When it comes to selling a home fast — and for top dollar — a picture is worth more than just a thousand words: It might be worth a few thousand bucks.

“The first look that a potential buyer has at a listing is online,” says Donna Evers, president of Evers & Co. Real Estate. “If the photos are really great, they’re going to go see it.” Conversely: If the photos don’t show your place off at its best, expect fewer buyers to drop in.

When Pamela Brooks, 50, was preparing to put her four-bedroom home in Clinton, Md., on the market in February, she wanted the highest-quality photos she could get — no smartphone snapshots.

“I wanted to have it professionally done,” she says.

Brooks and her Realtors from the Menkiti Group (202-243-7777) decided to create an online photo gallery that they called a “virtual tour” of the house. The Realtors brought in furniture to stage the home and hired a professional photographer. The photographer cost about $400, which the Realtors covered, and the house sold within a week of being put on the market.

“We think about the photo and the virtual tour as your first showing,” Realtor Kymber Menkiti says.

With so much focus on photos, some professional photographers are now specializing in real estate. “The need for imagery to sell the house … has become paramount,” says real-estate photographer Scott Goodson, owner of Xact Photography (202-536-5621).

With so much riding on a few dozen photos, we asked local real-estate agents and real-estate photographers how to get a home ready for “picture day.”

Picture Day Prep

Photographers agree that the pictures are about more than documenting every nook and cranny of the house; they’re about helping potential buyers imagine themselves living there.

“We’re trying to create an emotional attachment,” says Piers Lamb, art director for Evers & Co.

To achieve this, Realtors advise ridding your home of clutter and “depersonalizing” the rooms before a photo shoot. Family photos on the walls or knickknacks on the mantle all make it harder for a buyer to imagine themselves in your space.

“Clutter is our enemy,” Evers says. “Even when you think it’s really sparse, it can probably be sparser.”

Going Pro

Most Realtors hire professional photographers, whose high-end camera equipment and command of lighting can make their shots stand out from the crowd. Many work with outside firms, such as Gaithersburg, Md.,-based Real Tour (240-912-4973) or Chantilly, Va.-based Home Visit (703-953-3866), for photos and other marketing materials.

Photographers and marketing firms are also starting to offer more interactive features like floor plans with photos and video walk-throughs.

It takes about two hours to get about 30 good sales photos of a home, and typically costs around $250 to $300 for a session, Goodson says.

Menkiti says more elaborate shoots, say for a multimillion-dollar home, could cost more than $1,000, based on the size of the home and length and complexity of the shoot.

A 2013 study from real-estate brokerage Redfin found that homes with professional-quality photos taken with DSLR cameras sold for $3,400 to $11,200 more relative to their list prices, and were also more likely to sell within six months than homes photographed with point-and-shoot cameras.

Even just adding a photo to your online listing can boost the final sales price by almost 4 percent, a study by researcher Ken H. Johnson of Florida International University found.

DIY Tradeoffs

Homeowners who try their hands at taking their own home pics can save a few hundred bucks. But professional photographers say they may be sacrificing image quality.

Amateur photography enthusiasts may own DSLR cameras, which can create a more professional look, but most homeowners probably don’t have the high-end wide-angle lenses that a pro would use.

“There’s people who just go out there with the flash on their camera,” Goodson says. “That’s great, but there’s a certain look that you get with that.”

The main things homeowners sacrifice when taking the photos themselves are the sense of a room’s true depth and size, Goodson says.

One potential benefit to taking your own photos is having the flexibility to wait for perfect weather. Photographers say the ideal weather for exterior shots is bright and sunny, while for interiors, a cloudy day could be better because it creates fewer shadows inside.

Rendition vs. Reality

Photographers usually touch up photographs of the home in an editing program like Photoshop, which allows them to make skies bluer or diminish shadows.

But there can be gray areas when it comes to the limits of doctoring images.

“There aren’t any rules about it, so you see a wide gamut of approaches,” Goodson says. For his part, he says, “I’m not taking something out that was there or putting in something that’s not there.”

Lamb agrees that it’s a no-no to take out a crack in the wall or manipulate the house in any way that’s deceptive.

If photographers do want to show potential new features, like a new staircase or porch the buyer could pay to add to the house, Lamb says they label these “artist renditions.”

Just remember: The goal with any photography (and rendition) is to pique potential buyers’ interest in your house, not to dazzle them with an artistic portrait.