How Picture-Perfect Airbnb Photos Increased Bookings By $2,521

Published: April 29, 2021
Airbnb photos

We know how important a “better Airbnb image” is, but can we define what it means to have one?

Something that’s captivating, warm and inviting will always draw plenty of clicks, when compared to one that’s dull and boring.

But what do those words really mean? How can we quantify how much a great vacation rental image is worth?

That’s the problem we’re trying to solve for you today and before we move on any further, I’d like to introduce you to 4 charming data scientists: Shunyuan Zhang, Dokyun Lee, Param Vir Singh, and Kannan Srinivasan.

All hailing from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburg, USA.

These folks have helped the entire Airbnb community understand the certain areas of an image that both improve our demand on the Airbnb platform, but also bookings (according to their research.)

Let’s go over, in more visual terms, what it means to have a more valuable Airbnb listing photo.

I’ve created a video for you here or you can continue to read on with the study summary below.

Here are the important highlights you need to know first:
  • “Verified Photos” have helped make these property owners $2,521 more per year.
  • A 17.51% increase in bookings occurred (from properties that had 21.1% occupancy for the month)
  • 13,000 listings were monitored. Which equates to 510,000 photos from 7 US cities: Boston, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Austin, New York & San Francisco

I bet your eyes popped open a bit if your city was listed there.

One thing that’s very interesting about this study is that it goes on for a fairly lengthy time. About 16 months ending in April 2017.

59% of the listings they looked at did not have “verified photos” at the beginning of the study.

Part way through, 224 ended up getting them.

It’s not known exactly how verified photos correlate with higher rankings, but a more “attractive” image does lead to more clicks.

We’ll be looking deeper into this in the future though *hint hint*

What is an Airbnb Verified Photo?

It’s when an Airbnb assigned photographer comes to your place, takes pictures of your listing for you, and then uploads them to the platform themselves.

Airbnb provides special directions for how they want the images to look and also how to upload them properly.

This is turn gives you that special “verified photo” comment at the bottom of your photos:

Now that we have a clear understanding of what ‘defines’ a verified photo on the Airbnb platform.

Let’s take a comparison between unverified photos and “verified photos”:

The difference is striking, right?

Verified images look much better and besides being brighter with nicer contrast – I’m not sure exactly how to describe the differences…

Mostly due to the fact that I’m not a professional photographer.

But don’t worry, the researchers were able to take the core differentiators between these images and create a model for us to follow.

Before diving in too deep though, I want to be clear that although a “verified image” is better, the study concludes that even a lift in the following best practices made an improvement in bookings.

It’s also not possible to get an Airbnb photographer to every city so not everyone can benefit from a “verified photo” stamp.

In any case, let’s see what these factors are so we can start playing around with them:

The 12 Attributes Of A Better Airbnb Image

First, let’s break everything down into 3 distinct areas of concern:

  1. Composition
  2. Color
  3. Figure-Ground Relationship

Now, within these 3 components lay the 12 separate attributes which make for a more desirable vacation rental photo. 


  • Diagonal Dominance
  • Visual Balance Intensity
  • Visual Balance Colour
  • Rule of Thirds


  • Warm Hue
  • Saturation
  • Brightness
  • Contrast of Brightness
  • Image Clarity

Figure-Ground Relationship:

  • Size Difference
  • Color Difference
  • Texture Difference

​To give you some greater context, here’s a table to lay it all out nicely:

Tweaking Your Photos The Right Way

I think what would be very helpful is if we took each attribute and gave you something more visual to work with.

The Composition Of Your Photo

This aspect of your photo is all about centering the visuals.

If you’re a natural photographer, or perhaps a professional one, then it might come easy for you to choose something in a room and instantly focus on it as the center of attention.

But for the less skilled, we should break it down into the 4 separate attributes for ease:

Attribute 1 – Diagonal Dominance

In my own personal interpretation of this, if we add crisscrosses to an image and place our focal object along these lines then we’re staying in the helpful part of this attribute. Here’s what I mean:

Now I’ll add the cross into the image to showcase diagonal dominance…

It’s hard to explain, but the pillows, bed, and light are a lot more balanced and centered. Giving the eyes a more pleasing image.

Let’s move onto the next attribute here for composition.

Attribute 2 – Rule of Thirds

This attribute is a lot easier to see… We divide our shot into 9 equal parts of the screen. Created by 2 horizontal and 2 vertical lines on each side.

The rule of thirds helps us place our main elements along the lines or near the intersections.

If we look at our example above, the depth of the room is right in the center and we have the bed and couch sitting right along the lines.

The lines help keep the symmetry of the photo.

Attribute 3 & 4 – Visual Balance of Intensity & Visual Balance of Color

Even though the words are big, it simply means that we want to have our images tightly centered and even on both sides.

Fun Fact: Based on this study, a tweak of 1 standard deviation in composition… Lead to $2,432 more bookings per year. 
Need a refresher on standard deviation? Here’s a video for you.

The Color of Your Photo

There are three dimensions of color: Hue, Saturation, & Brightness

From the researchers’ point of view, these factors lead to a shift in a persons “emotional arousal”. Taking someone from a state of boredom to excitement and tension to relaxation.

In my eyes, this is exact cause for what helps to drive more clicks to our listings.

When a traveler is searching through the Airbnb search results and they suddenly stumble on an image that just “speaks to them”…

They are more inclined to click the image out of curiosity, or in the case of what these researchers have said, out of arousal.

Weird, right?

Attribute 5 – Hue

Have you heard of RGB? Red, Green, and Blue. Those are the colors that affect your overall emotional arousal and researchers argue that warm hues such as red and yellow lead to more excitement, with blue and purple giving “cool hues” that lead to relaxation. This might be a reason why some Airbnb hosts switch up their decor according to the time in which they’re looking to get bookings for. For example, the warm red fireplace set on the TV screen to attract winter bookings.
What’s interesting is that a room’s walls, furniture, and decor can affect the first hues of an image, but all that can be adjusted in the post-processing part. So we have a lot of control for this attribute.

Attribute 6 – Saturation

Saturation refers to how rich the color is in the image.

Highly saturated photos provide colorfulness that a low saturated image does not contain. Mostly because the levels of pigmentation aren’t there.

From an emotional perspective, the higher saturated images elicit happiness and purity.

While the less saturated photos bring on sadness and distress.

This what they mean:

Attribute 7 & 8 – Brightness & Contrast

These attributes contribute to the intentional translation of the property into the potential guests’ mind.

That might sound “woo-woo”, but it’s all about the positive adjustments to the illumination of the room.

If you’ve ever played around with brightness and contrast on your camera, then you know how big of difference it can make.

The brightness coincides with the overall illumination levels.

While the contrast of the brightness describes whether the illumination is evenly spread over the photo.

In general, an image that’s brighter is preferred and illumination levels help make the image clearer for viewers.

Attribute 9 – Image Clarity

The clarity of an image refers to the intensity of the saturation and hues.

​An image that’s often referred to as “dull” in the professional photography sense occurs when the color combinations are desaturated and the hues are very low.

I think many of us have witnessed image clarity lacking from our neighbours photos before.

It’s hard to miss these and ignore them… But we also wouldn’t book them either.

Sidenote: According to this research, one standard deviation of color attributes to $6,484 in extra booking income. This is with the listings collected only from the 7 cities.

The Figure-Ground Relationship Of Your Photo

The figure-ground relationship relies on the principle that there’s a clear separation between the figure and the ground. The figure represented by the key region and focal point of the image and the ground refers to the background.

Attributes 10, 11, & 12 – Area Difference, Color Difference, & Texture Difference

Even though these attributes are bundled together here, from looking at the image we can see that there is a clear difference between the different areas of the room.

This is because the images separation of the figure and ground are more apparent through the different shapes, the contradicting colors and the textures (wooden walls and a wooden bed don’t blend.)

Final sidebar for each component: A standard deviation of 1 in the component of the “figure-ground relationship” leads to an increase or decrease of $3,485 per year.

How Do These Attributes Contribute To Bookings?

Now that we’ve defined what each attribute means, we need to connect their value and impact to bookings.

Here’s a chart which I’ll go over in greater depth below. With a little math, we’ll be able to see which attributes lead to the biggest shifts in booked days and income.

This means you can worry about the most important characteristics first, instead of all 12 at the same time.

The Most Influential Factors For “Composition”

Every single attribute lends a helping hand in creating a more inviting vacation rental image, but the Rule of Thirds and Diagonal Dominance played the most influential roles.

In this example below, let’s see how much more revenue is created once we improve the Rule of Thirds and Diagonal Dominance.

To keep everything simple and relevant, I’m using the average property price of $187.30. Which represents the per night pricing of a host (within the study) that replaced all their low-quality (unverified) photos with high quality (unverified) photos.

In any case, let’s continue on and see what insights we can grab:

  • One standard deviation of improvement for the attribute of Diagonal Dominance, lead to additional annual revenue of $851.14. Calculated like so (1.245% x 365 days) x 187.30 USD/day = $851.14.
  • For one standard deviation of improvement in The Rule of Thirds, an additional $609.13 came about.

Which means you should be leveraging these characteristics first, over the other attributes.

Especially if you’re in a rush to improve the quality of your images.

The Most Influential Factors of “Color”

When it comes to color, you’ll get the most by adjusting the Image Clarity, Brightness and Contrast of Brightness (attributes 9, 7 & 8.)

  • One positive standard deviation in Image Clarity leads to extra revenue of $2,351.74
  • For Contrast of Brightness & Brightness, an improvement of one standard deviation in both would relay an estimated $1,860.20 & $1,088.36 respectively.

Now I think another way we can make this study a bit more relevant is to see the number of extra days you’d possibly get booked, rather than the income estimate above.

So let’s switch gears a bit.

To estimate the extra days of bookings you can expect from improving all 3 of these influential color attributes, you’d go:

  • Image Clarity: 3.44% x 365 days = 12.55 days of extra bookings
  • Contrast of Brightness: 2.721% x 365 days = 9.93 days of extra booking
  • Brightness: 1.592% x 365 days = 5.81 days of extra bookings

That’s probably a bit more relevant to you, right?

Keep in mind that these estimates are based off listings that have had an average of 21.057% of the month booked. Which is quite standard and achievable by most.

Alright, let’s move onto the final component.

The Most Influential Factors of “The Figure-Ground Relationship”

Two of the attributes, size difference & color, played a balanced yet significant part of this component.

To stick to our theme above, I’ll break down the days of extra bookings realized by improving each component:

  • Size Difference: 2.624% x 365 days = 9.58 days of additional bookings, per year.
  • Color Difference: 2.201% x 365 days = 8.03 days of additional bookings
  • Texture Difference: 0.272% x 365 days = 0.99 days of additional bookings

Limitations & Final Conclusions

What I’ve laid out above is just a simplified summary of the original study.

I definitely encourage you to take a look at the original paper to get a firmer grasp of the concepts.

We know that a limitation to the findings is that it goes over a set period of time in the past.

However, a 16 month timeframe is still a lot better than many other studies I’ve read.

Another limitation is the technology behind the study (what’s known as computer vision.)

As improvements in the learning models developed over that time frame, the study could be limited by what types of models the researchers had access to.

Another limitation was the ability to integrate a travellers search habits into the study.

This is something we’re personally interested in at Rankbreeze and studies like this help us correlate even more ranking factors.

Even after we’ve spotted these limitations, I believe it’s still worthwhile to reference the examples above and see whether or not your own photos match them.

The easiest thing you can do is simply run ads on Facebook or Instagram to measuring which of your photos has the highest click through rate.

It costs a little bit of money and you probably won’t get any bookings from the ads, but you can be sure that the images with the highest clicks will also be the most attractive to searchers inside of Airbnb too.

To the 4 researchers who put this study together, I’d like to say thanks from the entire Airbnb and vacation rental community.

You’ve dedicated countless hours and over a year and a half of your valuable time to help us make better data driven hosting decisions.

As for you, the reader, we’ve collected the above examples into a downloadable kit for you and added additional examples from the thousands of listings we’re currently analyzing with Rankbreeze.

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