major selling point. But if you do the same thing on the next house and a potential customer walks away from the deal once they realize that it will take $5000 to get the actual lawn looking like the picture, you will have a very angry agent on your hands and potential loss of future business.

    I personally prefer err on the side of reality. Others may do the opposite and find success, but eventually they'll get burned.

  6. To say that materially altering the property is fine because it's "marketing" is ridiculous. Realtors have to be aware of what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to representing or misrepresenting a property. The listing agent and the sellers have to deliver what's represented. If the agent says the roof is new, it had better be or the agent is buying a new roof. If they post pictures of lush landscaping an thick green lawns, they need to be in that condition upon visit of the property. In my opinion, the only exception would be seasonal changes or what could naturally occur. It you shoot the home in July, it's not going to look the same in November. No homebuyer or their Realtor wants to feel deceived when they arrive at a property. It's a sure way to get them to back out of the driveway and never even look at the rest of property, and the rest of the property may be what could have sold them on the home. I wont' materially alter an image of a home's interior or exterior without asking if they are willing to correct in the home what I'm going to correct digitally. If they answer is "no" I won't do it or they have to sign a very stern release that says they asked me to do it, knowing it was wrong, and they release me from any sort of responsibility.

    I view this in the same regard as the homeowner not having their home ready for a photo shoot. I don't want to move trash cans, dog toys and underwear before the shoot and I don't want to correct your poorly watered lawn and trim your bushes after the shoot. If you're going to sell your home, make it sellable. If you're the listing agent, make the homeowner give you a product you can sell.

  7. I'm in the camp that it's ok to green up the grass a bit.

    But here's another question, that I wrestle with more often. What do you do when an agent asks you to touch-up carpet stains that they PROMISE will get taken out by the carpet cleaner who's coming before the open house?

  8. Kevin, I had that issue and I did remove the stain, because the agent promised it would be taken care of, and it was. I have also added grass to some brown spots. One agent asked me to remove the large air conditioner compressor from the backyard which had been obvious from one angle. Instead, I just cloned the existing bush next to it a little higher and made the unit less obvious. I am very concerned about deceiving the buyer, but, I always confer and voice my opinion as to what might come back to bite the agent in the butt if they are not honest.

  9. it depends a lot. grass is a feature of the property. just like a wall or something else. the sky isn't. if you photoshop the grass and the buyer is going to see the property without it it will feel like he was fooled and he will never buy it.
    also grass might be a big issue. yards of grass cost a lot to plant and grow.
    so it depends. I would say if there's grass in a large area with some missing spots then it's ok to cover it since nature will do the job anyway. but if there's just a small area with grass and a large one without then that's a very bad idea to artificially plant grass.
    There's always the basic rule of using common sense but the problem is when people abuse it.
    but then if you are a real estate photographer aren't you supposed to do what you are told and paid for? why refuse to make some edits if it's the agent paying and taking all the responsibility for it?

  10. I try to present a house in its best light. Generally I will quickly get rid of branches and leaves on the lawn. In early spring, I will make the light pale green darker, as it will be in a few weeks. I won't fill in big bare patches. I think that it is a dis-service to make a barren front yard look lik a putting green, the potential customer will only be turned off by the deception and take it out on the agent.

  11. On the case of removing stains from carpets on a promise, I insist on an email or something in writing to protect my self before I change, and major "grass" altering I tend to put text on the bottom to the effect of "grass digitally altered" or "grass digitally added". This way potential buyers can see the potential in the property and not be so disappointed in arriving to viewing and be faced with a "manky" yard expecting a lush brochure look.

  12. I with Larry on this one, leave the decision up to the agent as to how much editing he/she wants. In the end its the agents listing, and they are the only one responsible for the listing... if problems arise he/she will be the one dealing with them.

    I find far to many agents who are ignorant when it comes to the time involved in the photoshop editing process. I have been a shoot where the agent was so lazy, rather than move his car out of the driveway, he said "oh you can just photoshop my car out cant you"? I have been at countless other shoots when agents ask if I can just photoshop out because they are too lazy to move or remove the item.

    Once you start charging them for every edit, and having a min charge even if its something that takes 2 quickly find that they rethink what is necessary, and often get off their ass and move/remove it during the shoot.

  13. Pictures make the Realtors phone ring. We shoot a lot of Bank Owned homes that have nothing but dirt for lawn and the agents have us photoshop grass in. Not because the home has bad grass, but because that's what it could like like if it did. The buyer's not stupid... they realize the home doesn't have grass when they get there. It's a visual prop.

    Model homes often do the same thing. Fixing the lawn isn't going to get anyone in trouble. But replacing the cable box from the front yard might. We always have them sign an agreement stating that we're only removing items for non-marketing purposes, express our concern for misrepresentation, and then have the client sign an agreement to hold us harmless, accepting full responsibility. 99% of the time, they just say "forget it.". 🙂

  14. As I see it, my job is to take photographs of the home. It is the agents job to show and sell the home. Alterations of landscape is really just a representation of what the home could look like (as previously stated). I do believe that the photos of the homes that we all take don't represent what a buyer is 100% looking for, but to give them the visual tools to see themselves in the home. And ideas on how they put there there personal touches on it.

    That said, do you think if you photograph a home that's "tastefully" decorated for Christmas, somebody who celebrates Chanukah wouldn't be interested in seeing it. (I say tastefully, because I just turned down one shoot because the home had to be the tackiest example of holiday decor I ever saw)

  15. Most Real Estate agents (well the professional ones anyway) do not want to mislead the potential buyer. I'm 99% sure that this is a house photographed in Australia (QLD even perhaps??) and there are real estate guidelines under the REIQ that stipulate what an agent can and can't do in regards to marketing a property and the images used to sell that property. The photographer should not be persuaded by an agent to misled or breach the Real Estate Agents Code Of Ethic and the photographer should familiarise themselves with such guidelines. As they say "caviaete emptor" "let the buyer beware" or "let the real estate photographer/agent beware" The threat of losing business from the agent recommending your services has happened to many of us before, usually the agent does not last long in the business though.

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