1331 Noe Exterior (Image Source:
A comment on our post about 2825 Pine Street raises an interesting question: Is digitally altering an image used in a listing effective marketing, or is it akin to false advertising?
While it’s not at all unusual to use an artist’s sketch to portray a property in its best light, we’ve always know that it’s just that – a work of art. With a photograph, however, is there a line to be drawn between changing the color of the sky and altering unsightly elements such as power lines, baseboard heaters, or surrounding buildings?
Sometimes It’s All About The Presentation (2825 Pine): Comments [SocketSite]
∙ Listing: 1331 Noe (2/2) – $1,298,000 [BJ Drobui] [MLS]

Comments from Plugged-In Readers

  1. Posted by matt

    There is a difference between marketing and merchandising. Marketing is used to get the potential buyers to the item for sale, whether it is hamburgers at Burger King, tomatoes at Safeway, or listings on the MLS. Pictures should look good, and should make you want to buy the product. Merchandising is what makes you buy the product. If the house is really what you want, you will buy it even if the picture has been altered. If Burger King took pictures of their actual burgers, would you really crave them? probably not.
    And yes, I always compare fast food to real estate!

  2. Posted by Dave

    Every piece of real estate is one-of-a-kind, unlike a hamburger. Everyone knows that a picture of a hamburger, or any other commodity product, is an idealized burger, not the very one that you’ll get when you drive through Burger King.
    A house, on the other hand, is unique. The pictures are not of “a” house, they are of the specific and exact house being marketed. Someone looking at pictures in marketing materials for a house being sold should be able to assume that they are pictures of the house they are considering, and that they are recent and accurate. Anything less should be clearly disclosed.
    I believe that substantive changes to such pictures is indeed false advertising. Making the color of the sky more vivid could probably be tolerated… but removing power lines or changing room details or the appearance of neighboring properties is way over the ethical line, in my opinion. I’d imagine that, under the right circumstances, a court would be inclined to agree. It comes down to what a reasonable person would expect… and I think that clearly the expectation is for accuracy.

  3. Posted by John

    I think that what a photograph of this nature tries to do is emulate reality, which of course it can never do. but in this attempt the photographer can employ strategies to make a photo that acts more like what the human eye sees. when looking at a facade in person, one ‘sees past’ the phone lines, because the eye and brain are much more sophisticated than a camera lens. a camera can not achieve this so it is up to the photographer to try to match the experience of seeing it in person. no different than staging or any other attempt to put the best foot forward. its all an illusion in the end..

  4. Posted by thielges

    John – If one can ‘see past’ the web of wires in person, couldn’t one also see past those wires when viewing a photograph ? There’s no emulation of reality here but rather an attempt to sweeten reality.
    I fully understand your argument regarding altering a photo to closer match what the human eye would see in person. However those sort of photo alaterations normally lie in changes to color balance, perspective correction, and dynamic range. They don’t include removal of unsightly features – something that does nothing to emulate reality but instead masks reality.
    The person who altered this photo probably didn’t set out with the intent to remove the power lines from the sky. They likely were removed as a by product of splicing in the attractive sky.

  5. Posted by eddy

    Anyone that buys a house from looking at a picture online is crazy. However, in all fairness, it would be nice if both the altered and unaltered pictures we’re placed on the site. For example, the listing with the baseboard heater removed actually posted both pictures. At the time, I thought it was a mistake by the listing agent, however, after this point being raised, it might have actually been done on purpose.
    In summary, I don’t have a problem with altered pictures within reason, but some disclosure or a post of the unaltered picture would be a bit more ethical.

  6. Posted by realtor

    It depends. In my opinion, the fake sky and the vivid color alterations of 2825 Pine are acceptable.
    The photo of 10 Hastings, with the high rise building Photoshopped out of it is unacceptable.
    How about the high-school pictures on the flyers of some of these realtors?

  7. Posted by OutsideTheEchoChamber

    Altered photos that remove features without disclosing it are lies. People who print them are liars. How can you think that photoshopping an ugly baseboard radiator or overhanging powerlines out of a photograph and then presenting that photo as reality is ethical? We’re not talking about a crayon sketch here. These are the standards that are applied when politicians photoshop a more diversity audience into their campaign photos or a newspaper darkens the smoke over a city to make the bombing look worse than it is.

  8. Posted by aphotographer

    Natural photography will always be more impressive (on an intuitive level) and/or generate a deeper response in a viewer. Flaws or the subtle imperfections may even bring the viewer closer – into a sort of intimacy with the image. Perhaps agents forget there is a purpose to the ‘real’ in real estate. Perhaps. But then, the camera does not “perceive” reality as we do, it does not perceive reality at all while we can’t stop perceiving. I don’t even think a camera depicts reality accurately. We assume it does or should but in actuality it is just another medium of communication – like words – and we’ve been known to lie, insinuate or play with both.

  9. Posted by raaaaa

    Check out REALTORS Code of Ethics (I know, I know), Article 12- “REALTORS paint a true picture in their advertising and in other public representations”

  10. Posted by photography is art

    It’s been addressed by everyone else in different forms but next you’ll be saying Black & White photographs are not acceptable as they are not truly accurate – what about building sketches you so often see in MLS, they dont draw in the power lines or every detail – come to think of it one of the new developments posted on this blog the Shoreline has a ‘virtual’ photograph as the building isn’t even built yet, is that false advertising?
    A photograph in it’s best light is like the cover on a book: set to entice someone to come take a look for themselves and make their own determination, same as ‘quaint’ is an adjective for small.

  11. Posted by Michael

    Have to agree that photography is art, but also with the original post: “While it’s not at all unusual to use an artist’s sketch to portray a property in its best light, we’ve always know that it’s just that – a work of art.” Same sentiment would probably extend to virtual renderings, but in the context of a listing, I think most people expect a photograph to represent “reality”.

  12. Posted by John

    look at the cover of ANY Real Estate Times issue and you will see a digitally enhanced photo, that tries (however futile it may be) to emulate the experience of ‘being there’. what is so wrong about adding a blue sky to our gloomy sf weather? while i must agree that digitally removing wall heaters and such goes over board, i don’t see the harm in making a property look its best! what, is the photographer not supposed to touch up the brightness/contrast/colorbalance in photoshop? in the end the original question is an interesting one: where do you draw the line…

  13. Posted by Anonymous

    As an ex-Adobe employee that worked on an offshoot of Photoshop, I have to say thanks for mentioning the product so many times in this blog – but I didn’t know that the product is now a verb.
    Anyway, “adjusting” contrast and brightness is AOK in my book since a person is not redefining the digital representation of the real world item. Using the tools of Photoshop to “alter,” or “redefine” the digital representation of the real world image in an attempt to “enhance” in the digital world what is not accurate in the real world (in the context of this discussion) should be a no-no.

  14. Posted by Susapix

    To photoshop is indeed a verb, just as is to google or to xerox. I believe Xerox actually did try to go to court over the verbing of its name but it couldn’t get anything enforced.
    Anyway, as any photographer can tell you, you don’t need Photoshop to lie with the camera. Lie? Well, yes, the intention is often to deceive. Photographers can use lights, odd camera angles and bizzarely rearranged furniture to create images that are extremely attractive and quite different from the reality. Is swapping in a blue sky really so different? Is putting a piece of furniture in front of a baseboard heater, or framing the photo so that the heater is not seen, really and truly any better than photoshopping it out?
    Well, yes. But it’s not a matter of truth vs deception it’s more a matter of deception vs deceit.

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