Has this ever happened to you? You’re flipping through your favorite shelter magazine, excited to see what’s new. An image seems to leap off the page at you. You think, “Wow, I love that!” You stop to look little longer, taking it in…
It’s beautiful, you smile a bit. Then you look harder, dissecting the room in your mind, and that happy feeling starts to fade. That perfectly accessorized room, with everything in its place – a pristine space. What is that a penthouse? It must cost a fortune. You remember that your house is a mess and you have a half-dozen projects to finish before you can even get some throw pillows. You shut the magazine, feeling dejected.
I have to fight against inspiration overload. As a designer, I constantly come across things that spark ideas for a new projects. But later when I get a chance to tackle these ideas, I can never finish as much as I’d like.
I catch myself getting frustrated that my own space isn’t up to the expectations I’ve built based on my “inspiration.” And I know I’m not the only one who falls into this trap.
The fashion industry’s distance from reality with their photoshopped magazine spreads and unhealthy models is something many of us have come to expect. The same goes for whatever kind of trickery they use in food photography. No one expects their food to come to the table actually looking like it did in that photo on the menu. So why do we still compare their homes to what we see represented in professional photography?
Why do we hold ourselves to unrealistic standards and feel inadequate for not keeping a beautiful and perfectly maintained home? Surely there are many factors that come together giving each of us a unique combination and (un)balance of expectations for our home. Though I’m no expert in sociology, I do know about a few tricks used to make rooms look so great in those inspirational images.
Why should we care how an image is created? Because it can keep our perspective in check; by remembering that the images are carefully composed, expressive works, they are not direct captures of reality. Interior magazine and catalog photography expresses an agenda. Those images are meant to make you feel something or want something, and they do it very well.
OK, so let’s look at what goes on in your typical interior photoshoot. Generally in interior photography there are two main factors that affect the photo: lighting and staging. (Here’s a an account of a stunning interior shoot if you’re interested in more depth.)
During a photoshoot it’s common practice to tweak furnishings and accessories so they read better on camera. Furniture may be placed at angles that would never work in real life but are best for the camera’s fixed perspective. So, the chance that what you’re seeing in the photo is exactly how the homeowners live in that space, day-to-day, is slim.
You can read about a photoshoot from the homeowner’s perspective, and all the preparation that goes into it, here.
It always makes me smile when they add items to a scene to make it seem more natural; like a pair of shoes on the floor or a half-eaten sandwich on the the kitchen counter. I can just imagine the family when they get their copy and saying, “Oh no, I forgot to put my sandwich away before the photoshoot!” Yeah right.
I have respect for the team of people that can create these images, it definitely takes talent. But the next time you see a photo of an immaculate workspace with a nibbled cookie on a plate, you can smile thinking about how long the stylist spent arranging it – instead of getting flustered that your cookie crumbs never fall symmetrically.
Obviously lighting is key to any photo. Traditionally, adjusting interior lighting meant adding auxiliary lighting; like boom lights or filler flashes. But now there are new possibilities, like HDR (high dynamic range) photography other digital manipulations that can represent a space differently.
If you’re unfamiliar with it, HDR photography is a technique that combines a series of exposures into one image. The individual exposures are digitally merged; allowing the best lit parts of each exposure to come together into one composite image.
It’s typically done with editing software after the images are uploaded. But it’s becoming more common and is now included in-camera with some of the newest Nikon and iPhone models.
This image shows how separate exposures can come together into one final HDR composite shot.
Notice the extreme detail and saturated colors in the final image (at right), it combines the different levels of lighting that are captured in the separate exposures at left.
Here are some examples of HDR photography for interiors. Check out the even lighting, enhanced coloring and incredible detail.
They’re impressive, aren’t they? However there are arguments that say because this method combines multiple shots taken at different moments in time, that these photos do not accurately portray reality.
The Washington Post recently used an HDR shot on their front page and there were questions of the method not complying with the ethics codes of photojournalism. HDR has also been used in real estate photography, a field in which the accurate representation of a space is certainly an ethical consideration.
So does this type of image have a place in interior magazines? It can be argued that manipulations of light are part of the art of photography. Perhaps HDR is similar to airbrushing and dodging and burning techniques that have been in use for years. Also considering the in-camera HDR applications that seem to be on the rise, it may just be the next step in digital photography.
Personally I don’t have a problem with this kind of thing in interior magazine spreads. I see the magazine’s purpose as representing an ideal, instead of accurately depicting spaces. Their imagery is meant to keep you reading, to convince you to buy something or to build your confidence in a brand.
The extra expression that these techniques allow may form part of why people get so excited about beautiful images in the first place, what they see inspires real emotion. Maybe a little extra light coming in from a window or the sparkle of a chandelier is what makes a connection with their reader.
Again just my opinion, but I see catalog photography as a totally different story. Any publication that presents products directly to customers for purchase should have images that realistically represent the products. But that brings me to another topic…
What if it’s not even a photo that you’re looking at
What am I talking about? Computer renderings. Yeah, really. 12% of the IKEA 2013 catalog is made up of computer rendered images. They’re mixed in with the pages of the traditionally photographed sets.
Nowadays there’s a possibility that the image you see in a catalog may not even be the product at all. So, if you see the perfect kitchen in IKEA’s catalog, don’t think, “I can never get my countertops to shine like that.” Don’t worry, neither did they.
My inner nerd thinks it’s cool that technology has reached “that point” where renderings can pass for photographs. I took a 3D rendering class in college and remember how much work it took to get the materials to look realistic. So the fact that IKEA has found renderings to be more economical than actually photographing their spaces confirms the incredible amount of prep-work needed to get the traditionally “catalog perfect” shot.
Now I can’t finish talking about unrealistic imagery without a mention of Pinterest – “Pin-vy,” “Pinterest Overwhelm,” “Inspiration Overload” or whatever you want to call the feelings that rises up after a while on that site.
Most of the images on Pinterest are there because someone felt a spark of emotional connection and deemed it inspirational. It’s a great resource if you can enjoy it for what it is. Either with a sense of escape through fantasy-style inspiration or by skimming off a few achievable ideas. Just without using it to measure your own life – that’s where the problems come in.
Pinterest initially boomed in popularity last year, and not surprisingly, a few months later articles surfaced about these feelings of inadecuacy and overwhelm that come from inspiration overload. These articles show that it’s not such a rare occurrence to be frustrated after seeing so many images of picture-perfect interiors and home life.
So how do you navigate websites and magazines that are saturated with these charged images? How do you enjoy the experience and take in the beauty, but keep your head on straight and remember what you’re actually look at?
Keep the points I’ve made above filed away in your mind. Remember them the next time you find yourself comparing your home to unrealistic standards. Use them to smack yourself back into reality and remember what you’re really looking at: an artfully crafted expression of reality. No one, not even the people in magazine shoots, live like the people in the magazine shoots.