When a real estate advertisement came under fire this year for Photoshopping a “Chornobyl” green lawn out the front of an Adelaide property, the internet shared a bemused laugh.
But according to real estate photographer Christine*, the mistake wasn’t Photoshopping the grass. It was the failure to suspend the viewers’ disbelief.
“We definitely add grass,” she says. “But it won’t look fake.”
Christine has been in the business in Sydney for 13 years, and knows all the tactics in the book to make a listing stand out. When she first started, professionals were regularly Photoshopping out telegraph poles and stop signs.
Now, regulations have tightened, but thereare still ways to get around them, and they vary across each state and territory.
According to NSW Fair Trading, agents must ensure photographs in real estate advertising convey “accurate information” for the buyer.
An image can mislead if it “leads to a reasonable belief in the existence of a state of affairs that does not in fact exist” or by “acts of silence or omission” – like including a picture of a beach view where there is none.
The maximum penalty for breaking Australian Consumer Law is $1.1m for a company. But in the past 12 months, no fines for misleading or false real estate photography have been issued.
Real Estate Institute of Australia president Hayden Groves says there are “effective rules” under Australian Consumer Law preventing agents from using images that distorted reality to such an extent that it “goes beyond mere sales puffery”.
“For example, a ‘mock’ fire burning in a fireplace that no longer functions, is probably misrepresentation whereas, if the fireplace has the capacity to have a fire, then that’s probably OK,”he says.
Probably misrepresentation? Christine says photographers “always” add fire in fireplaces, as well as a nice blue sky.
“That just makes the room feel more warm and inviting, especially during winter,” she says. “People don’t think twice about it, but when you see fire in a fireplace, it feels nice, right?”
Photoshop can go a long way – from removing leaves in a pool to cleaning up fingerprints on the walls. Most tricks, though, are employed before an image goes to edit.
“I can hide things,” Christine says. “I can shoot lower, I can shoot further across. Exactly in camera, we can manipulate.
“Lots of places can look really, really shabby. They’re falling apart. But with the right frames and the right lighting, we can take the photos, always.”
To better understand those techniques, Guardian Australia invited Christine to shoot the home of this reporter.
Touring the six bedroom, rambling terrace in inner Sydney, Christine shoots with a wide angle lens at roughly 16mm, which expands the space beyond what the physical eye can see.
She also uses a flash to bounce light to the ceiling, minimising shadows and providing a more balanced shot, and employs “bracketing”, which shoots multiple frames with varying exposures.
“One will be like, darker, lighter, lighter … and we’ll layer those images together,” she says.
“So for an outside shot, we might use two exposures. For an inside shot, we could use three or four, depending on how dark the room is.”
In post-production, the images are stitched together to create a perfectly well balanced exposed image from the sunny outside trees to the internal walls of a room.
Then there’s changes as easy as moving the furniture.
In spaces like the one we’re sitting in – an open plan kitchen filled with couches and tables – it’s easy to move things around to change the perspective of a room.
“We do that all the time,” she says. “It’s also easy to manipulate it to make the room seem larger, or that it feels more natural, like you could almost walk through the image.”
A lot of her stylistic decisions come down to what the client wants. Like any brand, real estate companies need to make themselves stand out, and in the business, pictures are everything.
“Every agency likes to be different, and often they try and do it through photos,” she says.
“Particular clients really like that editorial look, so shooting really, really wide. And then you have some agents that want to showcase the space even more. So then generally we go to a corner of a room.”
Then there are passing little fads like framing dogs in shot to invite a feeling of home, or placing flowers on the table.
“Flowers are beautiful and all, but it shouldn’t outweigh the number of hero shots,” Christine says.
For this reporter’s house, the “hero shots” – the shots that sell – are the “amazing back yard, the big kitchen, the beautiful formal rooms”. The shots tucked in the back end are the tiny bedroom upstairs, the pokey bathroom.
“Sydney’s got so much competition,” Christine says. “We’re trying to get the most amount of rent, in an expensive city, with high mortgages.
“And the photos are the listing. If the vendor’s not going to invest money for professional photos, as clients, you basically go to the bottom of the list.
“There’s been many instances and iconic sales in eastern suburbs that I’ve worked on that were sold off market without even being inspected.”
Often, the eventual reveal comes as a disappointment.
The reality is never as good as the photographs, filled as it is with life’s imperfections – the scratches on the glass, the peeling paint, floorboards worn from years of use.
“Houses are rough around the edges,” Christine says. “There are blemishes, cracks. I love places that are falling apart. I love all places.”
So how did the pictures compare to the real thing? My front yard has never had an abundance of green grass, nor has my bathroom ever been filled with such warm, natural light. But maybe that’s the beauty of it. Or at least that’s what I’ll tell myself.
*not her real name