Stone Soup


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Another in a series I’m writing to address questions I get asked a lot. This is a long one, so get a beer and settle in. For those who have asked me how I got started, this is the post you want.

Building a successful Real Estate Photography Business

Starting a photography business from scratch is tough. It’s hard to avoid the classic chicken-or-egg conundrum. You need to get real-life experience to build a portfolio, but you can’t get a job because you don’t already have a portfolio. Catch-22. And it’s easy to waste a lot of time paralyzed and feeling like you simply can’t get a break.

Here’s where the secret weapon comes in:
It’s called bluffing. Some people call it “Act like a winner, you’ll become a winner,” but I prefer a good old-fashioned bluff.

When I was 18 years old, I found out that the USDA had a honeybee research facility in the city I lived in (Baton Rouge, Louisiana). Don’t ask why; but I was totally interested in bees and beekeeping, so I called them up and asked if they would take me on as a volunteer. I was a pretty weird kid.
“We don’t use volunteers,” they said, “but if you want a job, we’re hiring a research assistant.”

I could get paid doing this? “I’ll be there tomorrow,” I said, and the next day I found myself employed at the princely sum of $3.65/hour as the research assistant to a guy doing research on domestic honeybees. “So you have experience with beekeeping, right?” he had asked me.
“Absolutely,” I replied, “I used to keep bees with my best friend.”

Total bullshit. It’s true that a friend of mine used to have a beehive, which I think his father really maintained, as a sort of father-son bonding thing. I had seen it from a distance maybe two or three times in my life. That was it. But no one questioned me closely, probably because they assumed that no one would be stupid enough to lie about his or her beekeeping ability. They had never dealt with me before. “OK,” my new boss said, handing me some colorful squares of plywood along with a hammer and nails, “Go nail these targets to the side of those hives over there.”

A hammer, nails, and 10 beehives? Obviously this was some sort of hilarious initiation joke. I waited for the laughter. But no, he was serious, and had already bent back over his microscope. I picked up the hammer and walked slowly outside. Someone took pity on me and got my headnet on straight, and helped me fire up a smoker to calm the bees down. I walked out to the hives and hammered the targets on. I got 5 or 6 stings, and survived. It was the beginning of two years of fascinating fun work, during which I learned more about bees and beekeeping than I had hoped. I loved that job.

Early in my career as a photographer, when I was short on experience but long on enthusiasm, I bluffed my way into job after job. Because I had shot a few hotels for the Travel section of the San Francisco Chronicle (a gig I got because I was friends with a PJ there), I would drop that (casually) in conversation to anyone who would listen. “Oh sure,” I’d say, “I shoot for the Travel section of the Chron,” shrugging casually.
I knew that I was the lowest-level stringer they had, but people would hear “Travel” and “Chronicle” and immediately assumed the best. I leveraged it for all it was worth.

When it came time to build a Real Estate clientele, I was faced with some problems. First, I had almost no experience with interiors photography. Second, I didn’t know any Real Estate people. Third, I didn’t really own the right gear.

So it was business as usual, for me.

I started out with a 20D (new, $1200), a 17-40L (used, about $600; not wide enough on a crop sensor), a Canon 430ex (new, $229), and an SB-24 (very used, $74) which I triggered off-camera via a 50′ homemade sync cord. I cajoled a couple of friends into letting me practice on their living rooms, with dismal results. Around this time I met another photographer, who let me watch over his shoulder on a few shoots, and gave me pointers on images I would email him. Pretty soon I was starting to see some progress. But I needed better material to work on. It was a bit like an aspiring fashion photographer; there’s a point (which you reach early on) when your sister just won’t cut it anymore as a model, and you have to go out and find a pro to work with. I needed something better than my friends’ crappy apartments to work on.

So the next Sunday afternoon, I went out cruising for Real Estate Open Houses. I’d go in, trying to look like a successful investment broker from the suburbs, thinking about buying a nice 5-bedroom house in Piedmont (used, but about $1.4 million). When the Agent was free for a minute, I’d make my move.

“Hi,” I’d say, handing over one of my business cards (quality-printed at Kinko’s, $20), “I’m a photographer, and I’m trying to break into the Real Estate photography business. I’m looking for a good staged house to shoot so I can get material for my portfolio.”

There’d be this uncomfortable pause while they registered that I was not considering buying an overpriced termite-ridden tear-down expensive trophy home. I charged into that moment.
“I’m not asking you to hire me; not now, maybe not ever. All I want is that you let me shoot your next listing for free. You get the pictures, do whatever you want with them. I’m going to use them to try to get other agents to hire me.”

“You’re a photographer?” they’d finally say, looking at me dubiously.
“Yeah,” I’d say, shrugging casually. “Do you get the Sunday Chronicle? A lot of the stuff in the Travel section is mine.”

If memory serves, over the course of a couple of Sundays I hit 10 open houses, and went through some version of that routine at each one. Nine out of ten were at least politely interested, and five of them actually did call me back and let me do shoots for them. Worked great – out of those five shoots I got six or seven shots I was very proud of (including one that I’m still kinda happy about), and of course some excellent real-world experience.

First thing I did was to pick the best two photos and get some 5.5″ x 8.5″ postcards printed up at Five hundred postcards is about $100 or so. I couldn’t even begin to afford postage, so I delivered them by hand. I made a list of Real Estate offices in Oakland and Berkeley and drove around delivering my cards. This turned out to be incredibly easy; I’d walk in, hand a postcard to the receptionist, and explain that I wanted to leave my postcards in Agents’ mailboxes. Not only was this no problem at all, but I found that the receptionists would actually help me out.First_Postcard

After I’d gone through and slipped my card into all 80 mail slots, I’d ask a few questions. “Who should I be following up with? Is there an Office Manager? Who are the agents who would be most likely to hire me? Who has the biggest listings? Who’s using a photographer now?”
The receptionists know all of this stuff. They’d start sorting through business cards, handing me the ones of all the hottest prospects. “Oh, Beth just said the other day she needed a photographer,” they’d say, handing me Beth’s card. “And Bob always has a ton of listings, and George is the Sales Manager, he’d probably let you come and make a presentation at the weekly meeting….”

Weekly meetings?

So I’d make follow-up phone calls to all the important people. George especially I’d call, asking if I could come present at the weekly meeting, using my best “I’m a big-deal photographer from the Chronicle” voice. And it worked. I made little 10-minute presentations at offices around Oakland and Berkeley, and I was batting .1000 in terms of booking shoots right then and there.

So it began. I was getting some overflow work from another photog, and slowly, slowly, my little base of clients grew. I was working with some of the worst “bottom-feeders” around, shooting the crappiest places you can imagine, properties that even the selling agent referred to as a “scrape-off”. But every once in a while I’d score a better gig, and my portfolio, and my skills, grew.

The marketing departments of Real Estate offices will be on your side from day one. It’s in their interest for the agents to spend as much of their own money as possible marketing the properties, so they’ll actively promote you from inside. And as you get more and more shoots from the same office, there starts to be a competitive thing happening between the agents. No one wants to be the only one with crappy photos on their flyer, so once you hit the critical mass, you’ll go through the office like a virus. You aren’t going to be shooting for everyone, you don’t even want to be shooting for everyone, but you’re likely to get all the second-tier agents on board fairly quickly.

The top-tier agents are another smoke entirely. But that will be another post.

13 responses to “Stone Soup

  1. This is great, thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Than you Scott for sharing. You are validating “fudging” a bit. I think thats what it takes for some one else to believe in you so you can get going. We all need to get in there and shoot so we can get the experience we need.

  3. Michelle, that’s exactly right. It’s not a new concept, just a version of the old “act like a winner, you’ll be a winner”. If you carry yourself like an award-winning famous photographer, people will treat you like one. If you have a single client at, say, Prudential, then you tell people “I shoot for Prudential, among others.”

    Glass half full.

  4. Quite crafty, aren’t you? It’s very cool of you to share this stuff. I just came to the realization that I’m going to have to visit some open houses. It seems very scary to me and I don’t know why. Maybe I’ll be a little bit braver now. Thanks.

  5. Hahahaha this article so hit home man! I cant begin to describe the similarities. Well writtten


  6. Ahh, the secret of the bluff …. just enough truth in it so that you can justify / embellish a little if needed.

    A very good insight into business development at a small business. Applies equally to virtually any trade – the don’t take ‘no’ for an answer approach. If only I could apply it to my own line of work a little better….

  7. Scott, thank you thank you for giving me some optimism! 🙂

    Wish me luck!

  8. For some reason, this classic post popped up in my feed reader again. It is almost eerie how well timed it was; I am finally taking the plunge and getting a couple flash guns and a wide angle lens so I can start shooting interiors for my photography degree focus this semester. This post has finally convinced me that I can get out there and find some houses to shoot, make my book, pass my course, and be ready to start a career. Thanks, Scott. 🙂

  9. Good luck, you guys! Remember:
    “Luck is the residue of design.” – Branch Rickey

  10. What an entertaining and enlightening read. It is a joy to follow your words. Thank you for shareing it with us Scott!

  11. Michael Stanway

    Scott, inspiring story, mostly because its so honest. First time in my life i’ve seen a reference to stone soup, but has always been my philosophy (something out of nothing). I once had a fully functioning proprietary CRM/subscriber management (software) system developed that ran for 10 years…starting with a zero-dollar budget and no experience…stone soup, brother!

    Turning my head away from the soul-less corporate grind, falling in love with light and shadow, and wanting badly to shoot automobiles and real estate for some reason. Your post is thoughtful, inspiring, and very encouraging, it will be a regular read/reminder for me.

    Also enjoyed the 92Sandhill post (how I ended up on your site) and found the seventhmovement TLP absolutely stunning. Off to buy your book. Cheers and thanks – Michael Stanway.

  12. Question—What exactly do you do or say at the weekly meetings? I got the “in” to present at one next week, and I’ve got NO idea what to do!

  13. Thanks a million Scott for the post.