The ability to alter and retouch listing photos is both a blessing and a curse. Learn when enhancements are appropriate and make your property pop and when they cross the line and mislead buyers.

Photo editing software can help brighten underexposed images, balance color to look more natural, or straighten a crooked shot. It’s also a great tool for hiding unsightly power cords or bringing out the true blue of the sky in your listing photos. But photo manipulation can cross the line and mislead potential buyers.

Whether you’re photographing and editing listing images yourself or you’ve hired a professional photographer to do the job, you must ensure that photos are a true representation of a property. Don’t retouch pictures to cover up significant property imperfections or repair issues; doing so could violate the REALTORS® Code of Ethics. Article 12 of the Code says, “REALTORS® shall be honest and truthful in their real estate communications and shall present a true picture in their advertising, marketing, and other representations.”

So, how can you be sure your edited images don’t cross the line? Daniel Rothamel, ABR, a buyer’s agent and manager with Strong Team, REALTORS®, in Palmyra, Va., has a general rule: If it’s a permanent item, fixture, or problem—or something that’s not easily remedied—then don’t change it in the photographs. “You don’t want to change a house so much that it has a negative impact when a buyer comes to see the property,” he says.

For instance, you might feel compelled to add a little grass to a sparse yard, but that can lead to unrealistic buyer expectations of the property. A buyer could even file a complaint against the listing agent. It may be acceptable to remove a trash can from a driveway in an exterior listing shot because that can is moveable in real life. But editing out power lines, which can’t be moved in real life, amounts to misrepresenting the true picture of the property.

Think of listing photos as presenting a property “in full makeup and hair” because they should show the home at its best, says Jacy Riedmann, vice president of Amoura Productions Real Estate Photography & Video in Austin, Texas. But digital manipulation that isn’t realistic or true to the property’s actual appearance goes too far. “You cannot modify a physical element of the property because you are then falsely advertising and opening yourself to legal risks,” Riedmann says.

Here are a few property elements that Riedmann says should never be manipulated or removed from photographs.

  • Never ask your photographer to hide holes in walls or cracks in cement.
  • Grass or plants should not be added where they do not exist.
  • Leave all power and telephone lines as is.
  • Don’t change paint colors, paint blemishes, or positions of light fixtures.

Another point of contention when it comes to photo manipulation relates to artificial HDR photography enhancement. HDR, which stands for high dynamic range imaging, is the technique used to layer several images with various exposure levels into one shot so that the highlights and shadows are more evenly exposed. The results can be remarkable if used correctly. However, it can also create a hypercolor effect that looks oversaturated and false. “It’s overprocessed,” says Brede Erickson, a professional photographer with Realvision in Minneapolis. “It looks almost gaudy.”

Often, HDR is used so that a room’s interior and the view through a window can be shown simultaneously in the same picture. Sometimes, the effect works—but not always. “Having partial view outside is OK,” says Erickson. “But if you have the room in full view as well as the outside in full view, it looks manipulated—because it is.”

While some people may love the vivid colors, others prefer a more natural look. Excessive HDR enhancement might work for a “coming soon” picture an agent posts to their Instagram, but in listing photos, it’s walking a thin ethical line. “If the colors are not natural, ask the photographer to adjust them,” Riedmann says.

Here are a few additional tips from Riedmann to ensure your photo session goes smoothly.

  • To showcase a property the best, make sure it’s clean and ready to go at the time of the shoot.
  • Ask your photographer for a readiness checklist, or bring in a real estate stager who is willing to gently coax your sellers into removing extra clutter and family photos ahead of the shoot.
  • Make sure lightbulbs are working and are the same color temperature in every room.
  • Bathroom counters and showers should be clean and cleared, fans dusted, and blinds in working order. 

Listing photos not only market a property but also your professionalism as an agent. Think of photos and videos as another reflection of the quality of your brand online, Riedmann says.

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