Photography: ©2009 Scott Hargis Photo
The recession might be bad news for banks and terrible news for Realtors but it’s been good news for at least one group of professionals. Real estate photographers have reported a rise in demand for their services – and at least some of those photographers are responding with higher rates.
Faced with a glut of properties on the market, brokers are discovering a need to market their properties harder and enable them to stand out from competitors. They’re turning to professional photography to give their listings greater appeal.
“As the RE [real estate] industry has been tanking, I’ve found that my services are actually in greater demand than ever,” freelance real estate photographer Scott Hargis told us. “I’ve raised my rates twice in the last two years, with another increase likely this fall.”
The ability to raise prices though — like the rates themselves — depends on location. Scott operates in the San Francisco Bay area where rates typically run from $150 to $550 for a three-hour shoot (including travel and post-production time) that produces from twelve to fifteen images. Panoramas and video, as well as additional services such as websites and floorplans can bring in extra revenue. According to a poll on the Real Estate for Photography blog, an authoritative source for real estate photographers, those rates represent almost the complete range that photographers might charge. More than half of the photographers who voted report receiving less than $200 for a shoot and 49 percent say that real estate photography brings them under $20,000 a year (although 8 percent reported earning over $100,000 shooting images for the real estate industry.) Little more than a third of those polled though said that they shoot real estate full-time. Scott, who has been taking pictures of real estate for four years, also does portraiture and advertising work, areas he’s looking to expand.
A Real Estate Photography Business in One Year
Before a photographer can raise his or her prices though, they first need to have clients. That can take a while. Photographers typically mention a year as the time it takes to build up a viable real estate photography business. The best place to begin is by approaching the top 10-20 percent of listing agents in your area.
“It is relatively easy in any area to make an ordered list of what Realtors are selling the most homes in the area,” says Larry Lohrman, the Real Estate for Photography blog’s publisher, and author of The Business of Real Estate Photography ebook. “Often the very best prospects are the ones with ‘kind of good’ photos — they’re the ones who have already thought about better photography but who haven’t yet achieved it.”
Many Realtors though work independently and tend to be very aware of costs. High-end homes, for example, the type that look like they could benefit most from professional photography, may take years to sell during which time a Realtor may lose the listing, together with his investment in the photography. For lower-priced homes, you might have to do some hard persuading to prise Realtors away from their camera phones. The most effective tools are usually a website and a pile of finished products, such as brochures, leaflets and flyers, that you can leave with the Realtors and which contain your URL so that they can see more of your work. Once you land your first clients, you should find that referrals and word-of-mouth marketing bring in others.
One controversial issue is whether to offer free samples as a way to initially demonstrate your work and the benefits it can deliver. Larry Lohrman argues that free samples lower the value of the work overall and are not necessary, but he also points out that many photographers do it anyway. It is a method that Scott Hargis used to win his first real estate clients:
“When I was just starting out, and had neither clients nor a portfolio, I went around on Sunday afternoons to open houses and asked the agents if I could photograph their listings for free, just to get experience and a portfolio. That worked really well for me.”
Even Scott though recommends restricting your free offers to only the top-level agents and making a sample shoot part of a personalized pitch. William C. Hutton Jr., who has been shooting real estate for just under a year, suggests offering the first shoot at cost — which may be half price. The most common reasons that Realtors aren’t already using photographers, he notes, is that they don’t know about photography, don’t know how to contact a photographer, or don’t believe it’s going to be cost-effective. Free samples rarely help to remove those obstacles.
Keep the Walls Straight
Real estate photography then may be a relatively easy field to break into, especially at a time when property is hard to sell and brokers are looking for every advantage they can find. A good website and high-quality printed material may be enough to get your foot in the door, and a year of patience as your name spreads and the referrals bring you a solid base may be enough to give you a business. But you will need the photographic skills. Real estate photography has to be effective rather than creative, and provides different technical challenges to those presented in architectural or interior design photography. The shots tend to be wider — between 18mm and 24mm — but must still keep the walls straight and vertical. The rooms need to be bright and airy, the colors vivid and accurate, and the view through the window is an important part of the final image and not a distraction that can be blown out. Scott Hargis offers specialized workshops but nothing beats practicing on your own.
“Before you find your first client, practice on homes of friends and family members,” recommends William C. Hutton Jr. “Keep a diary of each shot… [and] photograph the same interiors on bright sunny days and cloudy days.”
And it might be a good idea to do it now, before the economic climate warms up again