Property photographers weigh business opportunities over creative freedom

Chicago photographers and designers use the platform to find customers and market their work, but guidelines could stifle creativity.

Airbnb has given rise to an experience-based economy — people don’t just want goods or services, but an experience to sweeten the deal. And the skyrocketing demand for beautiful listings has been a boon for freelance photographers, who leverage the platform to market themselves for further work.

But working directly with Airbnb doesn’t necessarily bring the creative freedom photographers expect.

A Chicago-based fashion and interior photographer, who declined to be named, says Airbnb undermines her creative freedom by turning an art into a science. It not only keeps changing guidelines that photographers need to follow but also requires them to use specific angles, equipment and focal length, she says. Airbnb hasn’t responded yet to a request for comment.

“Airbnb’s approach to photography is very cookie-cutter,” she said. “Also, the rate of $50 to $60 per gig that requires 25 photos is much lower than other jobs in similar nature.”

The photographer, who has been under independent contract with Airbnb for three and a half years, says she doesn’t want to turn down any job offer as a freelance photographer. That said, Airbnb could hurt the photography market because it sometimes hires people who come at a low rate and are not necessarily professional photographers, she says.

“That’s not helpful to the photography market because other clients would expect the same rate,” she said. “That essentially drives down the price of hiring a freelance photographer. If all my clients expect to pay what Airbnb did, I would not be able to be a photographer anymore. Airbnb is a side job that I do, but not something that I can rely upon.”

New opportunities and business models

Other photographers think the positives largely outweigh the negatives. Joshua Haines joined Airbnb as a freelance photographer a decade ago and started taking pictures for the platform — which, back then, had only about 10,000 users and 2,500 listings —  two or three times a month. Now, he shoots two to three properties per day.

Because Airbnb does not sign non-compete contracts with its photographers, Haines can do freelance work for other platforms. People who spotted Haines’ title “senior interiors photographer at Airbnb” would hire him to shoot their retreat places that may not be listed on Airbnb.

“[Airbnb] allowed me to not only meet people who need photographers outside of Airbnb, but also people who have passed my name on to others who need professional photographers,” Haines said. “In the photography business, a word-of-mouth recommendation counts for more than anything.”

While Airbnb doesn’t intend to give freelance photographers more job opportunities outside of its own platform, it has done so incidentally, Haines says.  

Matthew Driscoll, an independent real estate photographer who freelances for Airbnb, says the platform helps photographers showcase their work and get word-of-mouth marketing.

Freelance photographers have different ways of using Airbnb as a creative venue for their businesses. Eric Formato, a Chicago-based artist, has not only worked with Airbnb as a freelance photographer but also hosted experiences with Airbnb.   

Hosting experiences, the next frontier

While Airbnb’s accommodation operation lets people rent rooms, Airbnb Experiences allows creative people like Formato to share their hobbies, skills or interests with visitors.

“I made thousands of dollars…but Airbnb takes 20% of your earnings,” Formato said. “Over the course of two years, I’ve probably lost thousands of dollars because of that.”

After Airbnb’s cut and expenses such as transportation, Formato earns $50 from his $85 photography class.

Still, Formato prefers hosting experiences than being a freelance photographer under contract. While the latter may bring more consistent work, Airbnb’s guidelines and image specifications are a damper on his creativity, he says.

Additional Resources

Joshua Haines Photography – The Host HQ Listings

A senior interiors photographer at Airbnb whose client list also includes South Social & Home, CS Interiors, Michigan Ave Magazine, and Atlas Concorde.