Real estate photographers: Which business model is best?

In Build A Photography Business Show, Real estate photography - business management, Real estate photography marketing by Build A Photography Business

In this video we’ll take a look at two different business models used by photographers to see how you would implement each of them when it comes to pricing, image quality, client acquisition, time per shoot and more.

Of course, you might sit somewhere between these two models so we’ll consider those options as well, and I’ll let you know which business model I think works best.

Here's what we covered in this episode (you can jump to the different sections in the video timeline):
0:00 - Intro
2:09 - Prices
4:55 - Number of shoots
6:41 - Time per shoot
8:53 - Quality of photos
10:55 - Team requirements
13:16 - Client relationships
19:15 - Problems with each model
20:24 - Which business model is best?
23:52 - Q&A - how did I scale my business?

Video transcript:
Which business model is best?

When we look at real estate photography, we might think of there being two extremes when it comes to business models:

At one end we have the high-volume model and a lot of companies choose to build their high-volume business on low prices and they can only charge low prices by paying low rates to their employees and contractors. Of course, that’s a generalisation and not everyone does that, but it happens a lot and we’ll talk more about that in a moment.

At the other end we have the boutique model which is where you work with fewer clients, you charge top prices but you deliver exceptional service, and that’s a great place to be because you’re shooting fewer properties each day but earning more and that’s cool.

And then we might have this space between those two extremes where maybe you’re still doing a lot of jobs, but not as many as the high-volume photographer but still a lot, but you’re priced a little higher than the really cheap businesses so you’ve got more profit margin on each shoot that you do.

But today we’re going to compare these two models at each end of the continuum, and we’ll look at them across multiple categories so you can clearly see the differences between them and work out where you would prefer to place your business.

Price: high-volume vs boutique

Let’s start with price and this is the big one. If you’re going for a high-volume model then you’re usually going to keep your prices low while keeping your expenses low as well.

So to give an example, your cost per shoot might be $80 and you charge your client $100, so you’re making $20 profit per shoot and then aiming to earn a good income through sheer volume. And I gotta say, you can make that work but it does have to be at a high scale when your margins are that tight.

But what’s important here, and I’ll say this again and again, is that you know your numbers intimately because when you’re running on such tight margins, you’ll need to squeeze every last drop out of every shoot.

Ok, so if you can save $1 by doing something a little differently or by adding an extra fee for, say, adding a new sky to a shot, then you’ll do it. I mean, that’s just what you’ve got to do when you’re running so tightly between costs and revenue. You can’t deliver a premium-level service when you’re low-cost, so need to get comfortable with the idea that you’re going to have to sacrifice something, and it’s probably going to be image quality.

At the other end, if you’re using the boutique business model then you’re pricing yourself higher and delivering more.

So you might be operating in the same town as a high-volume photographer who is charging $100, but maybe your price is $250 for the same number of images, your cost per shoot might $120, so maybe you’re making $130 in profit per shoot, compared with $20 per shoot for the high-volume company.

In terms of whether you can be successful, I think both models can work, but neither can rely on price-alone to bring them that success. I think that’s where a lot of the high-volume businesses get it wrong because they think that all they need is a low price, but it’s not enough. At the other end some businesses go high with their prices to make themselves seem “luxury” but they haven’t yet established their brand or built out their backend to justify those rates, and they lose as well.

And I think that’s a message I want you to take away from this – your business is like a football team or a basketball team. You can’t have just 1 player who does everything – you need different players out there working together.

So your pricing needs to align with your messaging and your customer service and everything else you do, so you can’t just go, ‘Oh, I’m going to grow by being cheap’ – that’s probably not going to work for you.

Number of shoots: high-volume vs boutique

Now let’s look at the number of shoots you’re doing, and if you’re high-volume then you’re obviously aiming to do a lot of shoots each week. So maybe you’re aiming to do a minimum of 6 shoots per day, and let’s say each one earns $20 in profit, so then you’re at $120 in profit each day. That takes a lot of work, so you’re constantly scheduling with your clients, shuffling things around when the weather goes weird, and you and your team are running pretty hard to get through everything.

At the other end we have the boutique photographer, and they might only do 2 shoots per day, especially if they are adding on extra services. And I think that’s what a boutique photographer would want to do, because then they can maximize their revenue at that property.

And that’s probably one of the biggest advantages they have over the high-volume photographer – just based on the type of clients they attract, the high-volume photographer is getting the cheap clients who just want the photos at the cheapest price they can get, but the boutique photographer is getting the clients that want great service and are willing to buy appropriate add-on services like videos and floorplans.

So maybe that $250 photo shoot also gets a $150 floorplan plus a $350 video, which brings it up to $750 in total for one property.

Even if you did just one of those packages per day, 5 days a week for 45 weeks per year, doing nothing at all for the other 7 weeks because you’re on vacation or because it’s winter or whatever, and you’re doing $168,000 per year in revenue, and that's not too shabby.

Time per shoot: high-volume vs boutique

So what about time per shoot? Obviously if you’re going for high-volume then you’re going to need to be in and out of each property pretty quick. If you need to do 6 per day, then you might spend just 30 minutes at each home.

So to give an example, let’s say you’re working by yourself because you’re still getting things started, and let’s say we allow 30 minutes travel time between homes, with another 30 minutes spent at each property. If you leave your office at 9am then you’re doing a shoot at:

9:30 … 10:30 … 11:30 … 12:30 … 1:30pm and 2:30pm

… then back at your office at around 3:30 to upload the photos to your editor and sort everything out. Let’s say that takes you until about 5:00 because you’ve got 6 different shoots to sort out, then you need to reply to clients, get some social media posts sorted out, fix up anything else that isn’t working, and get out of your office at 7:30 ready to do it all again the next day.

Compare that with the boutique photographer who spends 1.5 hours at each property, and if they are doing 2 shoots per day and let’s say there are no add-on services like floorplans and videos, then maybe they have their first shoot at 10am, the second shoot at midday, and then they’re back home again from 2pm to sort through the photos from those 2 photo shoots instead of the 6 photo shoots completed by the high-volume guy, and then finished at 5pm.

So you can see they are very different in terms of time per shoot, but where photographers get in trouble is that they try and be the boutique model and spend time onsite but they’re charging high-volume photographer rates. That doesn’t work.

Whichever way you choose to go, and that’s up to you, but you’ve got to be consistent with that model or else you’re probably going to lose.

I see this over and over again from photographers who are charging under $150 for their shoots, they’re spending 2 hours on location, and they’re wondering why their business isn’t working out. It happens all the time.

Quality of the photos: high-volume vs boutique

Now let’s look at the quality of the photos, and there’s going to be a big difference there in terms of what each photographer can deliver. I mean, if you’re doing high-volume and you need to get out of there in 30 minutes, then you’re pretty much doing a cookie cutter approach to each photo shoot you do.

You need to move fast and you need to do everything the same way because there’s not any time to slow down, try new angles, look for the small details, because you’re just going bang bang bang. Now, you can still do pretty good images at that rate, but it’s going to be based around a formula for shooting and you’ll want to squeeze each home you do into that formula.

Contrast that with the boutique photographer who is spending 1.5 hours or 2 hours or something at each property to deliver great images, and when you do that you’ve got time to setup your lights to do something special so your lighting for each shot is going to be amazing, you’re looking for some of those one-point perspective compositions, you’re doing the tight shots that you see as you slowly meander through the home.

Overall, the quality of photos will be at a higher level, not just in terms of the lighting but also the composition of the shots.

So as you can see, what you deliver will be quite different, and your target market is going to be different as well. If you’re a high-volume business then you’re targeting clients who want something fast but good, something that gets the job done.

If you’re a boutique business then you’re targeting clients who want something special, something that makes them and their listings stand out. An agent who wants the basics isn’t going to want to pay for the boutique photographer, and the agent who wants something unique is not a good fit for a photographer who is going for volume.

So depending on which model you go with, you’re going to be chasing different clients, so it’s important that you understand who your target market is going to be.

Team requirements: high-volume vs boutique

Next up let’s look at the kind of team you would need around you to do all of this.

Now, if you’re going for high-volume then you’re going to need other photographers to be shooting for you, and you’re probably going to need to be paying them pretty low rates.

You’re going to need a solid hiring and training process so that you can get people up to speed quickly, and that’s because you can’t be wasting time on someone who can’t shoot yet because every dollar matters, so your onboarding process and training for new team members needs to be absolutely spot on, but bear in mind that you may have quite a high turnover of staff if the rates you’re paying them are quite low, so keep in mind that hiring and managing team members can be a time-consuming task and you'll want to factor that into your operations.

Going the other way, if you’re doing a boutique service then you can afford to pay your team members quite well, so you can hire top photographers, but you could choose to keep it small and just shoot for yourself.

So you don’t necessarily need to have those issues around hiring and building a team, because if you’re doing a low volume of work but charging higher rates then you’ve got the time to do it all yourself and not be rushed at all.

Having said that, there are some negatives around doing it all yourself in that you can’t easily take time off, and if everything relies on you to get done then any health issues you have could put the whole business at risk.

Contrast that with the high-volume photographer who has a team, and if one person is missing others can step up to cover that gap, so that’s quite an advantage for them.

In terms of training, whilst the high-turnover business needs to train their team quickly, the boutique business can afford to invest more time and energy into their team members because that investment will come back to you much quicker because you’re making so much more in profit.

And since your business is built around the quality of the service rather than the quantity of projects, you need to make sure everyone in the company understands the expectations around service, so putting time into training your team in terms of brand expectations is going to be important for that boutique business.

Client relationships: high-volume vs boutique

So next up let’s look at client relationships, and if you’re doing the high-volume model, then you won’t be investing much at all into client relationships because it’s hard to build a strong connection with your clients when you’re trying to get in and out of each shoot really quickly, and if you’re hiring a team of photographers, and if you’ve got the high turnover that I spoke about earlier, then that makes it even harder because you’re probably not going to have much consistency with that client where they know who is going to be there for each photo shoot.

At the other end, if you’re running a boutique business then your client relationships are going to be something that you’re going to invest in pretty heavily.

I mean, it’ll be through relationship-building and delivering exceptional service to your customers where you’ll able to separate yourself from your competition, you’ll be building trust with your clients and prospects, and that’s super important – don’t underestimate the value of trust - and really you’ll be doing all you can to amplify what you can bring to the table to help your clients succeed.

Beyond that, you’re also going to be doing all that a 5-star business does in terms of providing extra contact points with your clients in a way that a high-volume model can’t do, so that’s going to be a very visible difference between the two models. I mean, the clients may or may not notice the difference in image quality, but they definitely will notice a difference in customer service and the relationships you can build, so if you’re a boutique business then you and your team would want to be investing heavily in that space.

Marketing: high-volume vs boutique

Okay, now let’s look at marketing, and if you’re doing a high-volume business then there’s a lot of competition at that end so you’re going to have to be super busy with marketing from the moment you launch your business.

If you are only making $20 in profit from each shoot then you need to be doing a lot of jobs each day very, very quickly. And even then, at four shoots per day you might only clear $400 in profit each week.

Beyond that you’ll want to think about the amount of effort it will take to get those clients to go with you over and over again. You would need to build a very effective marketing campaign, or multiple campaigns, right from the start because otherwise you won’t survive as a company during that initial building phase, and then you would also need an excellent retention campaign to make sure they aren’t tempted to leave you for the next low-priced company that comes along.

Now in terms of your messaging, the focus of your marketing is probably going to be your low prices, and you’ll probably need to automate it somewhat or perhaps hire someone dedicated to doing the marketing in your company, and if you go down that path then that adds further costs to each service. So that either puts upward pressure on your prices or it eats into your profit margin, so you’ll want to keep that in mind when it comes to how you’re going to deliver your marketing.

At the other end, if you’re a boutique photographer then your marketing is going to be much more customised and you’ll be emphasising the value that you bring to your clients rather than your prices because you’ll want your prospects to be sold on the benefits you bring to them.

Your whole messaging will be around value and benefits and support and customization, and you’ll probably be doing more conversations with prospects rather than trying to get them to book a shoot just from seeing a Facebook ad. Now you might still do a Facebook ad, but it’s going to be around brand awareness rather than around conversions, OK?

What I will note is that the marketing that is needed for a boutique photographer needs to be very polished because you’re not just pushing your price. But when you're charging higher rates you're going to have to work hard at having a compelling message because they need to sell the value, and for some of your clients that’s a harder message to buy into, so the marketing for that boutique business has to be really strong and very much in tune with the needs of the customer.

Timeframe needed for success: high-volume vs boutique

Finally, let’s look at the timeframe needed to get to a position where a business is bringing in a sustainable income for the owner.

Let’s assume that the high volume model delivers the owner $50 per shoot after other costs are covered, and that’s where the owner is doing all of the photo shoots and outsourcing the photo editing, and the boutique business owner earns $160 per shoot when they’re doing the photo shoots and outsourcing the editing.

Let’s say our target is $6000 per month in income for the owner:

For the high-turnover business they would need to do 120 photo shoots per month to hit $6000 in income, so that’s 5 or 6 shoots per day, Monday to Friday, and for the boutique business they would only need 38 shoots per month, so that's a huge difference.

Let’s say you need 120 clients to reach that figure of 120 shoots in a month, so how long would it take you to get 120 clients? And let’s say you’re using the boutique model, how long would it take to get 38 clients? It’s going to be different for everyone, but it’s something you’ll want factor into your budget, and you will need a way to keep your business viable as you grow it.

So maybe you would need to have plenty in the bank that you can live off, or maybe you would have a second job that keeps you going while you build your client base. So the advantage with the boutique business model is that you don’t need as many clients on your list to reach that critical stage, so depending on how things go for you, that model might allow you to reach your financial goals faster than you would if you went with the high-turnover model.


So there are some things to think about when deciding on which business model you’ll choose. In my experience there are some major problems with the high-volume model:

One, is it sustainable long-term when you're charging such low rates?

Two, will you be able to keep those clients when another photographer comes in that is cheaper than you?

And three, if you’re good enough to scale a business to the point where having the lowest prices is feasible, then you’re probably good enough to scale a business with higher prices, so why wouldn’t you charge more to deliver basically the same thing?

The boutique model has a lot of positives, but it has a few issues as well:

Firstly, is your marketing strong enough to convince enough clients in your market to go with your higher fees?

And secondly, is your photography and your customer service good enough to justify your higher fees? As I said earlier, you need to have a consistent message so make sure that your prices reflect the value that you bring to your clients.

Alright, let's bring all this together and see which business model works best.

I think it all comes down to one key factor. You. I think the business model that is best for you is the one that you’re passionate about. If you get excited by scaling up to something big where you have a big team, if you prefer to do marketing at a scale where you're somewhat distant from your prospects rather than engaged closely with them, then the high-volume model is probably going to work for you, and that’s great!

But there is one area where I would push back against a high-volume business, and that’s where a business is screwing over their team members by paying them a wage that is so low that they are struggling financially. I would be very uncomfortable with that. If the only way your business can succeed is by screwing over other people, if you are paying your people such low wages that they cannot adequately provide for themselves and their family, then I think that’s pretty weak, and I would not like to see that. By all means, go with the high-volume business, but make sure you generously reward your team for the work they do.

What I would do is actually go with the boutique business model because I prefer working with a smaller team, I prefer doing fewer jobs but giving absolutely everything to the client in terms of customer service and image quality, so that resonates with me, and I would look forward to working everyday in that kind of role. I think that fits with the kind of brand I would want to have. But you might be very different, and that’s OK, but if I was your business coach and you wanted to go with a high-volume model then I would be pushing you hard to verify your numbers and make sure that you are charging enough to cover all those costs, AND you were paying your team well AND still have profit left over at the end.

So generally speaking, I think the boutique business model, or at least something at the higher end even if you don’t go full on with really high prices, but I believe that the boutique model is the best one for a lot of you. I think there are greater opportunities for success at the boutique end where I think there’s less competition, so that would be my preference, for sure.

So thinking about your business, where do you currently sit between the high-volume model and the boutique model?

Are you trying to make the high-volume model work?

Or do you go part way towards the boutique model where you’ve got slightly higher prices?

Or maybe you’re going all the way and completely immersing yourself in the boutique model where you’re delivering a premium service at a premium price?

Which way you go with all that is up to you and what your preference is in terms of your service and how you want to reward your team, but all I can suggest is to review the numbers and make sure they work for you.

Make sure you’re profitable, wherever you price yourself, and be sure to invest enough into your marketing and client relationships so you can build your business. And if you need someone to advise you on that, if you need some help to get your business model right, then feel free to message me to see where I can help. I work with photographers around the world every single day, and I’d love to be able to help you, too.


Now it's time for some Q&A, so if you're watching live, do you have any questions or comments about any of that? Drop a comment below and let us know if you've got a question about running a high-volume business or a boutique business, or anything in between.

While I wait to see if anyone has any questions, I was posting on Instagram yesterday and someone on there asked me:

"How did I scale my business?"

My story is interesting because I’ve kind of done both models.

When I first got started I was a reasonably high-volume business, I kept my prices low – not insanely low, but reasonably low – and that was when we saw huge growth and I expanded my team to 8 of us working full-time. We were working like crazy, delivering really nice images but working with a LOT of clients all over the city, and I think we grew it on the back of delivering a great product and that resulted in agents telling other agents, and our growth was all built on word of mouth and the quality of our work.

So at that stage we were priced reasonably low and doing a crazy number of shoots, and we were booked out days or weeks in advance. But once I dug into our numbers I found that our prices weren’t sustainable at that rate. We were working hard and we had some good revenue numbers, but our expenses were high because I’d made the mistake a lot of photographers make in terms of being too cheap, so in 2011 we increased our rates quite a bit which meant we were earning more profit per shoot, but the number of shoots we were doing each week decreased and we made our team smaller, so that’s when we transitioned to a boutique business, and I really enjoyed that. By charging more we could bring more value to our customers, and I think it better aligned with the kind of business we were and what was important for us.

So I think the takeaway from that is that you can change your business. If you are currently charging low rates and aiming for volume, and if that isn’t working for you, then change it. Bump up your rates, change where you are positioned, find something unique that you can bring to your market so you’re not a duplicate version of every other photographer out there, and then start targeting a different type of client.

So I think you can shift from high-volume to boutique, but as I said earlier, you need to make sure your whole business shifts, and not just your prices.