Photography Clients Are Still Willing To Pay A Premium For Unique Work

Photography Clients Are Still Willing To Pay A Premium For Unique Work

Last summer we flew Mike Kelley, one of my favorite architecture photographers, to Charleston for 3 weeks to film the 8 hour tutorial How To Photograph Real Estate, Architecture and Interiors . Mike's technique of light painting and compositing is so polished and time consuming that I assumed no Realtor would actually want to pay for it. I was wrong.

Finding architecture to shoot was easier than we thought
Before Mike flew to Charleston to begin shooting, Patrick and I started scouting locations for him to shoot. I called Matt, one of my friends who happens to be a high-end Realtor in town and I gave him the same pitch I had given everyone else; "We are filming a tutorial on architecture photography and if you allow us to shoot at one of your multi-million dollar properties, Mike will give you the pictures for your advertising." Without even looking at Mike's work Matt immediately agreed. He had a 4 million dollar house that hadn't had a viewing in the last 5 months. If he could get "better" images for free that could potentially sell the house, he was all for it. After the shoot I emailed the files over to Matt and he said: "These are some of the most impressive real estate shots I have ever seen. Now we are cooking with gas!"

Mike's work is amazing but no Realtor could actually afford it, right?
I was happy that Matt was pleased with the images but I still thought to myself that these probably ARE the best Real Estate images ever because we spent 2 days capturing them. What Realtor could possibly afford this? When we released Mike's tutorial most of the negative comments had to do with his technique being far too complicated and time consuming for the average Real Estate job and I completely agreed with them. I responded to one comment, "This tutorial does cover basic Real Estate photography but it quickly moves into much more complex and polished images that would be used for advertising. The average Realtor couldn't afford to pay for one of Mike's signature shots." I soon learned how wrong I was.

You can see one of Mike's shots from this home below.

I was hired to replicate Mike's images by a Realtor
A month after we delivered the images to my Realtor friend Matt, he called me and said, "Lee, we have had 5 viewings in the last month on this house! We can tell that these images are catching the eyes of potential buyers online. We have got to have you guys create more images like this for our premium listings." I explained that Mike was the one that took these shots and he lives in CA and even though I was willing to give it a try myself, it would be extremely expensive to pay for this time consuming, light painted, and polished technique. He invited me to lunch and quickly changed my mind.

Matt explained to me that he didn't need 30 flawless images of the house. He simply wanted 1 signature image that in many cases shows the view from the house or shows the home at dusk. He then asked if I could create a 2-3 minute video the home that we could also use to promote the home. Instead of Matt paying for this "signature advertising package" he presents it to the home owner as an option that THEY can buy. This made no sense to me until Matt explained further.

Millionaires have plenty of money to spend on marketing
The average home price in America is $150,000 and selling homes in this range are extremely easy. As a houses value goes up, the buying market gets smaller and smaller. In most cases multi-million dollar homes are the most difficult type of home to sell because so few people can actually afford them. The standard 3% selling commission on a 5 million dollar home is $150,000 which is massive but incredibly difficult to get. The problem is that most homes at this price stay on the market for an incredibly long time and the home owners will burn through Realtors and find new ones every few months if they don't feel like they are getting enough interest. Each time a seller leaves one Realtor for another, all of the images of the home have to be retaken because the Realtor was the one who paid for those images. But, if the home owner pays for images/videos themselves, they can use them until the home is sold.

I charged $1500 for 1 picture and 1 video
At the end of the day I told Matt that I wanted $1500 to take 1 signature image and a 2-3 minute video of the home. I showed up to the house with Patrick 3 hours before sunset. We first picked out where we were going to take our "signature image" and then we got to work filming video clips of the home. We used 2 Nikon D800 cameras, one on a jib/crane and one on a slider. By the time we finished filming the home it was time to set up the still image. I used the composing, lighting, and bracketing techniques that I learned from Mike Kelley. We then came home and started editing.

I finished the image in about 45 minutes. If I had more practice I'm sure I could have edited it in less than 15 minutes.
Editing the video took around 3 hours
Patrick started cutting up the best footage from the house which took about 1.5 hours. We then got the "script" for the video from the Realtor and we used to hire a voice over actor. The actor cost $76 and within a few hours we had a file. The first attempt by the actor was good but we had a few suggestions to make it better. She re-recorded the entire script totally for free. Once we had the finished audio it took about 1 more hour to match the footage to the script and it was ready for export.

We grossed $150/hour
At the end of the day we spent around 10 man hours on this project which works out to $150/hour. Now this isn't close to the amount of money that you can make as a wedding photographer but it also wasn't nearly as stressful or tiring. We both had a really good time and we were just hired for another identical job last week. I called Mike Kelley a few days ago and told him this story and he informed me that he just finished shooting a house simply to promote that it was available for rent and he charged $5000. He later learned that this home rents $35,000/month and he joked that he had probably charged too little.

Clients will pay a premium for quality
Basically my point is that if you can produce something unique, in any genre of photography, you can charge a premium for it. Maybe the average Realtor can't afford to pay someone thousands of dollars to photograph a home, but some can. If the Realtor can't afford it maybe the home owner themselves can. It's funny to me that people have complained that Mike's tutorial costs $300 when the first 2 Realty jobs that I didn't even go after paid $3000. I didn't even want to get back into Real Estate photography but the jobs just fell in my lap because Mike's style was so unique in my area. If I continue doing this I plan on raising my rates and maybe one day I could start shooting these images commercially like Mike and charge a much higher rate plus usage.

Learn Mike's technique online and in person
If you haven't already heard of Mike's architecture tutorial you can check it out here. Those who purchase this tutorial will be invited to a secret Facebook group of architecture photographers around the world and private coaching and advice from Mike Kelley. If you want to learn from Mike in person, with hands on training from one of the best, check out his first ever workshop at Fstoppers Workshops Atlantis this year from May 28th-June 1st. I'm proof that this education can pay for itself after the very first job.

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That's great. Very inspiring!

Lee, one tip (for your example image). When you correct the verticals using perspective correction, it often helps to then scale the vertical up a bit to keep the height of the rooms and objects looking normal height. Perspective correction can often squish the height of rooms and give the sense of lower ceilings. I've been a RE retoucher for about 3 years, so I've dealt with that a bit. Good job at getting rid of the blue/purple casting on the floor and furniture.

Lee Morris's picture

Thanks, I'll give that a try. I am very new to this whole thing.

John White's picture

This is great. I love this area of photography and might just be talking to a few business friends of mine that happen to be selling the same price range of homes as listed in here. This would be easily one of the coolest sectors of photography to make a career out of. Great post!

Dont you think you should have offered the work to Mike first? Seeing as it was his pictures which won you the commission.

Lee Morris's picture

I don't think mike would/could fly back across the country to take a single Real Estate picture for $750.

I was a little suppressed about the price. I was thinking it would have been much more than $1500 for home this value. Did you take additional interior stills to lease the client, or just the video to show case the interior?

Lee Morris's picture

Only 1 image and video seen above.

Mike created the dvd so that others can benefit from his knowledge. Lee clearly has the utmost respect for mike and his work.

I'll buy the house. As soon as I win the Powerball...

Peter Charlesworth's picture

Need to even out those hot patches... I've experimented over the years with creating interest with strobes, but the issue you will run into is reality not meeting what you have created... at least in Australia, people react badly to being 'sucked-in' by 'premium' images that bear little resemblance to what their eyes see when they inspect a property. I think there is also a very sound ethical rationale for not overcooking shoots like these in creative terms, more that the responsibility of the photographer is to make the property look as it does on its best day. Further, to say this is one of someones shots is a distortion of the truth when it is a composite of many images (often over 40+ in my experience). Done right its brilliant... overcooked, and its just a con regardless of the revenue.

For residential real estate I would agree...for hotels and commercial work strobe it up they are not buying the property they are buying the experience.

Peter Charlesworth's picture

yep, agreed... there is a line there too but there is way, way more headroom to get funky...

Patrick Hall's picture

My thought is you are simply giving the potential buyer a reason to see it in person. Nothing more, nothing less. The reality is the second any single flash goes off, the images immediately looks nothing like reality. As long as you don't add anything that isn't there then I don't have a problem with lighting it in a cool way.

I can attest that this is also true in Germany. Currently in beauty, fashion, product, promotion, etc., everyone has heard of and seen the horrors of over-worked photos. The public at large is wise to our tricks, since many of them have many of these abilities at their disposal... albeit in consumer form... right in their hands with assorted apps.

I couldn't agree more with your statement "done right".... and it is THAT which will and should differentiate a "pro" from a "weekend warrior" or consumer. It is also what you're being paid for: your professional advice how best to present a product in photo to the discerning public.

Trust is golden and moderation in all things, AKA "pulling back" and knowing when to stop is an art form in and of itself. It's also called discipline once in a while.

Might want to use magic lantern hdr video for the next one. Here us a tutorial with real estate video examples.

Lee Morris's picture

This is great! Sadly I shoot Nikon

That is always my reaction.

Jason Ranalli's picture

Mike Kelley is marketing premium quality work that has little to no equal...that's a very smart tactic as far as marketing is concerned. Rich people have disposable income. Make your product elite, exclusive, and oozing with quality and you'll have a better chance to tap into that.

Doesn't matter how many hours he spends...that's why a premium is charged.

loved reading this! just curious why you chose to do the room instead of the curb appeal of the house?

Lee Morris's picture

The house was nice but not worth 2.2 mil on it's own. The fact that it was on the water made it valuable. There was no other way to show that the house was on the water.

): a house like that would cost about 10-20 million USD here in Singapore

Making the images is one thing. I think i'm safe to say i have no problem producing quality interior images with a self taught technique that looks a bit like this one. I basically do the same, but lately i mostly use one plexi diffusor ball on a 600 W/sec flash to light the interior.
images can be viewed on my website

But for me the biggest problem is catching the interest of the clients. I think it's very hard to get hold of these realtors or interior designers to simply look at your work. And if they do they say " your work is great but we have our photographers who can't let down, it wouldn't be nice to them" It always frustrates me to see images and think i can do better. But not even get the chance to proof i can.

Great stuff ! For video (outside footage) I would use a filter to better render the sky part

Kurt Langer's picture

Hope you can turn the water feature off. It would keep me thinking I wanna have a pee.

Hans Klett's picture

This video is fantastic. It has saved me countless hours of trial and error. Here's my first real attempt using Mike's technique. I used 21 frames to make this image. I can't thank you enough for making this video.

Hans, this image is stunning. Excellent work!

Jay Briggs's picture

Dude, first attempt?! That is amazing!

John MacLean's picture

Can you give any insight on how to find homeowners selling directly? I'm aware of but they have a strict policy about contacting the sellers.

Lee Morris's picture

I'm afraid I can't help you there. Zillow?