The Evolution of Real Estate Photography: 40 Years of Powering the Region’s Real Estate Industry

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As Northwest Multiple Listing Service (NWMLS) celebrates our 40th Anniversary in 2024, let’s take a look back at how real estate photography has evolved over the last four decades.

1980s – Black & White Print Photos

During the 80s, printed catalogs of listed properties within specific areas (known as “The Book”) were distributed weekly to member real estate firms. Most listings featured a single black and white exterior shot to represent the home. NWMLS (then named Puget Sound Multiple Listing Association) employed photographers who would travel and take a photo of every listed home, which was an included service for member brokers.

During this period, the 35 mm camera was the workhorse of the industry. Photographers would drop off film at Moore Data Business Systems, the company that printed the listing books. Moore would develop the film, then transfer the images to plates that were used to create the books.

1990s – Digital Cameras & Online Photos

In the early 90s, digital cameras began replacing film and offered a multitude of advantages, including virtually no processing time! The internet was also becoming more widespread and a variety of MLS software programs were developed that allowed brokers to list and search for properties online. Most of these early programs only allowed for one color photo per listing, which was still provided by NWMLS. Armed with some of the very first digital cameras, NWMLS photographers continued to visit each listed property to take photos, which they would upload and send to the Listing Input Department to be added to the online database.

in 1996, NWMLS launched, one of the first public-facing websites for consumers to access MLS listings. When clicking on the map, a list of properties came up that showed all of the public-facing listing information, including one photo of the home.

2000s – Online Photo Gallery & Virtual Media

As digital cameras became more affordable, it was much easier for brokers to obtain their own listing photos. While NWMLS continued to provide complimentary primary photos, brokers were able to email up to five additional .jpeg images to the Listing Input Department, who would upload the photos to their listing. 

By 2005, technology advancements with NWMLS systems gave brokers the ability to upload their own listing images. The photo gallery for listed properties increased from six images to 15, with a maximum width of 400 pixels. Brokers could also add a Virtual Media link to a professional slideshow, video walkthrough, or 360 views. 

2010s – Drone Photography & Virtual Tours

Commercial use of drone photography became more common and many brokers started using aerial shots for the listing’s primary photo, especially for larger properties. Before this period, aerial shots were taken from helicopters or planes, an expensive luxury reserved for high-end estates.

Beginning in 2014, specialized cameras were developed that could create detailed 3D models of properties, allowing prospective buyers a more immersive experience. In addition to adding virtual tours as an option to advertise listings, the number of gallery images increased from 15 to 25 photos, and then increased again in 2019, to 40 high-resolution photos.

2020s – OneHome & Listing Search

In 2020, NWMLS added the ability to input up to three different virtual tour links, such as 3D tours, photo reel tours, and video walk-through tours.

Additionally, OneHome Client Portal was introduced, using the latest technology to offer a better browsing experience for consumers. The OneHome portal made it easy to view listing details from any device, with a photo gallery that can accommodate up to 40 images with a maximum width of 1024 pixels.

And, just in time for the launch of the new public-facing listing search in 2023, the size for photos increased to 1600 x 1200 pixels!

2024 and Beyond

Over the last four decades, NWMLS has brought together the smartest tools in real estate to help our members provide best-in-class service during the home buying and selling process. We are continually reviewing technology products to ensure our membership has access to an array of products, services, and support to help them deliver an exceptional buying and selling experience to their clients.

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