Professional Real Estate Photography - What’s the Value?

These days many people own a DSLR, and even iPhones can produce high quality images. So for a real estate agent or owners selling their own home, is there value in hiring a professional photographer to produce images for marketing and sales rather than taking the pictures themselves? The short answer is yes, there is value.

Architecture by Frank Gehry

When I first thought about starting a photography business, I recognized the value I could bring to interior design and exterior real estate photography and decided to focus my attention in those areas. The business I actually created involves fine art landscape photography because I feel it better suits my personality and my goals as a photographer. In those earlier days, however, I thought a lot about the value of professional photography for real estate and interior design. In this article I will discuss the value that professional real estate photography brings to the business.

To understand the value of professional photography, consider that the most expensive and advanced camera is (easily) capable of producing poor quality photographs. Similarly, the cheapest and simplest camera is capable of producing amazing photographs. It’s not the camera, it’s the person behind it--the photographer--that matters. The photographer has knowledge, skills, experience, and artistic sense. These qualities make a big difference in the kind of images you get. Let me give you an example.

Below are two photographs of a kitchen. I took the first image with a Canon 5D Mark III, one of the best professional DSLR cameras. I took the second image with an older Canon 50D, still a very nice DSLR, but not a professional-level camera and also several years behind in technology. The lens I’m using on the 5D Mark III is also superior to the lens on the 50D. Take a look at the images--no, I did not reverse the descriptions above. As I hope you can see, and as I’ll discuss, those camera differences don’t matter. The real difference is in how I created the photographs.

Kitchen snapshot taken with professional Canon 5D Mark III

Kitchen snapshot taken with professional Canon 5D Mark III

Kitchen taken professionally with older Canon 50D

Kitchen taken professionally with older Canon 50D

For the first image, I simply walked in the room, paying no attention to the time of day, the angle, the camera height, or the camera settings. I set the camera on automatic and output directly to JPEG, allowing the camera to apply its standard processing on the raw image data. I paid no attention to lighting other than trying to get the camera to expose the full image appropriately, and I did no post-processing work on the image.

For the second image, I was much more careful about how I worked. I went in intending to creating a photograph, not simply to take a picture or a snapshot. I thought about lighting, composition, and the overall effect the image would have on the viewer. I adjusted the camera settings manually so I had full control over what the camera would do. Finally, I captured this image in raw format and post-processed it to extract the maximum quality from the raw image data. During my post-processing, I corrected the exposure and color (color correction is critical when making interior photographs), and I removed some distracting elements to focus attention on the space itself. The first picture took about five seconds to make. The second took over an hour.

Is there a difference here? The difference between the two images is how they were made. I took the first one as a snapshot; I created a photograph in the second one. When I look at the first image, I say to myself, it’s a picture of a kitchen. That’s it--just a cold, purely intellectual response. On the other hand, the second image, created professionally with the inferior camera, evokes more of an emotional response in me. If I were a home buyer, I might think to myself, wow that’s a great kitchen! Or, hey, we have to look at this house! You the viewer are the final judge, but when I’m making a photograph of any kind, that’s what I’m going for--an emotional response or some kind of reaction from the viewer.

So is it worth it? When you hire a professional photographer, you’re hiring someone who has the knowledge, skills, and experience needed to produce high quality images that create an emotional response. You’re hiring an artist. You’re hiring someone who has in mind that second image, not the first one, and that’s the kind of image you will get. People see the photographs and want to be in the place and see it for themselves, or it makes them feel comfortable or happy. Or maybe they don’t know what it is about it, but they want to see more of it. That’s much better than the purely intellectual response of OK, that’s the kitchen, here’s the bedroom, etc.

If professional photography can get more people into a home more quickly, then on average the home should sell sooner and for a higher price, and there’s your value.

(One quick sidenote about the retouching in the second image. If you compare the two images, you’ll notice that I removed the air vent next to the ceiling lights. In a future blog post I will discuss the ethics of this kind of change, but I do want to mention here that for ethical reasons I would not alter an image in this way if I were producing it for a real estate listing.)