Droning on

FAA Reply

The FAA has finally published requirements for using a drone commercially (Part 107).

Now that it’s legal to use a drone for aerial photos of a property, there are a few things to keep in mind. Pilots must pass a test to be licensed and the craft must have a registration number on them for identification. While not a legal requirement, commercial insurance that specifically covers drone use is something every professional should posses. Hiring somebody that doesn’t have a license or insurance could put an agent at risk. (update 23 May 2017. A letter from the FAA confirms that an agent that hires an unlicensed UAV operator may be subject to fines of $11,000 per violation; considerably more than the $1,100/violation that the operator may be fined.)

When and where to use highly elevated images is up to an agent, but there are some things to consider. First is whether an aerial image has any value. For tract homes with minimum spacing between, an aerial image will only highlight how tightly packed is the neighborhood. Secondly, many images just show the same view as the satellite view on Google Earth, a whole bunch of roof. For many of these homes an elevated view can be taken from a ladder or using PAP (Pole Aerial Photography (camera on a stick)) much more quickly and for less cost. Good candidates are large properties with outbuildings, horse arenas/corrals, etc. Homes built on a hillside can often be difficult to photograph from ground level and some excellent images can be made by bringing the camera up the the elevation of the home with an aircraft.

Indoor fly-thru videos can be very exciting, but be sure your pilot is licensed, insured and has plenty of experience. With 4 or more spinning blades, it can be very easy to damage items in a home. It generally best if there is a pilot that is watching where the aircraft is going along with another person that is operating the camera. If a pilot is trying to do both, it is real easy to plow into a painting or counter full of personal items. Pilots may even injure themselves (check out the videos on YouTube).

Adding aerial images, video and 3D scans are all secondary to having a professionally produced gallery of still images. High quality still images will entice a buyer to view more of the listing and video/aerial will be more likely to be watched. Just like stills, aerial photos need to add value. A view of the front yard from 40ft in the air is novel, but not particularly useful. A view into a neighbors backyard full of hoarded junk might put buyers off. Seeing all 7.5 acres of garden, barns and home might get the right buyer to pick up the phone.

There are a lot of inexpensive and cheap drones on the market. The cameras that come with them are typically on par with a middle of the road cell phone camera (pretty bad from a photographer’s perspective). It’s not until you’ve passed the $2-$3k price point where they have the lift capacity to support a good quality camera (Sony, Nikon, Canon advanced point-n-shoots or a mirrorless model). If the images you are visualizing are going to contribute lots of value to your marketing, spend the money to have the aerial photos done correctly. An aerial provider that started as a real estate photographer and added aerial services to their repertoire is going to be much better than somebody that bought a drone and is looking to make some money taking pictures.

I may consider offering aerial photos in the future, but the agent’s I have spoken with are not ready to spend the money it will take to offset the thousands of dollars in equipment, training, licensing and insurance to be able to do it at a profit.

©2016, Kenneth Brown. All rights reserved.

Marketing 4

Never stop evaluating your marketing.

Without sounding too much like a survey, always ask buyers a couple of questions about your marketing when they call for the first time. Where did they see the listing they are calling about? Were the pictures clear and sharp? If you have the time and the caller doesn’t seem rushed, you can always ask a few more questions later. A leading statement such as, “I just started using a new photographer. Can you tell me what you liked and disliked about the photos posted on the listing? Did the photos encourage you to give me a call to see the home in person? Be sure to keep notes. Knowing how buyers are finding your listings and what prompted them to call or send an email enquiry tells you a lot about where to beef up your advertising and how effective the advertising you are doing is working.

Your marketing is not just about home sales. You are marketing yourself with every listing you have. Find out from clients why they listed with you each and every time. Keep a spreadsheet or a simple piece of paper with their reasons that they signed with you rather than another agent. If the photos compelled the seller to list with you and the buyer to make initial contact, you may want to notate the doublet.

Advertising is part of being in and growing a business. To maximize the work that your advertising dollars are doing requires keeping written records of each time you can correlate a customer to a specific campaign. As a real estate professional, you get bombarded daily with all sorts of sure-fire lead generation systems, the same system that made the advertiser X millions of dollars on their very first day, that can be had for the low price of  $$$ if you act right away. A microscopically few of them might even work, but you won’t know if they work any better than sending post cards to every address in a zip code unless you keep track.

©2015, Kenneth Brown. All rights reserved.

Go wide, go wide.

One of the questions I get asked frequently is if I have a wide angle lens. Yes, I do. I have a lens that is as wide as one can go before it becomes a fisheye view. The better question is whether I know when to NOT use the UWA (Ultra Wide Angle) lens. When there is an upgraded secondary bath/power room that deserves to be in the gallery, the only way to make the image is with the UWA lens. Using it for every room “to make the home look huge” is problematic. Objects around the edges and close to the lens become freakishly distorted. I can recall a refrigerator that looked eight feet wide and a sofa with an arm that a St Bernard could sleep on. Buyers are not happy to find that the “massive” home they expected to see in person turns out to be “cozy”.

Selecting the best composition and the most appropriate lens are part of the skills that I bring as a professional photographer. There is no formula that I can plug numbers into and have it spell out what vantage point to choose and which lens to grab for the best results. It’s a matter of lots of experience and training. Many times it’s much better to use several tighter photos than one all encompassing image. In the age of people wishing to use ever smaller displays, the wide shot is a wasted opportunity if it’s used too much.

©2015, Kenneth Brown. All rights reserved.

Marketing 3

In step one, you worked with the homeowner to get their home prepped and staged for photos and showings.

In step two, you brought in a professional photographer that specializes in architectural and interiors photography.

Here at step three is where you get those photos where potential buyers can see them. If you aren’t already a member, sign up at Trulia, Zillow and Realtor.com for an agent account. This will allow you to post much higher resolution/larger pictures of your listings. Compared to GAVAR, CRISNET and CRMLS, the difference is a huge jump in quality. The displays in modern phones, tablets, laptops and computers are getting better fast. Apple’s Retina display is an example of a premium display that people are gobbling up. If you have seen what 4K video looks like, you’ll understand what it means when I say that the camera I use takes 5.7K images at full resolution and the next time I buy a new body, it will be even higher. Since I’ve already captured a higher resolution image than can be reproduced on most displays, it makes a lot of sense to leverage that with the maximum resolution images that can be submitted to real estate listing sites.

Being able to hand a prospective buyer a physical brochure can be a great advantage in them remembering your listing at an open house or private showing. Flyers generated automatically from the MLS are junk and represent your marketing efforts as sub-standard. To really grab attention, you need to use the high resolution images you have had made with a pleasing layout that highlights the best selling features of the home. Not only has digital photography added another dimension to visual marketing, the same technology has made it less expensive to print eye-popping color brochures on heavyweight paper. Turn around can be as little as one day. Why waste money on expensive ink-jet replacement cartridges when the best quality can be had for just a little more? (BTW, printed and coated brochures don’t run when they get wet.)

Quality marketing isn’t just for your highest priced listings. Your marketing is what advertises you as a brand more than it advertises your listings. The key to making good money in real estate is to have as much inventory as you can handle no matter the market. When you show a prospective client professional photo galleries of the homes you have sold and hand them copies of quality brochures you have for your current listings, you are going to get more signatures on listing contracts than the bulk of agents in the AV. Many agents don’t even roll down the car window to take the mandatory front exterior picture and print brochures with an inkjet printer that isn’t printing one of its colors. It’s true! I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

©2015, Kenneth Brown. All rights reserved.

Twilight – The Photo

Should you pay extra and get some of those cool twilight photos of your listing? The best answer is “maybe”. Not every home will lend itself to a good twilight image. Multi-story homes with lots of windows or large view windows can be good candidates. A home with nice grounds and separation from neighboring homes might also be a good candidate. Exterior landscape lighting helps to create a true representation.

Twilight photos, which might be best in the wee hours of the morning rather than sunset, are typically a composite of two or more pictures. It’s rare that a good twilight image can be made from one shot. Using two photos allows the photographer to take one frame to get the perfect sky and the other for the best exposure of the home. This type of compositing is used to overcome the limitations photography has in comparison with our eyes. In extreme compositions, a photographer may take over 50 images, each with a “pop” of a flash in a small area and combine them all in a photo editing program to create an exciting image. This sort of processing can lead to great results, but care should be taken since the image isn’t a true representation of the property and buyers may believe that the property is equipped with extensive outdoor lighting.

Regardless of the technique used to create a twilight photo, timing is tight and only one or two finished images come out of the photo session. If everything goes perfectly, it could be possible to get 3 good images, but that’s a bonus that shouldn’t be counted on. A twilight photo can take nearly as much time to photograph and process as an entire home shoot which is why the cost might seem high. For a composition of dozens of photos, it might take 3-4 hours on-site and 5-6 hours of post production to get that perfect look.

Smartphones and tablets really show their limitations when it comes to twilight photos. Since they have limited dynamic range (the gradation of dark to light), lots of dark noise, cheap optics and are difficult to mount to a tripod, the results are going to be less than stellar.

For a high profile listing, a twilight photo could be great for marketing and impressing your clients. Done right, they make a great impact. Poorly done, and they might cost more than they’re worth. Since twilights take a photographer with lots of skill and experience, hire a pro to get the best results.

©2015, Kenneth Brown. All rights reserved.

What not to do #1

I’m trying to stay upbeat in my blog and suggest positive things to agents to increase their sales and brand image, but sometimes highlighting the negative can be more instructive.

A big difference between professional and amateur photographers is what is kept and what gets thrown away. I find it extremely common to see blurry and out of focus pictures posted. Some listings will have the photos straight out of the camera and then a set that have been over sharpened followed by another set of the same photos with the color saturation set to 11. Toss out the rejects right away. If something didn’t come out right, go back and reshoot the photo or, better yet, get a pro to do it for you. Also, don’t mix professional and lesser quality images on a listing, it’s like somebody in an orchestra playing a discordant note, it ruins the whole thing even when 99.9% of the musicians are playing the correct note.

Camera manufacturers have been building in useless gimmicks for ages. When camcorders became popular, they had all sorts of cheesy effects that you could apply to your home movies. Some people played with them at first and gave up shortly thereafter. Smartphone camera software has gone the same route with all sorts of automatic processing and effects. Unfortunately, these effects are like having a single knob that people crank way up. Professional software like Photoshop is akin to having over a thousand knobs on the control panel to adjust. Daunting for most people, but it gives the flexibility to dial in just the proper amount of change to an image. A professional’s goal is to edit images so they are as close to real life as it’s possible to get with modern equipment. A desaturated low contrast image (Instasomething) or an over-saturated, clownish photo (Tone-mapped HDR) are two results that don’t work well with marketing real estate. Turning on the orange date stamp is detracting. If you need images date/time stamped for documentation to send to banks or other parties, take a second set with them off for your marketing images.

There is a fascination with toilets. Secondary bathrooms don’t make good visuals for marketing unless they are large and upgraded. The problem is that they are very difficult to photograph and the standard agent shot is from a high angle looking directly at the toilet with the lid up. The photo is also in portrait orientation (tall and skinny) which doesn’t present well on listing sites. The best advice is to skip the secondary bathrooms unless they are special. The person/people footing the bill for the home are getting the master bedroom! Pictures of the master bath are a requirement. Make sure the occupants clear off the counters and remove bottles and accessories from the shower/bathtub. Having samples from the entire Revlon and Amway catalogs looks a bit messy. And, close the lid on the toilet.

Wrong way up. MLS’s and commercial listing sites are geared for photos in “landscape” orientation (short and wide) not “portrait” (tall and skinny). Going vertical throws away a bunch of “real estate” in a photo gallery. Always compose photos in landscape mode unless you are planning on combining two or three images into one. Always make sure that images show the right way up when they are posted. Photos that appear online upside down or sideways are big negatives.

Alien ceiling fans and cameos of the floor. Nice ceiling fans can be a good selling point. Posting a detail shot of one might be useless. A properly composed photo of a room will show the ceiling fan or enough of it so it’s obvious that it’s there. When taking pictures, fans should be stopped. I often see attempts to take a detail picture of a ceiling fan while it’s on along with its lights. The result is a whirling blur in a dark room and three or four blown out (over exposed) light bulbs. Looking down, some agents try to take a detail image of the flooring. The same composition advice holds here. If the overall room photo is composed correctly, the flooring will show. Keep in mind that the objective with the photos is to “highlight” and not “document”. Fancy tile work and ceiling fans can be pointed out in a showing where they will be appreciated more. If it doesn’t come out well in an image, buyers may think that it’s needs to be ripped out at an extra cost and delay being able to move in.

Even if your office provides somebody to take pictures of your listings, insist on using your own photographer if the images are less than stunning. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch (TANSTAAFL) and bad images that you use just because they are free might be losing you opportunities. With over 800 active listing agents in the Antelope Valley and many more agents from out of the area representing homes in the AV, your marketing needs to stand out if you plan to make a living in real estate.

©2015, Kenneth Brown. All rights reserved.


What price point do I use professional photography?

The short answer is: all homes you represent should have professional photos made, but you would expect a photographer to say that. The most value pro photography brings to an agent is a greater perceived value by the home seller of the agent’s marketing expertise. Maintaining consistent quality across all of your listings shows your willingness to provide a high level of service to all of your customers.

The agent doesn’t always have to pay for the photography out of their own pocket. It might be possible to get the seller to foot the bill. All of the industry studies show that professional photography leads to higher selling prices and faster turn around on average. For the agent, a couple of thousand dollars increase in a sale price doesn’t always give enough of a net increase in commission to cover the photos, but it certainly does for the owner. If the seller insists on an asking price way over the comps, offer to rebate them the cost of the photography at closing if they are to pay for it up front.

The two key items that cost a photographer is the travel expense and the number of photos delivered. Just to prep the equipment, travel to and from the site and take care of the paperwork means that there is a certain minimum price to do the job. But, once the batteries are charged and the car is loaded, it’s not as large of an additional cost to do a small job in the same general area. This is where having a few days of flexibility can lead to getting photographs made for those lower priced properties at a rate within the marketing budget. Lesser expensive properties don’t need nearly as many pictures as a large estate. 6 to 8 images might be perfect to highlight a manufactured home or small bungalow. A photographer would still have to charge about the same as they would to provide 14-18 finished images of a larger home were they to make a special trip to make photos of the small property. To only have to travel a few blocks while in the area can bring down the price considerably. It’s always nice to have a full day scheduled in the same area whether it’s one big job or a mix of smaller ones.

©2015, Kenneth Brown. All rights reserved.

Free Listing Photography

Mention free and you attract a lot of attention even though we should all know that “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”. Here’s some ways to bolster your chances of gaining a new client and saving money on listing photography:

Brining in a professional photographer to make photos of a client’s home can sometimes land an agent the listing. It’s the easiest concept for a seller to grasp over a presentation full of esoteric, real estate-centric marketing techniques and jargon. If you are meeting with a potential client with a quality home, that will take your lead in pricing it correctly, would you “buy” that listing for $100-$200? By offering to include professional photography for “free”, a $XXX value, you may well pick up the listing over the more than 800 active listing agents in the AV.

Especially with new homes and renovated flips, there is the opportunity to make a commission by referring a number of other customers that want quality photos of a given home. Not only could you get your listing photos for free, there is the possibility of making money from the commissions. Once on site and set up, taking additional photos to showcase the work of the tradesmen that contributed their expertise is very easy. It takes more time as the additional photos are composed to showcase features relevant to each customer and may not necessarily be useful for the MLS listing. For example, photos of the interior designer’s work will focus more on “stuff” rather than the bigger picture. Interiors photography is not easy and many contractors like to have very good images of jobs they have done for their Book.

©2015, Kenneth Brown. All rights reserved.

The Quantity Myth

There is a myth in the real estate industry whose origin is difficult to pin down, but continues being circulated. It’s the myth that more photos on a listing will get that listing a higher ranking. I’ve been told that some MLS’s will rank by number of photos, but buyers don’t have access to the MLS.

I’ve contacted the major consumer real estate search sites and they have all told me that while one is able to sort by number of pictures, it has no bearing on where a listing will appear in a list. In fact, the only criteria is when listings are entered into the system with the newest listings shown on top. This means that it is extremely important to have all of your marketing materials ready to upload when you place your clients listing on your MLS. For the best results, it’s a good idea to not rely on syndication to the big three consumer facing web sites and upload your new listings directly with high resolution photos.

Stress to your clients that getting their home prepped for photography quickly is very important as it’s detrimental to list their property without a full set of quality photos. While it customary for MLS’s to only require one photo with a listing, waiting to put up more will only mean that the listing may be several pages down before the balance get syndicated out to all of the listing web sites. Just like an internet search engine, the first page that comes up gets the most clicks on its links and next to nothing on page 5.

©2015, Kenneth Brown. All rights reserved.

What’s all this about copyright?

A Very Informal Article on Copyright as it Applies to Real Estate Photography

Copyright gives authors and creators of original works the right to control those works. In the United States, the founding fathers considered copyright so important that it is the only right embodied in the body of the Constitution. All of the other rights are amendments to the original document starting with the first 10 known as The Bill of Rights.

Hand in hand with Copyright is the concept of licensing. Even if you aren’t coming from a advertising and marketing background and familiar with working in the creative community, you do know something about licensing. When you buy a CD or DVD, you aren’t buying ownership of the music or movie, you are buying the physical disc (usually with no guarantee) and a limited license for the contents. Most everybody knows that even if you own a CD, you aren’t allowed to copy the music and post it online or make a duplicate for a friend. You are also not allowed to use a song for a soundtrack on a video you post to YouTube. If you bought the music online via digital download, your license is even more restricted. While you can sell the CD you bought, give it away, trade it in for credit and bequeath it to somebody in your will, the terms of nearly all (probably all, but I haven’t read all the fine print in the world) online music stores state that the license dies when you do and you have no right to transfer the file to anybody else for a price or even for free. You should always read the fine print, but I’ll warn you that it’s usually depressing.

You didn’t think that when Microsoft used Start Me Up by the Rolling Stones they only paid $12.99, did you? It was a figure in the millions of dollars. The US Post Office doesn’t get to use Spiderman® in it’s advertising by buying one comic book. They both had to negotiate for a license to use those creations and the price would have been determined by such factors as the length of time of use, the media it would appear on, if there were products incorporating the creations being sold for a profit, where on Earth and a host of other factors.

Now that you know you have been licensing stuff for years, you should be comfortable with the fact that most photographs are typically not sold, but licensed. Photo licenses are not only priced according to the effort it takes to produce them but also the estimated value they will bring to the customer or the value society at large places on them. Even technically imperfect images sometimes rise to the status of iconic and therefore can be very valuable. A photograph of a home licensed to a local agent will be priced less than the same image licensed to a nation-wide real estate franchise. The larger company will get more value from the image by using it in all of their advertising media where the agent might only be looking to use the image for a few months of local advertising until the listing sells.

You don’t need to own the copyright to use an image, only a license for the use you want to put it to. Unfortunately, there are articles on real estate association websites that state you should always demand to be assigned the copyright. If you are working with a experienced professional photographer, the demand could be considered rude. Experienced photographers prefer to retain the copyrights on their images to take advantage of opportunities to license those images for additional income. The realities of listing photography is that the price the market will bear isn’t as profitable as other genres, so being able to bring in more income with secondary licensing is key to being able to service the market at an acceptable price. An agent/broker will want to make sure they are getting a license to use the images in marketing materials they plan on using for the length of time they need. Usually the length of the listing contract or the contract time and one renewal. Additionally, you will want to be able to use the photos in your own portfolio of sold properties to display the excellence of your marketing materials. You can always negotiate for an expanded license if you really need it.

The license granted to an agent will preclude reselling or giving away the images they license, but any good photographer will pay a commission if an agent refers a customer. It is also possible for an agent to get images of a listing at no cost by referring several more photography customers from one home such as, the cabinet builder, the landscaping company, the appliance store, the builder, the architect, etc. The photographer will negotiate a license with each one of these additional customers directly and pay a commission (if they’re smart) based on the sale. The photos for each of the additional customers will be composed for their needs, but once on site, it doesn’t take much time to shoot the additional images.

When you take your own pictures, you own the copyright. As soon as the file is written to memory, a copyright is established. If you hand me your camera and I take the picture, I own the copyright. Ownership of the tools has no bearing on the copyright unless the work is being performed by an employee whose regular duties include taking pictures. Copyright can also be assigned at creation if the photographer is working under a signed Work-For-Hire (WFH) contract. Work for hire contracts are often used in situations where a photographer is the “second shooter” at a wedding working for the primary photographer. They are also used with “Set Photographers” on a movie set. The contracts may or may not allow the photographer the use of the photos in their own portfolios and could have a range of other allowances and restrictions. Most independent photographers will not work under a WFH contract or will charge a much higher fee for the work. Second shooters are often apprentices learning the craft with the expectation of advancing to a more senior and higher paying position or leaving to start their own company.

While you own the copyright as soon as you click the shutter, your remedies for going after somebody that has stolen your images are very limited. The best you reasonably can do without spending lots of money is send a DMCA notice to a web host if the image is found online or ask nicely for them to stop. There could be repercussions on the infringer beyond what you might collect from them. Real estate associations may fine or suspend a member if they receive official notices of copyright infringement. The scene changes if the images are registered with the copyright office as many experienced photographers do. Remedies for infringement include attorney’s fees which means that a photographer’s attorney may work on a contingency basis for clear cut cases (read: no out of pocket expense for the photographer). If a law suit is filed, the minimum award is over $10,000 and could go up to $150,000 (very rare) or higher in exceptionally rare cases plus those attorneys fees and expenses. It’s not common for infringement cases to see the inside of a courtroom. Settlements before trial are much more common. The easiest way to avoid copyright issues is to never use photos given to you unless you have a clear license for them and to make sure your team knows this as well. Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s free. The term for a copyright is the life of the creator plus 70 years (120 years from creation for a corporation). Any modern photograph you would likely want to use is copyrighted.

You might now ask if there is any situation where you should own the copyright. Yes, there is. If you have commissioned a designer to create a logo or artwork for your business, you want to own that. A staff photo taken at your office is a good example of where you would want at the very least a “perpetual” (non-expiring) license. There are occasions where an assignment of copyright is expected as part of the transaction or may be requested. If I think of one that would pertain to the real estate industry at the listing agent level, I’ll update this post. I know that some nationwide brands have been trying to get photographers to sign contracts that effectively give away their copyrights.  There was screaming in the real estate photographer’s forums online, I will tell you. Nearly all of the best photographers refused to sign and as the hoorah has settled down, I think the local offices have bucked the directive so they can continue using the photographers that have been giving them good service and measure. The cover story was that the agreement was needed for insurance purposes. It wasn’t.

The usual disclaimer:

None of the above is legal advice. I hired thousands of monkeys and a truck load of second hand typewriters and these are the paragraphs with good spelling that seemed to fit together. The process is working well. See other primate induced meanderings on this site for additional light entertainment. Always, always, always talk with an attorney that has experience in the field for real, true advice. If you are having chest pains, go to a hospital, not webmd.com. If you have the flu, stay home and have some chicken soup, antibiotics won’t help. You should have got the flu shot when you were at the pharmacy.

The horses mouth: www.copyright.gov

Getty Images has put together a post on copyright issues that can be found at this URL: http://copyrightenforcementprogram.com/copyright-101-copyright-and-content-licensing/

©2014 Kenneth Brown. All rights reserved.