Fixer-upper for sure

Lately, I've photographed several houses that were in great need of renovation. Last week I arrived to photograph a split-level and first saw a reasonably tidy, well-landscaped yard and well-maintained pool. The interior was a completely different story. For one thing, I don't think the carpets had been cleaned in several decades. Trails of wear and grim were evident everywhere. The ugliness was compounded by strange colors combinations. For example, the living room/dining room carpet had once been lemon yellow in a room with beige walls. A bedroom with lime-green walls had burgundy-red carpet. To a certain extent, the unusual colors were muted by the lack of light in many rooms. Some had no overhead fixtures, and rooms that did have lighting tended to have incandescent bulbs with a dim, orange color cast. It was only when I used flash with my photos that I could see the true colors -- and they were not attractive. Still, the house was in a good location, and someone with imagination could rescue it. However, rescuing it will involve significant renovation.

Move-in ready

A couple of months ago I photographed a house about 6600 square feet in a posh neighborhood. The house was for rent, not for sale, for $5500/month. It was completely furnished, with a stocked wine cellar, DVD movies for the home theater, non-perishable food in the cupboards, unopened board games in the family room, and a computer, printer and WiFi in the home office. Everything you needed after a trip to the grocery store for perishables. Amazing.

Colors not found in nature

It often amazes me the way that some people decorate their houses. I've seen rooms painted garish colors, such as fluorescent green. These colors are so weird that I'm not sure my camera can capture just how weird they are. In fact, during editing, I might tone down the colors just because I'm not sure potential buyers will believe just how bizarre they really are. Sometimes I'm amazed that paint companies make such colors for houses. Just a couple of weeks ago, I photographed such a house and despaired that anyone would purchase it. However, it was under contract within two days. I suppose the price was right and the buyers were ready to repaint. Now, about the strong odor of dog urine in that same house . . .

Been awhile . . .

I just realized that I haven't written anything here for awhile. (Bad SEO strategy to not keep updating.) In any event, I don't think anyone ever reads this stuff. Still, it's a good way for me to record my own reactions to my work as a real-estate photographer. 

Don't know how it will sell

Sometimes I'm skeptical about how easily a house will sell. I recently shot photos of a 1960s one-story brick ranch-style house that looks like a tough sell. The interior walls were generally discolored by age. Some were damaged. A single, small bathroom served the three-bedroom house. Uneven, cheap flooring throughout. All the fixtures appeared worn out. However, the house was set on many acres of open pastures -- that's really the selling point for the property. I assume the price will be set really low in hopes that some horse lover will fall in love with the acreage and be willing to fix-up the house. The realtor has her work cut out for her on this one.


I'm happy to have joined a networking group of photographers and videographers in the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina. The group includes David Williams, Rich Gorberg, Jeff Philips, Steffanie Lafors, Lindsay Aikman, Kevin Seifert, John Van Ness, Catherine Davis and Marty Miller. You can learn more about them and their photographic services here:

Even when it's a little sad

I remember photographing a really spectacular house that obviously hadn't been occupied in years. The house was only about 10 years old, and I knew it was a foreclosure property. My guess is that someone had built the house with a lot of ambitions for it but couldn't afford the cost over time. Maybe the owner lost his/her job. But it was obviously custom-built. It had beautiful wood floors with dark inlay framing the space around the edges. The living room and kitchen had 20-foot ceilings, and two-story windows lined the back of the house. The central hall went up three stories, and a narrow spiral staircase stood in one corner. And an elevator. I sure could have used that elevator, but the house had no electricity. The spiral staircase looked cool but was actually thin and unstable. I had to go up and down it several times carrying a lot of camera equipment, and each time I feared the whole thing would collapse. I never did find a way to get to the third floor. I assume that the elevator was the only way to get up there. The house had lots and lots of rooms, but I never figured out how several would have been used. Even without furniture, the interior was amazing, and I spent hours photographing that interior, hoping to do it justice.

The exterior was less impressive, but it had once had potential. The deck on the back wrapped around two sides and extended far out from the house. At the front were large double doors and bay windows. At the top of the roof stood a cupola, not just a decorative cupola but one large enough to actually be used. Unlike the interior, the exterior was never going to win any design awards, but it was meant to impress. On the other hand, the owner had, apparently, little love for landscaping. A few scraggly azalea bushes were all that remained of plantings. A broken bird bath leaned to one side. A little bit of gravel had been spread for the circular drive. Tall weeds everywhere now. After years of neglect, part of the porch was rotting, and I feared breaking through the boards if I didn't watch my step. I could see rotting wood up among the eaves as well. Such a shame. I tried, of course, to make it appear its best in my photos, but a landscaper and a handyman are what it really needed.

Despite all of my effort to bring out the value still in the house, my photos were never actually published. Over the last couple of years, I've occasionally checked on the house's status. It passes, periodically, from one realtor to another, and the price drops. Once I offered my photos for free to one of the later realtors, but he didn't take me up on the offer.

I got some great photos of that house for my portfolio, but I've always felt a little sad about the fate of that amazing place.

Even when it's ugly

When you start real-estate and architectural photography, you imagine the beautiful photos you'll take of beautiful houses and buildings. The reality is that clients want photos of all kinds of properties, some of which are not beautiful. Some are simply plain. Some are simply ugly, mainly because they've been allowed to deteriorate. 

I photographed a house a few months ago that had been trashed by the occupants. Mounds of beer cans and food wrappers. Carpets torn, stained and smelling of cat urine. Luckily, my client hired someone to dispose of all the garbage and rip out the carpeting, before I took the photos. Of course, the owner could have spent the time and money to fix up the place, but I guess he simply wanted to sell the house quickly, "as is."

I took the photos, and I did the image editing to make the house appear its very best (relatively speaking). That's the job. And I always want to give my clients my best work. Taking photos of unattractive properties is not what I imagined I would be doing, but it helps pay the bills. And I will never turn down a job based on the condition of the property.

You never know

Most clients contact me about two days before they want the photos taken. I’ve also had clients schedule a shoot up to a month in advance. Then again, I’ve had clients contact me at lunchtime for an afternoon shoot on the same day. You just never know. So keep your batteries charged and have clean cards ready to go.

Operating on trust

When I started professional real-estate photography, I had expected some clients to direct me during the shooting process and then to carefully choose 25 photos from the 40 or 50 that I’ve taken for inclusion on the MLS. While it’s certainly true that some clients will mention one or two features they want to make sure I photograph and then want to make their own selections from all the photos I’ve taken, but most are trusting me to take the right photos and then select the 25 best ones to represent a house on the MLS. Sometimes it’s a little scary to think that they’re depending so much on me, but sometimes it also makes me feel good that they trust me so much. Fingers crossed that it keeps going this way.

New Manfrotto tripod head

(Intended audience: photographers)

Recently, I purchased a new tripod head with the hope it would increase my speed and accuracy when leveling my camera. (In real-estate photography, speed is important because I might have three dozen setups over the course of two hours.) The official name is Manfrotte 410 Junior Geared Head, which I purchased from Adorama as a used item. It's called a geared head because it has gears inside to adjust the camera rotation and front-to-back and side-to-side leveling.

Formerly, I used a ball-head tripod head, which required me to spend a lot of time adjusting the camera to make sure it was perfectly straight and level. Sometimes getting it perfect was tedious because a change in one dimension often required an adjustment in another, and I might go back and forth between two dimensions several times. Often, I gave up and decided to correct the leveling in software. That's not necessarily a bad way to do things, for the most part. However, sometimes doing the leveling in software means the photo will to be cropped by the software, which occasionally produces undesirable results when tolerances are close.

I'm delighted to report that the new geared head allows me to quickly set each dimension with a couple twists of the gear knobs. In fact, making the adjustments has actually been faster and easier than I had dared hope. I still double-check my vertical lines in my editing software, Adobe Lightroom, but I've noticed that Lightroom rarely needs to make any change. 

One note here: when I'm leveling the camera, I make the adjustments based on the two-dimensional virtual horizon in my Nikon D750, not the bubble level on the tripod head. A bubble level just can't be as accurate as the precision system built into the camera. (And that's another reason I love my D750. It's a super camera for real-estate and architectural work.)

Of course, the new tripod head has a couple disadvantages. First, the geared head is heavier than the old ball head. Fortunately, the difference isn't so great that it discourages me from using it. I also use a Feisol carbon-fiber tripod that's fairly lightweight, and the combination with my D750 still makes for a system that's not overly heavy.

The second disadvantage is closely related to the first. The plate for attaching the camera to the tripod head is unnecessarily big. All of my other head plates, both Manfrotto and Arca-Swiss types, aren't nearly as large. Manfrotto could reduce the head's weight several ounces by incorporating one of their smaller plates, which many photographers probably already own.

In summary, I'm very happy with my new tripod head. Manfrotto makes several geared heads that seem very similar to one another, and I had difficulty choosing one. However, the 410 Junior suits my needs very well, and I would recommend it to other real-estate and architectural photographers.

What’s the worst?

A vacant house. Empty rooms rarely look appealing. Besides having little visual interest, they often provide no perspective about size. I’ve often toyed with the idea of introducing an item, such as a chair or yardstick, to create perspective, but clients generally don’t like the idea because they feel an isolated object will look odd. Give me a furnished/staged house every time.


Editing is critical

When I first considered professional real-estate photography, my only mental image was walking around houses shooting photos. The reality has turned out to be that for every hour spent shooting, I will spend at least another hour sitting at my desktop computer editing photos. My editing process is still evolving, and it’s still got lots of inefficiencies, but the importance of editing in real-estate photography is, to me, a key to successful photos. When I look at photos on the MLS, one factor that distinguishes high from low quality is editing. Many MLS photos are simply not edited at all. They’re straight out of the cell-phone camera and into the MLS. With even minimal editing effort, they could be improved immensely. To be honest, editing improves my own photos immensely. I try to take the best photo I reasonably can, but a trip through Lightroom always helps. Always.


Squeezing into corners

When I began, I didn’t realize just how much time I would spend squeezing myself between pieces of furniture into room corners. Generally, I’m trying to frame as much of the room as possible, which means wedging my tripod-mounted camera as far back into a room corner as possible. For RE photography, I use a Nikon D750, and when I bought it, I really didn’t take the articulating view screen seriously. However, that feature is now critical to me. I’m over 6-feet tall, and if my camera didn’t have that articulating screen, allowing me to get an easy view while contorted into a corner, RE photography would send me to a chiropractor weekly.


Writings on the walls

When did this get to be a thing? Words painted on the interior walls of a house. Some are sweet: "Always kiss before saying goodnight" painted on the master-bedroom door. Some are weird, such as the Star Trek (original series) quote that I can't remember. Some make me think, such as "Get naked," painted in very large letters above a single woman's bathtub. To each his own.

Speaking of painted walls, almost all houses have very neutral colors on all walls. But there is one room I won't forget. It was painted hot pink, a real assault on the eyes. Plus, it had a chain lock on the door -- on the inside. I'd like to know the story behind that one. 


The stuff people leave behind

Desks, chairs, tables, other odd pieces of furniture. Recently saw a pool table. Framed photos of Hollywood movie stars from the 1930s and 40s. Decorative wall hangings. And often bags of trash. Shampoo, Deck chairs with their cushions. Litter boxes for cats. Lawnmowers.

Most houses I photograph have current occupants and all their usual stuff. But some houses are vacant and many contain castoffs. And these things make me wonder about the stories behind the vacant houses. Did the owners have to move in a hurry? No room in the next house for old furniture? The realtors probably know, but I try not to be nosy. I'm sure they have seen it all.

Why a blog?

Experts tell me that having a blog will improve my website's ranking in Google searches. Sites that have a lot of activity tend to attract more attention from search engines. I'm sure that using certain keywords -- such as geographic locations, realtor names, etc -- will help as well.

Also, I do have some observations from my first year of professional real-estate photography that I'd like to pass along. Some of them apply to the realty business and some to the photography business. As I go along, I'll try to make it clear what topic I'm broadly addressing so you can find what, if anything, interests you.