Here at MyDomaine HQ, we love picking the brains of interior designers. After all, they have made it their careers to perfect the art of interiors—something we’d all love to master a little better. But they aren’t the only ones qualified to give well-informed decorating advice. Behind every great magazine spread is an even more talented photographer. These shutterbugs have mastered the science of what composes an amazing cover photo, from the angles to the lighting to the styling tricks none of us know about. Don’t believe us? Just look at a professionally shot interior next to its unstyled real-estate listing counterpart.
Anyone who’s ever attempted to photograph their own home knows how incredibly challenging it is. No matter how much attention you pay to make everything look perfect, it somehow turns out gloomy and messy, and there is always something left in the shot that you didn’t want there: a phone, an odd shoe, or a candid mirror selfie. On the other hand, interior photographers know exactly what to include in a shot and what to leave out. They also understand how to make natural light work in their favor. Having been in hundreds of the best interiors, they have a discerning eye like no other and see prop stylists working their magic on a daily basis. If anyone knows interiors better than the designers themselves, it’s the experts behind the lens. We decided to pick the brains of our favorite interior photographers to find out what makes or breaks a room. Here’s what they had to say.
When we asked 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 shot 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.”
“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 shot for InStyle and Los Angeles Times. Essentially, buying everything at once through a catalog is a big no-no. Brittany Ambridge, who was Domino’s photography director before going on to freelance for The New York Times and other major publications, says, “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. The experts always say buy what you love, and it’s really true.”
“I have been fortunate to have seen the very best of many different aesthetics, but one of the downsides is 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.
All photographers we spoke to had a very clear idea of what they gravitated toward for their own homes. “Every apartment I have had in NYC, 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 and then build from there with pops of color and lots of different textures to make my home feel warm and inviting.”
For Tessa Neustadt, who has shot 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.”
“I think the worst offenders in the modern home are electrical cords,” shares Wiltbank—who makes a point of camouflaging them in all his photo shoots. “We sure do love our Apple TVs, WiFi, iPhones, iPads, Kindles, and laptops—but all these things come with stuff. Charging cords and tangled messes under entertainments 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.”
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 leather textures and navy- or black-colored walls.”
Neustadt agrees: “I think you have to embrace the natural light of a room. If you have 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,” she says.
“It can be really lovely to have directional light when the room is dark and cozy,” adds Ambridge. “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.
There’s a reason you’ll seldom see a good interior shot without a plant or 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 it from good to great. Their sculptural organic nature is like living, breathing art.
We asked each designer for the worst decorating mistakes someone could make, and for Wang, the answer was clear: “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! It’s an easy mistake to make, so always measure.” 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.
“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 the wrong scale in relation to each other or the space, it can throw off a perfectly good room.
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 a large book styled with a medium-size tray and a smaller candle.”
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 can save you from costly mistakes.
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.” Having somewhere to direct your eye keeps the room from looking discombobulated or messy.
“Variety is key,” says Ambridge, “whether it’s in the scale, the color, the style, or the pattern. 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.”
Regarding decorating pet peeves, one of their 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.”
Finally, 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.”
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.”