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Ep 8. Get More Bookings with Photography that Converts

Short Summary

How essential is it for you to hire a professional photographer to take photos of your short-term rental?


Hiring a professional photographer is an important way to ensure that the photos of your listing are attractive and consistent. Professional photographers understand the importance of lighting, staging, and equipment and can make sure that the photos look inviting and appealing to potential guests.

On today’s episode, Kevin Malella is going to tell us why hiring a professional photographer is not only one of the most important things to do for your short term rental but also how it can actually get you more bookings.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • How to prepare before a professional photographer comes to your listing

  • Why professional photos actually increase your bookings

  • The importance of keeping your photos simple and concise

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00:00 Tracie Fowler Welcome to The STR Insiders Podcast. We share tips for achieving your STR goals, AHA moments, funny stories, and all the latest gossip of this STR life. Listen in as we keep it real and maybe a little sassy. Celebrate successes and own all the mistakes we've made along the way. Whether you're new to real estate investing, new to short term rentals, or a seasoned pro, there's something here for you. Jacquie Mosher is an STR property manager who consults with individuals looking to grow their own property management firm. Tracy owns STR consulting and media firms that provide education to investors who want to learn all about STR investing. For more information, please visit Welcome everyone, to episode eight, where we're going to talk about getting more bookings with photography that converts. Today we're talking to Kevin Malella, a professional photographer, to get all his tips and tricks for your listing. Hi, Kevin. How are you?

01:08 Kevin Malella I'm doing well. How are you?

01:09 Tracie Fowler Doing good. Thanks for joining us today. Thanks for letting Jacquie drag you into this.

01:14 Kevin Malella My pleasure, always.

01:15 Jacquie Mosher I can't believe I convinced him.

01:17 Tracie Fowler So. I know that you've worked with Jacquie in the past and would love to hear more about your background and the type of work that you do in photography.

01:26 Kevin Malella In 2006, I went to Columbia College, Chicago, and received my master's degree in photography there. Started photographing homes in 2009 in Chicago and taught a number of classes. In 2012, I was asked to come out and teach at the University in Pueblo, Colorado. I taught for a few years as a visiting professor in photography. While doing so, I started doing contract work for Airbnb, and due to this day.

02:01 Jacquie Mosher I would love to hear your perspective on the difference between your MLS photography and your STR photography and what types of things you focus on when you're taking those photos.

02:13 Kevin Malella STR’s are more about amenities and so we tend to take more of a straight on shots versus kind of angular shots, which is more common in MLS work. Nobody cares about how nice the couch is in a realty shot, but clearly people want to know what they're sitting on when they get to a place for an STR.

02:38 Tracie Fowler Is there a difference in the height of the photography that you take? I've always been told that lower shots in STR?

02:45 Kevin Malella That's pretty accurate. Standard height for both is about doorknob height and in fact, in working with Airbnb, we have kind of a list of criteria and specifications and that is, as a matter of fact, one of them. Like standard doorknob height. Nobody walks into a space with a ruler or a yardstick to see where we're at. We kind of just go off standard doorknob height. The reason for that is that height kind of will show the place either more standard or maybe even look bigger or taller than it is. As you elevate too much, then it actually kind of makes the place feel smaller.

03:31 Tracie Fowler Interesting.

03:32 Jacquie Mosher What I can say is Kevin's really sick of taking pictures of my TVs. I'm like, hey, can you Photoshop the apps on it for me, please?

03:45 Kevin Malella There is an occasion where the apps aren't loaded onto the TV yet and we got to do some photoshopping.

03:52 Jacquie Mosher But it's all about the amenities, at least for me.

03:55 Kevin Malella No, absolutely.

03:56 Jacquie Mosher One of the things Kevin mentioned the first time, I was like, I really need the TVs in the picture. He was like, you don't have to do, like, a straight on of the TV. We can just kind of capture it off to the side in different shots so that people know it's there, but we're not getting an ugly photo.

04:11 Kevin Malella I think that probably caters a little bit more to a wider audience. There are a lot of people out there that won't rent an Airbnb unless there's a TV and apps.

04:22 Jacquie Mosher Most people won't even read a thing on the listing, but they click through a lot of the photos and they book based off of the photos. You have to answer those questions through the photos. That's why it's always been important for me to kind of show that we have access to apps on the TV, like Hulu, Netflix, because that's so important to so many people.

04:41 Kevin Malella I say it all the time to clients. Like, people don't read anymore. They just don't. I had a client recently who was like, can you photograph the highway running next to my Airbnb? I'm like, I'm kind of here to highlight the best parts of your house. They're like, well, we have it in the description, and we have guests that stay, and they complain about it. Like, they complain that they're right next to a road. I'm like, you can kind of see it in one picture, but yeah, I can actually photograph the road. And they wanted me to photograph that. And I get it. People don't read. They need to see it. And I'm guilty of that as well.

05:13 Jacquie Mosher What can the client do ahead of time before you get there to best show their Airbnb? Like, how can they prepare for a good photo shoot before you get there?

05:25 Kevin Malella Cleaning is always a good thing. Not all of them are clean when I get there.

05:32 Jacquie Mosher Put the toilet seat down.

05:36 Kevin Malella For the most part, my STR clients are really great. Everything is really often in its place. Be aware of when the light is best in an STR. Like, that would be the first order of business, is finding out when things look the best. It can be difficult because with homes facing all directions, you may have light spilling into the living room in the morning and then spilling into the bedrooms in the afternoon. Maybe ideally, you're photographing one side of the house in the morning and the other side of the house later in the day. But that's not convenient for anybody. You just kind of have to be observant and see when it tends to be the best. I like to photograph around noon because you kind of get the best of both worlds. Like maybe it's not ideal one way or the other, but it's just generally good lighting. So, Midday the sun is going to be at its highest. It's going to be reflecting off of multiple surfaces outside and spilling light in. You're not going to get that contrast of light shining on the floor and the couch or whatever in contrast to where the shadows are. It just tends to be the most even lighting. A lot of people kind of think that they don't want photographs during when it's overcast. Clouds basically act as like a large soft box. Interiors can be quite gorgeous with even and diffused lighting for the most part. Kind of continuity or consistency in how things are prepped. Like blinds, whether they're going to all be down but open horizontal to the floor. Or if you're like Jacquie, you like them about third of the way down.

07:26 Jacquie Mosher How did you know that?

07:28 Tracie Fowler He's giving away your staging secrets. Another question about lighting, because I am one who will schedule multiple sessions for even different areas. Twilight photography is one that I find really converts. So, I'm curious what your thoughts are on that as well as lighting equipment. If someone is hiring a photographer and they don't know anything about photography, what types of equipment would they be looking for a photographer to be using to have some sense of their skill level?

08:07 Kevin Malella If you have a photographer walk into your STR and they don't have a tripod, you could probably just ask them to leave at that point. I don't actually bring in any exterior lighting. It's actually forbidden for Airbnb photographers to use on camera flashes or even strobes. You have some of the best architectural interior photographers in the world out there using strobes in a home.

08:33 Tracie Fowler Good to know.

08:35 Kevin Malella I often caution clients that are talking to me. I'm like, I'm a really bad multitasker. I have about 50 things to think about when I'm taking pictures in this room. So, you can't have both. We can't be like chatty and you're going to get good images through this process.

08:49 Tracie Fowler Okay, folks, leave your photographer alone.

08:51 Jacquie Mosher For real though. And do you know what I do? Can I tell you what I do for Kevin? He thinks I'm crazy. He shows up, I make sure all the lights are on. I find that to be my responsibility to make sure all the rooms are well lit. I also leave you're going to crack up so much, Tracy. I leave spa music on for Kevin and then I get out of his way.

09:10 Tracie Fowler It doesn't surprise me at all. It helps me. You want to set the mood for your photographer?

09:17 Jacquie Mosher I absolutely do. I want the best photos ever. I love that Kevin's paying attention to all the reflections and all the things and all the angles and making sure he gets the amenities in each photo and the transitions between rooms.

09:30 Kevin Malella If you're requesting photos through Airbnb specifically, it's one of those criteria things, one of those rules that they have, that it's all natural lighting. I can't go into a space and have any lights on. If you get into, like, a basement that has no windows, then we can make exceptions for photographing that space. Whenever it's possible, it's all-natural lighting.

09:53 Tracie Fowler If somebody was trying to do the photography themselves, if they were not going to hire a professional photographer, if they were a hobbyist and wanted to learn photography, since you love to teach, here we go.

10:05 Kevin Malella Don't do it, especially if you're in Colorado.

10:07 Jacquie Mosher Yeah, don’t do it.

10:08 Kevin Malella Seriously.

10:10 Jacquie Mosher Hire a professional.

10:12 Tracie Fowler I am 100% on your side. However, some people want to try it first and then pay. We all have these things we try to do ourselves first before we accept defeat and hire the professional.

10:27 Kevin Malella The things that you have to keep in mind is like, I might be in a space for an hour and a half, 2 hours, and then comes the real work. I'm probably editing four to five times the amount of time than I am photographing. If I'm photographing for an hour, then I'm probably editing that space for about four, including running everything through HDR merge and then doing global corrections in color density contrast and then going through and doing local adjustments to the little areas and trying to kind of bring out shadows and tone down highlights, because a camera doesn't see the way that our eyes see. I'll double check images that I send to a client on my phone. A phone is actually a really good tool to double check your work. If you're working on a laptop, how the image looks is going to vary depending on the angle of your screen. Color and density will shift more rapidly on a laptop.

11:26 Jacquie Mosher What I struggle with, even with decent photographers who do it as a hobby, when they come to taking their own Airbnb photos, the photos can seem very inconsistent. What I love about having a professional is they're taking the same angles in each room. They're getting a mixture of close ups. They're making sure they don't miss one of the amenities. I feel like even if you're a hobbyist, maybe leave it up to the professionals.

11:47 Tracie Fowler I agree. I'm just asking the question that everyone wants to know. Everyone listening to this episode is like, how do I do what he does? Well, folks, he has a master's, so you probably can't. Did you say you do consults for people trying to learn more about photography?

12:03 Kevin Malella I've actually done quite a few private lessons in the past, a more recent one was with a realtor, and I'm pretty sure she did not take pictures even after that. Actually, I haven't seen her for a while.

12:15 Tracie Fowler You ran her off, not selling your consulting, by the way.

12:21 Kevin Malella I used to do it all the time in Chicago. It's not something that I've really pushed here.

12:26 Tracie Fowler I mean, I'm kidding. You used to teach it at the college, so clearly how to teach photography. I have data from old research that shows that professional photography equals additional nights booked. So, it's just a fact. The better that you are displaying your property and explaining to a potential guest what your property offers, as well as just, I think the psychological perspective of you've invested in professional photography. If I look at a listing and it's all dark and these terrible angles and it's fuzzy, and it's clearly someone that snapped a couple of camera photos when lighting was terrible. I have concerns just inherently, because if this is the effort that you're making to market your property, why would you be making more effort once I've paid you and I've gotten there, right? I mean, that's just my own psychology about it. Yeah, there is a lot of research out there that shows that professional photography converts additional bookings.

13:35 Jacquie Mosher I definitely get excited when I have a new client come to me and they have an awful set of photos on their listing. I'm like, I'm going to make this client so much more money just by getting a photographer in there. I see it as opportunity when somebody has awful photos because it's probably one of my top five ways to increase somebody's income very easily when they come to me with a new property or an existing Airbnb with awful photos. It is a no brainer, for sure.

14:03 Tracie Fowler It's an easy win for us, and it's investors, too. I had an agent send me a Florida property earlier today that's a little dated, but the photos are terrible. I'm like, oh, we're going to let that one sit for a minute and then I'm going to get a discount. That's the other side of it, right?

14:19 Kevin Malella I have a lot of people that will just reach out and be like, hey, we have so many more bookings since your photos. They're lovely. We're really happy with them. And our bookings have skyrocketed.

14:30 Jacquie Mosher What are your pet peeves?

14:32 Kevin Malella I don't know.

14:33 Jacquie Mosher When the toilet seats up?

14:35 Kevin Malella Well, yeah, one would hope that you have some sense of how your place should look. I think kind of the general rule is it should be as presentable, if not more so for your photos than as it would be for a guest. But yeah, toilet seats up. It drives me crazy a little bit.

14:58 Jacquie Mosher As a property manager, one of the things I've learned, a lot of clients like to set up extravagant cheese boards and wine and all these extras, right. I've gotten to the point where I'm like, are you going to provide that for every guest coming in?

15:12 Kevin Malella Right? I warn hosts of that. I warn clients of that. I'm like if you put out a bottle of wine, your guests might think that there is wine here. And so, you need to weigh that. Do you want to entice them with that and then have them show up and it's not there? Or do you not want to show that? When they show up, they're like, oh, there's a cheese board and wine here. This place is even better than I thought. I think that leaving kind of little find me or little treats for your guests, keep expectations somewhat in check and then kind of over perform as a host.

15:48 Jacquie Mosher Agreed. I think also, too, as a property manager, I like to have those little surprises when you arrive. For my alpaca Airbnb, I got these awesome El Paca like robes that you put over your head and, I mean, they're so fun. Guests are going to take so many pictures with it, but I'm not going to ask Kevin to take a picture of me wearing it. I'm going to let that be a surprise. I have to bring up these twilight photo shoots. I mean, you've even done one for me where it's a starry sky. We have a cabin. It's in a dark sky zone. You went out there, you were out there at like 01:00 a.m. taking photos of the sky above our rental, hopping in and out of a hot tub, which good for you. Good for you.

16:33 Kevin Malella Wait, is that on video somewhere?

16:35 Jacquie Mosher I think it is.

16:36 Tracie Fowler There are security cameras.

16:38 Kevin Malella Oh, I know. It's like the most uncomfortable thing about staying in an Airbnb.

16:42 Tracie Fowler I hate it, says the photographer. I hate the cameras.

16:47 Jacquie Mosher I remember you telling me that as the clouds would go over the stars, you'd hop in the hot tub and when the stars would come out, that you'd hop out of the hot tub and take photos. And I was like, good for you. I think you were also scared because you're in the middle of nowhere and it was so dark and you were like, I feel like a mountain lion just going to come out of the woods at me.

17:07 Kevin Malella I'll usually carry a pocketknife and I just kind of keep it in my hand just in case.

17:11 Jacquie Mosher Safety first. Kevin will do anything to get the photo guys, 01:00 a.m, in the middle of nowhere, mountain lions could be coming out. Like Kevin's out there taking photos. Yeah. Twilight, dark sky, photo shoots. What I love about your photography is that it's all for real. I have so many photographers who Photoshop those guys in. I would love to know why you don't photoshop the skies in.

17:37 Kevin Malella Because there's going to be somebody expecting to see Orion or the Big Dipper somewhere in the sky that's in the photo. They're going to call you out on it.

17:52 Jacquie Mosher I have to say, those photos are my absolute favorite. They stand out so much, they're stunning. It's not just the sky you're photoshopping in, but the light spills across the rest of the photo, too, during those sunsets.

18:06 Kevin Malella You run the risk of it looking kind of cut and paste. Marketing images, there still needs to be some kind of level of truth in there.

18:13 Tracie Fowler Vignettes are a big part of what I see in a package these days. You'll have your typical room shots, your indoor, your outdoor shots, and then you'll have vignettes where things are very composed to sort of give styling and personality to spaces that might be lost in those larger shots. What are some of the ones that you have seen that you really liked or that you thought were really impactful?

18:37 Kevin Malella I mean, they're all Jacquie.

18:39 Tracie Fowler I can just go through her portfolio and answer my own d*** question.

18:44 Jacquie Mosher I can't help but think about the croissants. I just think about the croissant Kevin.

18:49 Kevin Malella In the bed.

18:52 Jacquie Mosher In the bed, which I would never do. I would never eat a croissant in bed.

18:57 Kevin Malella I definitely kind of get some strange requests from time to time. I have a client that I've been working with and she buys a nice bottle of wine or has me pick up a nice bottle of wine and I've kind of been playing around with that a little bit. Pouring it into a glass and trying to capture that.

19:14 Tracie Fowler It's like an action shot?

19:16 Kevin Malella Yeah, kind of. Yeah, for sure.

19:18 Tracie Fowler Cool.

19:19 Kevin Malella They are nice. As long as it's done well.

19:21 Jacquie Mosher Kevin and I have this joke at our photo shoots. He's taken a lot of photos of my personal plants from my house.

19:32 Tracie Fowler You loan them out.

19:33 Jacquie Mosher I just can't help but fill a space. Sometimes I think plants are a great thing. Like a guest isn't going to be mad if that plant's not there. In the photos, it really does make a big difference to add that pop of green.

19:46 Tracie Fowler Yeah, I agree with Jacquie. It's a great way to fill a space and add some texture and some life.

19:51 Jacquie Mosher Yeah. And I love setting the table. Those are some of my favorite close ups that Kevin does for sure is if you get those long stem wine glasses and you layer some plates and you put a full place setting, maybe get some place mats, like if you're going to stage anything. Like, nobody expects the table to be set when they arrive, but when they see those photos, they can envision themselves at that table. Having a meal with family and friends.

20:14 Kevin Malella Helps the imagination, for sure.

20:17 Tracie Fowler Exactly. It also tells them that you have dishes.

20:21 Jacquie Mosher True.

20:22 Tracie Fowler Instead of taking a picture of your cabinet open, which is just a really and I get the functionality of the intention of it, but you can achieve that same goal by actually setting the table and making it beautiful.

20:35 Jacquie Mosher One of my favorite close ups that you've ever done was at that A Frame where we lined up all the games on the counter and the sun was like just spilling across the games and it was just such a beautiful photo. I mean, you look at the games and you just want to like you want to get in there, you want to play them. I feel like it's good to have some of those photos that kind of showcase what you're going to find in the cabinets at an Airbnb.

20:59 Tracie Fowler The way you just described it, it's not just taking the photo, it's capturing the beauty of the space and the light while you're doing that. And I think that's incredibly difficult. I mean, anybody listening, Jacquie has set up dozens and dozens of properties. So this is a very developed experience skill and she's working with a well skilled and experienced photographer. Don't expect your game display photo to beautiful the first time you do it, but they're giving you some tips on some of the things that you can aspire to or that you can be mindful of when you're setting these things up.

21:40 Kevin Malella Make sure you read the fine print when you're requesting photos through Airbnb. Because I think that there is a lot of expectations or misunderstandings about how we photograph or how the entire process kind of comes about that there are very specific ways that we need to photograph when working through that institution. My photos would be rejected if I was actually opening up your drawers and taking shots, looking down into them to show what is in those drawers. It's not something that Airbnb finds important. Airbnb photographers take the pictures. We send them to Airbnb. They do all the editing these days for marketing and to get consistent style and look for Airbnb. They have a designated group of editors that go through all of Airbnb's photos now.

22:31 Jacquie Mosher I felt like you were almost kind of implying the efficiency of not having too many photos. That is a listing hack is to keep it short and sweet because nobody wants to click through 100 photos when they're going to book an Airbnb. That's a good thing touch upon. Sometimes it can feel a little excessive to have everything pictured. That's kind of why I've tried to have maybe a few concise photos of certain things that I know will communicate to people who are booking what they're going to find.

23:00 Kevin Malella One of the biggest mistakes that I see is hosts specifically, including photos that they took either before or after the session because they want to show something. Here you're looking through all this gorgeous imagery and then all of a sudden you're seeing an iPhone picture and that kind of breaks the vision of that space. You're like, oh wait, does the space look like this? Or does the space look like this? It nice, bright and airy, or is it dark and dingy? So, I'd be really cautious of that. I tell my hosts all the time. Best thing to do is remove all of your interior photos. If you have exterior photos of some details of plants, or like, if I'm photographing in winter and you have some great shots during the spring or summer, feel free to include those. Or feel free to take some of those come summer because I can go outside, and I can take a shot with my iPhone.

23:54 Kevin Malella We're talking about normal conditions here. We're not talking about twilight or dark sky, but during the day or during the sunset or whatever, I can take pictures that look pretty much as great with my phone as my professional equipment. They might be stylistically different, but I think there's a larger discrepancy for amateur and professional photos on interiors than exteriors. Every once in a while, I'll tell a client, like, hey, it's the middle of winter. Your grass is dead. There's no leaves. Go try to match that spot up or that angle with your phone.

24:30 Tracie Fowler This has been really great, Kevin. You've given us lots to think about. Go back anytime you want to talk to us.

24:36 Kevin Malella Sounds good. I'd be happy to come back.

24:41 Jacquie Mosher If you enjoyed this episode, we'd be so grateful if you rated and reviewed it. Also subscribe, subscribe for more insider knowledge we can help you get the edge in the STR world. You can find additional resources for your STR journey as well as our social media handles at


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