Rita Alfonso talks about her career as a Real Estate Photographer.  You can find Rita on her site at www.alfonsorealestatephotography.com and on her Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.

What do you do for a living?

I have an independent commercial real estate and architectural photography practice, so I photograph houses, buildings, and businesses for different kinds of marketing purposes. Sometimes I work with real estate agents and home owners who are selling a house or condo How to become a real estate photographerapartment; sometimes with commercial real estate companies wishing to advertise their properties; sometimes with businesses – such as resorts and hotels, restaurants and nightclubs, gyms and yoga studios, etc. – who need photographs of their brick and mortar businesses for their websites and other promotional materials. On occasion I have worked with home stagers (who come in and furnish and decorate an otherwise empty house that is for sale) and interior designers needing images for their own promotional materials. In sum, my job is to capture, in the most attractive and faithful manner, the best features of any given property.

How would you describe what you do?

Because photography is an art as well as a commercial practice, I think there are a couple different ways to answer this question. Practically speaking, and because I’ve been in business less than two years, I spend a lot of my time reaching out to potential clients– going to realtor’s meetings, calling real estate agents and businesses, dropping off my business cards and promotional brochures at real estate offices and businesses. In the end, the actual photography part of my job takes up a very small portion of my time.

Once I do get a job, I have to assess what kind of photographs are needed for what purpose, draw up a contract and property releases to be signed before the job begins, then show up on time, with the gear that I need, charged up and ready to go. Usually I will have a small window to photograph a property (an hour or two, depending on how many photos are needed), so I have to move quickly and still get great results. I enjoy the little adrenaline rush that accompanies a photography shoot, but if you don’t like to work under time pressure, this could be stressful.

Some photographers will do a shoot quickly and spend more time on post-processing (editing images on a computer using Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, and other software) to generate their finished images. I prefer to take as much time as possible on site to get it right so that I have to spend less time in front of the computer. Because I individually edit many of my photos (as opposed to put them through an automated batch process), it takes me about two-three hours of post-processing per hour of shooting to get to a finished set of images. Other real estate photographers report that it takes them less than an hour to edit a set of images, so this varies wildly from photographer to photographer.

Once the finished photos are ready, I upload them to a website for clients to review and download. (On occasion, I will need to go back and re-shoot or re-edit images, but this is not generally required.) I make sure the images were received by following up via email, text, or call (whatever the client prefers), and make sure the client is happy with the results. Finally, I move all the files associated with the job to an external drive for safe keeping, enter the financial information into my accounting software, and schedule a time a few months out to contact the client again to ask if they have any upcoming properties they need professionally photographed. Checking in every-so-often is important to maintaining my client base, especially since my business is young.

That’s a description of what I do in practical terms. On the aesthetic side of things, I think that architectural photography (and its commercial application in real estate photography) is quite unique and interesting as an aesthetic practice. In other kinds of commercial photography like product photography for catalogs or portraiture, the photographer is concerned with capturing and representing a thing, be it an object or person. For example, in portrait photography the photographer is trying to capture the personality of the sitter, and the relationship between the photographer and sitter inadvertently becomes a part of the image. With properties and structures, this relationship is spatial. The photographer is photographing architectural structures, but really what they are trying to capture is a sense of the space that is created in and through these structures. This entails a kind of spatial sensibility that is unique to architectural and landscape photography. In this sense, I think of what I do as a preoccupation with what visual artists describe as “negative space,” or the space between things.

Because real estate commercial photography is an offshoot of architectural and landscape photography, there is a documentary feel and an expectation of objectivity and realism implied in real estate photography. Ethically speaking, one would not alter anything in the image to make permanent features of a property appear to be otherwise than they are, because this would mislead potential buyers or clients. But I do like to push the envelope in terms of experimenting with the limits of real estate photography, like working with hard light and maneuvering some unexpected viewpoints. Usually, however, I don’t do this in the context of the work that I deliver to clients, but in discussion forums where photographers working in this area talk to each other about their images, like the useful PFRE (Photography for Real Estate) Flickr group discussion forum. Because real estate photography is so young, it still operates under the regime of architectural photography, but I think there is a lot of room for pushing the limit of the genre of real estate photography. Some people are doing this in the direction of the surreal with HDR photography, others by integrating other technologies and offering slideshows, 360 degree views, etc. It’s very exciting to see real estate photography develop it’s own specificities.

What does your work entail?

I have answered this partially above, but just to reiterate, a good real estate photographer needs to be able to capture faithful images of property interiors and exteriors while working under time constraints; they need to be able to post-process these images so as to create consistent and pleasing finished images that will present a given property in the best light; they need to be good business persons and (especially) be able to implement a good marketing plan; they need to interact with real estate and other kinds of business people; and, finally, they need to enjoy a certain sensitivity to spatial aesthetics. The successful real estate photographer realizes that most of their time will be spent not photographing, but executing business tasks but this will only make the time they work on photography that much more enjoyable!

What’s a typical work week like?

My time is divided between reaching out to potential clients, contacting previous clients, following up on prior leads, attending real estate meetings and other events that allow me to network with potential clients and other photographers, maintaining my books, and actually going out on shoots. I had to figure out the best times for me (personally) to do different kinds of tasks and have set up a schedule that I more or less maintain. I don’t like to have lists of “things to do,” so instead, I work to create habits and rituals around the kinds of things that I need to do, when I am best at doing those kinds of things, and then I just do-do-do.

For example, I am best at creative work in the evenings, so that period is reserved for my most creative projects, be they photography or some other project I am working on. I tend to get everything that needs to be done in this way, but this may have something to do with the peculiarities of how I work best; everyone needs to create their own system for doing work. (Frankly, I find a list of “what I have done’s” more useful because taking a retrospective view can give one a good sense of how much one has achieved, and this helps to keep me going; while looking forward to everything that still needs to be accomplishing can be paralyzing.) The downside to this way of working, I have come to discover, is that my rituals get completely turned over whenever I need to travel away from home (which I have been doing more of lately), so I am in the process of revising how I work. But this is also a part of the trick to building a successful business: knowing yourself and your limitations, and being flexible enough to alter how you work given changing situations.

How did you get started?

Quite by accident! I don’t even remember what the site was or what I was doing there, but I came across a real estate photography site on the web and something just clicked in my head. I had always wanted to make a living as a photographer, but did not want to do wedding or portraiture photography (the only kind of commercial photography that seemed accessible and viable to me), and I did not really fancy being a photographer on a fine art model where you spend most of your time chasing after grants and entering competitions and the such.

For over ten years before I started my photography practice, I had been teaching philosophy and gender studies, but I was not particularly happy with the academic lifestyle, and I had a strong entrepreneurial itch I needed to scratch. My academic research had to do with tracing the history of spatial conceptions, so in that funny, random way that fate makes itself felt, real estate photography is the visual correlate and commercial application of my long standing intellectual interests. In building a commercial real estate photography practice, I am building a life that embodies the independence and creativity that I need and desire, while getting to exercise my intellectual and aesthetic sensibilities. Once I become more established, I will probably start writing more about what I do as a photographer, and about space and spatial aesthetics from this perspective. I can also imagine displaying my work in a fine arts context in the near future. These are all possibilities for the architectural/real estate photographer.

What do you like about what you do?

I like it that it’s all me, so the independence of being able to decide what jobs I take, to determine how hard I work to attract and keep business, and that I stand or fall by my own merits, are hugely attractive. I like working with real estate agents and other business people because in a practical, matter of fact way, they usually know what they need and value what I do. Still because real estate photography is such a new niche, sometimes a part of my job is educating potential clients about what is good real estate photography and how my services can benefit their real estate practices, but I enjoy this as well.

There is a kind of immediacy and concreteness to this work that I am really enjoying after so many years in higher education where the fruits of your labor are much more amorphous and felt only in long term effects. It may be years before a student really understands the meaning of a philosophical question in their own experience, but it is a few days from shooting to the production of finished images in real estate photography. I enjoy the practicality and immediacy of it all.

What do you dislike?

Hahaha, the competition, but of course! There are other photographers out there, often with little to no training, who go in and shot very quickly, batch process their images, and because of this they can offer images at a lower price than I can. There are some others who are really wedding or portrait photographers who are technically sound as photographers, but do this part time to supplement their other photography interests. There are also some very large companies coming into markets and hiring photographers to shoot properties for $50, off-shoring their editing, and offering very low prices by scooping up a huge portion of the market at once. It’s a new field, and already the competition is stiff!

My investment in real estate photography is different; I don’t do any other kinds of commercial photography and I offer a higher level of photography and service. But then, I have to justify the value of my work and the higher prices that I charge, and this is tough to do in a field where what is good work in terms of practices and final images has yet to be established. I suppose that this is the hard part of any businesses, having to sell yourself and justify your value when you are at first trying to establish yourself. When you first start out, the temptation is strong to offer your services at cut rates in order to gain enough business to stay afloat, especially when there are others offering very low prices. But this creates unsustainable business practices in the long run not only for yourself but for the whole industry, so I have kept my prices reasonable but high enough so I can make a living, and I have simplified my life so that I can live on very little while I build this business.

On more thing that I don’t enjoy: although I recognize that I don’t want to be a big business and would like to keep it small and boutique style, this means that I often have to wear many more hats than my head can accommodate. There are certain aspects of the business that I don’t particularly enjoy, and I would like to get to a place where I can start hiring others to do these tasks so that I can concentrate on what I do best, and have more time to work on photography and write about what I do. Maintaining a small scale and balancing this with financial concerns is something that I work on daily.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

There are two different pay structures that I use, depending on the needs of the client with whom I am working. With most real estate agents, I get paid on or before a shoot (cash, check, or credit card) for an agreed upon number of finished images. (I offer two different packages that are based on the number of images to be delivered and the size [measured in square feet] of the property being photographed.) With commercial real estate, there are sometimes multiple properties to be photographed, and so I charge some percentage of a per diem fee, depending on how much time it takes to shoot the various properties. In this case, since these are larger jobs, I ask for a 50% deposit upfront, and invoice them for the remainder once the images are delivered. I regularly offer new clients a 20% discount, and because I want clients to be pleased with my work, I will re-shoot and re-edit images until the client gets what they want at no additional cost. This is why it is very important that I make sure that I understand the client’s needs upfront, especially with new clients. It is part of my job to ask the questions that will give the client an opportunity to articulate what they need and for what purpose, so that I can then deliver what they need.

How much money do commercials photographers make?

It varies quite a bit, and there is some good information on this on the previously mentioned PFRE site. Having said this, some photographers contract with large companies and make maybe $50 to shoot a property; by the way, I would highly discourage anyone from getting into the business this way for many reasons, least of which is that the conditions under which you work are antithetical to learning your craft well. Independent real estate photographers usually charge between $100 and $500 for a real estate shoot. Many photographers also offer add-ons or deluxe packages that include graphic design for flyers and brochures and website design, elaborating upon the basic packages.

I would say that most independent real estate photographers are hovering around $50,000 a year, the top 20% are making between $50,000 and $89,000, and the most established few in the top 5% are making $90,000 and above, supplementing their photography work with educational seminars and materials like book on real estate photography. At this level, photographers tend to specialize further, like developing a focus on interior photography and working with magazines, or developing an expertise in resort properties and getting commercial contracts with hotel or resort chains.

I should also say that real estate photography is somewhat seasonal; real estate in particular has lulls from Thanksgiving in November until after the New Year, and again in August and September. This means that work does not come in evenly; you will sometimes have more work that you can handle, if you’ve put in your time implementing a good marketing strategy, and at other times, you will not have much work, if any.  This is why it make sense to couple real estate photography with some other kind of activity or interest that compliments it’s seasonality.”

How much money did/do you make starting out as a commercial photographer? 

I can tell you how I started: I priced myself in the higher mid-range and offered special promotions for new clients so as to be competitive with the lower range photographers. This means that it took a little longer for me to get business that I could afford to take, and two years in, I am not yet out of the red (i.e., making enough to cover my costs). But like I said, my approach has been to favor slow but steady growth. I know that others have gotten up and running out of the red in a year, with a lot of hard work and good networking skills and opportunities (I knew no one in real estate or real estate photography before I ventured in). If after two years you are not afloat, I would say it is time to try re-think your approach.

Finally, it is quite possible that the way that I came into real estate photography is closing up behind me because of the aforementioned large companies coming in and scooping up a big chunk of the marketplace at once. It is an increasingly difficult marketplace to enter as a beginner, at least in the Bay Area where there are several well-established people. In other markets, it will be a very different situation, I am sure. I would say: do your homework and position yourself in your market in the best way possible given what you already have (time, money, expertise, and connections), and what you need. It is a rapidly changing situation and one needs to be very adaptable to survive. Already, I see my business as moving more into commercial and resort photography, but only time will tell which direction I end up specializing into.

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

Formally, you don’t need any degrees or certificates, and in theory you could teach yourself what you need or apprentice with an established real estate photographer to learn the ropes. Bottom line is you need to know how to take photos of properties and to do so quickly, and your results need to be well polished. You also need to be able to drum up and run your business so you can make a living and not get into trouble with the law. But you also need to figure out what you want out of the practice, and figure out how to get it.

Personally, I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy and have taught course on representation and the media that have made me aware of broader issues, and this contributes greatly to my enjoyment of this work. I also took photography courses in several contexts from the time I was in junior high, eventually enrolling in an MFA program where I quickly became technically proficient. Finally, I completed an intensive business planning course at an entrepreneurial center in my city, and had already started a couple micro-businesses prior to my photography venture that prepared me for running this business. That is just the path I took, and many paths into real estate photography are possible – one of the advantages to it being a new niche is that the way through a career as a real estate photographer is being forged as we speak. The good news is that it is up to you to make your own way, and the bad way is that there are formulas to success.

What is most challenging about what you do?

Going back and forth between the different roles that I play as a photographer, business person, and artist is most challenging. Having to move from a shoot or editing to performing marketing tasks in one day is difficult for me. That is why I have tried to separate these kinds of tasks b y days, so there are now certain days which I devote to practical, business related tasks, and days that I devote to photography alone. This makes me more efficient and I also feel more satisfied with both.

What is most rewarding?

For me, my independence is the most important thing I can achieve. I could be a photographer and work for someone else, leave the business stuff to them, and get a more or less steady paycheck. But I know myself enough to know that this would not make me happy in the long run. Being an independent artist (and scholar) is definitely choosing the hard way, and it is not something you attempt unless it feels like a necessity.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

Firs of all, know thyself. Know what you are good at and build on those strengths. This is the case, no matter what you end up doing.

Second, if you choose to become a real estate photographer, read the blog at PFRE, join the PFRE flikr group and learn from the comments and discussions there. There are also some materials for sale there that I found very useful when I was starting out, but all the info you really need is in the blog articles and discussions, if you take the time to sift through it. Reach out to someone who is not in your market and whose work you admire, and let them know you admire it. In this way, you can begin to cultivate relationships with mentors and colleagues, which you will need at some point. Reach out to other independent photographers and artists, and to other business people. Make a list of people who are in your support network, and make yourself available for others to call upon if they need it. Share what you learn, and have the patience to learn from others. Everyone has something to teach you, if you let them!

Third, photograph everyday, even if it is with an mobile phone; visualizing and composing should become second nature. Keep your eye fresh by trying new things – new equipment you borrow or acquire, new angles, new genres of photography. It will all inform your artistic vision, and hone your technical skills.

Finally, do take a business planning class if at all possible. It will save you a lot of headaches in the end, and will make your success over time more likely.

How much time off do you get/take?

I find that I want to resist this question because I don’t see myself as have time “off” or “on.” My goal, rather, is to be doing something that is meaningful to me so long as I am awake. My photography practice is a one of these things, but there are a few other things. I don’t think the good life is attainable so long as you put most (let’s say more than 50% of your time) of your time and resources into any one thing, no matter how meaningful. I know that is what our society rewards, but it makes for miserable people. So, I do real estate photography some of my time, and other important and meaningful things the rest of the time. Everything I do is meaningful in some way, and it all finds expression in my practices, including photography.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

I have no idea! Maybe that it’s not artistic, or that it’s lesser than other forms of photography or commercial photography. But to me, these biases are irrelevant.

It does occur to me that there is a gender (and probably a class and race) bias built into this work because it is an iteration of architectural photography. If you look around with a critical eye, you will notice there are very few people of color or women at the top of this profession (perhaps none, depending on how you define the top), and it does take some money to buy and maintain professional equipment, so class is an issue. The perceived masculinity of architectural and real estate photography is probably one reason why real estate photographers command higher rates than, say, portrait or wedding photographers, but I have also felt that because there are more men in this filed, I sometimes stick out. This has both positive effects (I stand out) and some negative effects (I have to work harder to prove my competence and maintain my boundaries with some individuals. I take the good with the bad and work with what I have; but because I am sensitive to this, I also will support other underrepresented minorities in the field whenever I can.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

I would like to get some more resort property jobs and travel with my business. I would also like to work more with brick and mortar businesses to shoot their businesses for websites and such, perhaps combine a recent interest in food photography and real estate photography, to do the photography for restaurants. Getting some editorial work in lifestyle magazines would also be swell. The possibilities are many, and it looks like I will be doing less and less domestic real estate photography, which is where I began.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

There is still room for a couple more of you, so come on board! Feel free to contact me if you have specific questions, or if you live in the Bay Area and need a mentor.