photography

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.

Untitled-1.jpg

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?

Untitled-1 (2).jpg

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.

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.

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