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The Business of Real Estate Photography is Based on Simple Math

I've been reading Michael Lewis's latest book Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World. In it Lewis researches the cultural background of the recent financial meltdowns that we've been happening all over western civilization. Like Iceland, Ireland, Greece, and United States. There's a common thread in every one of them: we all want to do just look at things in the short run, despite the fact the math doesn't work in the long run. We tend to not even do the math until everything goes to hell. Then we are surprised.

I see this same thing happening with beginning real estate photographers. The facts are that:

  1. First and formost a real estate photographer must be a good business person.
  2. Every business must be grounded in math: Profit = income - expenses. You must be continually working to understand what your actual expenses are, but when you are starting out you may have to estimate until you get some actuals.
  3. The trick is fully understanding what all your expenses are both short term and long term. The short term ones are usually pretty easy to see and track: auto costs, marketing costs, computer costs, etc.
  4. The long term expenses are easier to blow off: equipment replacement costs, software upgrade costs, keeping yourself educated, business insurance, health care, retirement. You can get by ignoring these in the short run, but in the long run they will bite you in the ass! The classic one is, "I don't have to include health care in my shoot price because my spouse's company covers health care". Oh yea, what happens if your spouse looses their job next week?

The biggest struggle for beginning real estate photographers is resisting the pressure from agents that say, "oh I can't afford that much". The fact is agents fully understand and recognize when you are charging too little to be covering your expenses. Listing agents work with other contractors all the time and fully understand what contractors charge in their area to come to a home and spend 2 hours there. But are they going to say, "... I think you should be charging more". No, most will not. You must be hard ass with agents and look out for yourself. Take the time to understand what other contractors (furnace maintenance, window washing, house cleaning, fix-up, etc) charge and how the work you do relates to what other contractors charge.

Decide exactly what's covered in your shoot price and write it down. When an agent hires you the first time have them read and initial your terms of service statement. This is exactly what they do with their clients.

Frankly, there are a lot of lower-end struggling agents that you don't want to work with. Don't be afraid to move on when you need to.

15 comments on “The Business of Real Estate Photography is Based on Simple Math”

  1. Just had the Sears appliance repair guy come out to fix my dryer. He's local, and charged $130 JUST FOR THE TRIP HERE. Service costs were extra.

    Why anyone would expect a photographer to drive 30 minutes, maybe more, and shoot a house for $100 is beyond me. You definitely need to pay attention to the real world out there! Everybody else is covering their expenses..... and people are paying it!

  2. Good article Larry.
    I have been looking at the pros and cons of getting into RE photography and the numbers are quite chilling. Investment in a vehicle, expensive camera and computer gear etc., not to mention the technical skills required do give pause for thought.
    I don't know if comparing a furnace repair person to a RE photographer is a fair comparison because you can't live without heat. However, homes sell everyday with pictures taken by point-and-shoot amateurs. In fact I would venture a guess and say that most homes are sold without the help of a pro photographer so we are talking about a small fraction of the overall market where the competition can be fierce.
    I was speaking with an RE photographer in Toronto and he said that he wouldn't go into the game without having friends or family who were RE agents willing to hire him. Otherwise it's just too much of a gamble...

    Doug Thomas

  3. Second the need to be a hard ass at times, which can be tough when dealing with usually strong type A personalities who spend a fair bit of time negotiating. Submitting to their demands and/or reducing price will eventually be the end of your business. Actually Larry, I use your example of a plumber and his costs all the time when I get into a debate about cost etc with agents. It puts an end to the discussion in fairly short order.

  4. @Fred
    Let me ask you this.....would you fix the appliance if you could do it yourself? You are comparing real estate photography to something that 90% (or more) of people cant do themselves and MUST call a pro in to do it if they want to have it working again. There is absolutely NO WAY you would pay that kind of money if there was a tool that was available that allowed you to fix the dryer yourself.

    Larry and most people continue to overlook the fact that DSLR cameras and software are allowing agents to get the job done themselves (photos and video) at only the initial cost of the camera. Yes, I know the quality may not be 100% of what a pro might be but its also not costing 150-200$ PER SHOOT that Larry continues to tell people they "must" charge. 60-70% of realtors really dont care.....the quality of the photos and/or video they take themselves is getting their listing sold. But at the RIGHT price you will find that some of those agents might use a professional simply due to convenience and to get that extra quality.

    This site is kind of odd because Larry is constantly posting the same blogs every other month telling photographers what they should be charging (or not to drop your prices etc), yet he also gives out information and instructions on how to properly take photos for real estate (and now video for real estate). I would bet 40-50% of the readers of this site are actual realtors themselves trying to gain knowledge and learn how to take photos/video themselves and NOT pay a professional (the other 56-60% of the readers).

    Cameras and software have changed this profession and also affect the pricing, allowing anyone to potentially take photos/video themselves....something that was alot harder to do 10 years ago. If you are still trying to charge prices from 10 years ago you will find your busniess in trouble. While there are the small few that can charge high (like Brett Clements, Fred Light and others),they have been in the game for along time and are dealing with the top agents already willing to pay money.

    Do you really think you can make a living trying to deal with the 5-10% of the agents willing to pay the premium pricing? remember a few points:

    1. They are already probably using a professional protographer/videographer, being new to the game do you really think you are going to convince them to leave someone they probably been using with success for years? I would love to be a fly on the wall when you try to convince one of Fred Lights clients to ditch him and use you (and pay the same prices)

    2. If you are charging the prices that Larry suggests, you are looking at probably 5-10% of the agents as potential clients....and there are 10-15 other companies if you area also trying for that same %. If you dont think that pricing can come into play and increase that % of agents that might use you, you are kidding yourself.

    3. With higher pricing agents tend to use you for only their higher end listings. If you keep your pricing reasonable you will find they potentially start to use you on all of their listings.

    Nobody is saying to slash your pricing in half, but wouldnt it make more sense to do 10 shoots a week at 100$ or 5 shoots at 150$? 25% more money a week makes more sense any way you look at it.

  5. @David...
    Did you ever think that 90% of Realtors CAN'T take a picture and the vast majority of them are in denial of that reality. Just google "Bad MLS Photos" or randomly sample what is available in your area. Do it themsselves? I am both a Realtor and photographer plus an avid DIY'er who grew up on my father's construction sites from age 6 on. My DIY projects around the home are premium quality and a far cry from what I see homeowners did, usually without a permit and all the problems that creates on a resale.

    It is true that many Realtors "just don't get it" and would never hire an photographer. Worse, some Realtors "think they get it" and hire the national firms that charge the $150 and pay the photographer $40-60 with the corresponding lack of quality. Targeting them is my current marketing push and I will keep the full $150, thank you very much. You have to look at opportunities for targeted marketing.

    It is often said that the best defense is a good offence. It raises an interesting question for those DIY Realtors taking (or purchasing) and displaying bad MLS photos. Are they misrepresenting their clients when the photos show the home in a less than favorable light or only use 1 photo when 12 are allowed and the property supports 12 or more. Consider the Realtor Code of Ethics....
    Article 1
    When representing a buyer, seller, landlord, tenant, or other client as an agent, REALTORS® pledge themselves to protect and promote the interests of their client. This obligation to the client is primary...
    Standard of Practice 1-1
    REALTORS®, when acting as principals in a real estate transaction, remain obligated by the duties imposed by the Code of Ethics. (Amended 1/93)
    Standard of Practice 1-2
    The duties imposed by the Code of Ethics encompass all real estate-related activities and transactions whether conducted in person, electronically, or through any other means.

    Article 12
    REALTORS® shall be honest and truthful in their real estate communications and shall present a true picture in their advertising, marketing, and other representations...

  6. @David, maybe that's the case in your market. In Portland it's becoming the norm for Realtors to use a pro for their photos. I agree that for the average listing, you don't need the best photographer in town, but certainly better than your average Realtor. Even if they buy a DSLR, they have no idea about metering and proper exposure or let alone composition. In you're example of 10 jobs at $100 or 5 jobs at $150, I'd much rather take the 5 jobs and spend some time on marketing. If you're working for $100, you haven't done the math or are in denial about you're actual costs.

  7. @David- A comment on a couple of your points:
    1-Yes, there are agents that shoot their own listings that are PFRE readers... at last poll about it was under 10%... see the Polls page. But the personality type that makes a great agent (promoter type) doesn't like to do tedious technical things... they like to have someone else do that.
    2-Yes, at some point when there are enough real estate photographers working an area there will be so much competition that it would be difficult to get clients in the top 10% of agents. My perception (admittedly not scientific) from helping a lot folks get started is that this isn't happening much. There are some markets like Seattle and Brisbane that are very tech savvy and agents use real estate photography heavily but they are more the exception rather than the rule. Most areas the market for real estate photography is still largely untapped.

  8. @David.

    Couple of things came to mind when I was reading your post. First off, thanks for playing devils advocate - it's good to get debate going and you raise valid points. I would like to share a couple of stories with you based on my own limited experience working in this field.

    Homeowners respond better to agents who say they hire a photographer and have a portfolio sample to prove it. This is in contrast to the agent who says "I have a DSLR and know how to use it". Why? Think of the example of the plumber, how would you respond to a plumber who in passing mentioned that he also does family portrait work? Perhaps, you might think, if the portfolio was good enough - which brings me to the second point.

    The top 5-10% of agents out there, even if they did have a DSLR, don't have the time for post processing etc. for all of the inventory they carry and demands on their time. This is part of the reason that they are the ones who are most likely to contract out that part of the job. It's not just that they can afford to and recognize the inherent value, it's also saving them a trip to the home. I am given one day codes all of the time, to houses that are sometimes 20 minutes away. 40 minutes on site plus 20 minutes, probably the average amount of time most agents spend taking pictures, equates to an hour. What is an hour worth to a top agent? $80/hour is probably not unreasonable. So from my $190 fee, subtract $80 just from the time savings alone, leaving $110 dollars left to pay for the difference in quality between their own shots and a photographer's. When you look at the fee as more than just pictures, when you examine the intangible elements of the transaction, you see that the fee recommended by Larry is reasonable and of benefit to both parties.

    I would like to elaborate on the intangible element of leverage as well. Going back to the plumber example, would you hire the plumber to take your family portraits cheaply or would you be more inclined to hire someone who does it full time for more? You would probably hire the pro unless the plumber had a portfolio that was 'good enough'. There are plenty of agents who would go for the good 'nuff approach (pick up a rebel and sigma 10-20 or an LX3) and leverage it in their presentations to home owners. This approach however, does not stand up to the agent that outsources their photography, who brings in documentation of an outside company along with a digital portfolio on a tablet. I have clients who, since using this approach, have seen their success rate in competitive listings more than double. What's that worth to our clients? Well, I have one story of a home owner who told me flat out that the reason they hired the agent was because he hired a photographer. The agent got the listing, double ended the sale, and walked away with $14,000 in commission. Is that worth the $190?

    In summary, your points are really great, but you did not take into consideration the key aspect of time. The top 5-10% of agents are the ones targeted because not only do they usually see inherent value, but they get the most out of it in terms of time savings. The top agent in my area, and one of my first clients, often emails me at 3-4 AM because he has so much backlog, then gets up at 7:30 to do it all over again, seven days a week.

    Sorry for being long winded, but I would also like to address your 3 key points for people who are new to the business:
    1. To compete with others in your area, add more value (sign riders, local area listing database, info pamphlets for your clients to include in presentations etc.) Stand out and get into the market by increasing the value of the service and product. By doing so, you add to the leverage that agents have in presentations, which is critical in today's hyper competitive industry.

    2. Perhaps in major centers you will find that kind of competition, but from personal experience, there is little in the way of competition out there. Can't really speak to this one but if it is so, look to point one - you don't always have to adjust price to be competitive. Helping agents succeed by leveraging your service will be the key to your success.

    3. Personal preference I suppose. I work 25 hours per week at 15% less income than if I worked 50 hours per week at a lower rate. There are plenty of horror stories out there about the photographer who does 5 shoots in a day, processes until midnight, and makes $150. Comes down to balance I guess.

    Anyway, thanks again for raising valuable points David. In essence, if Fred Light and Brett Clements are making top dollar, that's great and they deserve it. If some shmo in backwoods Canada (me) is making a successful business out of it charging $150-200 per shoot as suggested by Larry, what the heck makes you think it's not feasible?

  9. One aspect of this that is also important to look at is "smoke and mirrors" selling. You need to bring a lot to the table to win a listing these days - it's competitive. Sellers want every advantage. The best agents come in with all guns blazing.... dedicated single property websites, dedicated URL, QR codes on the signs, professional flyers, and a whole lot more. Those with their own websites tout they will "showcase" the property on their home page. Of course, many of these things have dubious value (most agents websites, for example hardly rank on search engines, and get little to no traffic at all. But the seller doesn't know that!). It all sounds great to the seller and helps get the listing.

    Offering to hire a PRO to come in and photograph or video a home is just one more thing in their arsenal to impress and blow away sellers. Understand one of the MAIN jobs of a listing agent is marketing - that's a main reason sellers are hiring one agent over another. Those who come to the table with the best marketing strategy usually has a better chance at scoring that listing over their competition (everything else being equal).

    One thing I will say about Realtors.... they're nothing if they're not competitive. They'd sell their first born for a new listing....

    Competition has a great deal to do with my business, for sure. In certain communities, everyone knows they MUST come to the table at a listing appointment offering my services, because they KNOW their chief competitors WILL BE. At the very least, it puts them on the same level playing field in that regard. Sellers understand the value of good photography and video - far more than Realtors do. (Most Realtors just look at what I do as yet another bill to pay....)

    So just because an agent CAN take their own photos, it LOOKS better and makes them look more professional when they offer to hire someone to come in and make a seller's home look great to enhance the sale. There's value in that! And that's just another thing a good Realtor uses to justify their commission which may not be discounted like the next guy....

    Smart agents also sell AGAINST those who don't do these things...... I created an iPad video that SHOWS the difference between a zooming "slideshow" video, a twirling, spin around "video", etc. They specifically SHOW a client what the other guy is doing to market homes, vs. what THEY will be doing. What the other agents are calling "video" and the real video that they are offering, and all of the advantages and benefits.

    Position yourself as a "marketing partner" to Realtors.... not just as someone selling yet another product to take a few bucks out of their back pocket....

  10. Not sure I agree with equating real estate photography with trades such as plumber or electrician. Real estate photography is all over the map. For trades, one goes through a period of apprenticeship, and then one needs a license. Anyone with a camera can call himself or herself a professional real estate photographer, without any training, experience, or even much in the way of visual or technical skill, and these people tend offer their services based primarily on price. On the other end of the spectrum, one may find highly experienced architectural photographers shooting high-end listings, and these people may be hired primarily based on the particular look they can provide, with price being a somewhat secondary concern. And there are many levels between these extremes. However, I don't argue with the basic premise that the numbers must add up, and that one has to know the essentials of running a small business.

  11. @David- My point about the trades that come out to your home is NOT that I'm saying real estate photography is in any way equal or comparable in any way to these trades. What I'm saying is that everyone that comes to work on your home has almost identical costs of showing up at the doorstep and most will tell you what it is. The fact is there are all real estate photographers all over that charge less per shoot that most other trades charge just to show up. Why is this? This indicates these cut rate photographers either are arithmetic impaired or they are not including all their expenses and in the long run they will not be a sustainable business.

    For example, in Seattle, it costs me $140 for a routine furnace maintenance person to drive 30 mi each way and spend about 20 minutes making sure the furnace is safe and operating correctly. So if you are a real estate photographer in Seattle and you are charging $75 or $100 a shoot you have a problem because you are NOT charging enough. And you can figure out you have a problem by just checking what other contractors are providing.

    Ya, sure, it's not a precise check, it's a check to see if your prices are in the right ball park or if they are absurdly low.

  12. This can't be that linear. Sure the price to just appear is almost a fixed cost but the work is not! Shooting a house with just a bedroom or a mansion with 10 bedrooms is not the same! I'm fan of price per photo. It's how it should be calculated. That allows you real estate photographers to get more work and more profits. It's the same with post processing, if you are doing HDR and heavily editing photos then the price must go higher.
    Don't fix your prices to just XXX$ no lower! It doesn't make any sense. Sure there must be a limit but you must be flexible. Of course top agents will hire you more for high end properties and pay you more but what about the 99% of the other agents? That's a very big market. They will hire you if they can see the difference AND IF your prices are competitive; of course in the future they'll hire you more and pay you more.
    Imo like Larry once suggested I guess, there should be a minimum established price for all photographers. But it should be reasonable for all parts.
    It's very easy to step up your prices, more photos, different levels of photo editing (so many things that can be done here), panoramic photos, video, aerial photography, home staging, copyright flexibility, slideshows, virtual tours, rush fee, DVD presentations. Or even to get more work, volume discounts like pay 10 have 1 free (it's just 10% but will do the trick for the agent and you get the money upfront)

  13. I'm a bit late posting on this thread but I have only recently discovered PFRE, being from the uk.

    The last post by Fred Light, for me, is bang on the money. Here in the UK most agents are listers, not marketers. Once they have won the listing, panic over, list it and wait for the calls to come in. It is a numbers game to them. The more they list, the more, potentially, they sell. Their priorities whilst being wrong, are also at the same time correct.

    To be r e a l l y valued, you need to be able to up their odds in the numbers game. Bringing more to the table than their competitors increases their odds of winning the listing. Better money shot in the listing increases their odds of being clicked on. Better listings increases their odds of a viewing. More viewings, more sales.

    Winning the listing though is number 1, the others are just bonuses. Winning the listing without discounting their fee, because their service is clearly superior, is the cherry on top. That should be your marketing "story".

    Once one agent in town uses you successfully to beat the competition to win instructions, the others either follow or lose. Also, curiously (I also measure and do floorplans) I have found that convenience jumps in. It is easier to use me as the agent can use pretty much all of my stuff to list. Images, measurements, floorplans all the mundane bits, better than he would have done it himself and, no hassle.

    Slightly changing the subject, most agents own scissors and know how to use them. How many cut their own hair ? . . . and . . . .who would hire an agent to negotiate the sale, of probably their largest asset, if that agent could not even negotiate his own fee successfully ?

  14. Back again, I love this subject.

    I have found big success, not with high value property, they all have fancy presentation, or at least it is expected, but with lower values.

    Just did a presentation for a pretty low end home for a new agent, gave it a pole pixie type elevated shot, got his highest ever click through rate on any single property . . . . ever. Point being it stood out from all the other listings.

    Yup, he is now using me to the extent that he has changed the way he markets himself to build me into his service.

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