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the art of styling

When I first started my business, I would paint a piece, pull out my camera and snap a picture of it…just right where it was.  Usually the lighting was poor, so I used a flash.  I would send the picture to my web designer and ask her to put it on my site.  I didn’t realize what a poor representation of my work it was.  I just didn’t think of the fact that I should take the time to stage the photo and light it properly.  I really had no excuse, either.  I had taken a photography class and knew how to take decent pictures, but I didn’t think I could achieve “magazine quality”, so I didn’t even try. 
Then, I stumbled upon the wonderful work of Shelter Blogs.  There were girls just like me, taking really great pictures of their home and their work.  I was immediately drawn to blogs with great photography and realized when I started my own that I would need to step things up.

It’s taken two years and thousands of photos to get where I am today and I know a year from now (probably even six months from now), I’ll improve even further.  I am not a professional photographer and I still have a lot to learn and a lot of room to grow, but I do all of my own photography and styling for Cottages and Bungalows and HGTV.com, so I wanted to share what I’ve learned.
Lighting is everything.
The way you, your camera, your room and your processing relates to the light is everything when it comes to photography.  This is a recent picture of my dining room…

…and here is one taken two years ago. 
Both are taken with digital SLRs, without a flash.  But in the recent photo, I am shooting in manual mode, with a tripod and then processed the picture in PSE.  I also learned that a runner and a lonely urn on a table top doesn’t make a pretty picture. 
I wish I had taken the first picture with a flash on, just to show the difference.  You can have a beautiful room, piece, arrangement, etc., but if the lighting is bad, the picture will not accurately show what you see in person.

Things look different in pictures than they do in person.
This can sometimes be an advantage or a disadvantage.  It’s an advantage when you can hide things.  For example, I hate my kitchen floor.  Hate might be too strong of a word when describing flooring, but let’s just say that I can’t wait to replace it.  If you’re in my kitchen, you can clearly see my floors.  In a photo, though, I can take pictures from an angle that will hide those hideous floors. 

Another thing that looks different are my counters.  They are green laminate, which I am also itching to replace, but when I show photos of my kitchen, people comment on how wonderful they look and want to know what they are.  The lighting and processing make them look much better in photos than they do in person. 
Now, the disadvantage.  You can see every imperfection in photos that you might not notice in person.  Dust on the floors, crooked pictures on the wall, wrinkles in fabric (my mom bought me a new iron because of that), wires cascading from an outlet, and your kid’s bright green backpack on the floor in the next room. 
Notice the big fat footprint under the chair?  Nice.  I’ve gotten through an entire photo shoot before only to realize a plastic storm trooper was under the table and visible in all of my pictures.  Detail is very important in photos, so make sure to upload your pictures onto your computer and look at them carefully before you “call it a wrap.” 
Tell a story.
I have seen (and created) vignettes that don’t make any sense.  It looks like I ran around my house, grabbed a few accessories and set them around.  Someone just came home from the beach and now they’re going eat raw celery, play cricket and then write a letter all on their coffee table?  That’s a bit of an extreme example, but I’ve seen some crazy staging. 
How about…someone is about to curl up in a chair, snuggle up in a blanket and read a book while enjoying a cup of tea (which is actually Diet Dr. Pepper.)  Now, most people aren’t going to have the blanket perfectly draped over the arm of the chair and they’re not going to read an antique book from 1902 and they’re not going to be drinking tea (Diet Dr. Pepper) out of their great-grandmother’s fragile monogrammed china, but that looks better than a nappy Redskins blanket, a Tom Clancy paperback and a Starbucks mug.  Who really wants to see a picture of that?    There is a bit of a stretch between the story and the reality, but the staging needs to make sense. 
Don’t use tricks for the sake of using tricks. 
I’m totally guilty of learning a new trick and then beating it to death and using it where it doesn’t belong.  I love bokeh (the blurry background in photos.)   I really like the picture below, but with the lens aperture as wide open as it is, you can only read the first two letters on the banner.  This is a case where I should have adjusted the settings, so all of the letters in the banner were in focus. 

This is an example where the bokeh effect makes sense.  The blurry lights of the Christmas tree in the background enhance the picture instead of taking away from it. 

Angles are another area where photography can go horribly wrong.  The photo below is sort of a silly extreme, but I have seen photos like this in the blog world.  It looks like the photographer was tipsy or the house was dislodged from its foundation, leaving the home at a 30 degree angle.  The angles just don’t make sense and they detract from the beauty of the subject.

This photo is taken from an angle, so you can see the desk top and the texture of the caning on the seat of the chair.  Angles can be a very cool photography tool, but use them wisely. 

Use cool props.
I almost always look for things that are photogenic when I’m shopping.  Maybe that’s strange, but I will buy things for the sole reason that they will look great in photographs.  I bought these fathered napkins rings for that very reason…   
…and I love the way they photograph.  That’s also a reason why I’m drawn to antique fans, scales, cameras and wire baskets.  They just look cool. 

(This is another example of me getting carried away with the bokeh effect.  Close up that aperture a bit, Marian.)

More is *usually* better. 
I say this carefully, knowing it’s easy to get carried away with accessories.  Hence the *usually*.  Sometimes more is just more, but *usually* pictures look better when they are full.  Here’s a photo of a tablescape I did for HGTV.com last year.  It looked great in person, but in the photos, it ended up looking a little sparse.  I was leaving space on the table for the “food” that would be served, knowing it would be totally impractical to have decor on every surface of the table.  What makes for good photos is not necessarily practical, though. 
For my rustic table setting (also for HGTV.com last year), the table is full.  I filled up visual space with a vintage wool car blanket as a table cloth and added lots of height and color with some evergreen branches.  It would be impossible to see someone sitting across from you, but it made for a great photo.  This is a great example how staging for real life and staging for photographs is very different. What looks great in person may need “more” to make a great picture.   

Try, try again. 
This is an art, not a science.  You have to practice and develop your eye.  I know I have come a long way and I cringe at some photos I posted even a year ago.  I know I have a lot to learn about lighting and my camera and lenses and how to get photos super sharp and balanced and exactly what I want them to be.   Photography is important in this business and, whether you like it or not, if you’re a shelter blogger, you’re a stylist and photographer.  So, be the best you can be and your readers (and editors, publishers, producers, etc.) will notice. 







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Comments

  1. That was a great post! Thank you for sharing that. I need a ton of help in this department! I hope to slowly make progress so my pictures can be as amazing as yours.

  2. Great photos and photography tips. Thanks so much.
    I’m a new follower.
    Babs

  3. GREAT post!
    I just started my blog and I am having problems with my photos…
    I will take the time and follow your tips.

    Praying for your surgery to be a success and a quick recovery!

  4. Fabulous tips – I know just what you mean & I only take photos for my blog & my own pleasure …

    I set it all up nicely then look at the photos & there is some clutter I did not notice or dust. Lighting is my downfall too & so I am making a conscious effort to do it better. Thanks for the inspiration & tips

    Dee at the Carlton

  5. I have just started my blog and am feeling impatient in learning the photography part. This was very helpful!

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