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From the Archives: The Purpose of Real Estate Photos Is NOT to Sell Property

Published: 09/08/2019
By: Brandon

25_Sea_View_0164_lowresEvery so often we go into the archives and bring back an article that garnered a lot of attention and inspired some great conversation. Nowadays, there is so much more involved in real estate photography i.e., videography, 3D, floorplans, measurements, etc. and based on conversations I've had over the past few months, I get the feeling that some of us have lost focus on what our true purpose is as real estate photographers. This article is three years old but I think the topic is as relevant now as it was then; and I believe Scott's advice stands the test of time.

This is a guest post by Scott Hargis. Scott posted a version of this a couple of days ago on the post about how many photos photographers deliver on a shoot. From my personal experience working with my wife who was a top listing agent, I think this concept is right on and is important enough to be a post. (Larry Lohrman)

A few years ago, I was having lunch with a photographer friend of mine (we'll call him Josh). We get together a few times a year and catch up. He does stills, video, and manages social media for companies, individuals, and real estate agents.

Josh and I had many real estate agent clients in common, with him managing one aspect or another of their marketing, and me exclusively doing still photography. We were “talking shop” and frankly gossiping a little about the quirks and personalities of some of them, and when a particularly difficult name came up, Josh grunted and said, “That guy; he still thinks he’s in the business of selling houses.”

Josh loves to roll out these pithy little gems, and that one was so perfect that I've stolen it and used it many times since.

As real estate photographers, we do well to understand that the “real” goal of our clients, whether they know it or not, is gaining market share and getting more listings. Our photos help to market and sell a house, of course, but the obvious truth is that excellent photos are not really necessary to the process. We see many, maybe even a majority of houses on the market with truly horrendous photos… and those houses, most of them, eventually sell. The statistics are pretty clear that professional photography will sell a house faster, and for more money, but just how good do the photos need to be to accomplish that?

Not very good, it seems. Even the most basic photography seems to be enough to clear the bar and get the house sold. So why, given that, should photographers (and their real estate agent clients) want to go the extra mile and produce photos that are not just “good enough” but great? What’s the point?

The point is to be forward thinking. My best real estate clients, the ones who listed the multi-million dollar houses all the time, would do the exact same thing even when they had a $150,000 condo to sell. That crappy little condo got painted, staged, photographed, and marketed like it was a trophy listing. Why? Because my client could not afford to have ANYTHING with her name on it that didn’t look like a million bucks. Better yet, FIVE million bucks. She knew that she would be sitting on a couch in some living room next week, trying to land a bread-and-butter listing, and the sellers would want to know that they were not going to be treated like an afterthought. They would be doing their research, looking to see what this agent really did on her listings, and they would not be disappointed.

Real estate photographers are in the exact same position. We have to treat every shoot as if it were the Buckingham Palace. If we aren’t putting out effort every time, no matter how depressing the house, we are never going to rise above the crowd. We’re never going to be able to compete on anything other than price, until we can demonstrate that we can, and WILL, outshoot the competition.

It’s hard. You can’t get hung up on the fact that you’re only getting paid $150, or whatever number sounds too low to you — you have to be thinking about what you want to shoot next month, next quarter, next year, and act like that’s what you’re shooting today. Because ultimately, if you’re completely bogged down in today’s sweaty, frantic scramble, you’re never going to get where you want to be.

Our best clients are thinking this way--so should we. The goals are mutually compatible--we both want to look good for the awesome clients we’ll be chasing next year. The best real estate brokerages and the best agents function like an ad agency. They understand that they aren’t selling houses—they’re a marketing firm. It’s the difference between doing door-to-door encyclopedia sales (which I did while I was flunking out of college) and building Google. A great example of this in the real estate world is Fantastic Frank, a Swedish brokerage that treats every listing, even the little crummy rental listings, like a feature article in Dwell Magazine. They hire cutting-edge stylists and photographers and make every listing look glamorous and swank. The photography may seem shocking to “real estate” eyes; there are tight angles and broken rules (verticals! OMG!) and utterly weird things going on in these photos—but they’re GOOD. Really good. These images would be very much at home in a Style and Design magazine like Elle Decor or Vogue.

The top 10% of agents are always focused on their brand first. Want to shoot for them and bill a lot of money for it? Start thinking in those terms.

14 comments on “From the Archives: The Purpose of Real Estate Photos Is NOT to Sell Property”

  1. I could not agree more... However this is a complex subject where we must look at our actions beyond the images to understand what our role is in the business model of a successful Realtor.

    Our images should be technical good, document the property that is being put up for sale and... Look pretty to the viewer! and... be part of a pleasant human PERSONAL engagement, not a transaction!

    Now let me explain... how we treat the Agent and the Seller while on site becomes a critical part of "what we do." I always engage the seller as well as the Agent while on site.
    I explain what I'm going to do before I do it.
    I take control of the shoot and explain why I'm doing that.
    I have about three repeating tricks I use during the tour of the home. I explain what they are and the sellers are always amazed at how that simple thing made the space look more appealing. It works every single time. It does not work if you don't point out what you just did and why.
    I always slip in some way to praise the agent during this.
    After I'm done shooting I review the images in camera with the Seller and the Agent.
    I listen all the while I am reviewing! Here I gain knowledge as to what they both like and explain there is more to finishing the shoot than "click click."
    This process makes the Seller believe they made the right decision in hiring the Agent. It makes the Agent realize that hiring me was the right Marketing move and not a commodity purchase decision.
    I always slip in the fact that I will treat their home as if it was a million dollar listing.
    I close with hints and tips on how to make sure their home is ready each time there is a viewing.
    This take all of less than 5 minutes.

    There is an old sales technique where you remind the buyer (the buyers in this instance are the seller and the Agent) of the pain he may have had in a prior engagement, then you follow up with demonstrating how that will not happen with you. Of course by following the steps I laid out above this is accomplished in a more positive manner. You are demonstrating that you are concerned with providing the best images possible that will help to market their home. Take for instance the simple review process. They get an chance while you and the agent are with them to say "Ooooo Pretty." I guarantee you the Agent is listening and understands that Seller just complemented the Agent on their choice of hiring you. You have just created a positive marketing incident for the Agent. Agents live on referrals and REPEAT business. So do you.

    The point is shun the image that what you deliver is a commodity (even though it is to many agents) and make the on site engagement with you a PERSONAL engagement instead of a TRANSACTIONAL engagement.

  2. Well while as a photographer, I do not make my client's decisions for them, my best clients have always said that 80% of the photography is about establishing their brand as an agent and about 20% goes to actually selling the house. I've been shooting with them since 2012 and its been the situation all that time. I've mentioned it here on this blog many times.

  3. I've since changed my mind on this subject. Great photos sell the crap out of houses. Not only are the on-market days super short, but there are quite a few houses selling to out-of-town buyers who haven't even set foot in the property. You can argue about whether that's good or bad from a Realtor's perspective, but from a sales POV, great photos are killer. My clients get offers in hours, even before showings. Cant argue with that kind of success.

    But yeah, they also reinforce the realtors brand.

  4. It was literally 'dumb-luck' that I ran into this post right when I started shooting RE. With zero experience under my belt I couldn't imagine an argument, so I just internalized it. And it's worked out quite well, thank you Scott (and Larry). Today I know there's more than one way to achieve 'success' in this business but for me it's a simple (not easy) path: Just keep getting better. Learn something. Try hard to knock it out of the park. Treat every shoot at every price point like it's the most important shoot you've ever done. Because, really, it is.

  5. I have the fortune of working with the top producer of my neighborhood. I could not agree more with this article. The main difference between this agent and the rest is the quality of her listings. She never posts low quality pictures nor videos. I always ask the sellers why they chose this particular agent, and they always say: I have browsed the local listings, and hers looks the best. The other interesting fact is that other agents do not really understand why she is so successful. Actually, one of the other agents told me once that she was successful only because she charged less commission to sell homes, which is completely false. On the other hand, I got this agent, because since the beginning I always tried to get the best work for all my agents. One day, the top producer contacted me by facebook. We went together to a property and one of the things she noticed was that I spent 3 hours on a 4,000 sqft property. Since then ( 2 years ago), I have been working with her helping make her listings shine.

  6. So...as a real estate photographer, my purpose of photographing a specific home for a specific real estate agent is to get that house onto the MLS because the MLS is where images are pulled for every service that lists that particular home. My next purpose is to provide a photograph that makes that house stand out on the MLS and on services where the home is listed - specifically to attract buyers to that home. Finally, there is a great marketing umbrella that my images are used for with the agent to help promote the agent's business.

  7. Frank G,

    I just wanted to say your comment was a great one. Thanks for taking the time. I wish there was a "Like" button instead of me posting a comment that didn't add anything to the conversation.

  8. @Kelvin, the price "sells" the home. The photos get people to look at. If the images are bad, the home looks bad and therefore, overpriced. It's a two edged sword if a home sells in hours and is off the market in days. The agent doesn't get the exposure of having great marketing since fewer will see it. Photos are a huge advantage in getting to out of town buyers. In my area there are several military bases, defense contractors and aerospace companies that hire lots of staff from time to time when new projects start. When those projects end, lots of people will be selling and relocating to their new jobs if they aren't staying on in the area. Many buyers will be from elsewhere and will be building a short list of homes to look at since they won't have much time to look extensively when they fly-in to decide on something and start the paperwork. It's a topic I use when pitching a local agent.

    For seasoned agents, having great photos is a way to fend off competition. Our services aren't free and a freshly minted agent is likely having to manage what little money they have left after starting up as an agent and can't afford to do as much marketing. Those new agents have likely been bombarded with all sorts of esoteric marketing "systems" that they believe they have to buy into and nobody has emphasized that simply starting with a modest set of good images will do more to move their listings than will all the cell phone pictures and seminar systems ever will.

    There is a local agent that got his broker's license and left the franchise office he was with and set up as an independent. I pitched my services to him and he told me he had to spend nearly $10k to get his office going. In the past year, I've seen two listings with his name on them. Both had very poor cell phone photos. I'll be getting in touch again, but I'm nervous that he's in an even poorer financial position. The bummer is he seems like a nice guy to work with and I'd be happy to help him develop his business as much as I can. Since he's in town, I can offer very aggressively priced mini packages. I can make 10-12 images pretty darn quick since a good portion will be exteriors. Leaving out hallways, laundry rooms, powder rooms, etc and it's no problem to cover the essentials with only that many photos.

    The top producer in my city is a young guy that outmarkets himself on all of his listings. Too many photos. HDR and shot by an outside photographer that's ok on composition. Too many aerials from too high up (and often under the flight path of the local municipal uncontrolled airport). He's way out in front of the other local agents and is doing very well. I keep telling him to cut down on the image count and push for better quality (me). One of these days I'll get to him, but I find it funny that nobody else is picking up that he's getting a large percentage of the available listings mainly by just having much better images.

    Good agents know that having a stack of listings means a better chance of closing something on any given day. If all it takes is a couple of hundred bucks to "buy" a listing worth several thousand in commission, it should be a no-brainer. The top producer in my region/local MLS closed 13 in December last year. A month that is traditionally slow and effectively only 2 weeks of working days. What a nice way to wrap up the year. Every one of his listings is professionally photographed with an appropriate number of images, a twilight and aerial images where they have value. Every one, no matter the listing price. I have noticed that in the last year the twilight images have gone from true twilights to conversions.

  9. @Ken 🙂 Cheekily, I will put it another way. If I shoot the house well, I indeed "sell" the property to the buyer. That is, they fall in love. I have created "want". The price and the determination of the buyer is what closes that sale.

    When Zeiss designs a lens for my Sony, and then puts a beautiful photo of that sculptutred masterpiece in an AD, they dont even show the price... and yet, I am sold on that lens just by it's sheer beauty and the reputation that precedes it. Whether I acquire it or not doesn't change that Im sold on it. I am in Awe. I am in Love. I will eventually have it. I have the luxury with a lens that there is a stock of them, so I can do it on my time, but Im still sure it will be available when I go for it.

    Homes dont have the same kind of inventory available. In many ways they are one-offs. The impetus to secure the deal is far greater then buying a lens. Our job, as least as I see it, is to make people slobber over the product to the point of being compulsive. 🙂

    And let me qualify that in one more way. My business used to rely on the top seller in my area. As such, my mindset was that I was very much was invested in creating and building an image for him that sold his brand. And it worked. He quite literally had secured the upper end of the market between his professional capabiiies and prowess, and my images to visually support that. SUDDENLY, he died. There was no agent really ready to replace or replicate what he had built. It worried me a little, to have my largest client vanish. It created a vacuum though, that was filled by many other agents, who in totality have the capacity to handle all of the transactions he was doing, and with some agility... In the end, instead of my revenue going down, it instead went up by a considerable margin. What he and I had demonstrated is that with awesome images and professional service, we could inspire our market to robust sales, because we helped buyers WANT something new. Negotiating the price I think was somewhat secondary. Still a factor, but not unlike buying a car. If you want it, you will find a way to have it.

  10. @kelvin hammond - I couldn't agree more. Photos definitively DO sell the $hit out of houses.

    Good luck convincing the brokers. And why would you even want to.

    Looong ago I had this big. Old. Ugly. Boat. It was an albatross around my neck - sucking precious time and money from my life - with a brutal vengeance. I knew I'd make a horrific mistake buying it and that nobody else would be stupid enough to want it. I was saddled with a self-imposed burden that was completely unmarketable. Others reading this that have owned a larger/ older boat may know what I'm describing.

    One day I was rowing out from Catalina Island to The Boat moored in Avalon Harbor and happened to snap a photo as I approached. With no clue about what I was trying to compose, I got lucky. It was golden hour on a glorious evening. The sea was calm and the angle was perfect. The boat looked fall-down a-m-a-z-i-n-g and that's an understatement. On nothing more than chance it was the best photo I'd ever shot. Honestly, it looked NOTHING like reality.

    I showed that photo for years, I was always good for a 'wow!' when I mentioned to someone (yes girls) that I owned a boat in the harbor.

    One day a coworker Pat (his real name just in case he's reading 🙂 mentioned he was looking for a larger boat he could live on. I told him I'd consider selling mine and presented the photo... "Whoa". We drove to the shipyard (it was getting bottom paint) and climbed up a tall ladder to board it. The next thing that happen opened my eyes to the power of a good photo:

    Pat should have been inspecting the boat - because being on 'the hard' there couldn't have been a better time. Instead he breezed through the interior, returned to a seat in the rear cockpit, pulled out the photo (that hadn't left his possession since I first handed it to him) and studied it. The sun was out. Seagulls flying. A boating leaning against stands in a dry yard... And there he sat, looking at that photo.

    Here's what I know happened: After looking at the photo in the office, he knew it was 'the one'. At that point the sale was done - nothing more than simply mine to lose. He'd made up his mind, become a 'mental owner', before he even saw it. Houses are often EXACTLY the same - I've seen it.

    Do photos sell homes? Are you kidding me?

  11. As a young commercial photographer, many decades ago, I quickly learned that there is a difference between a picture of a manure spreader and an advertising picture of a manure spreader. Also, there is a difference between a picture of a roll of toilet paper and an advertising picture of a roll of toilet paper. And, that the ad agency or marketing manager was paying me to take the advertising picture.

    In my view, this is the point that Scott and this article are intending to convey.

    It's useful to make documentary photographs of the house to fill out the MLS and other marketing requirements. I view them as user's guide pictures taken for the manure spreader. 🙂

    A useful example is how classic car owners want their vehicles photographed. Two or three "Hero shots" to advertise the car, along with a collection of specific detail shots to show the engine compartment, interior, wheel wells, trunk etc.

    As noted by Scott, its the top agents that recognize that they are selling themselves as the solution to the next home seller. And, doing that with the listing means that the current seller gets all the positive benefits. i.e. shorter time to sale, more traffic via visits, etc.

  12. interesting post that I must have missed 3 years ago.
    My feelings on shooting a property, no mater what the price point, is this: I feel each owner deserves the best quality photography I have to offer. many people who own a home, no matter what, even in the $175k range (which could be their life savings) deserve to have their agents treat them and market their homes with the same care and integrity as they do a higher price point home. I will still do my lighting the same.
    I blend images where I feel necessary, if I cant get it in a single exposure. I am also a very sociable person, and always try to make a photo shoot an enjoyable experience for the owner (if they are on the shoot) and make them feel they hired the right agent to market their home. When you produce very hi quality images for your agents, it is a way for them to show their clients, perspective buyers and their fellow agents, that they don't mind paying the price for fine photography, go the extra mile to market their properties and are someone they can consider as their agent to do this. But I also have a personal reason for making every shoot I do better than the last one. before re locating to FL, I was a corporate photographer for a very large aerospace company that was very demanding on the quality of the photography. as I get older, I have to keep proving to myself, that I am still capable of producing hi quality images, which is why I attend workshops and seminars to always learn how to do it better. Some of the photography images on this blog site from from the members are awesome.

  13. @Scott Hargis. I hope you don't mind that I posted most of your article to my business Facebook page. Agents always ask me why I charge more than most and that there are plenty of photographers that will shoot for less. Your answer is the best!

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