January Photography Income Report: Jim’s new real estate photography business

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On my new monthly reports, I'll be sharing the exact amount of money I earn with my new real estate photography business.  This is not, of course, all the money I earn from photography.  Improve Photography is my full time business and has done very well.  But this is about how a photographer at any level can start small and earn a side income with their camera.

I made a goal for 2016 to be more vulnerable as a photographer.  Millions of photographers read Improve Photography and want to be inspired, but often feel trapped by the competitive photography market.  I hear more and more regularly that it's impossible to break in.

I think that's crap.

So this year I'm starting a photography business–from absolute scratch.  No portfolio, doing a type of photography that I know very little about, with no real connections, and with basic gear.

I chose real estate photography as my genre of choice.  Why?  Because it's a low competition industry where I think many photographers can find an easy start.  My goal is NOT to earn a full time income from real estate photography.  Rather, my purpose is to show that any photographer could earn a nice side income quickly.

This is my time sheet, where I share exactly the lessons I'm learning as I go.  I'm going to be transparent about how much time I spend, and how much money I earn.  Along the way, I hope this journey inspires you to become what you're capable of becoming as a photographer.

I'll be sharing lots more information than what is in these monthly reports on a new Facebook GROUP I created for new real estate photographers.  Come join the group and we can help each other as we learn.

January Income Report

I started my local photography business on January 20, 2016.  So for January I really only had a week and a half.  I announced that I'm starting this venture on the Improve Photography Podcast, and then I got started.

Here are my income and expenses for January for my real estate photography business:

  • I did two basic photo shoots of homes, for which I charged $140 per home.  So my income was $280 ($297.22 with tax included).
  • My only expenses were driving to the two photo shoots.  I drove 67 miles to and from the shoots.  However, driving those miles is not REALLY an expense.  It's actually income as far as I'm concerned.  The IRS allows for a deduction of 56 cents per mile, and it does not cost nearly that much to operate my basic commuter car (2012 Nissan Sentra – base model).  If you're new to this principle, read my photography business legal guide.  I consider the miles I drive about .15 cents per mile of income–and that's a conservative figure even after all the wear and tear, maintenance, etc.

So my total January profit was: $290.10

The amount of time that I spent in January was very low.  I really only spent a little time putting together a pricing sheet, making a few calls to my friend the real estate agent, and doing the two shoots, as well as post-processing.

Time spent in January:

  • 2 hours – Putting together a tiny portfolio (I had to take and edit the photos since I really didn't have anything to show)
  • 1 hour – Making my pricing sheet
    • Note: I put together a little $15 real estate photographer's starter pack with several things to save you time in starting your business.  For $15, you get the contract (I'm a lawyer) that I use with real estate agents, the Lightroom presets I use to quickly edit real estate photos, and also my pricing sheet that you can easily have a sheet ready to send to real estate agents.  You can pick up my $15 Real Estate Photographer's Starter Pack here.  It's basically what I spent the first couple weeks doing for myself.
  • 1 hour – Talking to real estate agents on the phone
  • 1.5 hours – Driving
  • 1 hour – Shooting (30 minutes per shoot)
  • 30 minutes – Post-processing (Nothing fancy.  Just applied Lightroom presets and made basic tweaks, then uploaded to the client)

Total time spent in January: 7 hours

Amount I earned per hour in January: $41.42.  I'm not wild about that, but I'm just getting going.

This is hardly a piece I'd put in my photography portfolio, but for a simple shoot it at least made the bathroom look clean, bright, and spacious.
This is hardly a piece I'd put in my photography portfolio, but for a simple shoot it at least made the bathroom look clean, bright, and spacious.

My Starting Place

I have only once ever done a paid real estate photography shoot before starting this journey.  That was several years ago.  I only have experience from photographing my home and a few relatives' homes when they were putting them up for sale.

I'm a very competent photographer, but I'm just getting started with real estate.

In terms of gear, I own several camera bodies of different brands that I use for testing, but for real estate photography I'm using my favorite camera: A crop sensor Fuji XT1 (why do I prefer it to my old full frame gear?  Read this).  I have a few lenses, but plan to use my wide angle lens (10-24mm) for most of my shooting.  I'll be using my trusty Feisol CT3442 (which I'm in love with) and a Really Right Stuff BH-40 ballhead.

I also purchased a DJI Phantom 3 Professional for aerial shots.  It costs $1,200.  While I don't think a drone is absolutely necessary to start out, I think it'll be handy in my market where many of the properties will be on acreage and so a drone will be handy.

I'm editing my photos on a 13″ Macbook Air using Lightroom.

Those are my preferences for gear, but really I'm not using specialized gear.  Camera and lens, laptop, tripod.  The only thing that some photographers don't have is a drone, which really is NOT necessary, as I'll discuss more.

This was the second house I photographed. It is an acreage property with a horse corral in the back.
This was the second house I photographed. It is an acreage property with a horse corral in the back.

How I Got My First Paying Real Estate Client

To start out, I reached out to my own connections.  EVERYONE knows at least one or two real estate agents.  Seems like there are even more real estate agents these days than photographers (and there are a LOT of photographers).

I got in contact with my friend from church who is a real estate agent.  Perfect timing.  He just got started in a new brokerage with high volume (100 houses per year) and they hated working with their photographer.  I listened VERY intently to what they didn't like about their current photographer so I'd know exactly how to please my client.

They said two things: (1) They didn't like that their current photographer took 48 hours to deliver photos to them after the shoot.  Real estate agents can't earn money until they list the property, and time is of the essence.  A 48 hour delay for most real estate agents is unacceptable.  (2) They didn't like that their current photographer was so sporadic with his invoicing, which caused them headaches in paying the photographer.

Hearing this, I was able to immediately get a pulse of what real estate agents are looking for.  I decided one thing I could do to differentiate myself was to deliver ALL photos the same day as the shoot.  That's really quite nice for me.  I don't like it when post-processing builds up on me and I get behind.  So I decided that I'm simply going to do all my post-processing sitting in my car with a laptop right after the shoot.  Post-processing for most of these shoots is fast and easy, so I might as well do it right away.

When I told the real estate agency that I could deliver all photos the same day, they were VERY excited.  I had apparently struck a chord.

In February I plan to reach out to a few more real estate agents and see if I can drum up some more business.  But I'm starting out slow.  This isn't intended to become a full time job (I already have one writing for Improve Photography!), and I want to build up a decent portfolio before I go crazy with advertising.

My First Shoot–Lessons Learned

I owned the first-generation DJI Phantom, but it turned out to be a dud for photography due to the vibration.  I got my DJI Phantom 3 Professional the evening before my first real estate shoot.  Looked just like my original phantom, so I wasn't worried about opening it up on the morning of the shoot and putting it to work.

Big mistake.

The Phantom 3 is a completely different drone.  I had to update the firmware on my controller, the drone, and the BATTERY!  Yes, even the battery had a firmware update required.  I started the firmware upgrade an hour before my shoot.

1 and a half hours later, the firmware was still updating.  Checked the text log and it said it was still updating.  Drone was unusable until the update finished.  But I had only 5 minutes before the shoot was scheduled.  Something was wrong.  The firmware upgrade was only supposed to take 25 minutes and I desperately checked online and nobody seemed to have experienced this issue.

So I did the unthinkable–the absolute worst possible thing you can do to a device when it's updating.  I pulled the battery out mid-upgrade.  Sweat was forming on my forehead and my fingers were firmly crossed as I put the battery back in to see if I had just bricked it, but fortunately it was operating fine.  The firmware hadn't installed, but it was working.

I was able to use the drone for the shoot.   Phew!

The actual photos of the interior were pretty standard.  I separated my pricing in three packages for the real estate agents.  The bottom package includes only basic post-processing and photography.  So I put one flash on my hot shoe and fired it up at the ceiling for almost every shot.

Using this one flash setup doesn't produce as good of results as I'm sure I could have gotten if I had taken the time to set up multiple flashes and do something epic, but it allows me to do a shoot and post process in under 1 hour.  This helps me to keep my price low for real estate agents who hire me.

The results I got were decent, but certainly nothing to write home about.  The photos were also taken during the middle of the day (real estate agent's preference) so that didn't help.

I'm not extremely proud of these photos, but I do feel that I delivered what the client asked for–quick, relatively inexpensive photos that show the property well.

So that's it for this month.  I'm learning a lot and feeling optimistic.

Goals for February 2016

I have two goals for February: (1) Take one epic real estate photo.  I get the idea that most real estate agents will be most often selecting the basic package except for the rare million dollar listing (rare in Boise, anyway).  I don't want the pace and simplicity of the paid shoots to hold me back from developing a good portfolio of real estate photos to advertise my services.  So I'll do an epic photo of my own home or do it as a free bonus for a company that pays me.

My second goal is to simply contact one additional real estate agent to solicit business.  I'll offer the first shoot for free as long as it's a real estate agent who typically does at least 15 listings per year.

UP NEXT: If you want to get started with real estate photography, read my article on what to charge for real estate photography.

Warning: No mentions of earnings in this series of articles is in any way a guarantee of what you can earn doing real estate photography.  Every business and individual is unique.  Your earnings will be a result of your effort and skill in marketing.  No part of this article should be construed as a guarantee of any kind.  Business is hard.  Only the diligent make it.

20 thoughts on “January Photography Income Report: Jim’s new real estate photography business”

  1. Good start Jim, and good luck learning a new genre.
    I started down this route about 6 or so months ago and have been slowly increasing my number of shoots and clients, which is satisfying.
    I look forward to reading what you experience and maybe throw in my own tidbits, as it seems the Aussie market is a bit different to that of the US.

    It is also comforting to be able to lean on your local church for some support, that was a God send for me.

  2. Thank you so much for this……it has finally pushed me into trying my hand in the real estate market where I live…I will keep you updated…

  3. I listened to the podcast this morning. Photographing your house to build out your portfolio was a good idea. But … what if you did not have a nice single family home to photograph? What if you lived in an apartment or a townhouse? What would you have done then?

  4. I’m so glad you’re doing this experiment! I’m in a new state and it’s been slow to start my portrait business back. Considering real estate photography. I was reading that several local real estate photogs are using Enfuse to create a smoother HDR type effect. Apparently it’s been around awhile and I’ve been under a rock. Anyway, what’s the best way to do this? Bounce flash, HDR, or this Enfuse? The guys that use Enfuse were shooting 5-7 frames bracketed. So my Nikon d610 only shoots 3 bracketed. I guess I could set up two series of different bracketed shots. Curious what you think.

  5. I’m so happy your doing this! I had strongly considered this last year and never moved on it. I’ve never seen a local agency in my area use a professional so I figured it was a good untapped market. I planned to make a mailer with before and after photos, and a little copy on the importance of first impressions when clients are viewing the property online. Agents will get it, sales is a numbers game, the more people through the door, the more chances of an offer being written.
    Now you’ve got me pumped and now I’m psyched to start with you and learn as we go. You already pointed out two super important marketing and selling points in this article. Especially the importance of the same day delivery to the agent. Hadn’t thought about it, but it makes perfect sense. Thanks Man!

  6. I heard you announce this on your podcast (I listen to all of them) & I thought: aha! That is where I want to take my photography! I am a hobbyist who volunteers photography services at my church & have learned (& hopefully improved) through a mentor, but do not want to do weddings, senior pics, etc. This! This is where I can go with my photography. I will follow you closely & get my own game plan together. I do have a 9-5 job that may inhibit the daytime shoots, unless it is the weekend. But, maybe by the time I am ready with a portfolio the sun will not be setting so early in my area.

  7. Hey Jim, if you don’t mind, which Really Right Stuff BH-40 are you using? there’s like 8 of them

  8. Haha, great! That’s very nice of you to put this all together 😀

    I wonder if this works in India though 😉

  9. Great start for your new project! I hope that you get the opportunity to keep us updated on your progress! Thanks for posting.

  10. Jim, really interested in seeing how things have progressed with this. I’m diving head first into my own real estate photography endeavor and want to know more about the business from your prospective. Maybe pod-cast worthy topics in the future? Thanks!

  11. Jim, Thanks so much for this diary of a real estate photographer!! I have been a photographer for over 35 years and recently was in an accident and realized that I can’t go back to running around for weddings or portraits and having several friends in real estate, I have taken photos of their properties several times. Not knowing anything about the field I just made it up as I went along. I now want to make a small business out of it but didn’t want to reinvent the wheel and start with no knowledge at all. I searched the web for info and got a lot of confusing price suggestions etc. Until I found IP! I purchased your $15 package which is going to take any guess work out of anything. But I really got a lot out of this little blog. Thank you so much for being so generous with your knowledge. I look forward to reading more in the future.

  12. Jim,
    Thanks for the great insights on this. I am looking to expand my business and I believe this will help. I just bought your starter pack and requested access to your Facebook Group.

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