Not long ago, I was asked by SharpLaunch, a provider of all-in-one marketing platforms for commercial properties, to answer some questions for their blog on the importance of professional photography to the process of selling or leasing commercial real estate (CRE). A couple of my answers, along with those of several other professional architectural photographers, appeared on their blog here.
However, the interview questions they sent me generated lots of extra information that didn’t make it in to their blog post, so I thought I’d post those extras here in hopes that sellers and lessors of commercial real estate find it helpful. Happy Marketing!
• SharpLaunch: How is commercial real estate/architecture photography different from other photography assignments?
… not everyone who makes an image of a building every now and then is an architectural photographer.
AB: Architectural and interior photography is a specialty, just like action sports, portraits, product / still life, food, aerials, and many others. It’s important to remember that there’s a technique, knowledge, style, and special equipment unique to every specialty, not just a subject matter. In other words, not everyone who photographs their kid’s soccer game is an action sports photographer, not everyone who snaps iPhone photos at the restaurant is a food photographer, and not everyone who makes an image of a building every now and then is an architectural photographer.
Architectural photography, like architecture itself, requires precision, lots of patience, attention to details, and the ability to plan way ahead. Some people’s brains work very well this way, and others are more adept at quick-thinking, run-and-gun, in the moment photography. Neither is better or worse, they’re just different. I’d make a terrible motorsports photographer, for instance, as I know nothing about cars or motorcycles. But, I can visualize and plan exactly when I need to be on the roof of the adjacent building to time the light that’ll really make your building pop, and then I can fill my entire day with other shots to not waste your time or money. I know a lot of photographers who would pull their hair out trying to anticipate and plan that.
• What’s your best photography advice for shooting a commercial property (tips to owners for marketing a property)?
A photographer who doesn’t ask about what you’re trying to achieve with the photos is almost guaranteed to not give you what you need.
AB: 1) Work with a photographer who asks questions about what you’re trying to achieve and understands how to showcase that. Are you marketing amenities? The view? The location near downtown or transportation hubs? The fact it’s fully leased? A photographer who doesn’t ask about what you’re trying to achieve with the photos is almost guaranteed to not give you what you need.
2) Start planning with enough time to have the landscape crew tidy up around the property and add any seasonal-color plants ahead of time (NOT on the day of the shoot). Also have the maintenance crew wash the windows, check for graffiti, replace burned out bulbs, power wash grubby spots, and tend to anything broken. Reschedule any deliveries, exterior maintenance projects, or one-time events scheduled on that day.
3) Well ahead of time, decide which, if any, tenant spaces you’d like to photograph and start securing permissions well in advance with those tenants. Photography requests may need to get passed through a legal dept., the home office, etc. and may take a surprisingly long time.
4) Be sure to alert the building tenants that there will be photography happening, and reserve any common rooms or spaces that need to be photographed so a tenant doesn’t suddenly decide to hold a staff meeting in the one room you need to photograph.
• What property features are the best or most attractive to capture?
… think about telling a story of the building or property with … overall views, vignettes, and details.
AB: Again, it depends on the goal of the photos. Are you trying to sell the entire property? Then just like with your house, focus on curb appeal, how nice the amenities are, the fact it’s fully leased, etc. If you’re trying to lease the entire building, then consider what makes it better than other available buildings, and concentrate there. If you’re just trying to lease single floors or offices, then show off who the other tenants are, what kinds of amenities are available (fitness room, shared conference and cafeteria spaces, parking, etc), and maybe ease of access via transit, close to arterials or highways, etc.
Very generally, think about telling a story of the building or property. Make sure you get a great overall view, several vignettes of important spaces like lobby/reception, conference rooms, and maybe a cafeteria or fitness room, and don’t forget great detail shots that show the finishes, the view, even people. And hopefully you also get a great “hero shot”, something that makes a viewer stop and notice, like you’d see on a magazine cover – think twilight/dusk shot, a great sunrise, almost anything with interesting light. But in general, stay away from photographing bathrooms!
• What does the photography process look like (from the client’s PoV)?
… I’ll mostly need help contacting and coordinating with building management …
AB: Once I’ve been contacted and hired by a client, I need some guidance regarding the goal / intent of the photos, how and where they’ll be used, and any specific shots they’re hoping to come away with.
Next, I’ll need help contacting and coordinating with building management, either a property manager or a tenant / occupancy coordinator, in order to gain access and permissions, reserve common areas, coordinate with tenants as necessary, and schedule the shoot day(s).
Finally, once the photography’s done I’ll take a few days to edit down what’s usually hundreds of images into a more manageable number, globally process and retouch them, and then post them in a web gallery for client review. At that point, my client needs to make some choices based on their needs, and then I can re-touch and deliver a limited number of final images within another few days, or sooner depending on urgency.
• How long does it normally take to deliver the photos?
I usually post a web gallery of images to choose from within 2-5 business days …
AB: Depending on the scope of the shoot, I usually deliver a web gallery of images for the client to choose from within 2-4 business days of the shoot day(s). After the client’s made their choices, final image delivery typically takes another couple of days.
• How much does the commissioned job usually cost?
Every project’s different, but in the past two years I’ve completed CRE shoots for as little as $1500 and as much as $6500…
AB: Again, depends very much on the scope of the shoot, what the client’s hoping to achieve, and therefore how many shots we plan for and the usage license that the client needs. In the past two years, I’ve completed CRE shoots for as little as $1500 and as much as $6500. The latter included several days’ worth of interior and exterior photos in both tenant and common spaces across a seven building campus, evening / dusk shots, even some helicopter aerial photography.
• What should clients consider when commissioning a photo shoot (tips to make the process as efficient as possible)?
… you wouldn’t pay for a professional business portrait and not comb your hair, right? So be sure to take the time to make your property look its best before its “portrait”.
AB: Planning ahead is key. While it’s not impossible to pull off something like this with just a few days’ notice, that’s not a recipe for getting the most for your money. Cleaning, maintenance, reserving spaces, and securing permissions from tenants will all make for better images and all need to happen ahead of time. And having the flexibility to wait on the best weather conditions for exterior images is important too. An experienced photographer should be able to get you at least a few really good images in almost any conditions, but giving him or her the time to plan ahead and be flexible means you’ll get a lot more useful, and better quality, images for your money.
After all, you wouldn’t pay for a professional business portrait and not comb your hair or think about what clothes to wear, right? So why wouldn’t you take the time to make your property look its best before its “portrait”?
• What are the other questions you usually get from clients?
… just like you wouldn’t hire an architect or an ad agency without a good upfront idea of the cost, neither should you commit to a photographer without understanding what it’ll cost and what you’ll receive — and get it in writing.
AB: Aside from the logistics of how to pull off a photo shoot, most client questions revolve around cost and photo licensing / usage.
Talking about money can be difficult. But just like you wouldn’t hire an architect or an ad agency without a good upfront idea of the cost, neither should you commit to a photographer without understanding what it’ll cost and what you’ll receive. Photographers may work in a wide range of price points. Some of them may be just starting out or are part-time photographers looking to earn some extra money, while others are full-time professionals. Neither is right or wrong, but as with most professions you often get exactly what you pay for so be realistic about your budget and your expectations. Job parameters, costs, and deliverables should all be clearly spelled out in writing. Working with a photographer who can’t or won’t tell you, or who doesn’t seem to have a good idea themselves, is a recipe for conflict and misunderstanding.
As for photo licensing and usage, don’t be scared of the terms. Contrary to what you may have read, nobody’s out to trap you. As creative businesses, we’re paid based on our skills to create eye-grabbing images that others need to market their properties, and also for the usage of those images. A good analogy might be leasing a corner office vs. a windowless interior one. Both might be the same size, but a corner office costs more because of the added benefits to its occupant – the view, the privacy, the prestige.
While I have a standard usage agreement built in to my combined fee that includes most of the common marketing uses for images, if a client wants or needs one of the few uses that are not included then I’m going to charge an additional usage fee for the added benefits – just like a corner office view. I’m always happy to answer questions about what usage is and isn’t included and I’m always happy to re-visit the license if a firm’s needs increase over time. Again, having everything spelled out in writing ahead of time will avoid uncertainties and conflicts.
• How do clients usually find you?
… roughly half of my business is either repeat business from past clients, or referrals from them to firms that become new clients.
AB: I’m very proud that roughly half of my business is either repeat business from past clients, or referrals from them to firms that become new clients. After 20 years in business, that list continues to grow. As for the remainder, firms mostly find me through internet searches that either land on my own website at www.subtlelightphoto.com or else land on one of several membership organization sites where I’m listed, including the Association of Independent Architectural Photographers (AIAP), Found Artists, and American Photographic Artists (APA). I do also use both email and printed marketing to reach out to current and prospective clients, and I always appreciate the opportunity to speak and teach about architectural photography here in Seattle or elsewhere.
• Can Firms, Brokers, or Agents Do This Themselves?
… try to assign project photography as part of one specific person’s job on your team.
The reality is that budgets aren’t unlimited, time isn’t always on your side, and while you may have the willingness, you don’t always have the means, to hire a professional photographer. In that case, try to assign project photography as part of one specific person’s job on your team. Send them to a class or two, buy them a book, ask them to spend time reading and learning, and really put them in charge of your firm’s visuals. They may never develop an expertise, but they will at least learn what common mistakes to avoid and they’ll have a real stake in improving your firm’s listings with photography. That way, you can have a consistent look and feel to your regular, everyday images, and save your photo budgets for the most important projects.