honesty

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.