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What Are the Limits of Photoshopping Listing Photos?

Published: 08/12/2018

Justin in Australia pointed out this recent article in about the listing photos misrepresenting the color of the Brisbane River.

Some Reddit users noticed that there was a little part of the river in the lower right of the photo that had been missed by whomever did the photoshopping job. This error makes the photoshopping a dead give-away!

This photoshopping job made me think of this post we did a couple of years ago on another possible photoshopping job done to a listing in South Sydney Australia.

These kinds of misrepresentations lead to the question of what are the ethical guidelines for real estate photographers in modifying photos. I've compiled a summary from past discussions in this Ethical Guidelines page.

Larry Lohrman

10 comments on “What Are the Limits of Photoshopping Listing Photos?”

  1. The Ethical Guidelines Page is a good document for photo ethics. In the case of the river, if it were brown due to a recent heavy rainfall and was typically blue, doing a little work on the color may not be out of bounds. Since the river is always brown, changing it to blue can be crossing the line. I've heard that RE photo accuracy is a big issue in Australia with many people ready to file a legal complaint. In the US, if a case were to be filed in court over the color of a river as seen in advertising photos not selling the river itself but some adjacent property, it might get tossed out. There are long stretches of the year where the sun doesn't come out in the Pacific NW of the US. Should that mean that any exterior photo that has a sky swap showing blue sky during those seasons trigger a lawsuit?

    Would I change the color of the river? No. Do I shoot around defects to not show them? Yes. Lots. I even delete some semi-permanent things such as alarm sensors, cameras and panels. If the agent/broker tells me that an image(s) is for a teaser campaign before the property is formally listed, I'm not bothered with even being pretty heavy handed when it comes to editing. Every time I do that, I remind the customer that they might have an ethics issue if they use those images on the live listing without a disclaimer on the photo itself that it has been altered. I'm usually hired to return when the home has been rehabbed to make a full gallery to be used to market the home. Every once in a while, the home sells before it gets on the MLS or is only up long enough to meet MLS requirements. I should probably get something in writing, but I only do the teaser images for a select number of my best clients. I'm not worried that I'm going to wind up under a bus.

    The best test I heard with portrait retouching was the 2-week rule. If a blemish was likely to be gone (or nearly so) in two weeks, go ahead and touch it out. A similar rule could be used for RE. A sky swap is fine unless you put the sun rising/setting in the north. Greening up the lawn in the middle of winter when it is brown and dormant might be ok. Even filling in a couple of small dead patches isn't a huge issue.

  2. Would not even waste two seconds of thought on this.

    If i shot this photo I would give it a daylight white balance and deliver.

    If I got asked to do something to it after that, I would, after getting the request in writing in an email or text

    Not our responsibility. Not worth a second's thought.

  3. I am with Ken on this. Just the princess of taking a photo is altering reality in itself. Add in the color balance used makes it more so. Altering reality is one thing due to the photographic process itself but altering reality is something else. I come back to the fact that we are not being hired to be documentary photographers but advertising photographers. We are not even photojournalists although the style can apply. So with truth in advertising as a guide line, if elements that are not wanted and won't be there when the property is listed, I don't have a problem either removing them or correcting them such as the proverbial dark patches in the lawn. Cropping out the utility poles that might just show up in a shot from the other direction but smaller.

    But if there are permanent fixtures, damage, or other things that will be on the property or part of the structures when it is listed and sold, then I will leave it in place. There are other things that come into play as well such as fire places. If a fire place has not wood in it but is a wood burning fireplace, I may photoshop in a wood fire burning with a similar grate. But if the fire place is a gas and fake log, then I won't since the log assembly is part of what is being sold. I do now carry a 12" gas key in my tool box since these are often recessed and/or simply missing.

    It comes down to "are we lying about the property or not?" I will not misrepresent a property for the condition it will be in at the moment of listing. But we also have to ask is it misrepresenting a house to have furniture in it when it is not being sold furnished? I think there is wiggle room in this discussion.

  4. While we're on the topic of accurately representing the listing... what about the recent trend of artificial twilight photos?? I can't imagine any day or time of year when the home will look anything like it's depicted. Not in two weeks, not ever. The ethical guidelines approve of sky replacement and enhancement but what about having yellow light glowing through all the windows and from the outdoor lights while red and orange clouds stream across the sky as the sun is setting? This is more of an artist's rendition than representing the actual appearance of the home. It might make a nice closing gift to the seller but is it fair to the other similarly priced listings? I've seen them used as the first photo of many, many listing in my area (metro Detroit).

    Have any MLS' said anything about these types of photos?

    Perhaps this topic should be a separate discussion...

  5. There is literally no such thing as blue water anywhere in the world… It’s either clear or green/brown -

    Blue colored-water is a function of the sky reflecting in the water, which is why the river can look blue just about anywhere in the world even when it’s brown. Reflections are not misrepresentations. Nobody usually gets upset if we green-up unwatered grass, so why all the fuss? If we were living back in the 70s with brown pollution hanging over the property, would we do sky replacements? Probably. We can’t even handle overcast days.

  6. As samples go, this doesn't even come close to others we have seen here with issues for ethical use of misleading photos by Realtors. I suppose it was brought up because of the news article about it, but I believe we have seen here where HUGE water towers, utility poles etc. have been removed around homes that really beg a ethical question to the Realtor that used them.

    I am working for the Realtor and if they request in writing that they want this or that enhanced that I feel could be a ethical dilemma for them, I will counsel them as to ethics. In all the years that I have been in this business, I have never had an Realtor move forward after expressing my concerns....that says a lot about the Realtors I am fortunate enough to work with.

    That said, I will add grass, sky swap, etc. without any reservations. These are items that are organic and change everyday.

  7. my integrity has always been one of the most important things to me.
    I'll always try to shoot a home in different angels to avoid the poles or wires whenever I can. I don't want to remove any wires, towers, or obvious structures that a buyer will see as soon as they drive up to the home. And, I always tell my agent that I don't feel comfortable to remove something that is permanent as it is unethical and deceiving to remove, and your buyer will never trust you.
    I have enhanced skies and grass as it is something that grows in.
    when I first started shooting real estate, a few new agents asked if I could shoot some rooms with a fisheye to make the room look larger.
    its so incredible what some agents will ask the photographer to do without even thinking of the consequences of deceiving the public.

  8. While it is vogue to paint Photoshop as the bad guy misrepresenting, a stronger misrepresentation argument is the Realtor who DOES NOT use Photoshop. I say Realtor because typically the do not use a professional photographer yet market the photos just the same. Is it not misrepresentation to show a structurally sound home with slanted walls and cabinets suggesting a strong wind will blow it over? Is it not misrepresentation to show a room as a dark dungeon no one would want to live in when the human eye has the greater dynamic range? Likewise with blown out windows - what are they hiding that the human eye will see. Are the white baseboards and doors really a dingy yellow - or worse purple or magenta bleed from strong wall colors. Each of those are easily corrected in Photoshop (or even a skilled photographer getting it right in camera) yet the Realtor elects to misrepresent the permanent structure as structurally unsound dungeon.

    My favorite example of selective framing obstacles out, as I am walking from the car parked out of window view from the house, I notice a backhoe on the roof. It was so unique I had to take a photo. Reality was, they were building a new interchange to two major toll roads which backed up to the house which has the concrete wall towering over the house to the elevated ground level for the exit lanes. Obviously, from the rear patio I didn't take a straight out view, while most were from the wall looking back at the house, the patio out view was angled out minimizing the wall. The front view, unlike my earlier street shot, with an UWA lens able to get close enough where the roofline covered the wall, however, I did have to wait for a construction truck to drive behind the chimney. Now as people are conjuring up misrepresentation, the BOTTOM LINE is...despite the wall and a really weird floorplan, while appropriately priced, went to contract in 3 days and ultimately closed higher than asking price. Buyer and seller agreeing trumps all armchair quarterbacking claims.

  9. Totally agree with Andrew here. The ethics of what a Realtor is representing is way beyond our scope.

    I often shoot for marketing departments of companies that want brochure images of new buildings, and condo owners advertising nightly rentals. They direct me to take out cars, remove hydrants, etc. I don't consider the ethics of it, I do what I'm paid to do. I treat the real estate agents exactly the same way. If the MLS is not hiring me, then I am not bound by their rules, its the job of the agent to know what they can and can't do. I'm not misrepresenting the property, the agent that asked for a specific image is misrepresenting the property.

    I once, at the direction of the agent, put the fire in the fireplace, and it turned out that the gas fireplace didn't work. The agent ended up buying a new one for the buyer after closing. The MLS disciplined him, and cc'd me the email. I called them immediately and told them that it was inappropriate to include me in this dispute, since I'm not involved in the sale.

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