We love picking the brains of interior designers: After all, they've made careers from perfecting the art of interiors (something we'd all love to master a little better). But they aren't the only experts in the design world that can offer us informed decorating advice. Behind every great magazine spread is a talented photographer, well-versed in the science of how to compose amazing photos from angles to lighting and styling tricks.
If you've ever tried to photograph your own home, you've probably learned that it can be challenging. Instagram photographers and stylists know exactly what to include in a shot and what to leave out—and their discerning eye is like no other when using lighting and design to their advantage to work their magic.
Read on to learn all about living room lifestyle photography, the best types of décor, and how to get that perfect shot of your bedroom or kitchen to show off your favorite spaces.
Make It Feel Personal
When we asked interior design photographers what makes a room stand out, they all had the same answer: It wasn’t a particular style or budget, but rather spaces that felt personal. “A room is extra special when you can tell that the homeowner has added their personal items,” says New York–based photographer Michael Wiltbank, who has photographed dozens of features for Domino. “It is always so fun for me to hear the stories behind pieces that people decide to keep and display in their homes. These items hold special stories for the homeowners, and give their space character and depth.”
Mix and Match Pieces
“A room feels extra special when it is mixed in with pieces that are sentimental and have individual stories to tell,” says Monica Wang, who has photographed features for InStyle and Los Angeles Times. The expert warns against buying everything at once in the same style. “It should feel like a curated snapshot of a person’s life, and not like everything has been purchased from one store at one time," says Brittany Ambridge, who was Domino’s photography director before working with The New York Times and other major publications. "The experts always say buy what you love, and it’s really true."
Identify Your Style
“I have been fortunate to see the very best of many different aesthetics, but one of the downsides is that you can only mix styles so much before it starts looking crazy,” says Ambridge, who believes in knowing your style before you start adopting a variety of trends. “I have come to realize that even though I appreciate many styles, I tend to come back to the same key elements.” For Ambridge, it’s organic textures, clean lines, and neutral colors.
Start With Color
Each photographer had a very clear idea of what they gravitated toward for their own homes. “Every apartment I have had in New York City, I have painted the walls a very specific gray that has become my favorite part of my apartment,” says Wiltbank. “I love to start with that light, muted gray, then build from there with pops of color and lots of different textures to make my home feel warm and inviting.”
Focus on the Theme
For Tessa Neustadt, who has photographed features for Elle and other major publications, it’s all about vintage trinkets: “I think I could spend every day scavenging for vintage pieces in flea markets and vintage stores. My house and office are filled with old wire sculptures, vintage photographs, paintings, paintbrushes from my grandmother’s old studio, and old cameras from my grandfather.”
Hide Your Electrical
“I think the worst offenders in the modern home are electrical cords,” shares Wiltbank, who makes a point of camouflaging them in all of his interior photo shoots. “We sure do love our Apple TVs, WiFi, iPhones, iPads, Kindles, and laptops, but all of these things come with stuff—charging cords and tangled messes under entertainment stands, next to beds, and in many spots throughout houses. For me, the devil is in the details, and I am constantly moving or trying to hide cords when shooting interiors.” That’s unless the cord is part of the design: “I think the best-designed houses have an electrical plan that optimizes both design and function.”
Know When to Go Dark
One of the key things that makes a great interior is to know when to keep it light or when to go moody and dark. “A room should be bright when you have a good amount of natural lighting,” says Wang. “It’s much easier to go dark and moody when there is less natural light—it’s the perfect opportunity to experiment with textures and navy- or black-colored walls.”
Work With the Light
“I think you have to embrace the natural light of a room; if you have a room that doesn’t get a lot of light and you paint it white, you run the risk of the room looking sort of dingy—as though you’re trying to force it into being something that it’s not. Embrace the darkness; go for a dark color on the walls and moody pieces,” Neustadt says. Ambridge agrees: “It can be really lovely to have directional light when the room is dark and cozy. I sometimes will like moody light if the rooms are filled with antiques and rich velvets. That’s when my ‘living on the English moors’ fantasy kicks in,” she jokes.
When styling a room with dark walls, add a few decorative accents in your statement color to carry the design throughout the space.
Add Life With Living Plants
There’s a reason you’ll seldom see a good interior shot without a houseplant or a vase filled with flowers. “Flowers and plants liven up a room,” says Wiltbank. The simple act of adding a living element to a room can bring your design from good to great. Their sculptural organic nature is like living, breathing art.
Amp Up the Texture
Texture is key when it comes to creating a dynamic design. Opt for a variety of materials when choosing your room's décor, like woven fabrics paired with sleek furniture and metal accents. Stick to a color scheme, or mix and match a few different pieces that complement each other to add contrast.
When in Doubt, Go Bigger (With Your Rug)
When it comes to the worst decorating mistakes a designer could make, Wang is certain on one thing: “That is very easy to answer: When you buy a rug that is too small for the space. Visually, it is super obvious in a photo when a rug is too small, and there is nothing you can really do about it!"
Know How to Measure
Another important part about choosing rugs (and all of your furniture, for that matter) is knowing how to measure your space correctly so the design doesn't feel off. "It’s an easy mistake to make, so always measure,” Wang says. This is a common pet peeve for interior designers, too—so always aim to get one size bigger. As far as rugs go, bigger really is better.
Pay Attention to Proportions
“Another decorating mistake I see a lot is incorrect proportions,” says Ambridge. “In real life, you may get away with it, but it’s definitely accentuated in photos.” When things are on the wrong scale in relation to each other or to the space, it can throw off a perfectly good design.
Play With Scale
Neustadt agrees: “If you have a large living room with high ceilings, you don’t want to throw in a small couch—it will look even smaller in the context of a bigger space. You’re not doing the room (or the couch) any justice!” The same goes for smaller accessories, she says: “When you’re styling a coffee table, you don’t want all the objects to be the same size. You want it to feel dynamic, so think of a large book styled with a medium-sized tray and a smaller candle.”
Weave in Trends With Small Accents
Just as knowing your style is crucial when decorating, so is playing with trends in small doses to avoid going overboard on a phase that may not last. “I’m going through a light, muted pink phase,” says Ambridge, “and have recently added a few small things that can easily be tucked away when I move on to my next color crush.” Having a clear idea of what styles are there to stay—and which ones are just passing through—can save you from costly mistakes.
Add a Focal Point
When we asked Wiltbank what his best styling tricks were, he recommended always adding a focal point. “There are so many different ways to create a focal point in a room,” he says. “A few of my favorites have been a dramatic headboard or a literal splash of color. Having a decided ‘moment’ in a room is always a good conversation starter.”
Styling a focal point in the space to direct your eyes keeps the room from looking discombobulated or messy.
“Variety is key, whether it’s in the scale, the color, the style, or the pattern," says Ambridge. "Not everything has to match.” She also believes in throwing something strange in the mix: “There should always be something a little wrong in a room, something quirky, witty, or even just a little bit ugly.” For Neustadt, it’s all about the mix of old and new: “I especially love when older homes are restored but still keep some of their original architectural details.”
Don't Karate-Chop Your Pillows
Regarding decorating pet peeves, one of the photographers' main irritants was around pillows: “I don’t think pillows should ever be ‘chopped’ in the middle to create ‘bunny ears,’” says Wiltbank. “If I see it, I always try to make the pillows feel more natural and inviting.” Ambridge agrees: “The karate chop is over.”
Make Your Décor Malleable
The photographers encourage you to keep your décor evolving. “In my opinion, interior design is a living art form,” says Ambridge. “That means you should be able to move things around and not have it ruin the overall design. Not everything photographs well, so you might have to adjust the décor when shooting a space. If you can’t move a pillow because it’s throwing the entire room off, the room doesn’t work.”
Edit as You Go
Neustadt recommends editing your space constantly: “Just like when you’re editing a piece of writing—you write all your ideas down, and then slowly start to edit it down until you have just the key pieces.” Start with every item you think you'll want to include in your room, then pick a few pieces to remove. Have fun with it: You never know which combinations of décor will be the best until you try them out.