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Front & Center: Real estate photographer is virtual tour guide

UPDATED: Fri., May 26, 2017, 4:57 a.m.

Real estate photographer Jack Pemberton photographs a home in Spokane on Wednesday. (Kathy Plonka/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Real estate photographer Jack Pemberton photographs a home in Spokane on Wednesday. (Kathy Plonka/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Jack Pemberton’s peripatetic career has been punctuated by “aha!” moments.

One occurred 13 years ago, when a homeowner hired Pemberton to photograph her lakeside cabin.

“The interior shots turned out great,” Pemberton recalls, “but glare from the big windows obscured everything outside.

“When the client saw the photos, she said if she couldn’t see the lake the way her eyes did, she wouldn’t pay.”

Digital cameras at the time weren’t capable of simultaneously capturing both inside and outside, Pemberton says. But that weekend, when he noticed the sharp reflection of the outdoors in a darkened television screen, Pemberton had an inspiration.

“I figured out that if I put the camera on a tripod and cycled through seven exposure settings, I’d end up with photos ranging from overexposed to underexposed. Then I could use Photoshop (software) to stitch together the various elements, so both indoors and outdoors were perfectly exposed.”

The process took longer, but the results were amazing, Pemberton says. “We lived in a small Arizona mountain resort town, yet even down in Tucson and Phoenix they hadn’t figure out how to do that.”

Another career-changing moment occurred more recently, when Pemberton joined the growing ranks of real estate photographers using infrared 3-D cameras to create “fly-through” virtual tours of homes, RVs … even yachts. (Check one out.)

During a recent interview, he discussed what homes and golf courses have in common, what he recommends homeowners not include in their virtual tours, and his favorite customer reaction.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Pemberton: In Las Vegas.

S-R: What were your interests?

Pemberton: Sports – football, baseball and golf.

S-R: What was your first job?

Pemberton: I started washing dishes on the Las Vegas strip when I was 15.

S-R: In high school, did you envision a particular career?

Pemberton: Baseball. I played shortstop, and was really good. But I didn’t stay with it my senior year because my mom got cancer. Instead, immediately out of high school I got a job doing chores at a used-car lot. Soon afterward, I went to working as an orderly at a local hospital.

S-R: What next?

Pemberton: I was with UPS for seven years, then went to work as a clerk at a Las Vegas golf course and discovered a deep passion for the sport. So I practiced like crazy, got my handicap down to plus 2, and eventually played on a Southern California minitour.

S-R: Was that a career?

Pemberton: It was heading toward a career. I won one tournament and placed in several. My biggest paycheck was $2,400. But I wasn’t able to handle the mental pressure of competitive golf. So I quit and spent seven years as a head pro in Arizona’s White Mountains, until 2003.

S-R: That’s when you also started photographing homes?

Pemberton: Yes. I’d been introduced to the digital camera in 1999, and gradually made photography my career. In 2004, I introduced virtual tours to the local real estate market using still pictures and a new product called IPIX.

S-R: Did you have any formal photographic training?

Pemberton: No. But I watched real estate TV shows and looked at magazines, and when I saw something I liked, I went out and replicated it. Homes are like a golf courses – they just sit there and tell you how they want to be filmed, just like golf courses sit there and tell you how they want to be played. And if you read a course correctly, you get to stick around and play for money on the weekend.

S-R: What brought you to Spokane?

Pemberton: A friend of mine from Scottsdale moved up here, and invited me up to play some golf in 2006. I was so impressed that I moved my family and company up here in ’07, because I wanted to grow, and I couldn’t get any bigger in the White Mountains. There were only 300 Realtors there, compared with 1,600 here.

S-R: Was this a tough market to break into?

Pemberton: Yes. You could have the best product in the world. But this is such a tight-knit community that if someone doesn’t tell someone else that it’s OK to use you, they won’t. I couldn’t find any photography work that first year, and ended up running Sundance Golf Course. Once I got to know people, I was able to show them the quality of my work.

S-R: What’s the best business advice you’ve gotten?

Pemberton: Stay focused, and stay patient.

S-R: With photographic technology constantly changing, how do you stay on the cutting edge?

Pemberton: Youtube is a tremendous resource. And I always try to attend the annual consumer electronics trade show in Las Vegas.

S-R: How did you learn about the Matterport 3-D technology?

Pemberton: A real estate agent introduced me to it in the fall of 2015.

S-R: How much did it cost to purchase the equipment?

Pemberton: The camera was $4,500, including software. An iPad to go with it was another $400.

S-R: Do you have an exclusive territory, or can anyone here buy a Matterport and offer the service?

Pemberton: Anyone can. I was the second one to buy it locally, and now I think five or six photographers offer Matterport virtual home tours.

S-R: What percentage of your business last year was Matterport, compared with still photography and aerial?

Pemberton: Only 10 percent. But we shot more Matterport in the first four months this year than in all of 2016.

S-R: Who are your clients?

Pemberton: Mostly Realtors. Some builders. But anyone can hire us, including people selling their house themselves.

S-R: What should homeowners do before you arrive?

Pemberton: They should get rid of 90 percent of their clutter, because little things scattered around can interfere with the infrared technology that draws the 3-D “doll house” rendering of the whole house.

S-R: Anything else?

Pemberton: All lights should be turned on. And windows clean. If the glass is hazy, the HDR technology Matterport uses won’t allow you to see outside.

S-R: How long between when you scan a house and it’s available online?

Pemberton: Twenty-four hours.

S-R: Who watches the virtual tours?

Pemberton: Buyers, Realtors and lookie-loos.

S-R: How about burglars?

Pemberton: I’ve never heard of that happening. But we always let people know there’s a certain amount of security risk. For instance, showing gun collections is a no-no. And we don’t recommend scanning a garage full of tools. But one client had a framed robe and boxing gloves signed by Muhammad Ali – which I considered a red flag – and he insisted we include it.

S-R: How long before these virtual tours include a soundtrack – for instance Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young singing “Our house is a very, very, very fine house”?

Pemberton: I’ve talked to them about adding sound. Matterport invested all their time and money creating the 3-D model, so they’re playing catch-up with other elements. But after-market products allow us to import Matterport into a framework that allows music and digital stills.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Pemberton: The fact that every day I get to meet new and different people, and make their life better by showing their home at its best.

S-R: What do you like least?

Pemberton: There’s nothing I don’t like about it. Before I started photographing houses, seven years was the longest I’d stayed with anything. I’ve been at this since 2000, and still wake up every morning eager to do it again.

S-R: What has this job taught you about yourself?

Pemberton: That it’s OK to take risks.

S-R: What’s a favorite customer reaction?

Pemberton: When they see my pictures and don’t want to sell their home. (laugh)

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at mguilfoil@comcast.net.



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