The Back Story
This post is unequal parts education, public service message, sales pitch, rant, and is something I've considered writing for quite sometime. I'm going to do my best to keep my rant to a minimum, but the genesis of this writing comes from my
frustrations downright anger with another photographer who happened to be the home owner the listing agent represented. This photographer stated, "Here are my comments as a detail oriented photographer (who looked at house pictures for the past 4 months)." What followed was a blow-by-blow critique of my work and what I perceived as a demand that I fix or remove things like spots and cracks on ceiling beams, removing a dog door from a screen, taking all the spots off the carpets, removing power lines from the back yard exteriors, and not to use a side patio photo as well as a few other images. It also included words like "gross" and dirty," and my initial reaction was one of great furry. When I cooled off I saw an opportunity to vent but also to educate potential home sellers and the agents who will represent them. What this detail oriented photographer wasn't aware of are the ethics involved with real estate photography, and as such didn't send critiques of my work, but rather a commentary on the state of the property. I ultimately chose to digitally remove what is permissible but should have been removed by the home owner before my arrival - hey, I want to work for the listing agent again so I swallowed hard and did a favor for the agent and the home owner. So what then is permissible? What can and can't be removed or fixed?
Real Estate Photography Is Photo Journalism - Mostly
My job as a real estate photographer is to photograph a property as it is presented to me, more pointedly, the photography I and every other reputable real estate photographer produce is photo journalistic in nature. Here is a great quote taken from photographyforrealestate.net, "Removing permanent objects like power lines, telephone poles, neighboring homes, etc. are customarily considered materially misrepresenting the property because they hide undesirable permanent property features."
What this essentially means is that the work I do, though beautiful and artistic, is also a form of photo journalism. I'm not allowed to digitally or otherwise make structural changes to the home or anything that is staying in the home after its sale. This includes: lighting fixtures, cabinets, driveway/patio cracks, fireplaces, counters, window coverings, carpet, paint or anything mounted to the home. Take for example this image from photo journalist Philipe Lopez's Twitter feed featuring an airport filled with Panda's in Hong Kong. The image works for a lot of reasons, but what if I told you Philipe didn't photograph an airport full of Panda's but instead an airport with one Panda, and because it would look better he copied one and turned it into hundreds? Furthermore when Philipe doesn't tell anyone he manipulated the photo he essentially misrepresented the entire event. I've never met Philipe and given his job title of Photo Journalist I trust that in fact there was an airport full of Panda's in Hong Kong, but this somewhat humorous example illustrates an important rule of both photo journalism and real estate photography. Both Philipe and I are photographing things as they really are; we're not allowed to manipulate them in post production, but there are exceptions, and I want you to be privy to what I can and cannot do when it comes to post-production digital photography, and how the listing agent can mitigate unsightly things in a home that cost both of us heart ache, time, and money.
Woe Is Me
This is a no-brainer but I've learned that the words "clean" and "organized" are totally subjective as is the term "Less is more." As a real estate photographer I accept that (too often) I am asked to be a home stager, interior decorator, thing mover, and world champion at holding armfuls of other people's stuff while tripping the shutter on my camera. I don't mind doing some of those things; if a blanket doesn't look right, or a throw rug isn't centered, I'm happy to fix it. Remember I can't change the structure of the home but I can change the things inside the home that aren't going to stay with it to make it look better. I want as much as the real estate agent and the property owner to produce amazing photos that help sell a home fast, and for a lot of money because it likely means I get to work for the listing agent again. As the real estate agent, you want beautiful photographs but you need photographs that depict the true state of the property, and like most agents I know, you likely also want them yesterday. If you want your images from me faster the home will be photography and show ready prior to my arrival.
HEY, LOOK WHAT I CAN DO!
When it comes to photo manipulation I'm allowed and often do remove or fix things in PhotoShop. It's okay to do some things because none of them will stay in the home upon its sale. My suggestion, request, and borderline demand, on behalf of just about every photographer in the business, is that the listing agent ensures a home is ready for photography before photography begins. If however things aren't quite up to par it is never, unless previously agreed upon, the responsibility of the photographer. The reality is that it is often something we do even though it isn't what we're paid for. It takes time to either do it myself on site or even more time in post production.
Take this photo from another house as an acceptable example of digital manipulation. The above original photograph is one I could have submitted to my client, and I could have taken two minutes to move all the items off the shelf myself then another five putting it all back (I'd have forgotten the order it was placed in), but I instead spent time digitally organizing the laundry room. If the owners had taken their two minutes to move those items while they were cleaning the rest of the house I would not have had to do so - and they did an amazing job of cleaning the rest of the home so I suspect the laundry room was simply a case of "Oops, I forgot." If I do nothing I likely get a call from the listing agent asking me to do something, which from their perspective is my fault for not having done it in the first place, but remember, this entire laundry room exercise isn't my job - it is a favor to my client and the home owner.
Hey, Look What I Can't Do!
Here is an example of unacceptable image manipulation. I can't do it ethically, and it takes time. I took an image of a living room with a nice looking plant shelf over the hallway in the first image. In the second image I (quickly) continued the wall to the ceiling in photoshop. The photo is now misleading, making something appear as though it wasn't there. The real-world examples of fixing carpet stains, cracks in the driveway or ceiling, the rust on a bathtub, are all things a buyer will likely need to fix and use to negotiate the sale price of the house. If I take that away from the buyer, I tip the scales in favor of the seller and that isn't my job. I suspect the home owner/photographer who offered their critiques mentioned earlier was interested in the final images for the sake of the images without the context that must accompany the final product - which is representing the property as it really is. To be fair, from a photography standpoint the critiques were spot on, and they would have made much better images, but this proves my point, gotta have context!
Get Down And Dirty
In a perfect world the property has been cleaned and organized prior to photography. I was once told by a real estate agent before selling my home many years ago to box up everything that isn't essential because A) we're moving anyway and B) because having less of my stuff in the house gives the potential buyer the chance to mentally place their own stuff instead. To get better images ensure that all the light bulbs work, clean both sides of the exterior windows, clean the carpets, clean the mirrors, remove excess clutter, remove everything from the outside of the refrigerator, remove the extra roll of toilet paper sitting near the sink, hide the shampoo bottles, roll up the garden hoses...you get the idea. It is good business to have the home ready and the time required to prepare it seems not only a hassle, and of little consequence on the front end of a sale, but we all come out ahead on the back end. I would challenge any listing agent to not go "live" with a listing until the home truly is ready. Everyone feels better about it, owners feel good to have gotten the house clean, the agent feels good because they have a home that is ready to show, and I feel good because all I have to do is frame up the amazing angles that were created when the home owner left me a clean organized home.