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Real estate photography editing – is it unethical?

Unethical real estate photography?

We’ve been writing about real estate photography for years highlighting quality photographers and techniques and shared tools for better Realtor photography for the DIY types.

One of the techniques more photographers are using is High Dynamic Range (HDR) editing to make colors more vibrant and more representative of how your eyes see an image in real life.

Any time we write about HDR comments range from “oh, that’s what that is” to “cool, that is awesome” and every now and then, “that’s not ethical.”

Well known real estate photographer and industry thought leader Larry Lohrman says of HDR, “I can believe that, however, even though the bright over saturated colors are attention getting I’m skeptical that this style will sell very well to more visually sophisticated upper-end agents. There seems to be a bunch of low end agents that really like this style of work and others that hate it. I tend to associate this over bearing style of HDR with low-end home and real estate photographers that are still learning.”

Greg Nuspel said, “I suspect the attraction is that this listing will stand out and get noticed. Being different from the rest, it will stick in a prospective buyers mind. Is the real question does it work for the client?”

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The real estate photographer world seems to buck the over-the-top HDR trend as seen above calling it cheap and some agents are questioning its legitimacy, but Marketing 101 tells us that in a lineup of flat, ugly photos taken with 1980s brick phones, a colorful (yet not overdone or cartoonish) photo will capture a buyer’s attention more successfully than the others.

It’s like peacocking in the dating world- it doesn’t work if it’s overdone, but the more excitingly dressed person will garner more attention than the drab dresser.

But what about the ethical implications?

Is it unethical to use HDR editing? Is it unethical to present images in an ideal form? Is it ethical to turn up the red in a red house if it is reflective of reality rather than what your camera turned up?

It seems that HDR is like any photographer’s post processing techniques- if it is misleading (i.e. adding in grass when there is none) or unrealistic (i.e. overdoing HDR so a home looks like a cartoon), it is unethical, but done to reflect reality, it is ethical. So yes, Lohrman and Nuspel are right- it is often the tool of the lower end listing as in its overused state, but where they are wrong is that luxury listings are increasingly utilizing minor HDR tweaks. Like with food, moderation is key.

So what do you think- is HDR ethical or unethical?

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Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.



  1. Susan Milner

    May 31, 2011 at 8:31 am

    I always laugh when I see neon green grass in a photo. I have myself brightened a photo if I had to take photos on a less than sunny day or when my camera just didn't 'get' the actual coloring correct. I have also edited out trash cans on trash day – is that wrong?

  2. Matt Stigliano

    May 31, 2011 at 8:34 am

    My thought is that it's unethical to change objects in the photo removing power lines, adding grass, removing a tree (or adding) or bush. If you overdo the colorization it could be bad (changing a brown brick house to a red brick house), but bringing a slightly more realistic color to your photos? I don't think that's a bad thing. I would wager that a lot of the naysayers use professional services and I'd be willing to bet that there is some post processing done on their photos – perhaps not HDR effects, but some color correction, grain reduction, etc. Even the simplest of cameras are doing some form of processing when they take photos these days. It's all in how you use it not course, that brings the question – where do we draw the line and/or set a standard? Better yet, who sets it?

  3. Jim Kimmons

    May 31, 2011 at 8:50 am

    It's unfortunate that the only illustration of the value of HDR is an exterior shot with obvious enhancement. I don't think it's unethical at all, however, the huge value of HDR to the real estate professional (high or low end???) is in interior photography.

    The very nature of HDR is the capture of images across a range of exposures to level out the scene's lighting. Blown out sunlit windows disappear, as well as the dark interiors that the sunlight creates with a single shot. The image exposure is leveled, and you not only see a well exposed interior, but also what's outside the window.

    It does create an interior shot much more in line with what the onsite visitor would see, and that's far from unethical. A full discussion of HDR for real estate must be more about the interior shots, and it would convince many "high end" professionals to use the inexpensive and very effective technique.

  4. Darrin

    May 31, 2011 at 9:18 am

    Wow. I'm pretty overwhelmed by Mr. Lohman's quote. I consider it pretty uniformed and generalistic. More, I find the comment inflammatory. In terms of HDR being unethical, I think not. Marketing is putting our best foot forward. We are not airbrushing out trees or putting in a second level on a rambler. We are merely punching up color to make them stand out. People seriously need to get a grip.

  5. Joe Loomer

    May 31, 2011 at 9:26 am

    Spot on, Lani – if done to reflect reality (brightening a room because the flash won't capture the lighting right), it's almost a duty to do it, but when done to deceive, not good.

    Navy Chief, Navy Pride

  6. Pat Curry

    May 31, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Great discussion. Let me weigh in as a journalist who covers real estate sales and marketing. If you can pick it up and move it out of the way of a shot, you shouldn't have a problem with removing it digitally. That includes trash cans on the street. I would have a problem with editing out power lines (or adding in landscaping that isn't there) because that's part of the location that the buyer is going to take into consideration. The exception, I think, would be if you're taking images of a model that could be built elsewhere.
    I would have a problem with altering colors. I'm not talking about brightening up a dark room. I'm talking about changing the color of the cabinets, flooring, walls, etc. What they see in the photos needs to match what they see when they walk in the door.

  7. Molly

    May 31, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    HDR for interior shots can be pretty spiffy.

    There really isn't a way to capture the views of the exterior of a room AND the color of the room if you don't use HDR (unless it is a craptastic gloomy day).

    Right now, I am not using HDR in shots, but that will be my next "investment". I am really tired of "enter the light Caroline" feel of the windows on a bright day.

  8. Thomas A B Johnson

    May 31, 2011 at 11:33 pm

    The listing agent owes his loyalty to the sell his client, as does the ad agency that photo-shops the zits and puffs up the t*t$ of the cover girl. We are trying to sell the house.

    I do none of the above and I still get "the pictures looked better" feedback. I frame carefully, watch the exposure and pick the best photos of hundreds for my listings. You can photo-shop power lines away or frame the picture so they don't show. The pictures should make a buyer want to visit in real life.

    • Jay Zenner

      June 15, 2011 at 11:07 am

      Amen. As listing agents our duty is to effectively market our clients' homes. Approaching our photographs or videos as documentation is missing the point. We're creating advertisements. What's more enticing, an artful framing of an expensive kitchen faucet or a wide angle shot of the kitchen with what Molly describes as "enter the light, Caroline" windows? Was the Super Bowl ad for the Chrysler 200 unethical because it barely showed any of the car and failed to reveal that the 200 was simply an updated and repositioned Sebring? Short of outright deception, our job with photography, video and copy writing is to tease potential buyers with just enough information to make them seek a showing.
      The days when the guys at Hobbs-Herder could legitimately make the point that "we are the product" are gone, gone, gone. With more homes on the market and fewer qualified buyers around we must become more sophisticated marketers of HOMES, to serve our clients and make home ownership attractive again.


    June 1, 2011 at 12:55 am

    how does every one feel about the hand drawn illustrations some realtors still use? i'm not seeing them as much they but they are used. ie

    arent those drawings the precursor to hdr/ image enhancement?

  10. Mark Bergman

    June 1, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Removing power lines; unethical. Framing to avoid those same power lines; no issue. The key point here goes to presenting a true and accurate picture to the public and other Realtors. True and accurate doesnt require an agent to highlight the negatives, but allows the agent to market the positives. If HDR or other post processing makes a photo more attractive, but still depicts what one will see when they visit the home, it's ok. Framing to avoid putting the neighboring double wide in background is fine but photoshopping to remove it is not. These are the sort of points that. Professional standards panel will consider if your creativity draws a complaint.

  11. Rudy

    June 2, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    In my opinion, too much editing to spruce up the colors is unnecessary. Just get a better camera that takes great looking realistic photos.

    Removing items from the picture or adding them to make the photo "be more appealing", that on the other hand is not too cool.

  12. John Perkins

    June 2, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    Greg said, "Is the real question does it work for the client?" Every Buyer I've ever talked to says they hate it. Sellers are okay with it until they realize Buyers aren't purchasing because they feel mislead when they show up and don't see a football field sized backyard and/or a very different color home.
    Lighting is fine but misrepresenting actual color is another and should have a disclaimer. Food industry has rules about photo's, I think Realtors should do the same. Otherwise it just makes them look bad in the long run again.

  13. DigitalMan

    June 21, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Other than a possible waste of time I don't see HDR as unethical, by that I mean if someone goes to view a property based on a HDR image that has added or removed something, they might not buy, but once they see the property in person the pictures no longer matter. So basically all the pictures do is intice people to want to see the property.

    In this day of computer image post processing I would think only if the image stated "no post processing" would you feel that it may not have been enhanced.

    As in all sales… caveat emptor!

  14. Short Sale Process

    March 26, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    I don’t see anything wrong with this. Aren’t most photographs assumed to be changed or enhanced just a little?

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