Pro Tips: How to Style and Shoot Your Modern Home
"I started my career photographing people," says photographer Lauren Pressey. "But as I’ve transitioned to photographing more interiors, the process has definitely shifted. Whereas photographing children, for instance, can be a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of experience, I love the detailed element of photographing homes and taking the time to style the scene just right."
Pressey shoots perfectly crafted images that are reminiscent of a Nancy Meyers film—shots that show a home for its aspirations, rather than for its functions. "Seeing a space come together and making sure the perspective is on point is really satisfying," Pressey says.
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Photographers Amy Bartlam and Tessa Neustadt have similarly impressive portfolios of work. All three photographers say that there's a specific art to shooting interiors, and that it isn’t as easy as it appears.
"You still have to think about a lot of the same things, of course, like settings, light, and what height to shoot at, but how spaces and furniture read in-camera are quite different to what you might imagine," Bartlam says. "So, I like to set up the shot and then spend time tweaking the position of the furniture and accessories to get the composition perfect before I press the shutter."
Knowing how to compose an artful image can also be helpful when deciding to put a home on the market—or when pitching one to a publication. Pressey, Bartlam, and Neustadt describe what homeowners and renters should know ahead of hiring a photographer, how to style rooms for ideal shots, and what to toss in a closet before the big day. And just in case amateurs want to take up the job themselves, these pros also provide advice on how to DIY a shoot, too. Read on to get their insights on the ways to make any home ready for its close up.
How does photographing interiors differ from photographing other subjects? What are its biggest challenges?
Tessa Neustadt: Houses don’t move! I like being able to take my time when I compose my shots and delve into the details. Shooting small rooms is very challenging, especially bathrooms. I’ve found myself crouching in peoples bathtubs, on countertops, and in closets countless times trying to get the shot right. Another challenge is trying to avoid intense direct sunlight coming in through windows. When I’m not shooting on a ground level I don't have the option of blocking light from the outside, so I have to get creative—this is especially problematic with skylights.
Amy Bartlam: Shooting interiors is very different compared to any other area of photography; I find it requires a much slower approach than photographing weddings, for example, where you have to shoot quite quickly to capture candid moments.
How should homes be arranged before a shoot?
Lauren Pressey: Homes should be clean! Papers should be hidden, and dishes should be put away. The photographer’s job is to create a scene (sometimes with a stylist, too), so organizing and cleaning takes time away from the shoot itself. You don’t want people sorting through your mess, anyway.
Tessa Neustadt: My advice is to pretend you’re having an open house. When I first started, I can’t tell you how many times I went to shoots and had to sweep, clean windows, and clear dirty dishes from sinks.
Amy Bartlam: I would recommend cleaning any glass or metal surfaces, like mirrors and coffee tables, and wiping down any darker surfaces and floors since they seem to show dirt the most—especially if you have a light-colored dog around!
What else should homeowners do to prepare?
Tessa Neustadt: When I’m shooting for a homeowner, I always recommend getting fresh flowers to add some life to the photos. And I always use one type of flower as opposed to creating a mixed bouquet, because I think it can be really chic. Tulips or large branches are my go-to picks.
Amy Bartlam: You don’t have to spend a fortune at a florist, either. Trader Joe’s often has lots of affordable choices.
Lauren Pressey: It’s a good idea to know where some personal decorative items are, too. Sometimes all an image needs to feel complete is one more styling item, like a book or a dish. The more pieces the photographer or stylist has to work with, the better.
Which rooms should always be a part of a shoot? Which ones shouldn't?
Lauren Pressey: Kitchens are always on the top of the list. Everyone loves a beautiful and functional kitchen because it’s often where everyone gathers together. Main living spaces and bathrooms are also hugely important, as well as an outdoor space, depending on the location. Unique kids’ bedrooms are also a great way to add character to the story.
On the other hand, multiple bathrooms that might have a similar look are not always necessary to photograph, as well as guest bedrooms. But it always depends what you’re shooting for.
Amy Bartlam: For instance, if you’re planning to submit these photos to press of any kind, then editors will want to see as much of the house as possible, too.
What are some questions clients should ask a photographer before hiring them?
Amy Bartlam: I would suggest asking a photographer how much time they are likely to need for the shoot, given how many rooms there are or how many shots you want. Make sure you ask what’s included in your photographer’s rate, how many images you’ll receive, and what the details of your usage rights are.
Lauren Pressey: I also think it’s a good idea to ask questions around style as well. A question like, "Which areas of the home do you think best showcase my design and what I’m trying to achieve?" is a good way to figure out which spaces to shoot and which ones to ignore.
Tessa Neustadt: I’ll be asking questions, too, like, "Is there anything specific you want me to focus on?" or, "Do you want the exterior shot as well?" to get an idea of the day. I also like to ask how a client plans on using the photos.
If a homeowner wants to shoot their home themselves, what are some tips to keep in mind?
Lauren Pressey: Don’t be afraid to show that the house is lived in. By that I mean, show the dog cozying up on the couch (everyone loves a cute pup), show the kids having fun in their rooms, and put a pair of shoes in the mudroom to really show how the space is used on a daily basis.
Amy Bartlam: Be considerate of scale. It’s quite common for objects to look smaller on camera than they are in real life, so try and avoid styling with very small items and think big with flowers and greens. Also, arrange accessories in groups of three when styling shelves, coffee tables, and nightstands. Make sure these items are a variety of heights, because it will create visual interest.
Tessa Neustadt: Buy a handheld steamer—you can get a great one for about $45—and steam any wrinkles out of curtains, pillows, and bedding. It instantly elevates photos! Secondly, refine your color palette while styling to create a more pulled-together look. If there are too many competing colors in an image, it can feel busy. For instance, when I’m shooting, I look at the photo I’m working on and try to feel how my eyes naturally move over it. If you’re shooting a light-colored room and there’s a big dark pillow in the corner, your eye will be instantly drawn to that dark corner and get stuck. You want the eye to move around the photo with ease.
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