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VHT Studios Acquired Circlepix--Does Anyone Work for VHT?

Published: 12/01/2018

Gary in North Carolina asked:

I work for Circlepix and I just got an e-mail from them saying that they have been acquired by VHT Studios. I'm looking for some background on VHT. I'm wondering if there are any of your readers that are working for VHT or have worked for them in the past. How are they to work for?

The interview above with Brian Balduf, the CEO and co-founder of VHT Studios gives some good background on VHT as a company. The are one of the biggest real estate photography companies in the business and they recently won a suit against Zillow regarding copyright infringement. They are also promoting a Digital Media Licensing Association for real estate photographers to protect real estate photographers' rights.

I don't encourage people to work for large real estate photography companies because the pay is low and they usually ask photographers to sign non-compete agreements that get in the way of starting your own business. But if you are not up to running your own business, VHT Studios is probably one of the better companies to work for.

Are there any readers out there working for VHT that can give Gary feedback on VHT studios?

Larry Lohrman

7 comments on “VHT Studios Acquired Circlepix--Does Anyone Work for VHT?”

  1. I have been independent from the start at the suggestion of my fellow Realtors after they saw my listing photos, so have never been employed by either. I don't think VHT existed back then but Circlepix (and Visual Tours with the DIY option) were the originals and rested on their laurels as others passed them. A disclaimer - while still a Realtor, VHT and Obeo have paid to be "Preferred Providers" for my firm and some of my fellow agents use them without complaint. One thing I found locally with Circlepix was the consistent poor photographic quality where VHT appears to have a much higher standard. That may be a challenge for those Circlepix photographers making the switch. The lack of basic quality - color correction, slanting verticals, blown out windows - while still true to a lesser extent today was almost universal when I started 9 years ago. While I can't do it today with the current version of Matrix that MLS uses, back then could not only search for which listing had tours but could further screen for web address containing "Circle." I gained a few clients from that specialized mailing/prospecting list as I developed a brochure educating realtors on how to identify photographic errors. (Today, the www search field was eliminated and tour y/n search negated as MLS gives a crap first 5 photos tour as a "free member benefit" as a default "y" option when setting up a listing). I also gained insight into what "Preferred Provider" really meant, as like my prior firm and Visual Tours, provided it for "free" as a benefit, costing the Realtors nothing. SO yes, at least locally, the move to VHT is a good thing for quality expectations, as they do appear to have a higher standard. But it still amazes me how many Realtors don't realize the "Preferred Provider" is actually a paid advertisement to their broker/firm.

  2. @ Larry. If VHT is paying the real estate offices to be a "Preferred Provider" and doing listing photos for free, how are they making money from those offices?

  3. VHT doesn't pay brokers -- the company offers discounted package rates tailored to each office's needs. In all the brokerages I'm familiar with, agents have a choice of several photo suppliers.

    Photographer pay is very decent for those who are efficient about the time spent on location. The company additionally pays mileage to and from each assignment.

    There is no post-processing involved -- image files are transferred to VHT in Chicago and the rest happens with no further involvement from the photographer.

    I think VHT is a well-run company that cares about delivering a quality product and gives full support to its contractors. Appears to me that Circlepix shooters have a lot to look forward to. At least those with advanced photo skills and a good attitude!

  4. @ RL Caron - Are you disputing what Larry Gray stated about VHT & Obeo paid to be "Preferred Providers"? If so, how do you know that his statement is false?

    I'm sure that VHT is a well-run company. If I only wanted to be told where to place the tripod, use the longest focal length possible, set the camera to P mode and press a button I would probably be willing to sign up with them. Personally, I would rather be a photographer than a button pusher. I doubt it takes any advanced photo skills to work for them.

  5. (Long sigh)... My name is John, and I'm a Circlepixie. Is this the AA meeting? I understand why the big companies aren't popular here. Who wouldn't want to be better paid and independent? But I'm looking forward to the new company taking it over. My local market is super-competitive. Listings are at a 30-year low, at a number probably close to the number of working photographers in our metro area. I need the promotion and networks of a larger company, and VHT looks like a substantial improvement. My Circlepix volume was declining for years, and they seemed out of ideas to improve it. I recall a year I did 450 homes, but that's awhile ago. I'm looking forward to getting busy again!

    What I don't want is to be told to execute some canned procedure for automated results. Over thousands of shoots, I've developed a Strobist work style that blends mixed light, bounce and direct flash, making HDR mostly unnecessary. I've learned how to work quickly and achieve 87.6% of the perfection of the best RE artists, while spending less than an hour at most houses. Anyhow, my clients are happy, since I deliver 317.8% of their expectations. It doesn't take much extra time to get it right on the site. As an old film-era photog, that's aways my first choice. I actually prefer working with a camera to working on a computer!

    Just yesterday a realtor was telling me how much he hates the overcooked HDRs from Virtuance, which most of his peers use. He had the same impression I have: odd color casts in interiors, halos around windows and an overall unreal, Sci-Fi feeling that's the opposite of a warm, comforting home. I've been know to groan, loudly, at the HDRs I see on zillow. That's not a product I want to produce. Real estate involves real property, and I think sellers need and deserve real-looking images.

    I'm waiting to see what changes VHT brings to the workflow, the pay, the assignments, and all of that. So far, I'm quite hopeful.

  6. A client of mine let me know that Fannie Mae named VHT as the photo provider for FM properties and just to find out about how VHT operates, I sent in an application. I received a request to provide them with bracketed sets of photos for evaluation. I replied with a request to be sent a copy of their photographer contract and a schedule of what they pay. I received back another request for photos asking me if I was still interesting in working with their company. I resent my request to see their contract and received another request for me to send in photos and that it had been a while since I originally contacted them. I sent another request for a copy of the contract and that's where is finished. In the application I gave them my web address where I have examples of my work and a short list of the equipment I have so there shouldn't have been a burning need for me to create and send in yet more photos. I make images with flash and don't often make exposure brackets that would be used for a fused image.

    Seeing the terms in the contract was going to decisively influence whether I would work with VHT or not and spending anymore time to get there wasn't in the cards. The pay and travel considerations would be a major factor as well. I was very put off by only ever getting what looked like a form letter in response to an inquiry and not a personal reply from a human. My client that told me about VHT's contract for FM photos has continued to hire me to make photos of those homes as all of the orders/requests for images have not been fulfilled.

    I have yet to see a contract with a photo middleman that is in any way favorable for the photographer. It almost sounds like it could be a good arrangement if all you have to do take the photos and let somebody else handle everything else but, there are several downsides. You don't develop your skills in using flash. You aren't spending any time learning editing/digital darkroom skills. You make the number of images you provide match the company's requirements and not don't decide what a particular property needs to highlight its best features. Not having to do much of the business process is both a blessing and a curse. You are going to be called an "independent contractor" and required to pay self-employment taxes. The pay is generally very low. There are no employee benefits. You assign your Copyright for all of the work you do. You may be trapped in a non-compete situation for a length of time after you stop taking job assignments and will be prohibited from approaching or accepting business from agents and offices you made photos for while taking assignments from the company.

    You really need to know your Cost of Doing Business to a high degree of precision. If you aren't assigned or offered enough work each month to cover your expenses, you may be prohibited from seeking work independently doing RE photography. That might even include commercial properties, rentals or hotels.

    I enjoy working for myself. I can fire any customer that I don't like working with. I can take a day off to attend an event or run errands and schedule clients around that date. If something prevents me from delivering a job on time to a client, I will have to make arrangements with them or amends, but I won't be in danger of not getting any further work at all from anybody. If one customer doesn't pay on time, it's annoying but not critical (usually) but, if the company doesn't send a check/make a direct deposit on time for one of the standard check stalling reasons, it could mean no payments for a week or more of jobs.

    A final thing to look for in contract is whether you will be assigned an exclusive territory or if the company can contract with an unlimited number of photographers where you are. By doing a good job, you are improving the reputation of the company and that could bring in more customers. If the company then signs up a few more photographers, your hard work could mean fewer assignments. Those new photographers may also not be as good which then drags down the reputation that you built.

  7. Hello Larry and all your readers. As you know, I’m a big fan of PFRE. I thought this might be a good opportunity to share who VHT Studios is.

    I cofounded the company 20 years ago. We have always been a photographer friendly company. We do not view photographers as simply contractors needed to push a button on a camera. We view photographers as creative, talented artists who provide an enormous value to the real estate industry and in most cases are not compensated accordingly.
    One of our goals is to elevate the industry and educate agents, brokerages and MLS’s as to the true value of the service and the visual assets being created for them by Real Estate Photographers.

    When it comes to photographers, our approach is simple; we will provide you with the tools, the resources and the opportunities to be as successful as you want to be. Whether success means higher pay, more recognition, better career satisfaction or simply making life easier, VHT Studios is committed to helping.
    The photographers that have been successful calling VHT Studios their home have been able to increase their compensation and manage their lives better, i.e. less shoots, less travel, preferred clients.

    VHT Studios is not a one size fits all solution for Real Estate professionals and so it is not a one size fits all solution for Photographers either. We provide services to agents who are on a budget and simply want the convenience of having someone else capture their photographs, all the way through agents who simply demand the best in everything they do and want the best of the best providing their photography.

    Photographers who call VHT Studios home, have a career path if they want it. New photographers start out with agents who just want their listing shot. Photographers have the ability to grow to the point that they can pick and choose the agents and the listings they work on. It all depends on how much effort they want to put into it. VHT Studios is here to provide assistance, guidance, support and most importantly the opportunity - in the form of Clients.

    VHT Studios mostly focuses on providing full service programs for Brokerages and other leading real estate, retail and hospitality organizations. The key to success in these types of programs is consistency. That is the main reason we have standards and guidelines for photographers. We are in no way trying to restrict or limit the abilities, creativity and experience of photographers in applying their craft, but we understand that in order for us all to be successful the clients need us to work as a team.

    We know the industry suffers from the fact that there are low barriers to entry, always someone who thinks they can capture market share with low rate and a client base that is not well educated about the value we provide. It didn’t help to have companies like Ipix and others try to commoditize the value of photography services. We are doing everything we can to destroy those notions and champion our industry and the value of the creative works that Real Estate Photographers produce.

    Just one of the ways we’ve demonstrated that commitment is the copyright infringement lawsuit we brought and won against Zillow. Zillow was using the images taken for the purpose of marketing a home for sale and using them to make money selling appliances, furnishings and decorations. They were doing this simply because they could. In their view, no one was large enough or strong enough to stop them. We don’t have an association to help protect the rights and interests of Real Estate photographers. We took a stand.
    That leads to the second initiative we have undertaken on behalf of our industry. We are working with the Digital Medial Licensing Association to set up a Chapter specifically for Real Estate Photographers. The initiative was announced last year and through feedback from people like Larry Lorman and Joel Rothstein, we are making significant progress and updates to the plan. If successful, this new organization will give all of us a much stronger voice in dealing with MLSs, and other organizations that want to make use of the images we create.

    I hope this helps anyone who we have not had the opportunity to work with understand who VHT Studios is. We are staunch advocates of professional real estate photographers and the importance they play in the most expensive transaction most people will ever have in their life. We’ll see much greater success if we all succeed. There are still too many agents who don’t understand the power of professional photography to affect, move and motivate clients to take action, and they still shoot their own photographs. Someday, professional photography will be as ubiquitous as for sale signs. We’re doing the best we can to get us all there.

    Brian Balduf

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