Looks Good on Paper, Not So Much in Real Life

I’m a very visually oriented person who loves to collect books and magazines for knowledge, inspiration and perhaps simply just to collect. With the discount rates for most magazines being particularly attractive, I unfortunately tend to amass way too many to ever thoroughly read. But when some down time presents itself, I find a comfortable spot and quickly scan through the pages, stopping every now and then to read an article of interest or an advertisement that catches my eye.

But as I advance through the pages I get to a point where I must roll my eyes a bit. It’s usually a consequence of highly stylized and unrealistic photos showing curated interiors void of dust, old socks and dying plants. In other words, they never really represent how real people live. Now I know that in order to sell something you have to sell an ideal. There’s a reason the fashion industry uses models, as not many aspire to mediocrity. We all want something or want to be something more. Unfortunately the imagery that we see in magazines is neither realistic nor easily plausible.

I’ve styled and photographed almost all of my own designs as well as other designers’ work. I’ve even had one of my designs professionally styled and photographed for a published magazine spread, so I’m no stranger to creating tempting illusions. Perhaps I can share a few insights as to how we make these photographs come to be so flawless and alluring.

First of all, there is staging. Staging is quite important as this is where we do remove the dirty socks, dying plants and run a duster around the room. Then we add a flower or two, some stacks of books and perhaps some interesting yet impersonal artwork. We might even rent some expensive furniture and accessories if the place is lacking. And if we’re lucky, we can get the family dog to sit in the corner and look interested.

Secondly, there is lighting to consider. Most naturally lit rooms can’t be captured in their full glory by a camera. Windows and anything nearby are washed out by intense sunlight while the far corners of the room remain dark and foreboding. The camera’s dynamic range is just not as sophisticated as our own eyes. So we compensate by hiding lights around the room, sticking slave flashes here and there and bouncing their light off the ceiling. Using high dynamic range techniques (using one under- and one over-exposed picture, both merged) provides some added relief but moves even further away from realism.

And then there’s the camera position. Many times, we scour a room with our fingers formed in a frame trying to find an angle that shows the room and its adornments in the best perspective. Of course, it doesn’t matter if anyone will ever see if from that angle, it just has to capture the best appearance. Much in the way each face has an optimal angle, a room does too. Once this angle is found, furniture and art are subtly moved here and there to find just the right composition.

It isn’t unusual to take up to a hundred pictures per room. With all the preparation, most photographers want to take every variation they can while the stage is set. This then leads to the use of Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. Organizing, weeding and finally ‘developing’ the images are what you call post-processing. Photoshop is a necessity. With it we can remove or add almost any detail that was missed during staging. We can change colors, shapes, and lighting as well as manipulate practically any aspect of an image. Of course you still need to start with a relatively decent photograph, but digital manipulation is indispensable to the creation of perfection.

Next time you open your copy of Architectural Digest and wonder how owners live in such a well-organized and pristine space, know that it only exists for a moment. What I would really love to see is not only the beauty shot, but a follow up shot a few days later to see how the owners really exist. For a little more analysis and fun I’ve shown two examples below, one professional and one amateur.

In the professional photo below, there is a good balance of form with proper focal point and elements which lead your eye. There are also strategically placed elements (flowers, throw, water, tables and potted tree) which are visually pleasing and fill the space with color, interest and make the scene look habitable. The exposure is natural (no artificial light) and is such that you can still see detail in the windows as well as in the shadow areas.

The photo below was taken by an amatuer without apparent retouching. This scene could benefit greatly from perspective correction, use of a polarizing filter to remove glass reflections from the framed pictures and a few fresh flowers for a splash of color. The dog, although cute, is too far from the camera and gets lost in the couch and pillows. There is also a blue color cast on the chair and floor from the window and a yellow/red cast on the walls from interior lights. Better color correction would have made the lighting appear more natural.

So, if you’re ever inclined to showcase your home or just want a sharper eye when reading your own design magazines, keep in mind some of the points above.

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3 Responses to Looks Good on Paper, Not So Much in Real Life

  1. Doug Diboll says:

    How much does Feng Shui influence your opinion of good room design, David?

    • David says:

      Thanks for the question Doug – on a day to day basis, not particularly. Although, there are some good design principles in Feng Shui that overlap with typical western practices. And if I was requested by a client to be more specific and exacting about using it , I would probably hire a professional.

      But, I have been asked before by clients to consider general principles when doing spatial planning and interior design. Those requests were to basically make my designs more acceptable or universal for resale of a property. The clients specifically wanted to make sure that there was nothing glaringly wrong that would hinder the sale to people or families who practiced Feng Shui.

      Personally, I feel what defines good room design is how functional, comfortable and enjoyable it is. The right mix of furniture, lighting, texture, color and accessories all working together can accomplish this. I also beleive that you can achieve this mix with almost any style and perhaps with a variety of philosophies from minimalism to Feng Shui. Every client has a new and specific set of goals – my job is to help them achieve it any way possible.

      Cheers!

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