advice

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.


Impostor Syndrome by Michael Jin

© 2018 Michael Jin

It's a pretty common occurrence for me. I'll come back from shooting, load my photos into Lightroom, look through them, and then a wave of depression will wash over me. As I scroll through photo after photo, I am faced with the realization that I'm just not very good at this. There are so many talented photographers out there and my work pales in comparison, so why am I bothering with any of this? Maybe I should just sell of my equipment and take up a different hobby. After all, I could probably shoot for a lifetime and I will still never approach the level of the greats. It all seems like an exercise in futility.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? Maybe some of you can relate to this constant feeling of inadequacy. I imagine that most have probably felt it at some point or another—at least once you get beyond the initial stage where you think that you're the greatest photographer since Ansel Adams and suddenly you're faced with all of the legitimate talent that's actually out there. I've heard it called many things, but the term that I think is the most descriptive is "Impostor Syndrome". It is this visceral feeling that you're just posing as a photographer, but you know that you don't have the skills and the sinking feeling that comes from knowing that at some point or another, someone is going to call you out on it and the charade will be up.

For some people, it provides the drive to improve. For others such as myself, it can be quite devastating to deal with. I imagine that it's just another extension of the self-esteem issues that I am constantly at war with and my tendency to fall into depression really doesn't help. Beyond drinking some magic potion that turns you into a savant photographer, how do you deal with this feeling?

For one, I try to remind myself that photography is a very subjective thing and there is no universal rule for what constitutes "good" or "bad" photography. Also, my photography is a reflection of myself and my own vision so it makes little sense to compare it to someone like Ansel Adams who lived a different life, had a different system of values, and noticed different things. While there is always a desire to emulate the masters (because they're the masters), it's important to be mindful that our most meaningful work is going to be borne from our own experiences. Another positive to take away is the fact that the ability to sit back, evaluate your photos, and see your weaknesses is, in itself, a skill and strength. It's only the ignorant that believe that their work cannot be improved upon simply because they don't know better. When you notice your weaknesses, it is the first step toward strengthening those aspects of your craft.

Listen, it's not easy. There's a very fine line between being properly critical of your own work and needless self flagellation. Finding that balance where you can identify which criticisms are reasonable and which aren't is perhaps the most difficult part of dealing with Impostor Syndrome. It's also important to keep in mind that as photographer and artists, we have a tendency to be our own worst critics. Because we're so close to our work, we will often notice minute details that even many educated viewers will overlook. While it's always noble to strive for better, don't let it hinder your ability to produce the work that you want, whether it's in the form of discouragement or becoming so obsessed with processing that the work is never "ready" to show others.

There's a saying that "Perfection is the enemy of the good.". Your photography does no good staying on your hard drive or in a negative sleeve with nobody seeing it. The most perfect photograph that reaches nobody might as well not exist while a flawed photograph that reaches an audience is bound to have at least some influence in the world. Don't be afraid to put your work out there because there is likely someone out there that needed to see it. So long as that work is an honest reflection of yourself and your vision, you will never be an "impostor". You will always be an authentic you... and that's all anyone can reasonably ask for.

The masters have come, gone, and left wonderful work for us to enjoy. We don't need people to ape them. We need new voices and new perspectives. Let others be others and you concentrate on being yourself. Don't waste your life away trying to be someone that you're not.

Photography Students by Michael Jin

© 2017 Michael Jin

As I walk down the street, it feels like I can almost always pick out a into-level photography student when I see them. More often than not, they tend to carry around way more gear than seems necessary. A lot of times, they are sporting a cheap film camera (generally sub-$100) or entry-level DSLR that's a few generations old around their neck and more often than not, they're leading some poor female friend around to take shots of them in ways that make your head scratch as it all occurs in front of you. Sometimes I pause and watch, trying to figure out what might be going through their heads as they inevitably start searching for some dramatic angle to make their photo interesting.

I suppose I'm more sensitive to it since I'm not all that far removed from it myself. Granted, my film cameras are a bit more expensive as is my DSLR, and although I use a much more sensible sling strap for my cameras, I still have a terrible habit of carrying around way more gear than I reasonably need at any given moment, which my wife will attest to. I still find myself constantly experimenting to make up for my lack of pre-visualization skills and I'll certainly still try out the dramatic angle or clichè shot on occasion on occasion just because "maybe it will work this time".

© 2017 Michael Jin

Hint: It usually doesn't.

I think my fascination with watching other photo students is the fact that it so often looks like looking into a strange time-machine mirror. Of course there's a certain degree of variance, but it's amazing how so many of us coming from such different backgrounds can go through the same struggles and the same patterns of behavior in our development. It makes me wonder about generations past. Did they also go through the rounds of taking the same terrible shots?

Anyway, I just wanted to talk about this a bit because I ran across that top photo in my Lightroom catalog and it brought up the memory of that day. If you're a photography student just starting out, don't be discouraged when you develop those negatives and see atrocious photos. It's just part of the process of learning so accept that you're likely going to be taking horrible photos for a very long time (with hopefully a few lucky strikes in-between to keep you motivated) before you finally learn to take some good ones. The important thing is to constantly be open to experimenting and, more importantly, LEARNING from those experiments. You can read all of the books, take all of the classes, and watch every single video tutorial that you want, but there's only one way that you'll really improve. And that's by continuing to press that shutter button and push those frames.

© 2017 Michael Jin

Capture Beautiful Moments by Michael Jin

© 2017 Michael Jin

Last summer, I decided to meet up with a former co-worker to photograph her on Coney Island. I'm always looking for people to photograph and unfortunately, my social anxiety tends to prevent me from reaching out to strangers and most of the people around me have no interest in having me point a camera toward them so it makes finding human subjects a relatively difficult task.

Even though there wasn't really any awkwardness between us, we weren't really close friends or anything so I wasn't really sure how to approach this shoot. We discussed some vague ideas and she sent me a few photos on the web that she liked so I figured I'd use that as direction. For some reason, I just had this idea in my mind that we would meet up, head to the beach, and I was direct her through some poses or something. What actually transpired, however, was very different from what I had envisioned and it transformed my outlook on photographing people

Perhaps it was because we hadn't seen each other in a while, but when I picked her up, we started chatting and catching up while we drove to the beach. While it started with just some normal small talk, one question led to another and before I knew it, the discussion had suddenly become very heavy and we were just sitting on a bench on the boardwalk for an hour as she opened up about a lot of the things that she was struggling with. Suddenly, I realized that I wasn't so interested in directing her through some standard poses by the waves as I was with trying to somehow encapsulate the emotion that was coming through in that moment. I'm not sure why this felt so important to me, but as we continued to talk, I picked up my camera and started taking photos as I was just sitting next to her on this bench and listening to her.

Eventually, after a good long chat, she was ready to get some sand between her toes and model for me, but as we went through the motions, I couldn't help but feel this emptiness in it. After everything we had just gone through, it all seemed so superficial. I won't say that the photos came out poorly and having an attractive subject goes a long way in that regard, but as I was scrolling through the photos in my Lightroom catalog, I became fixated on this one particular photo that I had taken while she was talking. I'm not going to say that it's a really great photo by most standards. It's certainly not the type of picture you would expect from a beach photo shoot, but to me, it's the most meaningful picture of the shoot—not because of the technical elements of the photo itself, but because it captures genuine emotion. To be honest, when I sent her all of the photos and brought up this photos in particular, she didn't really like it because she thought she looked too sad in it. I'm not sure if she'll ever look back and change her mind about it—I'm sure that the photo represents something very different to her than it does to me—but taking this photo cause something of a paradigm shift in me.

I think that many of us get into photography to take beautiful photos. We look through magazines or social media feeds and see paragons of the industry treating us to aesthetic bliss. We watch videos of photographers conducting fashion shoots with beautiful models or photographers travelling to all manner of exotic locales to capture amazingly beautiful scenery. Beauty is very much at the heart of much of our interest in photography and why wouldn't it be? However, I have come to realize that though I appreciate beautiful aesthetics, I appreciate far more the beautiful moments in our lives. The beautiful moments to me are those slices of life when we briefly shed our curated self image to let others see us as we truly are. They are the moments when we interact with our environment in the most natural way, unconcerned with how we might be perceived. They might not be the most aesthetically pleasing moments, but I think they are the moments that really matter.

For many seasoned photographers (particularly those interested in street or candid photography), this will all probably sound incredibly obvious, but for those who, like myself, are just beginning their photographic journey, in earnest I think it's an important thing to seek out because our artistic voice is not defined by our aesthetic choices, but by our system of values and how they pertain to our photography. Anyone can imitate aesthetics, but only you are privy to what moments you find beautiful. Only you can decide what is worth capturing. Only you are uniquely able, in your own manner, to extract or distill these moments in the photos that you capture. So focus on finding and capturing beautiful moments. The rest will slowly fall into place.