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David Duncan Livingston

Photographer of interiors, architecture & lifestyle in San Francisco and California, a thoughtful process and perfect compositions.


ASID Panel: Award Winning Photos

On February 10th, 2015 the Peninsula chapter of American Society of Interior Design held a panel discussion: Award Winning Photos of Your Design Projects. There was a wonderful exchange of ideas and not enough time to cover all the questions in depth. Here are my own answers to the questions being asked to me as a photographer and to the others.


What are key ingredients of good design as seen by consumers and competitions?

What will be a winning formula for design competitions? A big question. Start by knowing what the competition has awarded in the past, then be on trend. Be original. Be consistent, have a point of view in your design. Select projects that meet the competitions criteria. If you know who will be judging the competition look at your project and submittal from their eyes. For most firms, only a few projects will have the perfect mix of fashion, budget, homeowner permission and timeliness to be submitted for publication and competitions. Recognize when a special project comes into your office and shepherd this type of project with care, thinking of the marketing potential it may have.

Good design and style are related, you can have one or the other or both. Good design might be about frugality, efficiency or ingenuity. Good style shows the fashion of our times and is judged by the subjectivity of the society and tribes and jurist within it.

Some links to inspire:


From Apartment Therapy:
“Whenever I see good design, it’s something like “Wow, I totally would have thought of that if they gave me a little bit more time.” And let’s be honest – I would have never thought of it, but I’m just saying. Good design makes me jealous.”

“Beauty. Function. Innovation. Poetry. Wit. Problem-solving. All of these… not necessarily in this order.”

Winning design competitions:

What type of photos are required? Is there a minimum or maximum number of photos allow for the submission? Are “before” photos important or do they become a distraction as the viewer tries to see what has been done versus the beauty of the finished project? Will it matter if the photos are vertical or horizontal? Are the jurist looking for design solutions or great sense of style? Double check your submission to see if your written narrative and the photos you are showing have the same message. Check your spelling.




Components needed for publication in design magazines and online platforms:

Understand the editors’ needs and viewpoint they have. What stories have they been running? How many photos do they use in a feature? How many pages do the stories run? Are homeowners’ names required to be published? When photographing a project with the goal of getting it published, think like the editor and art director, how will you open the story? What photos can be the spreads of a feature? Do you need vertical photos? Or vignettes? Are detail shots important? What will be the narrative? Most often publications run great and timely stories that are told in images and words. Other factors to getting published are luck, contacts, great photography and sometimes payment.

How to submit a project to a magazine and what should a submission look like? Send your submission by email, make your email brief and have fast loading jpeg photos attached to your submission, do not be too wordy. Send your submission to someone you know or who is in charge of the area your project falls within. Name drop. Build a relationship with editors and writers.

How can you make a pitch to publication and how do you handle the process? Editors are busy and understaffed, give them time, be polite and be professional. What are the considerations of posting your photos on sharable media platforms? Some print publications will not run a project if it has been exposed online first.

The current look for most interior photographs shown in national shelter magazines is clean and orderly, bright exposures, saturated pops of color and styling that is not messy or too cluttered.


Tips for interior designers working with photographers:

Each photographer will bring a point of view to the photos they create. For my practice I like to collaborate with my designers in building a photo composition. The better I understand the designer’s intent and how they installed a mix of furnishings, with colors and textures into a space, then the better I can frame those elements into a photo and group of photos.

The goal of a shoot can vary; making an ad, submitting to Houzz, banner photos for a website, a portfolio case study, a magazine feature, to sell real estate. Many times a shoot will need to address the specific publications and platforms with differing photo compositions and levels of production. Some shoots will have multiple firms sharing the photos, ask about this possible multiple use and what complications that may come up when doing so.

A pre-shoot discussion is a great way to understand the needs of the shoot, learning the participants of the shoot and define the deliverables.The clearer everyone is before the shooting the smoother and more efficient the day will go and it will more likely return better photos.

When setting up a photo shoot develop a shot list and be prepared to style the photos on your list. Even the most complete home and project will need a layer of styling to make the photos feel welcoming. Study best in class magazines and see the trends in photo styling, the kind of florals, type of soft goods, and the art direction tendencies for compositions.

Ask about usage, who owns the copyright? How can your firm use the photos? What are the fees? What is included in the fee? Ask about the post-production process and costs. What is the photo agreement and is there a contract?

On the shoot be involved with the process, look at the compositions and see how they are working with the narrative you want to convey. Think about the uses you want the photos to serve, ask yourself what style of photography is best for the intended use or publication?

On my shoots I share my vision, art direction and styling skills to help make the best compositions for the designer. The process is often part exchange and part guidance, for me with so many years experience, I lead by showing options to the client and letting them have the choice as to which composition is right for them. Once a composition is selected, then little adjustments are made to the composition to make it more perfect. Once the photo is taken on site it is brought back to the studio to be processed in the post-production phase working with Photoshop.

Some links to inspire:


Pre-production for, photo styling of and the shooting of interior photography:

Know your shot list and intended use for the photos, style the photos that fit the use of the photos. Some magazines like a very full and layered look, others like a lean and clean look, and others a loose and romantic look, what is right for your project?

When you need to borrow items for a shoot look first to the vendors you support, then look for vendors you would like to be supporting, ask gently as they are doing you a favor. Each photographer has a time of day or quality of light they seek when shooting, in a pre shooting discussion talk about the time of day your will be shooting in a space. Also ask about how much time it can take to make each photo and by extension how much time the shoot will take in the space. Ask for a ballpark estimate of the totals fees. Ask if the shoot is weather dependent and what happens if the need to reschedule comes up. Discuss the shoot with the homeowner and set expectations with them. Get the homeowner’s permission in your initial contract if possible.

Some links to inspire:

Branding for interior design firms:

For most design firms their brand is an evolving process that responds to their market and client base. Prospective clients see the demonstrated work and understand the direction the firm wants to head in by the firm’s positioning.

A great example of this evolving process is Restoration Hardware, a company that has gone from selling gadgets to luxury furnishings in ten years. The quality, price point and sophistication has been expanding and improving for RH each year. For small and mid-size firms it’s best to understand the scope of the practice and define the goals within that scope, try less to be all things but be the best thing.

The best way to be “on brand” is to define your core aesthetic and core audience. Next, develop your “voice” for all your social media platforms and website too. Have a consistency of style and point of view with all your professional interactions found online.

Graphics and photography will play a key role in your brand development, study the look of different firms photos and graphics and seek to understand the feeling each shows. Think how your photos and graphics will tell your story on different media channels and platforms. Define your look and make a plan as how your firm can use and regularly support the various media options available to showcase your service.

Here are some links to kickstart or update your branding identity and strategy:

Other links: