experience

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.


My 2018 EMULSIVE Secret Santa Experience by Michael Jin

© 2019 Michael Jin. Pentax Super Takumar 55mm f/2 with Sony A7RIII

For those that don’t know, the EMULSIVE Secret Santa is an annual event within the film photography community organized by EM of emulsive.org. The idea is that a bunch of participants all around the world sign up and get paired with a partner to send a gift to so that we can all open our gifts together on Christmas day. Like many of these types of events, the person that you’re sending to is usually not the person who is gifting to you (except in a few rare scenarios) so it’s all a big surprise in the end. When you sign up, you can either choose to ensure that you’re shipping domestically or say that you’re open to ship internationally. Despite the fact that the EMULSIVE Secret Santa is pretty much talked about on every film photography podcast that I listen to, 2018 was the first year that I decided to actually participate.

The thing is that I’m not really a “holiday” type of person. I don’t find any particular joy in the whole tradition of gift exchange and I pretty much want to claw my ears out whenever I start to hear Christmas music all day everywhere I go. I’ve never participated in a Secret Santa simply because I’m a grumpy grinch. I’ve always been of the opinion that we’re all better off just keeping our own money in our pockets and buying the things that we actually want rather than getting sweaters or socks that we’ll never wear and pretending to be happy about it. I guess I’m just not really sentimental in that regard. This year was a bit different, though. I’ve been making an active effort to try to open myself up and be a more social person in general. I figured that the EMULSIVE Secret Santa would be a good way to connect (even if just in a limited fashion) with another person. So I went on to Elfster, which was the site that the event was using to organize, registered as a participant, and waited to be paired.

It took a while, but I finally got my pairing and it happened to be someone in Georgia. Now while the minimum gift value is $20 and all registrants get to create a wish list, we are encouraged to find out a little bit about the person receiving the gift via an anonymous Q&A mechanism built into the Elfster platform. While some people simply ignore this and send whatever rolls of film or camera that they have pre-determined regardless of which recipient they get paired with, EM emphasizes that the idea is to strengthen the community and encourages us to tailor our gifts by using these Q&A exchanges. Figuring that since I’ve gone out of my way to participate, I decide to flow with the spirit of the event and proceed to send a bunch of anonymous questions to my recipient. Then I hear nothing back.

Now I’m left with a choice. Do I just send whatever since my recipient is not responding, or do I wait it out a bit longer to see if he eventually responds? The days keep passing and the Christmas Day deadline looms ever nearer as I keep logging into Elfster to see if there has been any update. I’m seeing all of these notifications in the activity board where people are thanking their Santas for their gifts—some of them cheat by opening the gift early—and there I am feeling like a dipshit for not having sent my gift out yet. Finally, just as I’m about to break, I get a response from my recipient who says that he simply hadn’t been checking his Elfster account. We have a brief back and forth and I get an idea for some film stocks that I think he’d like. I put the order into B&H and I end up shipping it via UPS 3-Day to ensure that it arrives on time since it was all so last minute. Thankfully, I get confirmation through Elfster that my gift was received and I breathe a sigh of relief. Then it hits me. Nobody ever sent me any questions to answer.

So I know I’ve done my part, but now I’m wondering what going on with the other end of this exchange as it pertains to me. Is my Santa one of the people who just have something that they already have in mind to send? Is something on the way? It doesn’t seem like it since Elfster does have a button to press once you send your package to let your recipient to know that something has been shipped (and a separate button for the recipient to press to confirm receipt). I check and there’s nothing to indicate that anything has been shipped and my Santa has been completely silent. My next thought immediately goes to, “Is my Santa one of those dead beats that I hear about who just enters to receive something and never sends anything out on their end?” A system like this is ripe for abuse, after all. It would seem a pretty dick move, but as Christmas gets closer and closer, it looks increasingly common.

Finally I check my Elfster account one day and there’s a message for me.

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OK. I can understand that shit happens and I know how stressful finals can be. What’s more important? Personal circumstances or a gift exchange? Of course I tell him to take care of whatever he needs to take care of. Clearly, I’m going to be getting SOMETHING even if it’s not on time. All he has to do is drop it in the mail at some point. Right?

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RADIO SILENCE…

This is a screenshot that I took today as I write this post on January 19, 2019. It’s been nearly a month since Christmas. There’s been no further communication, no confirmation of a package sent, and no package received. Because of this, I’m going to go ahead and put my grumpy hat back on. You see, even if it was part of an exchange, this would have literally been the only gift that I received this past Christmas. I know that I am not the only person to experience this as it is a known problem and it seems like EM and his assistants are working in the background on their contingency for these scenarios, but frankly speaking, they shouldn’t have to have a contingency because people should be decent enough to either abide by their word or withdraw if circumstances prevent them from fulfilling their end of the agreement.

Some people have posted about how their joy has simply been knowing that the person that they gifted to enjoyed their present and I certainly feel the joy that my own gift was well received by the person to whom I was assigned. I suppose I feel rather ambivalent in that I also feel betrayed and angry at myself for allowing to feel this way because I allowed myself to have enough faith in a stranger whom I knew nothing about to get my hopes up. I think I would have almost preferred complete radio silence altogether than that single message that made hope briefly blip on my otherwise jaded and cynical radar.

Whatever the final resolution to this will be, I have already decided that I am not going to participate in this event again. I commend EM for doing his utmost to rally the film photography community around this event and doing his best to organize it—even going so far as to have contingency plans in place for situations like mine. That having been said, my experience will be that in an event that was specifically designed to strengthen the bonds in this community, someone entered to take advantage of it and I simply don’t want to lose what little faith in people that I have left.

Good luck, EM. Thanks for trying.

© 2016 Michael Jin. NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4D with Nikon D810.