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Should You Work As a Contract Real Estate Photographer?

Published: 17/05/2017

John asks:

I am an aspiring photographer but I'm trying to decide if its worth it for me or not. I have tried to contact some of the regional real estate photography companies to contract shoot for them but I can't get a good read on the photographer compensation. How much do real estate photographers usually charge when contracting? Do we charge by a percentage and if so what percentage would be normal to ask for? Or is it more common to charge a flat fee?

Great question! I doubt you will find a simple answer to the question you are asking because there isn't one simple answer. The answers are all over the map. I talk to people frequently that are getting paid an outrageously small amount of money to do contract shoots for other companies. The beginning photographer with no experience typically does not set the terms and conditions of working as a contract photographer.

The underlying problem is that there just isn't much profit margin in real estate photography. When you get two parties splitting the profit the real estate photographer looking to make a decent living, is frequently unhappy with the arrangement. I'm not saying it can't be done. I'm just saying that I run across a lot of unhappy contract real estate shooters.

The obvious motivation for someone new to the real estate photography business to work as a contract shooter for someone else is to avoid the hassle of marketing and post-processing. As John says "Keep the hassle to a minimum and still make a few bucks."

But the fact is learning to shoot real estate or how to sell your services to listing agents just isn't all that difficult! Sure, being and an independent real estate photographer takes time and some hard work but the experience of thousands of people out there doing it shows that it's very doable. Here are a couple of data points to back up my assertion:

  1. This poll I did a few months ago shows that over 90% of PFRE readers are independent real estate photographers.
  2. Christian Knutti in Youngstown, OH is one year out of High School and grossing 5 figures. See Christian's success story here.

So the bottom line is you can contract to shoot for someone else who is likely to want you to sign a non-compete agreement and give them 30% to 50% of the shoot price or be independent and work for yourself and make more.

Instead of working as a contract real estate photographer for someone else I urge you put a little more time and effort into the job and be independent. In the long run, you will be glad you did!

Larry Lohrman

7 comments on “Should You Work As a Contract Real Estate Photographer?”

  1. I am sure there are advantages and disadvantages of being a Contract or Independent Photographer.

    I do see however a lot of series issues with being independent that I believe will give Contract Photographer more freedom and even more flexibility than being on your own as Independent.... I'd love hear hear other Photographers comment on my thoughts...

    I am an Independent Photographer and work with my wife as Team, but all of our Post-Processing is being done by our Processing Team… which I still have to manage.

    The problem is:
    1. We CAN'T get sick.... . Why? someone may ask... , because if our clients depend on our reliability and they expect to get Photos and Presentations as promised... Next Business Day.
    If one of us gets sick, we then let those agents down…. that count on us and would make them look bad to their clients… who count on them. There is a lot of money on the line for the agent… listing commission which is in thousands of $ and those sellers are not easy to find and sign contract with… .
    2. If we want to take vacation…. we need to “close all operations”… we let them down.
    3. At the peak times…. about 5 months out of the year, we both work too hard, because I don’t want my clients to be forced to go to a competitor, and then…. we may not have this client at the slow time of the year, when schedule is not completely full.
    4. Even thought I have my Post-Processing Dept… I still have to worry about what and how things are happening.

    Taking photos of the property takes less than an hour and post processing takes another 2.5 - 3 hrs…. at least that’s how it works for us.
    Quality Real Estate Photography is advertising my company, creates more business for my Agent clients and also quality photography makes everyone feel good…. Photographer, Agent, Homeowner…. everyone is a winner, but… it does take time and expertise.
    I just know that there are so many photographers that want to… make that extra income and their quality of photography suffers, what then makes it harder to keep the client/agent they have so…. the fee they end up charging is much less and become the… back up photographer if their primary photographer is busy.

    I think at the end, lots of Real Estate Photographers could have a better quality life… just working around 8 hrs per day in the season and probably half or so in off season, but still earn living income.

    I maybe getting old, but I believe working “normal hours”… around 8hrs per day with minimal amount of stress and making decent pay (I think 65k - 80k is decent in MA where we work), being “able” to get sick from time to time without worrying about business, being able to take vacation time…. would be a great way to live and enjoy the only life we have.

    I am also originally from Europe where majority of the people Work… so they can live, rather than Live…. for the purpose of working.

    P.S. In all honesty… I still can’t figure out what would be the best Pay/Work structure and setup so… there is a Win-Win for Photographer and Company.
    I’d love to hear any suggestions and maybe successful stories of a Win-Win Photographer - Company Pay-Work setup.

  2. The problem with the "contract" photographer setups is that there is nothing that the "company" can bring to the table that the photographer really needs. Running a real estate photography business is incredibly simple, I ran my entire operation off of a Dell laptop for years. That, and a stack of yellow lined notepads were my entire administrative infrastructure. Even today, it's hardly more than that - I have a bookkeeper and an accountant, but I'm my own studio manager (now, after 12 years, I've got a 4-drawer double-wide filing cabinet, too).

    People who are not used to being self-employed, or who are totally new to photography, get freaked out by things that are, in reality, very easy (insurance, billing, scheduling, etc.). As a result, they're the ones that get sucked into these arrangements, shooting for someone else. And given the low $$ amounts inherent in PFRE generally, there is very little money to spread around, so by the time the "company" takes it's cut, there's not much left for the photographer. Any photographer who has any level of skill at all can do all of that stuff on their own, and keep all the money, and the good ones figure that out pretty quickly, resulting in high turnover for the company. This deprives the company of two crucial things: stability, and quality (they're constantly having to recruit from the bottom, as their best photographers figure out that they're getting shafted and leave). Thus, there's little they can compete on other than price, driving an ever-downward spiral as the quality of their offerings goes down because they don't have the revenue to pay for better photographers. The companies try to push back against that by beefing up the post-production routines, which is why we see so much over-processed photography that makes every single house look identical -- hardly a way to "stand out" from the competition. They then try to "sell" that back to the photographers they recruit (who mistakenly believe that photography is all done on the back end). Meanwhile, the photographers are realizing that they could strike out on their own and because they'd be bringing much better product to the table, they'd command a higher fee than even the company was charging (and again, keeping all of it).

    Worse, the photographers themselves are harmed by the arrangement - since they're often reduced to doing nothing more than dropping a tripod in the corner of the room, spinning the zoom ring "all the way wide" and shooting a sequence of auto-brackets. That's the sum total of the "photography" they're allowed to do, even the post-production is taken out of their hands.
    As a result, they never see the process through to a finished image, never get the chance to hone their skills to the point that they (and the company) could compete with the independent operators who are bringing a much more sophisticated human element to the shoot. And for gosh sakes -- where's the fun in all this? I don't think anyone dreams of becoming a photographer like that. People want to be photographers because they want to be creative and produce beautiful pictures, the kind that they themselves admire. That's not going to happen under the constraints of someone else's protocol.

    Days off, vacations, busy periods -- none of those are deal-breakers, unless you're a "Company". Sure, I expect Starbucks to be open, and serve me coffee, even when the regular barista gets sick, but the individuals I deal with, like my plumber, my mechanic, my doctor and lawyer are "allowed" to take vacations and have sick days. I don't hold that against them, and my RE agent clients always encouraged me to take time off, too.

    The blunt truth is, it's very difficult to see what the purpose of "photography brokers" is other than to vacuum money out of the system, away from the photographers and towards the company.

  3. Scott sums it up perfectly - you are far ahead working on your own - in every way. Perhaps look at your shooting/processing set up. I think the key is spending more time on the shoot and getting it as much as possible in-camera, and less in post production. Wrestling an image (or set of brackets) in post vs getting it during the photo shoot is a lot more work and in my opinion not as great a result. I've been shooting a combination of brackets and bounced flash and am moving toward multiple lights and getting it 95% or more in-camera. I spend 1-1.5 hours per average shoot and 2- 3 hours on stills & Video shoots. More when it's a developer/commercial shoot, with much higher fees.

    My son does my editing and is learning to shoot. Yes we worry about clients not having to wait long. My clients trust me and appreciate how I work and almost always leave me keys or let me in and leave. I work alone or with the homeowner if they happen to be home but usually not - my clients know it's easier to work quickly when I'm alone. Most places have been staged or well prepared for the shoot, but I will move small things when necessary.

    Holidays and sick time can be challenging - to solve this I and another photographer will back up each other when a client can't wait. He and I trust each other.

    It is indeed a simple business to run - do the best work, offer great service and be organized - no need to work for low pay for someone else.

  4. Scott brings up a very good point. If you are working as a contract photographer for a company that does the editing of the images, you won't pick up those skills. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, there just isn't a good way to get an image finished in the camera with the gear you have. This means that you have to know the editing process so you can shoot the exposures you need to make the editing fast and easy.

    Sick days, vacations, doctor/dentist appointments; it's just like already being booked for the day. You let your customers know that you aren't available. If you are sick, you just have to do your best to reschedule anything already booked and make an outgoing phone message that tells people that you will be out for a couple of days to get over a flu/cold/mullygrubs. Vacations are something you schedule in advance, so not an issue. Take your longer holidays in the off-season if you can. The period between (US) Thanksgiving and Christmas is a wizard time to visit Europe. It's cold(er), but often less packed with other tourists and deals can be had.

    A contractor may drop you down their list if you take any days off and if there is somebody else they use in the same area, you will be splitting the available jobs with them whether you are better (technically and service-wise) or not.

    Running a simple business is simple. There is no law that you have to do your bookkeeping a certain way or hire a CPA. It is a service business so you need to be proficient at making personal connections and marketing yourself. If that's hard for you, it may be a good thing to bring in somebody else to help you out like a spouse of BF/GF for some moral support while you get better at cold calling.

  5. It is so interesting that so many photographers talk about how important it is to do post-editing of their own Photo Shoots rather than hiring a quality post-processing company and at the same time.... you look at their own website and photographs.... are not processed correctly.... .

    I feel that if Photographer is looking to spend his/her time doing Real Estate Photographs, end up with top quality finished product and don't have to worry about all the extra problems that are a part of doing your own post-productions work and save sooooo much time at the same time..... they can get a quality life.

    Yes... I understand that there maybe Real Estate Photographers that just want to "play" and "have fun" and "study and learn" post-processing... they should be doing it on their own, but.... at least those photos should be a TOP quality photos and not what I so often see on Real Estate Photographers websites.

    I love to meet with agents... have some chats about work, life, real estate, etc.... take Photographs in 1 hr or less and then... without me doing any post-processing work, deliver, in my case, 6 - 7 highest quality photography projects, with Slideshows, YouTube Slideshows, Single Property Website, etc... to their client.

    I am happy (no post processing), Agent his happy.... top quality photography, homeowner is happy... they love what they see and.... I am making money.

    I think that if Photography is that incredible hobby that someone want to do and want to spend their extra time on "playing with it"... that's GRAT! That's what they should be doing, but.... if Real Estate Photography is work that can be combined with lots of pleasure, meeting new people, agents, clients... and make decent income to provide for themselves and their families and... have some time..... I think lots of people would "kill" to have just that.

    So many people struggle to make 40 - 50k... what's wrong with making 50 - 80k doing what is... a "dream job" to so many... .

    I had so many people saying... I quote "I'd love to do what you do".... .


  6. I think there could be a good contractor photographer arrangement.
    I have started on my own little over 2 years ago and due to my dedication to quality our operations expanded rapidly, today I have 2 photographers, 2 videographers, 2 post processors and 2 video editors working for me. I have separated photography from editing as I want my photographers what I never had, a piece of mind at home when they are done with a shoot. They do not have to deal with scheduling, invoicing, marketing, etc., they just do what they do best and then go home and have a life.
    I make sure to pay them well as I don't want them to have to look for any other jobs on the side for a good life. All my contractors have been with me for over a year and they are happy with our arrangements.
    They can go on a vacation and they will have their position there when they come back.
    I do believe that photography and video is an art form and most artist would not want to deal with the business part, and they shouldn't. Everyone in my operation does what they does best and only that.
    I am the only one of course who knows how to do everything and the one who jumps in when there is a gap to fill. And the only one who does not have his mind off of the business at any given moment. At this point I still enjoy it. My goal is to expand the operation to a level when I can hire someone who takes over most of my work. Then I will fully take my evening off.
    Until then, I enjoy every moment of building my business while making all my contractors and all our clients happy. This make me happy! 🙂

  7. I have been self employed for almost 30 years as a commercial real estate appraiser. I agree with Scott and Ken; if you have never been self employed then the fear of the unknown is the first hurdle. But, I believe now is the best time in our history to be self-employed!
    When the housing market crashed in 2005, I decided to downsize my appraisal business and turn a photography hobby into a business. I am constantly amazed at how social media and technology puts information and tools at our fingertips. I used to spend $$$$ for yellow pages, classroom and membership in trade organizations. Now, I use social media to advertise and build a peer-network, and learn skills from youtube video channels, e-books and sites like PFRE. I started photography using film, and learning photography was a bit pricey. With digital photography, one can learn the trade with modest equipment, and practice shots over and over for a few pennies!
    The business-end of things is also made easier with technology. I use online quicken for billing, and have an the same accountant and CPA for taxes once per year that I have had for 25 years. Google mail and calendar, and smart phone task and to-do apps keep it all in place.
    Early on, I was invited to contract with a large national tour company. In exchange for part of the shoot fee, the company provides marketing for the photographer and provides a platform for realtors to order photo work from the contract photographers. I understand there are many the corporate / photographer relationship can work and I was exposed to only one. But, I have formed a few opinions on this topic.
    One downside I noted from my experience is that corporate owners are not photographers; these companies specialize in providing the technology that provides a photo presentation platform, web-syndication, photo ordering system and customer support. And, real estate agents are not photographers, and don't understand the photography business anymore than photographers understand the complexities of being a broker. The real estate agent is given a list of corporate photographers from which to choose along with each photographers price, so price-shopping is the first step in the photography order. Also, the corporate companies often offer volume discounts to large real estate firms, which fix the price for photos, often at a lower point than the photographer's lower price point.
    The end result is that the photography technology company tends to compete in the real estate photography market on price, not value. This leaves the corporate photographer in an interesting, position. The photographer must become competent in photography and compete with the best photographers in that area, but the corporate structure limits the ability of the photographer to grow fees.
    I have been told by corporate photographers that if one expects a reasonable hourly return then one must become very efficient at the process of photography and post, and be able to compete in terms of service and quality in the market (this means be very fast and very good at the same time.) I know several very good photographers who have at least a part of their business in the corporate structure. One reason for a few is that their realtor clients are members of the corporate company and enjoy the ease of ordering photos from the corporate site.
    The corporate photographer should be able to shoot independent of the corporate structure. As the photographer become known in that market, clients will ask for a shoot for MLS photos only with no tour or add-on fees, or a shoot of property that does not fit the on-line tour, or shoot commercial work where there end product is not an online tour. If the corporate contract does not allow independent shooting the photographer may find themselves severely boxed-in. In this last point it is critical for the photographer to know all aspects of photography and post processing, isn't it? Even in my limited experience, I have had to make particular edits where communication with a 3rd party processor would feel clumsy, and I have photographed proprietary property where vending out post is not possible. If I was not able to do my own post, it would limit even my new and small business.
    (another topic - for another time - is the corporate contract that creates and independent contractor relationship with the photographer in wording, but attempts to have employee-like restrictions in practice)
    I have read in this thread the great points of working under a corporate contract, and for vending out post and I am sure for many this is a great way to do business. But this is a key point to being self employed; you get to choose the past you walk!

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