6 tips to take great photos of your rooms and interior designs

retro living rooms


Have you ever tried to take photos of your living room to show to someone, perhaps even everyone who reads Retro Renovation? You get all psyched up to share your swanky space, take a bunch of quick photos and then think, “These just don’t do the room justice!” Luckily, I have some artsy know how (a BFA in Studio Art/Graphic Design) and I’ve got six easy tips to help you take the best possible photos of your room. All of our featured rooms come from photos submitted by readers when they uploaded 309 photos of their living rooms! Hey: April, Bud, Wayne, Bobbie, Katrina, Michele and MadModern, your awesome room photos are on Retro Renovation today!

1. Clean up the space!

You wouldn’t want someone to take your picture if you had a large clump of lettuce in your teeth, would you? Then why would you do that to your lovely living room? Get rid of that bit-o-lettuce (dirty dishes, piles of paper, clumps of dog fur, etc.) before you even break out the camera. It never hurts to fluff the couch pillows or do some light dusting either, hey we all need to tidy up anyway and this is the perfect excuse. Then you’ll be all set to have your neighbor over for cocktails afterwards.

Below, here’s a nice clean space! Nothing is out of place and even the cat is behaving!:

Retro Living room with curvy green couch

2. Think about composition

I know, I know, not everyone has been to art school, but that is ok! We aren’t painting the Mona Lisa, we are just taking some shots of the room. Still, if you give the composition of your shot a little thought, it can make it infinitely more interesting. As you look through your viewfinder, think about how the borders of the shot look. Would it be more intriguing if only half of the lamp was shown, or should the whole thing be in the picture?

Below is a little exercise I did with my bed and end table. The top photo is nice, but it could be nicer…

adjusting the composition of a photo

And sure enough, in the photo above, moving my viewfinder a little bit to the left crops out my other lamp (which is just barely showing) as well as the stuff on the bedside table. This allows me to show the whole bedside table on the left, and part of the corner window, which gives you more of an idea about what the room looks like. The different angle also shows more of the headboard and you can tell the wall art is a screen print of trees.

When you are thinking about composition, it is important to try several different views of the same shot. You may be surprised which angle you like best once the photos are on your computer. Have an cool ceiling? Try crouching down low to get as much of the room and ceiling together as you can. Maybe the room is more interesting from the hallway or adjoining room, or even from outside looking through the window or door? Take vertical shots and horizontals.  The more variety of shots you have to choose from, the higher the likleyhood that you’ll have that winning shot in the end — and hey, digital is cheap. Snap away and when you get your photos on the computer, study what worked and why. 

Below — This is a great angle to capture the key elements of the room-the details on the ceiling, the use of pattern versus white space, and the great view from behind the plant on the left. Don’t you feel like you are peering out of the jungle to discover a clearing that just so happens to be an awesome living room with a slight tiki vibe!:

Retro Tiki inspired living room

3. Tell a story

Sometimes the best part of the photo is the story you make up about the people who live in the room. This can be achieved by showing one of the inhabitants of the space, or by hinting at their existence. An open door, a shot that looks past the room to outside or perhaps a half finished martini on an end table can all give clues to the story of the photo. Like the best stories, the only limits are your imagination!

Below, I would call this photo “Waiting for company.” Doesn’t it feel like everything has been tidied, the mood lights are on, and you are waiting for your guest to walk through that door at any minute?:

Colorful Retro entry and living room

Below, in this shot, you can actually see who lives in the house. Now if we only knew what bit of gossip made her gasp!:

1960s living room

4. Light is important!

Light can be the make or break element in your photo. Too much light and everything looks washed out, too little and you can’t even make out the outline of that cool chair in the corner. The best light to use is indirect natural light: That means, try to pick a time of day when your room is bathed in light, such as the early morning or early evening — when the sun is not beating directly through the windows, but instead casts a warm glow into your room. If needed, overhead lighting or table lamps can be used to increase the light level in a room. The one thing you don’t want to use is your flash. Flashes can wash out the color of your couch/walls/rug and make the room look much different than it does in real life. Flashes can also reflect off surfaces, which detracts from your overall image.

Below, the lighting in this photo is spot on. Not too harsh but not too dark. You can see every pane of the window and the room looks calm and inviting:

neutral retro couch

5. Use a tripod

When using your camera or camera phone in low light level situations, it is a good idea to use a tripod. The less light available in your room, the lower the shutter speed of your camera will be. This is because it takes your camera longer to pick up all the details of in the room when there is less light bouncing off of them. When the shutter is open for a longer period of time, there is a longer window of opportunity for you to accidentally move the camera, causing that blurry look in your final photo. No tripod? No worries! Stack up some books and set your camera on top, or hold your camera and lean on a wall or piece of furniture for stability. You’ll get a better, clearer picture!

6. Overviews and Vignettes

If you are trying to capture the feel of your space, an overview shot of the room is always best, especially if you can get above eye level to shoot. If you have a shot or two to spare, adding a vignette to your set of photos can be the icing on the cake. Is there an interesting or inviting corner of the room? Perhaps a collection on the wall or on a shelf that is begging for its close up? Now is the time to make it shine. Paying very close attention to composition here is important, even if it means tweaking the angle of the candy dish on your end table, because it can make or break your vignette.

Below, this shot, taken from above eye level, does a great job of showing us the whole room in one picture:

Retro living room with blue couch

Below, this is an interesting vignette not only because of the cool planter and pole light, but also because of the angle of the photo and the use of light from the lamp to create movement:

Retro pole lamp and planter

Keeping these tips in mind the next time Pam says “I want to see pictures of your…” can make you feel much more confident that everyone will see your room the way you do — in its best light.

  1. Elaine says:

    These lessons are great. My pix are just duds usually, you can see what it is but there is no pizzaz. The way your bedroom shot changed was a real eye opener.

    I am struggling with a long inner room that has light starvation and nice dark ceiling beams, wall trim and floor.

    I look forward to insights on low light and awkward spaces.

  2. This is spot on, Kate. If all the readers who submit photos to RR used your suggestions, we’d be a photography force to be reckoned with! I gleaned a number of tips from your article, but I had to laugh at your first suggestion; I learned that one myself, after taking room shots and then seeing all my clutter actually magnified in them. Arrrgggh!

  3. Tasha says:

    Great tips, Kate!

    The one thing I have REALLY struggled with since we bought our house is lighting for photos, hence I’ve taken nearly none inside because…

    “The best light to use is indirect natural light: That means, try to pick a time of day when your room is bathed in light, such as the early morning or early evening”

    Most of my rooms don’t get enough indirect natural light at -any- time of the day for acceptable photos. Living room, early morning…that’s about it. Surely I’m not the only ranch owner out there with this issue? :/ I’d love to find a tutorial for better inside photos that isn’t geared towards inside portraits of people… I want to take a portrait of my room instead. lol

  4. Wendy M. says:

    Great tips (and pictures)! I’m quite guilty of not taking the extra second to disable the flash on my camera- thank you for reminding me why I should take the time to turn it off.

  5. Mary Tatum says:

    Thanks so much for this how-to! As a realtor (even with art degree!) I struggle with interior shots. Time of day is so important for lighting a space as well.

  6. Jeanne says:

    Great pointers, Kate. Thanks! I wish I could re-do my knotty pine bedroom shots. If you only knew how much I cleaned out of my bedroom before I took my shots (4 bags of clothes for Purple Heart), but I still needed to do more tweaks before I took the photos. Oh well. 🙂

    I still need to do my basement knotty pine shots. Lot’s of cleaning to do, but it gives me a good reason to clean!

    Those living room examples featured are all fantastic shots!

  7. Joe says:

    I’m looking at that picture and go, “I know that girl”….. Bobbie and I go auctioning together. Too funny.

  8. Beth says:

    Thanks, Kate. I certainly learned a few things. I find that I’ll try to straighten up, but the camera is so unforgiving! Specifically with wrinkles on pillows, etc.

  9. Annie B. says:

    Thank you, Kate. Your sharing all this insightful information just goes to show what an asset you are to the RR family. So glad you’re on board.

    Now that I’ve had a chance to ponder all your photo tips, I think I can make even my retro-ish ragbag of a house look good.

    Thanks to you and Pam for another great post.

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