reflections

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.


What If I Have Nothing To Say With My Photography? by Michael Jin

© 2018 Michael Jin. All Rights Reserved.

I was recently listening to Episode #1096 of LensWork Podcast and the host, Brooks Jensen mentioned someone that he knew that had poured so much of his life mastering the craft of taking photos and turning them into beautiful prints. Mind you, this was back in the days of the wet darkroom where creating a print wasn't just a matter of hitting CTRL+P (or CMD+P for you Mac users out there) after doing some edits in Lightroom or Photoshop.

As someone that is still in the early stages of learning how to print in the wet darkroom, I can relate to the frustrations of trying to produce amazing prints. Not only is there a mountain of knowledge to absorb about the different films, papers, chemicals, temperatures, interactions, etc. but there's the physical component that you simply do not have in digital photography. Once you have done all of the tests and determined that you need to expose your paper for 20 seconds, the game is on the moment you hit that timer switch and you need the dexterity and coordination to perform all of your dodges within those 20 seconds. Once you've determined your burning times after that, you need to hit that light and be able to skillfully maneuver your burn cards to hit the areas you want for the duration you want without fucking up the rest of the image that you've gone out of your way to properly expose. Quite frankly, for something that suffers from anxiety such as myself (and takes medication for it), it's pretty stressful because one point of failure can mean that you've just wasted time, paper, and chemistry. There is no UNDO button or History Module that you can go back to. A fuck up effectively means nearly starting over from scratch. Then after all that, you get to developing the paper in the chemistry and I'm sure you can image that's another beast to wrestle with. I think a large part of why I am able to do it is simply because I am, by nature, not a super particular person and for my personal work that I don't intend for others' eyes, I'm OK with a print that isn't meticulously worked to perfection.

As I was listening to Brooks talk about this person—let's just call him Bob—I could empathize with the struggle and what it must feel like to finally master the entire craft to the point where one could produce a pre-visualized result on a consistent basis. Then came the big hit out of nowhere. Brooks talked about how once Bob got to this phase in life, he (Bob) just quit photography completely...

WHAT!? Are you fucking kidding me? That should be where you photography BEGINS, not where it ENDS! Up until that point, you're just dicking around doing the best that you can and trying to get the best results that you can, but isn't it precisely when the barrier of technical mastery is no longer a limitation that you ought to be free to finally bring your vision to life? I guess Brooks felt the way I did upon hearing this and asked Bob why he would choose that point to quit. Bob's response struck me in a way that simply froze me up. Paraphrasing just wouldn't do it justice so I replayed the episode to transcribe this part of the podcast exactly:

"... and I asked him why he had walked away from this craft that he had so exquisitely developed, and he explained to me quite simply that after he had established the skills and the ability to make a print pretty much at will, he realized that he had nothing to say and therefore all of that technological challenge was meaningless..."

FUCK... That's the word that immediately came to my mind. You see, I have a tendency to get so caught up in everything else about photography that I tend to pay little mind to WHY it is I do what I do and WHAT it is that I'm trying to put out into the world. Sure, I have my personal projects that I'm working on and on some level, they do feel a bit contrived if I'm to be honest. Of my projects, the one about Queens is definitely the one that's closest to my heart, but more than anything, my personal projects exist to give me focus as I'm developing my craft rather than serve as something that I feel is contributing to the world in a meaningful way. It has become so easy to walk around searching for interesting scenes, getting lost in the little details of my projects, culling photos, learning new techniques, and buying more books on photography to glean more information from. In short, the complex nature of the craft makes it extremely easy to take a myopic view, focusing on all of the little details, while completely ignoring the greater picture and the question of purpose.

What does my photography say? What do I intend for it to say? What if, after all of this, I find that I have nothing meaningful to say through my photographs? I won't go so far as to say that it has all been meaningless because I am obviously deriving some joy and therapeutic benefits from practicing it. At the same time, however, I do have this desire to create things that speak to people—not in a manipulative way, but in a way that conveys honesty and truth. I'm not sure how capable I am of saying something that hasn't been said a million times before, but I feel that there must be something about my unique human experience that can edify the global discussion in some manner.

Maybe some of this is my own frustration with myself from dealing with depression and whatever the photographer's version of "writer's block" may be. Despite living in one of the great cities of the world—a city that's ever changing and host to millions of untold stories—I have just been very confused and uninspired as of late. I'm still pushing frames, but I haven't felt that spark of excitement when I feel like I've captured something truly special or something that speaks to me. If feels really wrong to be able to live here and struggle like this to find that spark of inspiration. I guess why this story hit me pretty hard. Maybe my inability to find something to say in the midst of all of this is just evidence that I just don't have anything within me worth sharing.

For now, it's something I'm working through and there's at least the continued journey toward mastering the technical elements of the craft that can serve as a motivator while I ruminate on this greater question. I'm hoping to add more photos to the projects on the website by summer's end and I'll also be looking to replace a few of them with what I hope will be stronger images. In the meantime, thanks to the few of you that have seen the website and had encouraging words, it means a lot to me.

Why I Traded In My Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/1.4 by Michael Jin

© 2017 Michael Jin. All Rights Reserved.

The Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/1.4 is an absolutely superb lens. For those of you who follow this stuff, it was one of the two lenses that received a new optical design when Zeiss migrated from their now CLASSIC series to their current MILVUS series. For many, it is a lens that they aspire to one day own due to its solid build, sleek design, razor sharp rendition even wide open, and bokeh that completely obliterated backgrounds. I will grant that I've yet to experience any of Zeiss's OTUS series lenses, but the Milvus 50mm f/1.4 was flat out THE BEST NORMAL FOCAL LENGTH LENS THAT I HAVE EVER USED. With very little distortion and vignetting, its rendition of scenes was absolutely clinical in every way imaginable.

I remember the day I ordered the lens. I can't say that I was the proud first owner of it, but whoever owned it and sold it to KEH took good care of it and it looked absolutely mint the day it arrived. I remember attaching it to my Nikon D810 and having my jaw drop at the files it produced. Sure, manually focusing with a DSLR was a complete bitch, but when I was able to slow things down, it made for some fantastic imagery. I even attached it my Nikon FM2n and gleefully pushed frame after frame of film using a lens that was sharper than anything available back in the days when 35mm film was commonplace.

© 2018 Michael Jin. All Rights Reserved.

But alas, as time went by and the novelty wore off, I found myself leaving the lens at home more often than not. First of all, it was pretty heavy and added a bunch of weight to my bag. Secondly, while the size of it felt right on my D810 and my later Nikon D850, it felt awkward on my FM2n. This might have been mitigated somewhat if I purchased an F2AS or F3HP, which are larger bodies, but the FM2n is what I had and it just felt strange attaching this lens to this camera. I suppose the biggest reason I stopped taking it out, however, is that the lens was just "too perfect" in a way.

This might sound incredibly stupid, but bear with me. Sharp, accurate, and clinical are certainly very good qualities for any lens and the Milvus 50mm f/1.4 checks all the boxes. The problem for me is that it's pretty rare that I'm looking for really clinical rendering out of a 50mm lens. Certainly for my wider lenses that I might use real estate, I want as sharp, accurate, and clinical as possible, but for standard focal lengths and telephoto lenses, I've come to focus more on interesting (maybe "painterly) aesthetics. In this regard, the Milvus 50mm f/1.4 becomes a pretty boring lens to use. Don't get me wrong, I'm not obsessed with swirly bokeh, soap bubble bokeh, or similar gimmicks (I have already gone through that phase and have since traded in my Helios 44M and Helios 40-2). Honestly, I'm not sure how to describe what it is that I'm looking for in a lens, but I definitely know it when I see it and the Milvus 50mm f/1.4 simply wasn't cutting it for me, which discouraged me from carrying it around even more than the weight of the lens. In a sick twist, I ended up actually purchasing a NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4 AIS which I started using far more than the modern Zeiss lens.

I'll never say that the old NIKKOR lens is better than the Zeiss—at least not in any quantifiable aspect. The decision to finally part with the Zeiss lens was a difficult one for me because it defied all logic that I should let go of one of the finest lenses that I've ever had the pleasure of using, much less owning. In the end, however, I decided that a lens sitting in my cabinet would be better served going to someone that is actually going to use it and the money I get for it better served by purchasing something that I will be more encouraged to carry around at this stage in my photographic development.

After some long nights of reflection, I finally made the trip to Adorama today, traded in the Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/1.4 and picked up a Voigtlander 58mm f/1.4 Nokton SL II S. It's a lens that I've been looking at for a while now and I've seen many photos taken with it. While it may not be as technically competent as the Milvus, it is smaller, lighter, and most importantly, I find the way that it renders scenes to be more to my personal aesthetic tastes. Coming back home and attaching the lens to my D850, I can say that I'm definitely pleased with how things have turned out and I'm looking forward to using this lens for a long time.

If there's a take-away that I've learned from all of this, it is that expensive gear is not always the best nor is it necessarily going to provide the qualities that you're looking for. I dreamed about owning Zeiss lenses for so long and even now, I still have several Zeiss lenses on my Amazon Wishlist, but more important that the cost of a lens, its stature, or ratings, is whether you are personally happy with it.