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What's the Business Workflow for Real Estate Photographers?

Published: 29/10/2018
By: larry

Jacob in California says:

I was wondering if we could have a discussion about real estate photographers' workflow outside of the actual shoot. That is, what are people doing to prepare for the shoot and after they are done with the shoot?

The following is a list of what I think are some of the major items of your business workflow:

  1. Part of starting your business off should be spending time thinking through your Terms of Service. Write these down. They include things like:
    • What is your area of service and what do you charge to shoot outside your area of service?
    • What are your clients licensed to do with the photos you shoot?
    • What is your committed delivery time?
    • What do you expect the client to do to have the property ready to shoot?
  2. Take steps with new clients to make sure they understand your Terms of Service.
  3. Spend time with new clients understanding their expectations.
  4. Post-processing: Are you going to do it yourself or are you going to outsource it? This largely depends on your shooting volume.
  5. Delivery time and technique: All real estate photographers deliver within at least 24 hours and many deliver photos the same day. Listing agents want the photos FAST!

What is your non-shooting workflow?

6 comments on “What's the Business Workflow for Real Estate Photographers?”

  1. The question is very open ended and could be the subject for a whole book. Gear wise, I have a standard kit that I take into every property that contains the items that I'm using 80%+ of the time. I have another set of equipment that I take that stays in the car unless I need it. That includes a large strobe, white and black material for masking/bouncing, pop-up reflectors, pole, extension cords, etc. Your technique will influence what your bring, but I've found it very handy to have cases that have mostly every spot filled up with bits of gear and are dedicated to my RE work. This lets me do a quick tally before I leave and a visual scan when leaving a job will indicate when a speedlight or other piece of gear has been left somewhere. I try to prep the night before which includes making sure that batteries are charged, memory cards are formatted and I've preset the camera with my most common settings (RAW, ISO 320, Manual, etc) so I don't find myself half way through a job when I spot that I'm still set to small jpgs that I was using to make images for eBay the day before.

    I don't use "text". I talk with my clients when booking a job and run down a job form filling in the blanks so I know something about the property. Address, appointment date/time, Occupied/Vacant. Owner or Tenant occupied. Owner/tenant name/phone, Lock box code, Power on/off, HVAC working, street sweeper day, trash day, single/multi story, quote amount, notes field for client suggestions, etc, etc. By using a form, I am reminded about all I need to know so I'm not trying to reach an agent for a lock box code when I arrive or the owner isn't home and I can't reach anybody. I typically look up a property on Google Maps and TPE and suggest the best time of day to photograph and have a slot for that on my form. If I don't have any control over the schedule, I make myself a note about when I want to photograph the front exterior.

    When I get back home I crank up the computer and start importing the images into Lightroom. While that is going on, I pull the batteries out of everything I have used and put those on the chargers. That still leaves me some time for at least a cup of tea and a snack. I start editing when the import is finished if it isn't really late. BTW, images are copied to two drives on import so I have my first layer of backup handled by Lightroom. I do other backups at other times. Once images are edited, I sequence them and export 5 (yes, 5) galleries optimized for the local MLS, Zillow, Realtor and Trulia along with a separate gallery for printing. Those are zipped and uploaded to my server and a link is sent to the client with a standard form letter that explains the files, lists the job and number of images. I take payment on-site or I'll stop by the RE office to pick up a check. For some customers, I'll send out a bill via Paypal. Images are sent after payment is received. I'm a bit more cautious with new customers until I'm confident that their checks don't bounce. One variation I used to have was I'd take my laptop with me on busy days and let the previous job import into Lightroom while I was working on the next one but my car adaptor died and I haven't bought a new one yet since I keep promising myself a new laptop. This takes a lot of time out to waiting around at home for imports to complete, presets to be applied and previews rendered.

    Under promise and over deliver. My guaranteed delivery is by the close of the second business day (48 hours), but I nearly always deliver the next day. Occasionally I'll deliver the same day but I don't like doing that very often since I will charge for it if a customer needs express service. I'm leaving that extra day there so I don't have to turn down a dinner invitation or a visit from a friend because I have promised to work 16 hour days.

    Much of what Larry is pointing out is for when you bring a new client onboard and need to train them up a bit. Your Terms of Service is very important and there have been lots of words written here about what is good to put in those. It should be considered a "living document" that gets refined as you go along which also means that you are communicating with your clients about any changes.

    Whenever you get the chance to talk with your clients, use the opportunity to see if you are meeting all of their needs, what trends they see in the market and what sorts of things you can work with them together on to make the photography process smoother and the photos better. I find that new clients that haven't been using a pro don't understand the things that can make or break an image. Too many of them think that we can "just Photoshop" that blemish, trash can, car, RV, hose, etc and make it all better. They might not have thought about ethical considerations when it comes to removing permanent items from photos. They all have no idea how much time all of those edits are going to take when they are all added up. My best clients keep getting better working with owners to prep their homes so they look their best. I love it since my only concern is getting the composition and lighting right and not trying to shoot around big piles of stuff.

    The question is really good. If there are more specific things you are interested in, follow up. Too much of the time we are talking about gear and that can be the least important thing.

  2. My wife does my scheduling using Acuity, a software that does a great job of importing the client and giving me a google map to the location. She tries to group the shoots based on area.

    I start at 8 in the summer, 830 in the winter, and shoot until 5 or 6 in the summer, 330ish in the winter. I head home, and process the images myself on the computer. On average, I am done by 8 pm in the summer, 5 or 6 in the winter, although I sometimes run late, especially during the spring rush.

    I send out pictures through Photoshelter, and bill with Freshbooks before I go to bed. About 70 percent of my clients pay with credit card, the rest send a check. If I get a 30 day late, I call the client and resolve it. I've had two no-pays in 8 years.

    I drive a Honda Civic, because of the gas mileage, reliability, and the fact that I am in it alone much of the time. I have 106k miles on it in 2.5 years, and go through about 15 Audio Books a year.

    At this point in my life, (Im 59) I am starting to look for gear that reduces the weight I carry. I recently abandoned my N-flash strobes for the AD200 from Godox, and am considering backing out of my Nikon D750 workhorses in favor of a crop sensor camera and a smaller carbon tripod.

    I don't offer drone or panoramas, I don't have time to learn the tech, and am frankly just interested in stills.

    I'm hoping for another 10-15 years. It's been a great ride.

  3. I am with Ken on all of this. And he reminds me that I need to make a job check list. I used to have a job contract for every shoot I did when shooting advertising that listed everything, but frankly such a thing takes forever to create and scares my RE clients to death. And truth be told, I have yet to really need such a contract. Even asking for a PO seems to be too much especially as many shoot often morph from the time I am contacted to when I arrive at the property. I have not really needed a check list so far since I don't take on a heavy load of shoots since I shoot stills, video and drone stills and video so the processing for a single property can take a couple of days.

    So I try to deliver within 48 hours or faster but sometimes I have clients who need several properties shot one after the other, so I process the stills first and leave the video until later. But I shoot for HDR, which takes a while, and all my clients want my processing style, understand that it takes time and don't hold me to a 24 hour turn around. When we are close to Friday, which is the listing day for most of my clients, I will process and send them 12-15 images so they have enough to go MLS, then send the rest as they are completed. Not a perfect solution, but in my market, my shoots tend to get bunched into a short period of time, then I can have periods where there is no work at all. Its a small market and inventory right now and since last Spring is low and slow as are sales. Although just had a bump of shootings end to end.

    So since my clients are loyal and want my look & feel, they are understanding and forgiving. Just recently I have found that some cliets are trying to get properties shot and listed before the staging is completed, windows washed, landscaping completed and cleanup, well, cleaned up. So uncharacteristically, once it is listed with preliminary images, then we have a reshoot to do the same shots but with the pictures on the walls, windows cleaned so we can see the views, the rest of the props in place and the mulches spread and cleaned up from paths and driveways. Makes a lot of processing work! And I do have to charge for my extra time. Clients wince but understand that they were premature for the shoot. If you can see it, it will get in the photographs especially with today's wide open floor plans. Or not see it if it is not there yet.

    But adding to Ken above, you have to deal with this and other aspects of a shoot that will affect the shoot directly with the client in advance. Clients are so often in a rush juggling so many things at once that they don't see the big picture of the property that we see when we arrive with fresh eyes. They have to be prepared for the additional costs if a property has problems or is really not ready to shoot. But often the client want's it shot anyway so they can get it listed right away. Best to follow up a verbal discussion whether in person or phone with a written email/text listing the problems seen before the shoot starts. Then as I stumble across other problems like missing shower valves and burned out bulbs, I always list those to my client as well at the end of the shoot but before delivery of images.

    But I always notify a client if I feel the property is not ready to be shoot yet. Usually in person if the client opens up the house with me, or by phone call if the client is not there for the shoot and let them decide if they want to go ahead and shoot anyway or hold off until the issues can be dealt with. Often, I find, that sub-contracters from painters to landscapers, cleaners to plumbers run late and have not completed their work by the time of the shoot but have not so advised my client. I hate to shoot as house keeping are still cleaning windows, vacuuming, cleaning, with their pails and mops left around the place and power cords stretching across the floors. Even shooting outside will show them working away in the house through the windows. One thing when dealing with stills and Photoshop, but with video, people moving around in the house seen through windows that cannot be dealt with in Photoshop offer real problems. And if you are up in the air, problems show up even more. Can't hide from a drone. But sometimes getting the place listed is more important than these problems so I often get "just do the best you can" responses.

    Since I have not lost any clients after such less than optimal images, I have to believe that advance upfront discussions are part of the reason.

  4. @Peter, Yep, contractors are often a problem. I run into issues every month where a contractor tells the agent/broker that they are done and when I arrive, there is un-removed masking, trim painting going on, supplies in piles, trash not removed. When the agent calls them they get the word "just" as in we "just" have to ........ or we "only" need to ....... Those translate to: "They aren't done yet". That situation has gone into my T&C's. I will shoot what, in my opinion, is ready, but there will be a return charge to finish up. I'm not going to touch anything in process or clean up after the contractors. I also don't do photos with work going on unless is something benign like the alarm guy terminating wires at the panel or an isolated person that isn't raising just or fumes. I remember one house where the contractor was spray painting the switches and outlets and the fumes gave me a massive headache as they didn't bother to open any windows. I was also worried about paint particles getting on the camera and lens.

    Photos only take a couple of hours so there isn't any need for scheduling photos right on top of other trades. Agents should also visit the property to make sure that all repairs have been completed and the home is ready. If they are too busy themselves, they can send a team member or office utility person. I've added a charge (with one freebie) for revisits or complete reschedules so it's not me finding problems since I'm more expensive doing that job.

    @Randy, I'd love to replace my Honda with a Chevy Bolt EV. I still have yet to stop by the dealer when they have one in stock to see if my gear will all fit. They are always out of stock. I'll keep my Honda and use it for long trips that don't have a handy charger, but I'd love to lower my transportation costs. Right now there are free chargers in the area where I do most of my business. I'd love to take advantage of that before it goes away. Getting to and from jobs definitely qualifies as a valid topic. I could probably make do with an older Nissan Leaf. For jobs at the further reaches of my usual territory, I'd have to stop at a charger, but I could use the time to start processing images using my laptop. Getting to and from jobs definitely qualifies as a valid topic.

  5. Ken-

    Not to fly off topic, but look at the Honda Insight. They made it look like the civic instead of a Prius jellybean, and upgraded the leather and the stereo. It has a hybrid electric motor, and with the Touring trim its getting 55 mpg combined hwy/city. Honda calls it "a more mature Civic rather than a hypermile hybrid".

    I would already have one, but bought a house this year and went a little overboard.

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