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Real estate photography editing – is it unethical?

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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?”

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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43 Comments

43 Comments

  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.

  9. hermanchan.com

    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 https://www.billcomptonartwork.com/

    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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Business Marketing

The use of offline marketing can still be advantageous in a digital world

(BUSINESS) Offline marketing is usually skipped over nowadays for the sparkly, shining ‘digital’ marketing strategies, but don’t forget the roots.

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offline marketing billboard

Everywhere you look, people want to talk about digital marketing. In fact, if you don’t have a digital marketing strategy in today’s business world, you’re not going to last long. But just because digital marketing is popular, don’t assume that offline marketing no longer yields value.

When used together, these strategies can produce significant returns.

“Some people will argue that traditional marketing is dead, but there are several benefits to including offline advertising in your overall marketing campaign,” sales expert Larry Myler admits. “Combining both offline and online campaigns can help boost your brand’s visibility, and help it stand out amongst competitors who may be busy flooding the digital space.”

How do you use offline marketing in a manner that’s both cost-effective and high in exposure? While your business will dictate how you should proceed, here are a few offline marketing methods that still return considerable value in today’s marketplace.

1. Yard signs

When most people think about yard signs, their minds immediately go to political signs that you see posted everywhere during campaign season. However, yard signs have a lot more utility and value beyond campaigning. They’re actually an extremely cost-effective form of offline advertising.

The great thing about yard signs is that you can print your own custom designs for just dollars and, when properly stored, they last for years. They’re also free to place, assuming you have access to property where it’s legal to advertise. This makes them a practical addition to a low-budget marketing campaign.

2. Billboards

The fact that you notice billboards when driving down an interstate or highway is a testament to the reality that other people are also being exposed to these valuable advertisements. If you’ve never considered implementing billboards into your marketing strategy, now’s a good time to think about it.

With billboard advertising, you have to be really careful with design, structure, and execution. “Considering we’re on the move when we read billboards, we don’t have a lot of time to take them in. Six seconds has been touted as the industry average for reading a billboard,” copywriter Paul Suggett explains. “So, around six words is all you should use to get the message across.”

3. Promotional giveaways

It’s the tangible nature of physical marketing that makes it so valuable. Yard signs and billboards are great, but make sure you’re also taking advantage of promotional giveaways as a way of getting something into the hands of your customers.

Promotional giveaways, no matter how simple, generally produce a healthy return on investment. They increase brand awareness and recall, while giving customers positive associations with your brand. (Who doesn’t love getting something for free?)

4. Local event sponsorships

One aspect of offline marketing businesses frequently forget about is local event sponsorships. These sponsorships are usually cost-effective and tend to offer great returns in terms of audience engagement.

Local event sponsorships can usually be found simply by checking the calendar of events in your city. Any time there’s a public event, farmer’s market, parade, sporting event, concert, or fundraiser, there’s an opportunity for you to get your name out there. Look for events where you feel like your target audience is most likely to attend.

Offline marketing is anything but dead.

If your goal is to stand out in a crowded marketplace where all your competitors are investing heavily in social media, SEO, PPC advertising, and blogging, then it’s certainly worth supplementing your existing digital strategy with traditional offline marketing methods that reach your audience at multiple touchpoints.

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Business Marketing

What you can learn from Ulta Beauty’s marketing mix up with Kate Spade

(MARKETING) Ulta Beauty’s insensitive marketing email surrounding the Kate Spade brand can be a lesson: Be cautious and respond to crisis appropriately.

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Woman typing on computer representing the Ulta Beauty and Kate Spade email scandal

Last week in an email sent to subscribers, Ulta Beauty made light of designer Kate Spade’s suicide. Ulta said the lighthearted connection to Spade’s death was unintentional. The email sparked anger across social media and some national news outlets picked up the story. In an emailed response to the New York Post, Ulta apologized to their customers, their Kate Spade corporate partners, and Kate Spade’s family. They ended by saying they will strive to do better.

Words matter. Messaging matters. Hopefully, we can all learn a lesson from this painful mistake.

Check your tone. It’s one of the early things we teach writing students. The tone should match the content. If the icon you’re using to sell a product ended their own life, perhaps light and fun isn’t the tone you should embrace. Ever. But most businesses won’t be dealing with well-known people whose stories have been shared with millions. It’s up to business owners and those who write their copy to ensure the tone matches the message.

Always have a second pair of eyes look over words going out to the public. Or even a third and fourth. Often those in the creative room are brainstorming messages, reworking copy, and looking for the perfect pitch. And they get it. It sounds good, looks good, is easy to say and share, and, best of all, it will lead to sales. Having a multi-person system in place to check the copy and someone separate to give final approval can help catch the oh-my-God-no great words, but absolutely not pieces of sales copy.

Listen to your customer base and have a system in place to listen quickly. All businesses need systems for immediate customer response in play. Ulta caught their so-called oversight quickly.  But they’re a huge brand and Kate Spade was a beloved fashion icon. The negative response went viral and they had a giant mess to clean up. Companies make messes with their words often, messes that don’t immediately go viral but lead to real pain for consumers. When customers ask you to stop a message, listen to them and act.

Apologies don’t make excuses. If you’re caught in a messaging mess of your own making, I’m sorry goes a long way. If needed, follow that apology up with a plan to show you’re serious about “doing better” and making sure this never happens again.

If you find yourself in a place where a public apology is necessary, consider hiring a crisis manager to help with that plan as well.

Part of business today is constant communication with consumers. Try to have systems in place so you don’t find yourself in a “learning to do better” moment like Ulta. Words aren’t just about sales. They have power. Remember that.

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Business Marketing

Experience Design & Marketing: Where do they intersect, where do they diverge?

(MARKETING) The field of marketing has been around the sun and back, whereas experience design is a newer, but growing field. Where do they overlap?

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marketing trends and experience design

Identify, understand, educate, promise, and fulfill. Is that marketing or experience design? Is it both? The closer we get to marketing in the digital spaces* being truly organic and less about carpeting mobile sites with pop-ups and interruptions, the more marketing and experience design (XD)** start to intersect.

Software experiences used to be only about getting jobs done and the learning curve it took to operate that software was accepted as unavoidable. There was no expectation for ease of use and the competitive landscape was far smaller. The same can be said of marketing; when the pool of offers and services were drastically smaller, you won with volume or referral. Now there are deep expectations for human-computer interactions, expectations of low friction when dealing with a system or entity, and more choices than there are biting Tweets. Volume rarely wins anymore unless the traffic spend is massive or the niche is narrow. Both of these are the result of crowded, loud marketplaces and way more noise than signal. So what did marketing do? What did XD do? They turn to delivering more curated, personal interactions and messages. Those are now driven not by gross demographics and forty pieces of car dealership push cards in my mailbox, but by extrapolated wants and needs taken from human voices and applied to custom outreach.

  1. XD uses ceremonies and activities to discover and define our version of market evaluation and segmentation.
  2. XD prototypes and iterates based on focus groups, unmoderated testing, business requirements validation, and the things they expose. That’s our audience testing.
  3. XD seeks to remove the uninteresting, unused, or unnecessary parts of a decision tree (journey if we must lingo) based on response and introduce a version sans those things to drive closer to the intent and outcome. This is our nurture.
  4. XD uses continuous feedback to improve, refine, and in some cases recommend next steps, products, adjustments, or augmentations. That is our remarketing/retargeting, it’s how we adjust the “campaign”.

And those are only the most obvious fibers of the common thread the disciplines share. Others with a deeper knowledge of both topics can surely add to this list tenfold. The essence of this examination is to ask the question, should marketing and experience design work in tandem? Under one shingle? Can they coexist as a federated faction under the larger umbrella of CX?

They are both a part of a unified journey and the natural progression from first exposure to adoption to “damn I love this thing, I think I’ll TikTok about it” for products and services. That kind of melding could serve a common goal; seamless brand engagement.

The people that consume whatever is being offered don’t see us, the company, the thing, as a cluster of siloed pods vaguely marching in the same direction. They see us as a whole and our disciplines should support that impression.

Marketers and Experience folk– integrate! Learn each other’s wares and purposes, share things that work and definitely those that don’t. XD gang, I mean really combining to achieve specific goals. Don’t just send them a Jake Knapp YouTube, find common goals. And marketing kin, this means more than citing some Sprinklr data and the latest NPS around trending SEO. Wonder Twin into a test and prove machine, use HCD tactics to undercover new copy strategies, and test it with a group in a Pepsi/Coke standoff. I know you are A/B-ing your work, but you can narrow that lane before you traffic it. We can learn from each other, we can benefit from one another, greatly.

I’m betting we can forge something slightly fresher than passing people through our business cotton gin and expecting them to feel like we are one. What are the afterimages that last from the time I see a LinkedIn post, follow to the affiliate, subscribe/buy and actually get something good out of the product? Don’t tell me there isn’t a marketing/design love story in there.

I look forward to following up on this with an actionable plan and (hopefully) killer outputs.

Be well, feel good, and know peace.


*Experience Design as a proper name encompasses exactly what is in the eponymous name; the experience is every interaction, passive or active, through the entire cycle. From the first shred of awareness of a product or service to the lasting relationship made– that is experience in this context.

**I’m not going to call it Digital Marketing anymore, pretty sure we aren’t doing direct mail along with our IG ads

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