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The Purpose Of Real Estate Photography…

First, an apology.  One thousand apologies, in fact.  On January 20th I introduced myself and expressed my gratitude to Greg for giving me the opportunity to be an occasional contributor to this forum.  I mentioned a photography class for real estate professionals that I teach for brokers in our local market, and that I’d like to focus my involvement here on providing the content of that presentation in small bite-sized posts.  I wrote that I would start by questioning the real purpose of real estate photography and why it’s become more important than ever – and then transition to a number of tips and techniques that I believe will help many readers improve their marketing images very easily.

I wrote those words seven weeks ago and haven’t been back since.  Although I’m not presumptuous enough to expect that anyone else noticed my absence, I do feel an obligation to tell you that I did.  I wanted very much to begin this dialog with Bloodhound readers right away, but frankly, I’ve been shooting and editing seven days most weeks, 12+ hours most days.  Our market, like many others I suspect, has become extremely active since the first of the year and the agents I work for are listing everything in sight.  Today, inclement weather caused a shoot to be rescheduled and left me with a few hours to return to the conversation I started.

I know I risk losing you at the question mark, but I’ll ask anyway.  What is the purpose of real estate photography?  What is your objective when you photograph a new listing?  What are you trying to accomplish?  When I ask this question of agents in my market I usually get the answer you’d expect (with a look that says they think I’m an idiot for asking):  “I’m trying to SELL THE HOME.  Duh.”  Excellent.  And the photos will be used to…?  Now looking at the exit, “ADVERTISE IT!”  Thank you.

Would you agree with this definition of the word advertise found at dictionary dot com?  “To announce or praise (a product, service, etc.) in some public medium of communication in order to induce people to buy or use it.” The fact is this:  many of us are excellent photographers but in the wrong genre.  We approach our listings with the keen eye of a documentary photographer, capturing every fixture and every square foot of space rather than one who understands that we are not, in fact, documenting the home.  We are advertising it.  When I was asked to be on the selection committee for a new MLS vendor last year I was elated at the thought of finally increasing our per listing photo limit from 10 to 25.  In retrospect that decision turned out to be a double-edged sword, though.  When I ask agents how many photos they feel they should use to advertise a listing the most common answer is 25 – the greatest number possible.  When I ask why, I’m almost always told we should use as many as possible because buyers want to see as many as possible.  Of course they do.  But we work for the seller, no?  Do you suppose the buyer would also like us to photograph (document) all the material defects in the home as well in an effort to make their home search more efficient?  The key is to provide the buyer with as many photos as possible that serve our seller well by advertising their home in a way that will induce a buyer to request an appointment.  No more, no less.

While I’m no expert, I think most would agree that a successful advertisement of any kind elicits an emotional response on the part of the target audience.  It makes them want to take action.  Does a photograph of a secondary bedroom, showing two walls meeting, part of a bed and a small window cause this kind of reaction?  How about a photo of a half bath with standard grade fixtures taken from the hallway so the prospective buyer sees the door frame, vanity and toilet – and that’s about it?   These kinds of photos do a terrific job of documenting that the two bedroom walls do indeed meet at the corner, or that the half-bath does have a door, but do they cause the buyer, surfing a surplus of listings at hyper-speed to pause…and linger.  Do they make the buyer want to see more?

For many years we’ve been told by marketers that buyers tend to make large purchase decisions based on emotion – and then justify them later based on logic.  If this is the case – and I think most of us who have helped buyers find the right home would agree that it typically is for all but the most analytical of clients – are houses that much different from cars, plasma televisions or other expensive products?  Can you imagine the art director of an ad campaign for Lexus telling the photographer to document the vehicle well so they’ll be able to use as many photos as possible in their ads?  No, in practically every other industry large-ticket products are advertised using images that have been very carefully created to elicit an emotional response and action on the part of a buyer with a lot of options to choose from.  In fact your new listing might have ten (or one hundred) times the number of competitors that Lexus has for any of it’s models.

Let’s explore another question of motive.  It’s long been said that sellers sell houses, but buyers buy homes.  Agree?  When a buyer buys a home, what are they really buying?  The answer to this question should have an impact on how you reach out to them visually.  Are they buying four walls, a roof and something to keep their feet from touching the dirt?  Are they buying something tangible or does it go deeper than that?  When I ask this question of agents attending my classes I tend to hear that buyers are buying something far bigger than the structure – something that speaks to a much deeper emotional need or desire – things like neighborhood or community, safety, financial security, pride, respect, family.  In short, they’re buying the dream!  Do our photos speak to the dream or simply document the structure?

When I photograph a home I try to ask myself one question about each space I consider.  Is there a photo here that will speak to the buyer – that will cause them to put the brakes on and linger – that will touch an emotion, and that will cause them to request a showing.  Are three images of a beautiful kitchen more valuable than one of a secondary bedroom painted in strong gender-specific colors and with no redeeming qualities like a cathedral ceiling or large, arched window?  If we live by the motto “First, do no harm.”, do we occasionally use photos that could actually turn off a subset of our buyer pool because they see work that will have to be done.  (“Two of the bedrooms are pink, and we have boys.  When will we find the time to paint before the moving van gets there?”)  Sometimes it can’t be avoided (wallpaper in the kitchen for instance), but sometimes it can.

One last question – this time for the veterans.  How did you use photographs o market homes in the 1990′s?  In my local market (Kansas City) it was typically one black and white image used in the newspaper classifieds and possibly a homes magazine.  Total viewership was probably in the hundreds at best.  Now how do you use photography today?  In most  areas you have the ability – and some would say the obligation – to show as many high resolution color images as you could possibly want (and that benefit the seller).  We’re talking screen-filling, interactive images with tremendous detail.  And best of all, through the magic of syndication, your images are made available to a massive international audience.  Your viewership is greater than that of many respected photographers!

So lesson one is that we are advertising photographers, not documentary photographers.  Sounds obvious, but as I look through listings in our MLS with the the definition of advertising in mind,  I’m sorry to say the concept is not universally understood.  As a real estate agent you probably don’t think of yourself as an advertising photographer, but if you take your own listing photos – you are.  Just ask any listing prospect who is even mildly web-savvy how important they think photos are to the process of marketing their home and you’ll know.  You’re an advertising photographer and you have to think like an advertising photographer – which is where I come in

I’m eager to get to the nuts and bolts of better real estate photography – to start sharing tips and techniques that will help you if you feel your images could use some improvement.  But before we go to the how I though it would be good to address the what and the why.

Thank you for sticking with me while I stood on my little soap box.  I’m sorry this post has been longer than “bite-sized” but moving forward we’ll be able to look at one image-improving idea per post that is presented in a way that is much more efficient with your time.

Related posts:
  • A Boston advertising photographer becomes a Boston real estate photographer — with stunning results
  • Not-ready-for-HGTV: My alternative to the listing video
  • A first crack at custom real estate directionals

  • 15 comments

    15 Comments so far

    1. Robert Worthington March 13th, 2010 1:18 pm

      Hi Harry! Every word of your post hit home with me. I recently purchased a cheap canon xs and a tokina 11mm lens. I have about $1400 invested. I bought it at the local high end camera store in town. Regardless of price, I am so happy with the wide angle for some rooms however you strike an interesting point. I am that advertising photographers that shows corners of walls connecting together. AAAHHHH! Your points are well taken and I look forward to your future posts to help amateurs like me.

    2. Harry Bisel March 13th, 2010 10:11 pm

      Thank you, Robert. I appreciate that you took the time to read my post and that some of it resonated with you. You’ve got good equipment and I’ll bet you’re already producing better than average images. I hope you’ll find some benefit in future posts as well, but don’t hesitate to let me know if I can help with any specific questions. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve learned a few tricks along the way!

    3. Teri Lussier March 14th, 2010 7:16 am

      >The key is to provide the buyer with as many photos as possible that serve our seller well by advertising their home in a way that will induce a buyer to request an appointment. No more, no less.

      Ouch. Guilty.

      The last few years I’ve focused on working with buyers. I’ve trained myself to photograph everything during previews or when advertising HUD homes because those photographs are for the buyer. This year my focus is changing, so thank you for reminding I need to change my photography focus as well.

      Harry, your blog is so gorgeous, as are the homes, but I’m not in that market. How do you take a plain Jane tract home with little upgrades, nothing special, and elicit an emotional response from a buyer through photographs? Do you have links to examples of your work in homes that might offer less in the way of inspiration?

    4. Russell Shaw March 14th, 2010 9:54 am

      Brilliant post. I really learned something reading it. Thank you! I will pass this along to others.

    5. Harry Bisel March 14th, 2010 5:56 pm

      Teri, I’m so glad you raised this question because the answer will apply to so many. In truth, the images you see on my sites are some of my favorites, but the bulk of my work is photographing very normal and frequently quite small homes. Many are vacant, and some wear the scars of foreclosure.

      Rather than try to give you a worthy response in these comments I’d love to do a post on this topic so I’ll have a bit more room to roam. I think I can pass along some ideas that will be helpful and I’ll try to illustrate them with photos as well. I hope this will be acceptable!

    6. Harry Bisel March 14th, 2010 5:57 pm

      Russell… I am humbled. Thank you so much for your kind words!

    7. Ryan Ward March 14th, 2010 6:58 pm

      Very good post and your points are well taken about advertising. Many people believe that more is better when it comes to pictures. Please help spread the word!

      I will seek out your posts in the future.Ryan

      -Ryan

    8. Teri Lussier March 14th, 2010 7:13 pm

      >I hope this will be acceptable!

      I’m very glad you are busy, but I am looking forward to when you to delve into this. Thanks, Harry.

    9. jay March 15th, 2010 6:27 am

      For 99% of you reading this article, don’t you dare take photos of your listing and be the 1 man solo flying machine idiot. You suck at photography no matter how much your camera costs or what cheesy classes you took….Deal with it and don’t be a disservice to your Seller(s).

      Hire a high end professional photographer who knows what they’re doing and will give the highest quality photo/tour available in the marketplace.

      In our area that’s homesdatabase.com.

      You get the point. Photography matters…a lot. Yes 90% of the listings are devoid of quality.

      j

    10. [...] The Purpose Of Real Estate Photography… – Want to learn something? Read this post! You will never think of photos for a house the same [...]

    11. Greg Swann March 15th, 2010 10:23 am

      Just had a chance to read this. Utterly brilliant. I’m pretty sure all the dogs are drooling for more.

    12. Robert Worthington March 15th, 2010 1:41 pm

      if I could get one Russell Shaw comment on a post, can I say I’ve lived a pretty good life? Good job Harry!

    13. Sean Purcell March 15th, 2010 7:53 pm

      Harry, I’m just plain drooling. It’s rare to read something so eye openingly helpful and rarer still for it to be well written.

      Damn! I think of all the classes I’ve taught where the first and last word in marketing is “why”: “Why do you hold an Open House?” “Why do you put a sign in the front yard?” (Props to Greg Swann) and so on. But I never once thought to ask “Why do you take pictures of a listing?” Can’t wait to pass this one along Harry and looking forward to the next one.

    14. Harry Bisel March 16th, 2010 4:04 am

      Thank you so much to everyone who has taken the time to comment. I’m new at this and very grateful for your encouragement!

    15. [...] The best advice on real estate photography is more nuanced.  For each photo ask yourself; “Will it resonate with the buyer?”  “Will it arouse an emotion?   “Will it motivate them to ask for more information, to set up a viewing?” “Is the photo advertising the property or merely documenting it?” [...]