From Drab to Dramatic: How to Make Any Space Photo Worthy - Part I

I’m a firm believer that every space has a story to tell. Not every space (or story) is going to be glamorous or elegant; some places may be dated, downright trashy, or even worse, super boring with no personality (think of all those beige rooms in early 90s mcmansions...). But I think there is a concept for every space if you can stretch your imagination. 

Let me tell you a little story. When I was 23, my then boyfriend (now husband) and I bought our first house. It was a stone farmhouse right outside Philadelphia, and the original structure dated from the 1770s—needless to say, the place had character,  with its deep window sills, wide plank hardwood floors, and stone walls. When we bought it, however, it was HIDEOUS. Every surface in the kitchen was pink, including the ceiling, which we discovered (to our horror) only after we painted the rest of the kitchen white. We had blue shag rugs, pink sparkles in the popcorn ceilings, really delightful wallpaper, and some of the most, um, interesting construction techniques I’ve seen.  

We spent about 5 years renovating this house, painstakingly removing the dated 80s décor and refurbishing it back to its original character. I spent hours agonizing over paint colors (while actually learning a ton about color theory and discovering my own palette preferences in the process). I became the world champion of craigslist antique shopping, trying to find all the right décor and furniture. I even spent two days laying individual tiny marble tiles in a mosaic pattern on my bathroom. Every detail was painstakingly thought out and designed.

And I Never. Shot. Any of it.

You see, about a year after we bought our house, was when I started to become interested in photography.  I’d started in landscape but quickly shifted gears and got really interested in beauty and fashion work. And like many new photographers, I became mesmerized by the works of Annie with her Oliphants, and was convinced that the purest form of fashion was to shoot beautiful clothes against a painted backdrop. Soon I had painted my first (of many) backdrops, which I hung up in my converted parlor studio. And there it remained until the day we sold our house. 

Now obviously, given my current body of work, it should be evident that I have some serious self-loathing issues for never capitalizing on a space that I had poured my heart and soul into. Hell, in retrospect it would have been an amazing backdrop (albeit in a completely different way) before renovations began. But photography is a process of learning, experimenting and growing, and at the time I wasn’t ready to create the type of environmental work I’m interested in creating now. Perhaps if we stayed a little bit longer…but I digress.

In any case, I’ve been thoroughly cured of my location photography phobia, and subsequently learned the value of making the most out of a space—even if that space isn’t all that exciting.


How can we make a boring space interesting?

There are three things that you can do to help make any space work in a photo. These three things are:

1) Concept—your idea and your location must be complimentary; in other words, you can’t shoot a medieval princess in a 1970s ranch (unless you’re deliberately trying to be ironic...come to think of it, I might be onto something there...).  I will often select my location first and let that influence my concept, instead of the other way around. 

For this image, I wanted to play with depth by utilizing the available elements in the scene. The characters are separate and looking away from each other, but because of the mirrors they appear to be looking at each other. 

For this image, I wanted to play with depth by utilizing the available elements in the scene. The characters are separate and looking away from each other, but because of the mirrors they appear to be looking at each other. 

2) Lighting—have you ever spent a lot of time in a room and noticed how drastically different it can look in the morning vs. the evening? Maybe you’ve gotten to set early and are totally digging the direct natural sunlight, only to find that it has totally changed by the time your model’s done with hair and makeup--or if you're lucky, it's the other way around and just when you're ready to shoot the skies open up above for that most glorious heavenly light. We can use existing light in a space strategically--or we can manipulate the lighting creatively, by using different modifiers, gels, etc. to really transform a space—especially if it’s light that the space wouldn’t normally see.

3) Color. Without going too far down the rabbit hole of color psychology, different colors have the ability to elicit different emotional responses, so we can employ specific colors either in camera with wardrobe, set styling, or gelled lighting, or in post-production, to facilitate our concept and enhance a space.  

Okay, so I know I said three things, but this one’s optional so we’ll call it 3.5—and that is set styling. This may not always be necessary or feasible, but once you’ve got your concept established, you may be able to bring in some props or rearrange furnishings to work to your advantage and enhance the scene. It’s the proverbial icing on the cake.

One you get all of these things in order, you can suspend disbelief and transform that space from something really banal, to something really special.  

So having learned my lesson about not taking advantage of the space I have available to me, I’ve been shooting a TON in my current house since moving out here (to Oregon).   It’s not nearly as glamorous as my former house, but it’s got walls and windows and a semi cool fireplace, and despite downsizing my antiques by 2/3, I’ve still got a couple of cool pieces scattered throughout the house. It’s also dry (Portland winters are very wet, which limits outside shooting), convenient, and my dogs will photobomb all my shoots. (I know this last bit sounds like a con but when my dog outtakes coffee table book comes out you'll all thank me). 

Oh, and it’s free.

Let’s be real, as working photographers, we often have champagne dreams and beer budgets. I look at the work of some of my favorites (see below for examples), and recognize that part of what make their work so great are the unique sets and locations they are able to use. I’d love to have access to amazing locations, but rarely is that feasible for personal work. To some people, this can be crippling, and I get it—there are plenty of things on my ever growing list of shoot concepts I literally can’t shoot because I need a specific location (or prop, or model type, etc.) But rather than seeing these as obstacles, I like to see them as challenges. If I can tell an interesting story in a mediocre space and can manipulate the aesthetic to fit to my narrative (or vice versa), then when I do get to shoot in a killer location, it’s a walk in the park.

Anyway, back to my house.

Let’s take a look at Exhibit A: my living room. Nothing fancy here really, I’ve got a boring beige sofa, white walls, and Ikea curtains (it’s a rental, what do you want from me?). There are a couple semi interesting features, like this mid-century sideboard, antique cedar chest and a Persian rug covering some awful cork tile flooring.   I’ve also got this fireplace feature that I’ve painted 3 times and I’m still not sure if I like it or not.  

Exhibit A: Living room before...

Exhibit A: Living room before...

In any case, I’m not going to win any interior design awards. But at around 3 pm every afternoon, I get this really interesting sliver of light that hits the fireplace and makes some cool patterns. With the right models, a splash of added artificial light, and a little color work, we get this: 

Exhibit A: Living room after.

Exhibit A: Living room after.

Exhibit B: this is my dining room. I’ve got a cool old Jacobean table and china cabinet that date from the 30s and a mismatched set of chairs, and they’re frankensteined into this bland white 1970s space with no moulding around the doors or picture window.  But shine a hard gelled light through said window, and from outside the garage door, dress up a model, set the table and throw spaghetti on her, and voila!—instant dinner party that has you wondering what the hell happened. 

Exhibit B: Dining room before...

Exhibit B: Dining room before...

Exhibit B: Dining room after.

Exhibit B: Dining room after.

We can also transform exteriors in the same way. Here is the back of my house during the day, boring and brown with moss on the patio (I promise I power washed that a week ago but it’s winter in Oregon…), but wait until dawn, turn on all the warm interior lights and plug in some party lights outside, and voila, a whole new interesting space (and incidentally that moss now plays in nicely to a green/orange/purple triadic color scheme). 

Exhibit C: Back porch before...(how much is that doggy in the window?)

Exhibit C: Back porch before...(how much is that doggy in the window?)

Exhibit C: Back porch after.

Exhibit C: Back porch after.

Now as you can imagine, after 2 years of shooting in this place, I’ve had to start getting a bit more creative with my scenes, so as not to look too similar to scenes I’ve already shot.  The first and easiest thing to do is to change up the concept—a new character and a different story will obviously change the mood of the image, and though the location aesthetic may not change, we now perceive it differently in context. 

We can also change up the lighting. The above scenes are shot in the same location (albeit a different angle) than the spaghetti dinner party, but instead of that cool hard light source meant to mimic moonlight, I used a softer more diffused light. I also changed up the color by using warm CTO gels to mimic afternoon light instead of the cool CTBs for the spaghetti scene.

So now that you’ve seen a couple examples, stay tuned for Part II. where I’ll going to walk you through a shoot I did recently so you can get a better sense of my process and how this all comes together in my head and in practice!