Fake fires and greener grass: the real estate photo tricks that make a house feel like home

When a real estate ad was slammed this year for Photoshopping a green “Chornobyl” lawn in front of an Adelaide property, the internet shared a puzzled laugh.

But according to real estate photographer Christine*, the mistake wasn’t photoshopping the grass. It was the failure to suspend viewers’ disbelief.

Before and after images of photoshopped living room
Photographers add fires in fireplaces to make a room “warning and inviting”, but if the fireplace is no longer working, that could be considered a misrepresentation.

“We definitely add weed,” she says. “But it won’t look fake.”

Christine has worked in the industry in Sydney for 13 years and knows all the tactics in the book to make an ad stand out. When she started, professionals regularly photoshopped telegraph poles and stop signs.

Today, the regulations have tightened, but there are still ways around them, and they vary by state and territory.

According to NSW Fair Trading, agents must ensure that photographs in property advertising convey “accurate information” to the buyer.

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An image may be misleading if it “leads to a reasonable belief in the existence of a state of affairs which does not in fact exist” or by “acts of silence or omission” – such as including a photo of a view of the beach where there is none.

The maximum penalty for breaching Australian consumer law is $1.1 million for a company. But in the past 12 months, there have been no fines for misleading or false real estate photography.

Real Estate Institute of Australia chairman Hayden Groves said there are “effective rules” under Australian consumer law that prevent agents from using images that distort reality to such an extent that they “go beyond mere sales buffoonery”.

“For example, a ‘simulated’ fire burning in a fireplace that is no longer working is probably a misrepresentation whereas if the fireplace has the capacity to have a fire then it’s probably OK,” he says.

Probably misrepresentation? Christine says that photographers “always” add fire to the chimneys, as well as a beautiful blue sky.

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“It makes the room feel warmer and more inviting, especially in the winter,” she says. “People don’t think twice about it, but when you see fire in a fireplace, it feels good, doesn’t it?”

Photoshop can go a long way – from clearing leaves in a swimming pool to cleaning fingerprints off walls. Most tricks, however, are used before an image is modified.

“I can hide things,” says Christine. “I can shoot lower, I can shoot further. Exactly behind closed doors we can handle.

“A lot of places can look really, really seedy. They’re falling apart. But with the right frames and the right lighting, we can still take pictures.

To better understand these techniques, Guardian Australia invited Christine to film the house of this journalist.

Visiting the six-bedroom terrace in central Sydney, Christine takes photos with a wide-angle lens of around 16mm, which expands the space beyond what the physical eye can see.

It also uses a flash to bounce light up towards the ceiling, minimizing shadows and providing a more balanced shot, and uses “bracketing”, which takes multiple images with varying exposures.

Before and after images of photoshopped bathroom
The bathroom is flooded with warm, natural light that almost seems unnatural.

“One will be like, darker, lighter, lighter…and we’ll layer those images together,” she says.

“So for an outdoor shot, we could use two exposures. For an indoor shot, we might use three or four, depending on how dark the room is.

In post-production, the images are stitched together to create a perfectly balanced exposed image from sunny outdoor trees to a room’s interior walls.

Then there are changes as simple as moving the furniture around.

In spaces like the one we’re sitting in – an open kitchen filled with sofas and tables – it’s easy to move things around to change the perspective of a room.

“We do this all the time,” she says. “It’s also easy to manipulate it to make the room look bigger, or look more natural, like you can almost walk through the image.”

Before and after images retouched by bedroon
Bedroom

A lot of her style decisions come down to what the client wants. Like any brand, real estate companies need to stand out, and in business, images are paramount.

“Every agency likes to be different, and often they try to do that through photos,” she says.

“Retail clients really like this editorial look, so the shot is really wide. And then you have agents who want to showcase the space even more. So usually we go to a corner of a room.

Then there are small passing fads like framing dogs in plan to invite a feeling of home, or placing flowers on the table.

Before and after images of the second living room
For this home, the selling shots are the backyard, the large kitchen, and “the beautiful formal rooms.”

“The flowers are beautiful and all, but that shouldn’t outweigh the number of hero photos,” Christine says.

For this reporter’s house, the “hero shots” – the shots that sell – are “the amazing backyard, the big kitchen, the beautiful formal rooms”. The hidden plans in the back are the small upstairs bedroom, the cramped bathroom.

“Sydney has so much competition,” Christine says. “We’re trying to get the most rent, in an expensive city, with high mortgages.

In open spaces, like this kitchen filled with couches and tables, it’s easy to move things around to change the perspective of a room.
In open spaces, like this kitchen filled with couches and tables, it’s easy to move things around to change the perspective of a room.

“And the photos are the list. If the seller isn’t investing money for professional photos, you as customers essentially go to the bottom of the list.

“There have been many cases and iconic sales in the eastern suburbs that I have worked on that have been sold off-market without even being inspected.”

Often, the eventual revelation is a disappointment.

Before and after exterior facade
Bluer skies, greener grass: the dark exterior of the house is seen in a different light.

Reality never looks better than photographs, filled with life’s imperfections – scratches on glass, peeling paint, worn boards from years of use.

“The houses are rough around the edges,” says Christine. “There are imperfections, cracks. I like places that crumble. I like all places.

So how do the pictures compare to reality? My front yard has never had an abundance of green grass, and my bathroom has never been filled with such warm, natural light. But maybe that’s the beauty of it. Or at least that’s what I’m going to tell myself.

*not his real name

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