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Pro photographers labor to show properties in a better light

 Pro photographers labor to show properties in a better light
Real estate photographer Michael McNamara shoots a celebrity home along the Miracle Mile in Los Angeles. (Michael McNamara / Shooting LA)

Listing your home? It pays to hire a pro photographer.

Everyone seems to be a shutterbug these days, but grainy smartphone pics just don't cut it when it comes to producing eye-catching images that attract prospective buyers.

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"I've had clients tell me, 'I've got an iPhone 6,' and I have to stop myself from cringing," said luxury real estate broker Kofi Nartey of the Agency.

Professionally photographed homes sell faster and for more money than homes listed with point-and-shoot photos, according to a 2013 Redfin study. The report found that for homes priced between $400,000 and $499,999, those with professional pictures sold for an average of $11,200 more than homes with amateur photos.

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Real estate agents typically have a list of go-to photographers. Costs vary widely and depend on the size of the home and the number of photos, with some photographers charging as little as $275 for up to 20 photos for a one-hour shoot to several thousand dollars for an all-day affair.

"When I shoot a 20,000-square-feet house, it means 10 hours a day on my feet," said Jim Bartsch, who has shot photos of Michael Jackson's Neverland ranch, Hugh Hefner's Playboy mansion and producer Jerry Weintraub's Beverly Hills estate.

Longtime real estate photographers say great property images result from an understanding of composition plus attention to detail. Sometimes that means fluffing the pillows or making sure the spacing between dining table chairs is even.

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"A good photograph makes someone interested in seeing the property. A great photograph makes them feel like they've been there," said real estate photographer Erik Grammer.

Lighting is also important, particularly for exterior shots.

"I get the address, look at the house on Google Earth to get an idea of how it's positioned and how the sun will affect the lighting conditions. I'll ask my client which part of the house they find more important — the front or back — and I'll base the time of the shoot on that," said Luke Gibson.

Some of L.A.'s most popular architectural styles present challenges. Floor-to-ceiling windowed modern homes let too much light in; Arts and Crafts homes have the opposite problem.

A good photographer knows how to showcase the interiors while capturing the view outside the windows. Sometimes that means using natural sunlight or bringing in artificial studio lights.

Photographers said they use Photoshop to touch up photos for color or brightness, but most draw the line at removing pre-existing telephone lines or utility boxes.

"It's real estate," said Grammer, "The word 'real' is in there."

The perfect shot can entail some Spider-Man-worthy moves.

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"I've walked on rooftops and climbed out of windows," Bartsch said.

Grammer had a near-miss when he turned to leave after taking a shot of a Cheviot Hills mansion's stunning city view and forgot he had straddled the 5-foot gap of the property's chimney. It would have been a four-story drop.

For multimillion-dollar properties, climbing onto the rooftop isn't enough. Some lensmen strap on a seat belt and hang out of the missing door of a helicopter.

Camera in hand, photographer Michael McNamara lifts off in a Robinson R22 helicopter.
Camera in hand, photographer Michael McNamara lifts off in a Robinson R22 helicopter. (Chris McNamara)

Such shots showcase a property's luxe environs, but it's not for the faint of heart. Inexperienced aerial photographers have been known to get nauseated trying to focus their cameras while the shuddering chopper rotates in tight circles overhead.

At $300 to $600 an hour just for the pilot's time, aerial shots aren't cheap.

"[The agents of these luxury properties] are more ambitious. They're selling someone's $10-million property, so there's a lot more money at stake," said photographer Paul Turang, who regularly gets high up for his clients.

Drones are another option, said Philip Coombes, who charges $500 to $2,500 for a 2.5-minute drone video.

A $3-million home in Malibu was faltering on the market for nine months until Coombes used a drone to capture its ocean view.

"The house looked like an $800,000 property, but from 30 feet up you can see its 180-degree ocean view," he said. "It looked like a very expensive part of Hawaii. You'd have never seen that from the ground." The Malibu home was in escrow three weeks later.

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