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February 2008

Good Photography: Essential Marketing Tool

©Sandy Soule, BedandBreakfast.com

Good photography is the basis for an effective Internet presence, from your website to your listings on Internet directories to coverage on your local tourism or B&B association. It’s equally important for getting media attention and creating effective printed collateral. Your website visitors will quickly move on if they’re not immediately “wowed” by your photos. Email newsletters, blogs, and postcards are equally strengthened by the quality of your pictures. Compelling photography produces reservations—just ask any innkeeper who’s made the switch. Similarly, media coverage is greatly enhanced by compelling photography.

Five photo fallacies
Innkeeper recommendations
Let’s hear from the pros
Contributing photographers

Five photo fallacies:

Many innkeepers are unconvinced of the importance of investing in good photography. Let’s examine some of these innkeeper fallacies.

Fallacy #1: I know my pictures don’t do my inn justice, but I would rather have my guests be pleasantly surprised when they arrive.

For every guest that exclaims: “Your inn is so much nicer than it looks on your website!” there are probably five or 10 others who didn’t book because your rooms looked drab, dark, and/or depressing. Take a careful look at your photos as they appear on the Internet. Are they in focus and correctly exposed? Are they big and bright or are they a tiny thumbnail lost in a sea of unread text? Remember: your pictures are a reflection of the quality of your property. The better their quality – in terms of focus, definition and clarity – the better your look-to-book ratio will be. Check your web stats for your “bounce” or “click-away” rate for a rough idea of how many people landed on your site and left in a hurry. You want photos that allow prospective guests to project themselves into the room.

Fallacy #2: My rooms just don’t photograph well.

The best way to get great photos of your inn is to use experienced professional photographers who can show you samples of their work, both online and in print. Visit the websites of their clients to get a feel for the kind of photography that generates reservations, and study the photos to understand what’s possible at your B&B. If using a pro is not an option, or until you can schedule a pro to shoot your inn, consider these tips:

  • For best results, always use digital photos; you can instantly review them and fix what needs changing.
  • Turn on all the lights in the room; add supplemental lights if needed. Most professionals recommend turning off your flash.
  • Take pictures at different times of the day, then select the images that show off the room in the best light.
  • If photographing bathrooms, fill the tubs with water or bubble bath to make them more inviting.
  • Always show the fireplaces with a fire burning, even if you just need to light some crumpled newspapers to get the shot.
  • If you are not able to get a great photograph of an entire room, or your whole inn, concentrate on smaller interesting features.
  • Shoot guestrooms from different angles, not just a straight shot of the entire bed.
  • Copy the pros and do a little staging, from fresh flowers to wine and chocolates, to other touches that guests enjoy at your inn.
  • Take a careful look at the photos on the websites of other inns, and pay attention to what works and what doesn't. Apply these lessons to your own pictures.

Photos still not up to par? Perhaps photography is not the entire problem! Time to deep clean each room and scrub every window, then freshen your décor with new curtains, bedspreads, lamps, paint and/or wallpaper. Use fresh flowers, not artificial ones. If you can't see the forest for the trees, cut the clutter!

Before: The wide angle lens makes the room appear larger than it is and misleads guests.
After: Taking pictures of a room in pieces shows a true representation. (Jumping Rocks)

Fallacy #3: All I need to show are photos of a couple of guest rooms.

You’ll need an excellent exterior photo, shot during different seasons, plus small and large-size photos of common areas and every guest room (yes, guests want to see where they’ll be sleeping, so each room should be photographed and displayed on your website). Don’t forget shots of your dining room and the beautifully presented meals; as B&Bs, breakfast is half of our name, so entice potential guests with mouth-watering photos of food they never get at home. It’s also a good idea to offer shots of area activities, to remind guests that one night is not enough to fully enjoy your B&B. Remember, travelers generally pick a destination first and lodging second, so make sure the photos convey that message. Photos are often available from local tourist offices to use on your site; remember to highlight different seasons of the year.

Potential guests want to see the grounds, the common areas, the inn's exterior, the innkeepers, and even the pets. Stay focused on the guest's point of view. A close-up image of a garden flower is beautiful but irrelevant. If the inn's gardens are a highlight, then take a photograph of the garden, with a garden chair and a book open on the seat in the foreground, with a glass of iced tea ready to be sipped. Use photos to tell intriguing stories; guests will want to find out more, and the media will too. Whether it’s a newspaper, magazine, TV or online story, your pitches utilizing good photography will always get more attention than words alone.

Fallacy #4: Once I get pictures online, I can forget them.

If you put your pictures online a few years ago, you need to update the old shots and add some new ones. Did you redecorate the honeymoon suite? Landscape the swimming pool area? Add a whirlpool tub? Get a new puppy? These marketing features can only bring you new guests if people know about them!

Older websites used thumbnail photos to minimize download time for dial-up users. With almost all travelers on high-speed connections, larger photos are fine; guests can then click through to a detailed page with several photos of the same room. Include rate information, a description of the room's amenities, and a Book Now button so folks can make a reservation -- which is, after all, the point!

Fallacy #5: I can use my Internet photos anywhere.

Nope. Photos that are posted on your website are low-resolution (smaller files intended to load quickly). For reproduction in newspapers, magazines, and other print applications, it’s best to have .jpg files that are a minimum of 300 dots per inch (dpi). If you’re not sure of your photo’s size, open the photo, put your mouse over the image and right click it. You’ll see a menu; click Properties to see the photo size. Most high-res photos are at least 1200 x 1600 pixels. It’s important that you have high resolution photos easily available on your computer, so that you can supply them to the media on a moment’s notice.

Innkeeper recommendations:

Debbie Reynolds of Rocky Mountain Lodge & Cabins, in Cascade, CO, had three unsatisfactory photo experiences before finding someone who could do the job right. Here’s what she recommends asking the photographers you are considering:

  1. Check their portfolios. Not just hard copy pictures, but the photos on their own website as well as their clients’ sites.
  2. B&B references: Ask if they've shot other B&Bs, both indoors and outdoors. Get references and check out those websites; call the innkeepers and ask about their experience with the photographer.
  3. Lighting and gear: Do they have the proper cameras, lenses, and lighting to do the job right? (Our walls, ceilings and floors are primarily wood. It soaks up the light and is a photographic challenge.) Can they photograph the view through the window? Although you probably won’t have the technical expertise to evaluate their equipment, be sure to discuss it, so you get a feeling for their approach and experience.
  4. Who owns the photos? How will the pictures be given to you? Will you get all the high resolution pictures on a CD with release of rights given exclusively to you? Will the pictures be raw or edited? If they're edited, make sure you get the raw pictures as well.
  5. Get a written quote. Any extra costs for editing? Is satisfaction guaranteed? If a picture doesn't turn out for some reason or another, are they willing to come back and reshoot? Will there be extra costs for this?
  6. Work with your photographer. The photographer may have great suggestions to enhance the results. If there's something you specifically want photographed, be sure it’s on the shot list.
  7. Be prepared in advance for special shots. If you want food pictures, make sure you have your food ready ahead of time, beautifully plated. If you want romantic pictures, have the wine, champagne, glasses, roses, chocolates, candles, and flowers ready and available. Get a prop list from your photographer in advance.
  8. Be available to the photographers while they are shooting. They may need something extra and will need you to hunt it down.
  9. Ask about staging. Modest amounts of staging enhance your photos by helping to create the scene for prospective guests. Ask the photographers how they handle it.
  10. Be gracious but firm. Photographers are human, just like innkeepers. We can’t expect perfection; we can expect a quality final product at the end.
  11. You get what you pay for. It cost me a lot of money to get quality pictures, but well worth it in the long run. I spent about $2,000 previously for pictures of poor quality that I couldn't use.
Before: Dark and dreary.

After: Bright and cozy. (Acorn Internet Services)

Let’s hear from the pros:

When you are asked to photograph a B&B, what are your requirements, charges, rights usages, expectations, etc.?

General comments:

  • Most photographers charge daily and half-day rates, with additional costs for travel, food, lodging (generally supplied by B&B), and any props purchased by the photographer. Some charge by the room, with a minimum number of rooms to be shot. Get the details in advance, so that you can make fair comparisons when considering quotes from several sources.
  • Rights are generally owned by the innkeepers for use in all advertising promotion, etc. Photographers also retain rights to use photos for their own marketing. Situations where the photographers retain all the rights rarely have happy outcomes.
  • The amount of staging and styling done by photographers varies extensively, and may be reflected in their fees. Be sure to discuss this with each photographer to get the results you want. Don’t bring in furniture that’s not usually found in a room, and don’t go overboard in repositioning the decor, unless you make the change permanent. If you don’t serve breakfast in bed, don’t include it in a photo; if you don’t permit candles, don’t show them. Otherwise, guests may be upset because your advertising is misleading.
  • Photographers have different approaches to lighting. Ask them about their style, but more important than their techniques is the outcome.

“Charges are discussed in advance; we then send an invoice for approval, requesting a signature to seal the deal. We never ask for any money in advance; invoices are based on 30-day terms unless other arrangements have been made.” (Dan Horn)

“Satisfaction is guaranteed; if they don't like what I've done, they don't have to pay. I select and edit the photos and provide a CD with full sized, edited pictures, which they may use as they see fit. I'll give them a pretty good selection to choose from. I ask for attribution when possible. Under accepted copyright law, as the photographer, I retain the right to use the photographs as well the innkeepers.” (Peter Scherman)

“When setting up shots, we often rearrange furniture; about 75% of the time the innkeeper decides to keep it that way!” (Matthew Lovette & Mark Smith)

“Be sure you have a firm grip on rights the photographer is granting you. Can you use them on brochures, postcards and in the media without paying additional royalties in the future?” (Matthew Lovette & Mark Smith)

“Shooting an inn can take several days. I photograph each room according to the incoming sunlight (east-facing rooms in the morning; west-facing rooms in the afternoon) and use a fair amount of space to set up my lighting. Because of this, guests staying at the inn while I’m taking pictures may be inconvenienced. I advise innkeepers to take my presence into consideration when accepting reservations when I’ll be doing the photo shoot.” (Robert Chiasson)

How should the innkeeper prepare for your visit?

  • Guest rooms must be open, clean, and ready to shoot.

“Take the extra special care to get rooms ready before the photographer arrives. Press those bedspreads and clean those windows. I can't tell you how many times we've asked for Windex…” (Dawn Hagin & Adam Policky)

“Clean, clean, and clean some more. The camera doesn't lie; it picks up every little stain, dust, and any imperfections.” (Dan Horn)

  • Get a prop list from the photographer in advance, and make sure that you have all the suggested extras.

“During the photo shoot, keep interruptions to a minimum. Every room on the shot list must be open, clean, and ready to shoot; all the props I’ve recommended should be readily available. Making extra trips to a B&B is costly and inconvenient for all. Anything that innkeepers can do to allow me to focus on photography is good for everyone. This includes food trips and more importantly, clean up. A photographer often has to have to move furnishings to get the perfect shot; to save time and money, it’s better if the innkeepers can put rooms back together.” (Christian Giannelli)

“Have 25- and 40-watt light bulbs on hand. Higher wattages like 75- and 100-watt bulbs are great for reading in bed, but for photography, the lower wattages help to create a mood and can help to balance bright outdoor light -- we bring our own, but it is nice to have extra.” (Dawn Hagin & Adam Policky)

“I only do minor staging to correct odd perspectives or improve composition, but I'm not shooting for a magazine. The goal is to show the rooms and common areas to prospective guests (or prospective buyers). Generally, I prefer to be left alone, with the innkeeper available in case I need something.” (Peter Scherman)

“Prepare a complete shot list of what you want to accomplish, and discuss it with the photographer. Prioritize from the most important shots to the least. Many people have great expectations but don't realize what goes into setting up a room or how long it takes to check every detail of a shot before we shoot the final image. Time is of the essence.” (Dan Horn)

What improves the odds of a successful experience for both innkeeper and photographer?

“I believe that good communication is vital for a working relationship. It is important to know what an innkeeper expects out of me before I start shooting and it also good for them to know what can realistically be achieved.” (Christian Giannelli)

“Innkeepers should have a vision of what they want to achieve during the photo shoot. We are delighted to discuss their goals, brainstorm ideas, and expectations – it is then is up to us to exceed their expectations. Once we begin a shoot, we are grateful when innkeepers allow us to do our job as professionals.” (Dan Horn)

“We love working closely with innkeepers to create the photos that best represent the experience that guest expect.” (Carolyn & Roby LaPorte)

What advice would you give to innkeepers when they are selecting a photographer?

Start by checking out photographers’ websites and portfolios. Be sure to click through to see their inn portfolios. If you like what you see, call the innkeepers and ask for comments and recommendations. Some questions to ask:

  • Would you recommend these photographers?
  • Have you seen an increase in reservations as the result of adding the new photos to your website?
  • If you need new shots, would you ask these photographers to return?
  • If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

“Many great nature or portrait photographers are not experienced or equipped to shoot interiors. Interior and architectural photography is a specialty. Keep in mind: rooms with lots of natural wood or painted in dark, enveloping colors are difficult to photograph. You’ll need an experienced pro for good results. Styling is key for shooting small guest rooms without misleading potential guests.” (Matthew Lovette)

“Quality and diversity of portfolio shots are most obviously indicative of a good photographer, but a photographer's personality is also integral to a satisfactory relationship. Ask questions and be proactive. Innkeepers should be able to rely on their photographer for website upkeep, seasonal shots, etc.” (Christian Giannelli)

“When selecting a photographer, make sure that the photographer understands that the objective is to create pleasing images of the spaces guests may occupy, evoking a feeling of the place.” (Peter Scherman)

“Ask how long the photographers have been in business, and if they are insured. Many inns have heirloom antiques and art work. We are insured and carry a $5 million policy for our own piece of mind and our clients.” (Dan Horn)

“Your photos need to create a mood, inspire the viewer, and encourage them to select your inn. You can spend a lot on a website, but if you don’t have the photos to support it, you have wasted your money.” (Carolyn & Roby LaPorte)

What advice would you share with amateur photographers?

If you can’t afford to pay a pro, or have to wait several months before a photographer can visit your inn, here’s some great advice from Matthew Lovette and Mark Smith of Jumping Rocks Photography for taking pictures with your own digital camera:

  • Buy or borrow a simple tripod.
  • Level the camera and avoid tilting the view down or up.
  • Turn off the flash. Natural light, supplemental artificial light, varied exposures, and photo editing software produce better results.
  • Shoot at different exposures. (Many cameras have plus/minus buttons to control exposure.) Generally, brighter images work better. Potential guests respond to light and bright and colorful!
  • If you don’t know what white balance is, read your camera instruction book. Shoot a series of the same shot in different white balance: tungsten, daylight, cloudy, and auto; select the one that shows your inn at its best.
  • For rooms with a view, be sure to photograph the vista guests will enjoy from the room or the porch and label it as such. If possible, frame the shot with a portion of the window frame or porch railing.
  • Ask your guests to share their photos of your inn and their area adventures to use on your website in an online guest photo gallery.
  • Shoot lots of pictures. Film is “free” when you shoot digital!

And more from Robert Chiasson and Dominique Lavigueur:

  • Select each room’s best feature and make it a key element of your composition.
  • Better to take two or three close-ups of a room than a single distorted one with an extreme wide angle lens. A few vertical shots add variety to your website.
  • Avoid shooting a room from an angle where a window faces the camera. The intense exterior light from the window will trick the camera’s light meter into taking the wrong exposure and result in a very dark shot. Increasing the exposure allows the camera to better record the room’s details but the window will be overexposed. Shoot from an angle where the window is less obvious to minimize the problem.
  • If the room is small with pale walls, you can achieve a reasonably good photo using a [detached] flash aimed at the ceiling. The bounced light creates a more evenly lit scene.
Before: Out of focus and blah.

After: Shows the guests where they'll be sleeping as well as other comforts in the room. (Jumping Rocks)

Contributing Photographers

Thanks to the photographers who lent their advice, experience, and expertise in the writing of this article. They are listed below alphabetically by company name. For an extensive list of photographers who include inn photography as an area of expertise, please email Sarah.Stiles@BedandBreakfast.com. If you’d like to recommend a photographer, please let us know as well.

Dan Horn
Beam Studio
Dallas, TX

Christian Giannelli
Christian Giannelli Photography
Stockton, NJ

Matthew Lovette & Mark Smith
Jumping Rocks, Inc.
Philadelphia, PA

Robert Chiasson & Dominique Lavigueur
Moka & Pyjama
Saint-Irénée, Quebec, Canada

Dawn Hagin & Adam Policky
Rare Brick*
Eureka Springs, AR

Peter Scherman
The B&B Team, Inc.
Scottsville, VA 24590

Carolyn & Roby LaPorte
Wowi Zowi*
San Clemente, CA

*Services combine photography with website design.

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