Trickery has always been part of the process of finding a place to live. We all know the real estate shows on TV are lying to us on a constant basis, but even the professionals enlisted to sell or rent you a property are industriously lying to you — mostly through the property photos they use in the listing. In a way, we can blame those shows — they have normalized that we should expect every property to be “aspirational” and flawlessly designed, staged, and renovated, which puts pressure on folks trying to sell, you know, regular lived-in homes. Still, you can learn to fight back by knowing the many ways real estate photography tricks you.
Wide-angle and stretched photos
The most basic and well-known trick used by real estate listings is the good old-fashioned wide-angle lens. This trick is so common most people have come to expect it, and mentally adjust on the fly when the third bedroom in a 1,500-square-foot house looks like a football field. Put simply, a wide-angle lens captures more in a photo than the human eye can actually perceive in the same space, which makes the room look enormous without actually manipulating anything.
Some shady real estate professionals have turned to a more aggressive trick, though: stretching photos. This is just what it sounds like — taking a photo of a room and literally using software to make it look longer than it really is. Both of these tricks can be hard to spot when you’re scrolling through a listing, especially on a phone, but there are easy things to look for. To spot a stretched photo, look for something whose dimensions are pretty familiar — a refrigerator in the kitchen, for example. If it’s been stretched, it will look more square than rectangular. To spot wide-angle abuse, look at the walls — if you can only see two of them, the room is very likely a lot smaller than it might look.
Low angles and perspective crops
One of the easiest tricks to play when photographing the exterior of a home isn’t even a trick, technically — it’s just using an extremely low angle to make a yard look larger and conveniently crop out unattractive features. PetaPixel pointed out an egregious example of this trick, where a photographer clearly laid down flat on the lawn to photograph a house in a way that completely cropped out an enormous water tower looming over the property while also making the home’s yard appear more spacious than it actually is — all without using any photo manipulation whatsoever. A few years ago, another real estate photographer used this trick to make a tiny kiddie pool in the backyard of a home look like an Olympic-sized in-ground pool — again, without even firing up their computer.
Real estate photographers will also often use tight framing to crop out unattractive features and disorient the viewer as to the size of a room. For example, if you have a small bathroom with a grimy tile floor, they might shoot just inside the door, which obscures how narrow the space is while also conveniently cropping out the problematic floor. Again, this isn’t exactly lying to you — but it is omitting information.
Making all the outdoor surfaces wet
Ever wonder why so many real estate photos seem to have been taken just as the sun comes out after a rainstorm? That’s often intentional. According to one real estate professional, wet outdoor surfaces will look brighter because the water will reflect more light, and they tend to look cleaner because we associate a good rinse with a freshly-cleaned surface. So photographers will often literally hose everything down before taking photos.
Finally, of course, many real estate photos are literally Photoshopped into an uncanny valley of “truthiness.” The most common photo manipulations are more about augmenting reality than outright lying:
- Adjusting saturation. Making the sky bluer, the grass greener, and all the colours more lush can transform a blah yard into a sunny retreat. Combine that with some low-angle trickery and your modest yard suddenly pops as the perfect spot for a glam party.
- Virtual staging. As long as this is explicitly noted, there’s nothing wrong with showing prospective buyers and renters what a home might look like once furnished and decorated. Real estate photos increasingly show rooms with virtual design layered over them — but there are also more subtle forms of this, where more “on-trend” design elements are added in to give a room a boost.
But some real estate photos cross a line from “augmenting” to outright lying by using more aggressive techniques:
- Adding elements. Some photographs of exteriors will fill in grass on a dying lawn, or even extend the grass line to make a yard look larger and more lush. Fires are sometimes added to fireplaces to give rooms a cosy look.
- Removing damage. Rough spot on the walls? Broken lights in the kitchen? No problemo: They can be manipulated right out of there — and broken lights can be replaced with working versions. While this could be viewed as simply showing the room as it could be, it’s definitely problematic when you show up for a viewing and realise there are tons of problems that were hidden from you.
- Cleaning up. Photoshop can also be used to do some heavy lifting, like removing leaves from a pool that hasn’t been cleaned.
While the vast majority of real estate photography won’t outright lie to you — and you should always view a property in person before renting or buying — the cumulative effect of these tricks can waste your time as you travel to see underwhelming and unsatisfactory properties, while also distorting your expectations when it comes to reality.
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