Ashley Myers collects bad photography. Specifically, she collects bad real estate photos — the ones that seem to go out of their way to make a home unappealing to would-be buyers.
To make her point on her blog on the ActiveRain.com networking site for real estate agents, Myers easily drums up half a dozen offenders culled from her local multiple listing service in Richardson, Texas: pictures that emphasize garish furniture instead of the room it’s in.
Fuzzy snaps of unremarkable bathroom vanities. Cloudy rooms — photographed at night — that are so underlit that one strains to discern such hard-to-miss features as a fireplace mantle.
And that’s just the technical quality of the photography: Real estate sites abound in rooms with partially made beds and floors strewn with socks or kitchens where the garbage overflows the cans.
"There are so many things real estate agents do" that sabotage the photographs of their own listings, says Myers. "I guess the two worst would either have to be lighting that’s so low you can’t see anything in the house — and just shooting from poor angles, like when the real estate agent focuses the picture on the door frame instead of the actual room."
Myers started advocating for better photo quality when she was in training to become a real estate agent; she was assigned to study an aspect of the business that needed improvement. She says most property photos uploaded to multiple listing services and real estate marketing Web sites are taken by the agents who have the listings and who may otherwise be great at sales but are out to lunch when it comes to composing a quality photograph.
These pictures, she says, can have a huge influence in attracting prospective buyers to a house. Conversely, they also can shut the door to a sale.
"Real estate agents can’t sell something to (consumers) who (chose not to contact) him because they didn’t like the pictures," says Dennis Huckaby, an architectural photographer in Blaine, Wash.
Huckaby estimates he’s shot 700 homes, mostly for real estate agents. He now teaches state-certified continuing-education courses on the topic for agents in Washington state.
He cites industry statistics suggesting that a vast majority of homebuyers begin their searches on the Internet, so the pictures they see there are crucial to getting them through the door. And they don’t have to be "bad" pictures to be a turnoff, he said.
"If 87 percent of the market starts on the Internet, a huge chunk of them are only looking for pictures," Huckaby said. "If people are putting up bland images that are the same as everybody else’s, then 87 percent of the market is skating right by."
Some suggestions for both agents and their clients, and for those going the for-sale-by-owner route:
1. Preparation is most of the battle, Huckaby said. The same advice about ruthlessly eliminating clutter for buyer tours applies to the room photography, too. That means emptying countertops, removing knickknacks, etc.
But there are exceptions, he said: Sometimes a well-placed vase of flowers or arrangement of fruit on a long stretch of bare countertop provides a focal point that makes the picture.
"If sunlight strikes across that counter from a window behind, that’s where the bowl of fruit should be placed," he said. "People will look at the brightest part of the image."
Both he and Myers are advocates of staging — bringing in furnishings to dress up empty rooms.
"I never quite saw the importance of it before, but the more I work with buyers, the easier it is to see that walking into a house that’s been staged even minimally, it’s better on the eyes," and helps them picture themselves living there, Myers said. …CONTINUED
2. Use a real camera. Seriously. Myers said she’s seeing room photography in MLS listings that obviously came from cell-phone cameras, most of which produce lackluster, low-resolution images.
Huckaby also said that although camera shops might suggest shooting rooms with wide-angle lenses in order to capture larger expanses, he suggests avoiding them, as they can distort room dimensions.
3. Skip the flash. Camera flashes light only about 8-10 feet of a room, casting the rest of it into dimness, Huckaby said.
Instead, he suggests, turn on the lights and set the camera for a longer exposure, steadied by an inexpensive tripod.
4. Bathrooms can be hard to shoot because they tend to be small and have mirrors and other reflective surfaces. The classic bad-bathroom photograph captures the flash of the camera — and the photographer — in the mirror.
Bathroom photographers, again, should use tripods and step out of the room to gain every inch of space, then trip the shutter via a timer, Huckaby said.
5. Because most MLSs limit the number of photographs per house, go easy on the kids’ rooms in order to take pictures of other parts of the house.
"Most children’s bedrooms look about the same," Huckaby said. "And usually, they don’t have any architectural features — an archway or an interesting window. If there are three kids’ bedrooms, one of them would do."
6. Foreclosed properties are problematic for photography, as many of them today suffer from neglect or outright vandalism.
Myers, who often works with foreclosure sales, said photograph them, anyway — the warts have to be dealt with honestly, and buyers of foreclosures or preforeclosures aren’t expecting perfection.
"There have been so many times when I’ve been working with a buyer who has chosen to see a property that has three photos with the listing that look great," she said. "But then, we get there and find that the bathroom has been destroyed or the cabinets need replacing."
She said those buyers resent the lack of disclosure and want to go to a house fully informed.
But Huckaby said that many homes that aren’t total disasters still can be salvaged photographically, to an extent.
"Even if it’s got warts, there’s a place to stand where you can make an interesting, attractive image," he said. The overall room photos may make the warts inescapable, but supplementary photographs of architectural details — a comfy window seat, the curve of a banister — will help, he said.
"These are things that real estate agents may pass up because they’re busy doing the wide-angle shot," he said. "And these things are going to be the sparkling diamonds when the house is fixed up. A flipper is going to figure this out."
Mary Umberger is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
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