Hastening the demise

Regular readers know that I often write about how rapidly changing technology is killing off various markets for professional photographers. I am concerned about this for selfish reasons, since I am a commercial photographer. I am also concerned for the next generation of photographers, wondering which photographic disciplines will be left for them to actually make money working in. If my recent experience is any indication, the future, with fewer and fewer financially viable market for pros is already here. I should know since I personally just hastened the demise of one viable market for commercial photography.

My wife and I are in the process of selling our home (and ideally, buying a new one.) As I was studying the housing market, in order to price our house for sale, (as well as looking at potential new houses,) I became a connoisseur of real estate photographs. My first reaction to what I saw was that most real estate photos are uniformly bad. “Easy to use” digital cameras and the economic pressures of the real estate market have led to a situation where most of the average sales, not the high-end sales, are advertised using mediocre imagery. Either the real estate agent makes the photos, the seller supplies the images themselves or a minimally skilled photographer is hired and does a minimally skilled job.

The other thing I noticed was how a good set of photos really makes a difference in the way I experienced a given property. Good photos welcomed me into a house while bad photos chased me away. Yes, I am a photographer and I can articulate what makes a good or bad photo, unlike the typical real estate buyer. While they may not be able to explain why they are turned off by a given image of a house, but turned off they are and that is all that matters to someone trying to sell a property.

An article in the New York Times reinforced my perspective. It is a good read, starting at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/22/nyregion/22appraisal.html In some ways the web version is better than the printed version that I initially read, because the web site enables you to see a good example of an average real estate image as compared to a great image. The article explores the world of NYC real estate photography, building on a profile of a man who makes his living photographing high-end apartments for sales and rental listings.

The good news is that his business is probably secure for a while longer, since paying him to do the images that will draw in potential buyers is a pittance compared to the multimillion dollar price tags on the properties he photographs. In the NYT article they noted: “…a typical two-hour assignment, including travel time, may cost $250 for four published shots, and editing may take one more hour.” On the other hand, living in New York City and earning only $250 for three hours worth of work hardly seems like a viable business.

Years ago, well-known architectural photographers such as the masters, Ezra Stoller or Julius Shulman, earned thousands and thousands of dollars photographing people’s homes on private commissions. If a similar a shoot costs well under a thousand dollars, how long will that professional market exist?

So how did I help undermine that same market? When we decided to sell our house, our real estate agent asked if I could make some photos of our condominium for her company’s web site. After studying the good and the bad on her site and on others, I went to work. Using a wide-angle lens, some patience and a tripod, I photographed different rooms in our house at the times of day that I thought would work best.

Then I opened up Photoshop and went to work on the various RAW files that I had made. I made sure to use plenty of highlight recovery and shadow fill so no area of the images was left too dark or too light. I used the transform function to correct for any distortions in perspective and to straighten out any warped lines/corners. By the time I was done, the images, which were only going to be displayed as low-res files on the web, looked really good. My real estate agent told me that, and she knows a good bit about good and bad real estate photos.

Yes, there will always be a market for the very high-end architectural images produced by master photographers. (That will be true in almost any photographic sub-specialty.) The problem is that the middle market, where most pros live and work, is slowly being decimated. (That will be similarly true in almost any photographic sub-specialty.) In the case of architectural work, the combination of ever improving cameras AND incredibly sophisticated software serve as a one-two punch that will erase the value that most architectural shooters bring to their respective markets.

I know this because my images were good enough to make my real estate agent happy and to get potential buyers into our house. Any day now the sale will close, the ultimate proof that my photos were good enough to do the job we needed done.

One response to “Hastening the demise”

  1. I used to be in the high-end estate sales too and the market was tough, especially during harder financial cycles like today. I was able to stay competitive with price-conscious clients by working out a quicker workflow with roll film backs on a Linhof technical camera.

    The clients were happy that their houses often won cover positions in the big glossy magazines targeted to that market, but new pressures came (competition) and digital was a big game-changer. I finally lost interest in constantly trying to prove myself to the new agents and new marketing directors as they began using “friends” (and later staff) who had art backgrounds.

    I might try some in the future since there has been an obvious slide in “acceptable” quality as you’ve pointed out clearly. Thanks for the NYT link.

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