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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.

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