rant

So You Are Thinking of Getting Into Real Estate Photography… (Part 1 – An Introduction) by Michael Jin

©2019 Michael Jin. Self portrait.

Disclaimer: Everything that I say here is from my own experience. I did not learn how to do this from a mentor or a company that was already established in the business. It is a role that I transitioned into naturally through other work. My learning process has been a combination of reflecting on failures and doing a lot of online research. The conditions that I describe are my own and not everyone goes through the same experiences. Every market is different, and you will likely encounter your own unique challenges. If you are reading this, be mindful that my words are not gospel nor are they intended to be. They are simply the honest experience of someone who is working in this field. I am sharing this to give you all an unfiltered look into my world. You can pick out good things for yourself and try to identify things that you might want to potentially avoid. Beyond sharing my thoughts, I can offer no guidance because you are not me and I am not you.


Having done this for a few years now, I have decided to collect some of my thoughts and feelings about this profession and write them down. Every now and then, I come across an article or a video that talks about how real estate photography is a great gateway toward becoming a professional photographer. There is one common thread that seems to run through all of these articles and videos. It is that real estate photography is:

  1. Easy

  2. Cheap

  3. A good way to make money to buy more gear.

Truth be told, real estate photography can certainly be these things. Like so many things in life, much will be determined by how deep down the rabbit hole you want to go and how seriously you want to take it. Here are some of the thoughts of a person who has been actively doing real estate photography in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan for the past three years and five months.


A Long Bit of Background

I was not always a photographer. I never dreamed of being a photographer. From the age of 8 until I was in my mid-20’s, my father owned a 1-Hour Photo in the Bronx. I learned how to load the machines with film when I was in elementary school. In junior high school, I spent my weekends helping customers, taking passport photos on an old Polaroid camera, printing on the old Agfa printer that we had, color correcting just by looking at negatives, and loading paper into magazines in the darkroom we had in the back. I spent my high school years continuing to work at my father’s place on the weekends. By then, I was developing black and white film for customers, framing photos, scanning film, digitally restoring photographs with Adobe Photoshop, taking studio photos for First Communion, Graduation, etc. and giving all manner of photographic advice to customers. At that point, I was pretty much able to run every aspect of the business on my own and I frequently did after school and on the weekends.

Through it all, I had zero interest in photography. I never thought of being a photographer. The only camera I owned was a Kodak disposable camera that I learned how to reload film into. I knew nothing about aperture, shutter speed, and my knowledge of ISO was limited to advising that you would want to buy 100 or 200 speed film for shooting outdoors and 400 or faster if you were shooting indoors. Those studio photos that I took for those customers all of those years? PROGRAM MODE. Somehow, I managed to be around photography for over a decade and just not give a shit about it. It was only after leaving my father’s store and finding work in a photo lab in Manhattan that I even thought that perhaps I should learn how to use a camera. My first SLR was a Leicaflex because my boss at the time went on and on about how awesome Leica’s were. Imagine my surprise when I showed him my new camera and he told me that I bought the wrong Leica and that I was supposed to get the rangefinder because those were the good ones… Within a year, I quickly progressed to a used Canon EOS-1v and, eventually, a brand spanking new Nikon D300 and a Nikon 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G kit lens. It was my first serious digital camera and I was going to actually learn photography with it. I think I took maybe a couple dozen photos with it before I put it away and just forgot about it.

Fast forward to 2015. The big digital revolution had already happened. The film photography industry crashed and with it, photo labs (both big and small) mostly disappeared into the annals of history. The majority of skills that I had (mostly related to running a film photography lab) were obsolete and I was looking for a job. A lead generation company was looking for a cold caller so I answered the job listing and got a job cold calling on commission. The concept was straightforward. Real estate agents from all over the country would hire this company to call the lists that they provided. We would call homes all across the country from 9AM to 9PM in their time, try to get homeowners to think about getting a “market analysis” for their home, talk about how “our agent” was God’s gift to real estate (we got a short bio on each agent), and set up an appointment for the agent to come see them. A confirmed appointment was $50 and if the meeting led to a listing, it was $250. I called and called and called. Each time I dialed the phone, I felt my soul die a little bit more until eventually I just couldn’t take it anymore because I wanted to hang myself with the telephone cord. I talked to my boss about quitting and he actually decided to read my resume to discover that I had some Photoshop skills so I moved into a graphic design job at the company where I created advertisements and flyers for our services. Strangely enough, this is where I learned about Illustrator and InDesign and essentially got paid to learn how to use those programs on the job.

Toward the end of 2015, this lead generation company was actually doing so well at generating appointments that they decided to say “Fuck it. Why are we doing this for other people when we can just open a real estate company and do it for ourselves?”. We became a real estate company and I continued in my graphic design role. We got listings and I was making flyers, but I couldn’t help but cringe at the cellphone photos that I had to put on the marketing materials. Come January and being the “go-getter” that I am, I decided to make more work for myself by telling my boss that I had a camera and maybe I could take better photos of the homes. I had never taken photos of a home before, but shit… it HAD to be better than what these agents were coming back with, right? Since I was using my own camera and lens, though, I told them that I should get paid separately to do this. I spoke with an agent that was willing to take me up on the offer and we agreed on a price. I would take photos of his newest listing for $75. I dusted off my Nikon D300 (the camera that had not taken a single photo nearly eight years), charged the battery, took my 18-105mm lens, and took pictures of this place. Zero experience and zero research beforehand. That was my first real estate photography job and it was the beginning of a job that would come to define so much of the next four years of my life. (BTW, the photos were fucking horrible and they weren’t helped by my God awful editing job, either.)

Suffice it to say that I’ve improved a bit since that first shoot, but I hope that this introduction will give you a good idea of where I am coming from. Looking back on this first shoot is, frankly, painful. There is just so much wrong with it that I’m embarrassed to say that I received money in exchange for it. I made sure to save this first shoot, though, because it serves as a constant reminder to me of how this all started and where I came from.

If you are reading this and are interested in getting into real estate photography, there’s a pretty high likelihood that you are already capable of producing better results than what you see here. I know that it’s rather cliché to say that, “If I can do it, you can do it.” but I think that the photos that you see above are evidence that this is quite literally true. If you really want to give it a shot, there’s nothing stopping you. I started off with an 8-year-old camera and a kit lens that isn’t wide enough to be appropriate for real estate photography. And even though looking at those photos makes me want to vomit (and it should probably make you want to vomit, too), you know what? The agent LOVED them. This leads into a topic that I’m going to hit in the next post which is going to cover Gear and Standards.

Anyway, that’s it for tonight. Talk to you guys later in Part 2.


Low Self-Esteem and Defending Your Value as a Creative by Michael Jin

©2019 Michael Jin.

I have made no secret of my struggles with depression and low self-esteem. While I take medication to mitigate the effects, they are insidious forces that have a tendency to creep up when least expected. As a creative, there is an extremely fine line that we consistently walk the edge of. This is the line between realistic self-evaluation and destructive pessimism. In order to grow, one needs to examine his work and identify the weaknesses that require improvement. Doing so, however, can cause one to focus on the constant inadequacy that comes with not being perfect. This is a basic inner struggle that many creatives contend with and one that I have spoken about previously.

The struggle is enhanced, however, when it is removed from the realm of personal thoughts to the realm of business. As a creative working within a creative field, we are tasked with not only creating work, but attributing value to it in the form of our pricing. This is a tricky process and one which many books have been written about. Certainly, you can look at pricing across the market and place yourself somewhere that you deem reasonable based upon factors such as experience, brand recognition, quality of work, etc. and it would be a decent solution to the problem, but what happens when you run into a situation where the market is saturated with hobbyists who are willing to work for a credit or some paltry sum that is not viable to build an income from? Do you value your time and work the same way they do? Do you stick to your guns and charge based on what you need in order for all of this to be worth it to you? Do you pack up and find another line of work?

This is not a polemic against people willing to work for free or people who are taking side gigs just to pay for their own hobby. While many of them are genuinely talented and are underselling themselves, they are not responsible for thinking about others. As long as they are meeting their own goals, they are justified in pricing themselves however they choose. For anyone who tries to make a primary income from photography, however, it is a reality that needs to be accounted for. How do you defend your value to the potential clients to whom you are quoting a price for work?

The simple answer is to be better. You need to provide better consultation. You need to provide a better product. You need to provide better service. You need to provide a better customer experience. Above all, you need to be better at simply turning people down. It’s that last part that is probably the most difficult. The notion of the “starving artist” is a real thing and particularly when we are beginning, it is so easy to try to grab any little payday that we can. If someone is willing to pay you $50 and it’s $50 that you didn’t have before, how do you send them away? You can even rationalize it away to some extent. After all, it might just be an hour of work so theoretically you’re making $50/hour, right?

The adversarial nature of negotiations only makes it more difficult. As the service provider, you clearly want to make the most money that you possibly can. The client who has to pay wants to pay the least that they possibly can. So while you are defending your value, it is likely that the client is going to do their best to devalue you and your work. Whether it is attacking your experience (or lack thereof), pointing out problems with your product, dismissing the nature of your job as simply pressing a button, etc. If you get into this business, expect people to diminish your profession to try to work your price down.

On the one hand, every barb that a client levels at me hurts me at my core due to my natural low self-esteem. When these conversations occur, it is no longer an inner monologue beating me up—it is a real person on the other side of the conversation pointing out my weaknesses. It often becomes a spiral where, by extension of the worthlessness of my work, I feel worthless as a human being. This leads me down a very dark emotional path. On the other hand, it angers me to no end when these discussions inevitably occur because I tend to take it all very personally for the reasons I just described. For those that may not suffer from mental health issues in the way that I do, this might all seem the height of irrationality, but depression is not a rational thing. Like I said, it’s an insidious thing that can creep up on you and grip you before you realize what’s happening.

Why am I bringing all of this up and what’s the point? Even though it’s something that I continue to struggle with and something for which I’ve found no infallible solution, I want to let others like me know that they are not alone. Creative industries can be difficult for people who do not suffer from depression or low self-esteem, but for those who do, the nature of the business can lead one down some ugly emotional paths. One thing that I started doing in the morning is looking in the mirror and reminding myself that I have value and that my work has value. When I engage in negotiations, I keep my temper and remind myself that the client is not personally attacking me (usually), but that they have a legitimate concern about how their money is spent and expect me to provide assurances for them in the form of my own defense of my product. Above all, deal with people courteously even when it comes to turning work down. Simply saying that, “Unfortunately, I simply can’t do this at that price.” or “I don’t think that this arrangement is going to make sense for me.” and providing some alternatives in the form of references to cheaper photographers or potential solutions to make their project more reasonably priced is always better than “Go fuck off.”.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most professional person in the world by a long stretch. I’m crass, I’m prone to severe mood swings, and I prefer to be very informal. I am not the right photographer for every client, but I’m honest about that. I didn’t get into this to be rich (although it would be nice if it ended that way). I got into this because I love photography and I want to help people with my skill set. Regardless of how I may think of myself, I can help people solve their creative problems (within the limits of my own ability) and that extends beyond simply taking on jobs. My value as a creative is to be able to create for you when I can and to lead you to others who can do for you what I cannot. Essentially, my value as a creative is that I actually give a fuck about you (whether you deserve it or not) and that’s more than can be said about a lot of people.

Micro-Contrast and Other Nonsense by Michael Jin

Even though I don’t exactly have money pouring out of my orifices, I’m always on the lookout for new (and sometimes old?) and interesting camera equipment. One of a biggest benefits of switching from a DSLR system to an MILC system has been the fact that I can find an adapter to fit just about any DSLR or SLR lens ever made onto my Sony A7RIII. Sure, I had by Helios 44M, Helios 40-2, and a few Jupiter lenses back on my Nikon D850, but it was much harder to find lenses to fit that camera since they had to be specifically modified to achieve infinity focus and even when you got one that was, manually focusing on a modern DSLR was just not a very fun thing to do.

Because of this, I’ve found a whole world of vintage lenses that has opened up to me since getting my new camera and this is nice because a lot of older lenses tend to be cheaper than the new stuff. How does one go about sorting out good lenses from bad ones, though? As I’ve said, I don’t have tons of money so I’m constantly reading lens reviews so try to get an idea of their characteristics and performance… and so begins my rant.

© 2019 Michael Jin. Pentax Super Takumar 55mm f/2 (M42 Mount) on Sony A7RIII.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. As I read these reviews for lenses, I really start to get that feeling. Going through essay after essay of people driveling on and on in their efforts to describe the visual characteristics of these lenses quickly begins to feel like listening to Food Network hosts describing whatever garbage that they’re munching on for the camera. I’m not sure where the language originated from (and I admittedly don’t care enough to go looking), but you start to see the same fucking words over and over again applied to EVERY SINGLE LENS. If you’re at all interested in photography, you’ve probably seen them, too. How many lenses have “CREAMY BOKEH", “BUTTERY SMOOTH BOKEH”, or some variation of this? How many lenses “DRAW WELL” or “RENDER IMAGES WELL”? And, for fuck’s sake, how many lenses have “GREAT MICRO-CONTRAST”?

WHAT THE FUCK IS MICRO-CONTRAST?

© 2017 Michael Jin. NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G on Nikon D810.

More importantly, however

WHY THE HELL SHOULD I CARE?

Unlike most things in life, I’ve actually taken the time to try to look up what the hell “micro=contrast” is simply due to the ubiquity of the term’s use in discussions of lenses and the fact that people constantly talk about it like it’s the most important thing in the world. As far as I can tell, there doesn’t seem to be any universally accepted definition of what this term means nor have I found an unequivocal method of testing for it. It seems more like bullshit jargon made up by people and thrown around in discussions to sound smarter than other people or simply as a catch-all term used to quantify all of the shit that people can’t actually describe with other words.

On the one hand, I get it. If you put me on the spot and asked me to describe how any given lens renders, I would have an incredibly difficult time explaining it to you. If you asked me to start comparing lenses to each other, this would only get more difficult. For you, the reader, this might be disappointing if I was positioning myself as some sort of expert in these matters so I need to find SOME way to describe what’s going on even if I can’t quite put my finger on it. I think “micro-contrast” is pretty much the photographic version of “umami”. You can’t point out exactly what the hell it is, but you “know it” when you encounter it. It also happens to be the universal fallback for any argument that involves justifying the price of a really really expensive lens when every quantifiable metric favors the cheaper lens.

© 2019 Michael Jin. Mir-1 37mm f/2.8 Lens (M42 Mount) on Sony A7RIII.

Whether it’s Bokeh, Micro-Contrast, Peceptual Megapixels (an even more egregiously coined term), or whatever else, I find that I’m really tired of reading about this crap. Here’s an idea: WHY NOT JUST SHOW ME? Considering that all of these reviewers actually have their hands on the lenses that they are reviewing, it’s pretty amazing how much crap some of them can write while not showing a damned photo other than some test charts or the occasional plan gray shot to show the vignette at different apertures. Does anyone seriously care about this shit? If you show me some nice photos taken with a lens, I’m not going to ask you what the MTF chart looks like or how many “perceptual megapixels” the lens resolves.

Sure, tell me what the lens feels like. Describe how well the focus ring is dampened or whether the lens suffers from focus breathing. These are all things that are an essential part of the use of a lens that you can’t convey through an image. But by God, why the hell would you bother trying to describe the visual rendition that a lens creates when you can just take some damned pictures and post them?

© 2017 Michael Jin. Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/1.4 ZF.2 on Nikon D810.

Anyway, I just felt like letting loose after a round of reading through some vintage lens reviews. If you’re a reviewer and you happen to be struggling with how to describe a lens. Do us all a favor and just go out and take a fucking picture.

© 2017 Michael Jin. Helios 44M 58mm f/2 on Nikon D810.

Oh, and the latest lens that I’ve been eyeing? It’s the Jupiter-9.

Fuck People, Fuck Their Opinions, and Fuck Their Ideals by Michael Jin

You that saying about opinions being like assholes? It’s true. Everyone has a god damned opinion about everything—myself included. Sometimes, such as in the case of your employer’s opinion of you, these opinions matter. Other times, such as in the case of the opinion of some random passerby you don’t know, they just don’t. Regardless of whether they matter or not, we work so hard to cultivate our self image so that people form positive opinions of us, don’t we? Be it our personal image or business image, managing social perception is a very real thing that we all engage in on some level.

We buy certain clothes, we cut our hair in certain styles, we listen to certain music, we drive certain cars, etc. Businesses conduct focus groups to determine which shade of purple gets the most positive reactions or which programs get aired. The fucked up thing is that it all makes a great deal of sense to manage your image because you never know what kind of situation might arise and there’s no second chance to make a first impression. That random passerby that you flipped off might be the person conducting your job interview later in the day. Some guy you pulled up to and swore at might end up being the waiter at a restaurant that you visit. It’s only natural, then, that we would hedge our bets and try to be the best version of ourselves that we can be at all times—or at very least the most socially acceptable version of ourselves.

I’d like to preface the rest of this by saying that I don’t believe that we ought to be complete assholes to one another. There’s room in this world for civil discourse when it comes to areas of disagreement and whenever practical, I believe that physical conflict is something that should be avoided. That having been said, I do believe that this practice of social image management has led to the repression of something very critical to all of us: our very humanity.

Somewhere along the line, we’ve decided that this ideal social image that we’ve created for ourselves in the process of managing our social images is the way people ought to be rather than understanding that far from our default human nature, it’s merely a facade that we construct as an act of enlightened self-interest. We then denounce those who deviate from this fabricated ideal as crude, rude, crass, unenlightened, or whatever other negative term we can come up with to codify them as lower forms of the human creature. Then we apply social penalties in the form of hiring practices, housing practices, boycotts, etc.

Of course there certainly exists a contingent of people who probably belong in these categories and certainly deserve to be demonized. I’m not going to argue that everyone is somehow good in their own fucked up way. Some people are just horrible human beings and a blight to society. This is not meant to be an apology for murderers, rapists, burglars, or drug dealers (that deserves its own post). This is about people who might swear, make an off-color joke, or hold views that are not popular. It’s about the guy on the football team that likes to sing Taylor Swift songs in the shower or the cheerleader that wants to get a face tattoo. It’s about people being who they are and accepting reality for what it is rather than the idyllic vision of it that we hold in our minds.

You see, we are not these perfectly manicured creatures that we expect ourselves to be. The fact that we so often have to suppress our urges to gain social acceptance means that we are effectively being told that we are not good enough for society as we are. Our anger is not acceptable for society. Our lust is not acceptable for society. Our greed is not acceptable for society. Hell, we have 7 Deadly Sins that are codified that pretty much cover the gamut of our base urges. Whether it’s by parenting, a religious institution, the legal institution, academic institution, or just the confluence of plain old everyday interactions, we are told that the person we desire to be is unacceptable and that we must, instead, desire to be somehow “better” than our real selves. So we create these masks for ourselves and we become chameleons, adjusting out behavior and language to different situations. In the process, we often lose sight of who we are on the inside and, in doing so, lose the ability to empathize with those that choose not to play this game.

How does any of this relate to photography? There are a number of ways, but I suspect that if you think about it, you’ll know them. Photography, like fashion, has its trends that come and go. Photographers, like country club members, have their own manners of interaction. Photography communities, like political parties, so often become echo chambers of people voicing the same ideas, patting each other on the back, and hounding anyone who dares to disagree. As for why I started to think about this issue, I’ll leave you with this.

Recently I began to handle some rudimentary social media posting for a company. A big part of the company identity and branding involves embracing the heritage and spirit of New York City. There wasn’t much going on in terms of prepared content so I decided to put up some photos that I wasn’t really doing anything with to fill any void. I was told that the black and white film photos that I was posting were “too depressing” and that I should remove the hashtag “#thirtyfivefuckingmillimeter” that I had attached to one of the 35mm film photos that I took. Obviously this is a case of paid work so I went ahead and made the requested adjustments, but it really got me thinking….

I am a photographer who captures real moments that exist in front of my eyes. The fact that the vast majority of my photography is some form of street photography means that these are moments that happen in front of not just my eyes, but the eyes of hundreds or thousands of people everyday. I am not a painter, creating imagery on canvas that only exists in my mind. While we can argue to what degree the scenes that I capture depict reality and how they are presented further affect the narrative, if there is a store with its gate down because it went out of business in my photo I think we can all agree that it’s highly likely that it’s a store that’s out of business.

Yes, New York City has many beautiful sights. It has a beautiful skyline, beautiful bridges, beautiful parks, etc. But for every fucking derivative copy-cat photo of the Manhattan Bridge from DUMBO, there are a million photos of graffiti on walls, buildings in disrepair, homeless people on the street, bustling outdoor markets, people waiting for a subway, etc. The real New York City is not the shit that you see in post cards. It’s the fucking Halal stand underneath the 7 Train. It’s the guy walking down a row of cars stopped at a red light asking for spare change. It’s some dumbass kid doing his little hat/pole dance on a moving subway car. It’s people buying fake Prada bags from some shady street vendor with a cardboard sign. It’s a crowded subway platform filled with sweaty people that look miserable after a day of work and just want to get the fuck home. The New York City that most New Yorkers experience is not the well-manicured greenery of Central or Prospect park. It’s not the pinks and purples blanketing the beautiful Manhattan skyline. New York City is people often cramming themselves into dirty century-old apartments, being dwarfed by gigantic gray buildings, being surrounded by blinking lights and tacky advertising, and endless construction sites. For others, it’s living on a residential street not unlike plenty of featureless suburbs with plenty of parking and not an ounce of character to distinguish it as anything close to what comes to mind when people think of the city.

So if my photography in this city is depressing and it’s nothing but a reflection of things that we walk by everyday, maybe the problem isn’t my photography, but the city that I’m photographing. Or maybe, it’s depressing because the reality of our city doesn’t match the glamorous image that most people have of it. To me, New York City is not glamorous and beautiful nor is it dark and depressing. It just is… No, I don’t find East New York to be a particularly pleasant place to walk around, but it’s no less a part of our city than the Upper East Side. The thing is that I’m a lazy person by nature so I just photograph the shit that I see. I can’t be bothered to fabricate something that isn’t there for me. I don’t live in Central Park. I live near Jamaica Avenue. I don’t drive down Madison Avenue. I drive down Queens Boulevard. I don’t visit Prospect Park. My travels take me to Nostrand Avenue. So I’ll take my photos in color, but fuck if I’m going to run around taking pictures of a city that, for me, doesn’t exist.

So fuck people, fuck their opinions, and fuck their ideals… because people are fucking twisted and have lost sense of reality, whether it’s the reality of themselves or the reality of their environment. Be honest with yourself and accept the honesty of others. Maybe when we stop being a species of fake Ken and Barbie dolls, we’ll start being human again.

Apparently a really depressing image. | #thirtyfivefuckingmillimeter  © 2018 Michael Jin. All Rights Reserved.

Apparently a really depressing image. | #thirtyfivefuckingmillimeter

© 2018 Michael Jin. All Rights Reserved.

Me and Mother Fucking Nature by Michael Jin

© 2018 Michael Jin

I'm not a morning person. I'm also not really a "nature" person. Don't get me wrong. I heart the environment and all, but I'm generally most comfortable with my feet on pavement and the elements outside some sort of barrier that I can choose to close.

For some stupid reason, I decided to wake up at 5AM to go out and shoot photos. It appears that Mother Nature might be hinting at me to just sleep in and leave photographic the pretty stuff for all of the people that actually appreciate getting up early in the morning to see it.

Anyway, the sunrise shot that I was thinking of wasn't looking like it was going to work so I turned my camera is the other direction and this is pretty much the fruit of my effort. Yeah... Should have stayed in bed.


Lesson of the day: Before you decide to wake up at some ungodly hour to go out and take photos, check a fucking weather app.

Thought of the day: Sunsets and sunrises look the same... maybe I should move to the West Coast...