How to decorate - and photograph - your home like the Instagram pros

Social media is all about presenting the best possible version of ourselves.

No one opens their Instagram or Facebook feed hoping to catch a glimpse of a sink full of dirty dishes or a stack of junk mail piled on a desk. Instagram in particular is supposed to be a repository of your most beautiful photographs.

Juxtaposed with this fundamental truth is another: life is messy.

Recently, I wanted to photograph a gift from a friend. I placed it on my kitchen counter - but no. You could see chips in the tile. Mismatched spices stacked in the background clashed.

I tried to stage the shot from another angle, only to find the view marred by clutter on the black kitchen table (a color that’s not ideal for lighting, as I’d soon learn) and a box of dog toys on the floor. Worst of all, my sunny yellow walls cast a sickly pallor over the entire scene.

I gave up.

I follow plenty of interior designers on Instagram. In their photos, casual shots of their pets are framed by crisp linens and tasteful furniture without a dog or cat hair in sight. Colorful books and artsy mugs of home-brewed pour-over coffee are surrounded by chic vases and gleaming Mac products. Why can’t I have that?

I decided it was time to consult the experts.

Anne Sage (@citysage) lives in Los Angeles and has more than 48,000 followers on Instagram. Her book, “Sage Living,” is about goal-oriented decorating (tagline: “Decorate for the life you want”) and came out Sept. 15. Victoria Smith (@SFgirlbybay) is new to L.A. by way of San Francisco and is the author of the lifestyle photography book slash travel guide “See San Francisco: Through the Lens of SFGirlbyBay,” which came out in April. She has more than 155,000 Instagram devotees. Both designers agreed to give me a little coaching on how to get that camera-ready look around the house.

1. Clear the clutter

The first and most important thing to know is that every photo you see in an interior decorator's feed is staged. Both Sage and Smith emphasized that point immediately. No one's home is actually made up of clever and well-lit corners that are ready to serve as a backdrop at a moment's notice.

For starters, get your junk out of the frame. "Our eyes crave a focal point," Sage says. "We want to know what it is we're supposed to be looking at in the photo. So frame up your shot, take a look, and then, like Coco Chanel said, remove a few accessories before you finalize what you're doing. Less is more when it comes to photos."

That said, having a few background items artfully arranged in the frame can add visual interest. Glass vases, pretty books, and tasteful statuettes (think that brass elephant you snagged from the Anthropologie sale table) are nice touches.

2. Keep color in mind

One of the first questions I asked was about my walls—what color should I paint them? Both designers hedged a bit, saying I should paint them whatever color makes me happy. But what if what would make me happy would be conducive to a great photo?

"I like white because it gives you a neutral palette," Smith said, finally, speaking from her new and impeccably decorated (and almost entirely white) home in Echo Park. "A really pale pink, almost blush, can be pretty" as well, and she went through a dark charcoal wall phase. For someone who likes to change up their décor a lot – like she does – white’s neutral palette provides an endlessly malleable background.

it's white hot out there and i'm afraid this is all i've got left today.

A photo posted by Victoria Smith (@sfgirlbybay) on

Sage concurred on white and pink, adding that a moody dark blue could work as well. She said she avoids yellows and oranges.

“It has to do with contrast,” she explained. “White just makes whatever you’re photographing stand out better.”

3. Lighting matters

Both designers said lighting is key to a great photo. Time of day makes a big difference. Your steaming mug of coffee might look ethereal on your kitchen counter first thing in the morning, but 'gramming a glass of wine at the end of the day in the same spot probably won't work.

“Track the sun through your house and notice what it does and when,” Sage advised. For her, in the morning, she knows there’s a nice glow from her northeast-facing windows; if she wants a brightly lit photo that isn’t overly harsh, she works in her bedroom around 1 p.m. “It has to do with paying attention, for sure.”

Impossible to visit @teamwoodnote's house without snapping a pic of this chair.

A photo posted by Anne Sage (@citysage) on

Smith said the trick to indoor lighting is “getting a good balance that's not too light and not too dark.” She takes most of her photographs in either early morning or late afternoon, when that balance is easiest to find.

Oh, and if the sun's already gone, put the camera down. Unless you're an expert at lighting photo shoots, your lamps aren't going to cut it. Candlelight is borderline acceptable.

"It's so hard (to take a good photo) at night. I rarely do it," Smith said. "That's why there aren't a lot of night Instagrams and a lot of blurry party photos."

4. Use apps to take a better photo

Think back to when you used film. Now think about how different photographs looked when they were taken with a professional camera versus a disposable one. That's the difference between taking a photo with the basic camera app that comes with an iPhone or Android versus one of the many excellent photography apps available in the App Store. The gold standard is VSCO Cam (which Smith uses). Camera+ is also a solid choice.

settling in for the night. #homebody

A photo posted by Victoria Smith (@sfgirlbybay) on

And once the photo is taken, don't just throw a filter on it and call it a day. Experiment with the slider tools. See what it looks like when you bump the brightness and amp up different colors. Afterlight is an app that’s great for playing with clarity, contrast, saturation and exposure. PicLab and Instaquote let you add text to your images. Most photography apps are free; try a few and see what you enjoy.

5. Have fun

Unless you're trying to make a living as a lifestyle blogger, it probably isn't the end of the world if your pic isn't perfect. It's your house and your life, and not every photo is going to turn out perfect. And that's OK.

"If it's not your job to have a beautiful Instagram, then don't stress about having a beautiful Instagram," Sage said. "Do what makes you happy."

Jessica Roy works on the social media team at the Los Angeles Times. Follow her on Twitter @jessica_roy.

Twitter: @latimeshome


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