To Sell a Luxe Apartment, No Ordinary Snapshot Will Do

David Paler purposefully strode through the cloud-nipping stretches of an $8.25 million Manhattan apartment, took in the set before him and called out demands with the directorial authority of Martin Scorsese. Then he assumed his position behind his camera, nodded in satisfaction and began shooting away.

While Mr. Paler may not be a renowned filmmaker or the favored photographer of the model Gisele Bündchen, his work is as scrutinized and touched up as any feature film or Vogue shoot. Mr. Paler photographs apartments for sales and rental listings.

These photographs, the real estate equivalent of head shots, are the bait that lure buyers to Sunday open houses. When these photos work, they help buyers picture themselves holding parties in their dining rooms.

Brokers hope that these photos will persuade bidders to pay more. At their worst, they invite derision for trivialities like a preponderance of throw pillows, causing buyers to move on to other listings.

“They’re huge,” said Suzanne Johansson, a broker who is selling an apartment at 111 West 67th Street that Mr. Paler was photographing. Photographs, she said, determined whether buyers were “going to be interested or not.”

It does not take much time with a real estate photographer to learn how deceptively hard taking marketable shots can be. Mr. Paler compares some shoots to “diplomatic missions” where you are “walking on egg shells.” Even at a professionally designed apartment like the West 67th Street home, Mr. Paler negotiated with two brokers and a stylist about dragging an elaborate dog bed out of a shot, moving around chairs and risking the safety of the selling family’s pet frog by unplugging its tank.

He tensely called for colorful items like plants and cookbooks to enliven the apartment’s neutral shades and added a basket of lemons in a photo because, “Lemon fresh — it’s psychological.” (He turned down a stylist’s offer to add a Buddha.) Toilets and trash baskets never stay in the picture. Through the shoot, he periodically glanced up at the horizon to track the ominous, chalky clouds. He would brighten skies later by combining shots and adding in light. In this market, he said, sellers and brokers were especially concerned that photos were flawless.

“It’s very acute right now,” he said. “Brokers are the psychiatrists. We’re kind of like the psychiatrists to the psychiatrists.”

Some of these photographers, not surprisingly, also do fashion and magazine work, but a few focus on only real estate. They are paid by brokers, and their fees vary, but a typical two-hour assignment, including travel time, may cost $250 for four published shots, and editing may take one more hour.

Caryn Leigh Posnansky has spent the last 16 months shooting apartments for sale, ranging in price from $250,000 to $19 million, for VHT, a Chicago-based real estate photo agency. Her less glamorous assignments have included scooping soap out of New Yorkers’ soap dishes and persuading one seller to throw away the bouncy chair he kept for his 3-year-old.

At a 19th-floor studio at 150 West End Avenue, she found herself with plenty of clutter to clear. The apartment had a renter who was less concerned about making the place listing-ready. Ms. Posnansky and a Corcoran broker, Sheila McCarthy, feverishly moved around books, took out recycling, removed mementos from the refrigerator and even pushed a desk chair into the hallway to present the portrait of a pristine and uncluttered apartment. After capturing her shots, Ms. Posnansky returned every book, magnet, fortune cookie and dead plant to its original location.

“They’ll never know we were here,” she chirped while wheeling a desk chair back into the apartment.


Some photographers spend more time physically transforming spaces. When Nico Arellano, a former set stylist from Uruguay, came in to photograph an eighth-floor, $2.3 million three-bedroom at 530 East 72nd Street, he realized that a couch and a pair of chairs swallowed up the space and did not show how large the living room actually was. Mr. Arellano, with help from two Halstead brokers, Ann Bialek and Madalyn Robbins, moved an entire living room of furniture. He would later edit the flat-screen television out of the shot.

“Sometimes we literally just change everything around,” he said.

There are more technical ways to make, say, a Lilliputian bedroom look merely small: using a wide-angle lens to fit the entire room into a single photo, or shooting the room at an angle from a corner rather than straight on.

“The wide angle is a must,” Mr. Arellano said. “The corner thing is my preference.”

Even a meticulously kept $1.15 million one-bedroom at 39 East 12th Street, with an accepted offer no less, benefited from a little magic. Its Halstead broker, Jane Greenberg, said that in this market she did not want to take any chances. So she hired Jay Bierach to take additional photographs highlighting the renovated windows and kitchen. On a recent overcast morning, Mr. Bierach wheeled in his camera and lights. For nearly an hour he snapped away and tried to add light with camera and flashes. Then he wrapped it up. He would have to find more sunshine back at his studio.

“I try to use as much daylight as possible,” he said. “I do what they want, and then I do what I need to do.”


About the author