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David Duncan Livingston

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



Coupar Consulting in San Francisco provides many services for interior design firms to run more smoothly, attract new clients, get published and make more money. I sat down with Coupar Consulting recently to answer questions designers and architects have when hiring an architectural photographer.

Photographer Spotlight: Interview with David Duncan Livingston
Monday, November 03, 2014
Hi David Duncan Livingston! Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with us to talk interior and architecture photography. Often our interior design and architect clients have questions about the process of hiring a photographer; and we’d love to get your take on these commonly asked questions.

CC: How do you approach a photography assignment? What do you ask a client before getting started?

DDL: First I listen to the designer as they explain the project and learn the scope of work. An architect may need a dozen photos of a whole home, while an interior designer could request eight photos in two rooms, and a manufacturer require six photos of a single space. Each has different needs. Next I will research the client’s business and examine their website and existing photography. I need to learn where they are to see where they want to go.

CC: What is your personal approach or philosophy when shooting interiors for a designer?

DDL: As I learn about a designer, I look for the patterns in their work and in their process; then see how that is shown in the finished spaces. I see the designer’s “mix” of form, furnishings, feeling, color and textures in their spaces. When working for a designer I want to frame this “mix” in each shot and create a unified set of photos that visually tells the story of this mix. I am not shooting rooms and spaces, I am framing the designer’s story. Photographing the project becomes a form of storytelling with a group of photos taken with an editorial point of view.


CC: Will you scout a project before you shoot?

DDL: Sometimes I scout a project, but more often I will have a conversation from my studio while looking at snapshots of the space. The client and I get very detailed about the feeling of the project, how it can be styled, what publications they want to pitch and how the final photos will be used. The styling and art direction come out of this conversation.

CC: How long does it take to shoot a room? A house? How do you determine the schedule for shoot day?

DDL: I like to average two to three photos per hour.

Since I make sure to hash out a lot of the details before shoot day, my client and I have a great head start. Between my initial consultation and the day of the shoot, I often create a Pinterest board as a look-book and always make a detailed shot list. Then on shoot day all the styling elements can be in place and ready to go.

The first thing we will do is walk through the rooms and size up the shoot. The shooting schedule needs to be flexible to account for many variables. The first scheduling consideration is when the light will be best, then pragmatic considerations of access, deliveries and homeowner needs.

CC: Do you work alone or with a team?

DDL: Yes and yes. I do the photography and lighting myself. But having the expertise of a designer, architect, writer, producer, assistant, art director, and stylist on hand all make a huge difference when producing a big project.

CC: Do you provide styling? How should a designer prepare an interior before you arrive?

DDL: I help with the styling on location and during the pre-production conversations. For some corporate shoots and book projects I have acted as the stylist, art director, and of course, the photographer. Each designer has their own working process – some create look-books as mentioned, others get very detailed creating spreadsheets room by room, shot by shot, with all the styling itemized. Some designers make loose renderings of the photo we will be making. All these efforts are great.

The goal is for me as the photographer to be in sync with the designer, to coach them and collaborate with them and achieve the look they imagined. The pre-production conversation helps set this agenda. Good styling is an art in itself. For most it takes some study, some prep time, and finally lots of imagination.

CC: What’s the best time of day to take photographs? What if the weather is bad or it’s overcast the day of the shoot?

DDL: All things being equal, early morning and midafternoon are great times to be shooting. For some book projects and architects, I start around three in the afternoon and shoot till dusk, then return at seven in the morning to finish the eastern facing spaces.

For most designers I shoot between nine in the morning and six in the afternoon. The best time of day to take photographs has many considerations.  Flexibility is key and homeowner access, deliveries and florals are all factors.

For the best light for interior photography I often like to be in the space when the daylight comes into the room on an angle, that’s midmorning and midafternoon. An exception to this is photos requiring the view outside – those are determined by the exterior light. An overcast day is not necessarily a “bad day,” just look at a decade of the British magazine World of Interiors for inspiration. On rare occasions a shoot is postponed, but often it is too difficult to change all the logistics involved.  However, sometimes a delay is needed to get the story right.

CC: Once the photos are taken, how long does it take to get them back? Do you provide post-production?

DDL: Post-production is a must for state of the art interior photography, and yes, I provide extensive post-production. First let me define post-production. At the highest level of interior photography, the photographer takes the photo on site then adjusts the “raw” photo in Photoshop to make the publish read photograph. I take the photos from a shoot back to my studio, I make a PDF of all the photos and redline very specific instructions for the Photoshop work to be performed. The PDF and “raw” photos are then sent to my dedicated Photoshop artist. The first round of adjustments are made and an approval gallery is created and sent to the client. Tweaks on a second round of adjustments are then made and in most projects the final publish-ready photos are then delivered digitally.  The average process time is about a week.

In addition to selecting a photographer and estimating the total fees and costs; a designer should also ask about the cost of the Photoshop work. For some photographers there is a line item to “process” the “raw” photos and another to address changes to the photo. In my practice, I charge a flat fee per photo for the Photoshop work requested.

In my photos wrinkles, light switches, furnace grates, wires, and cracks are removed, colors are corrected and balanced from shot to shot, art work can be “hung,” distortion minimized, and special crops created. For some photos the interior photograph should be called a photo illustration. All this work takes hours of very dedicated and skilled work. For my practice, the post-production goal is for the photo to feel natural and inviting.

CC: How many final photos can a client expect, and how do you send them?

DDL: The number of photos made and sent varies by project; depending on what my client needs the photographs for and the nuances of each space. In my practice I seek to develop a long relationship with a designer. I want to understand their business and marketing needs and be thoughtful how best to photograph for the firm.

My process is to edit during the shoot; only saving the best photos as we go space by space through a home. From earlier discussions I have an idea of what publication the photos will be used for or what else they need to cover.  I look for the best angles to tell this story. Each shot is considered and built upon; the perfect angle, the right placement of furnishings, just the right styling. If a shot is not working for us we continue to the next. The client is delivered such edited group of photos captured during the shoot.

CC: Once you provide final photography, who owns the photos? Does the client need to purchase rights to use them?

DDL: Who “owns the photos” is a loose term of very specific legal meaning.  Ownership of a photo refers to the copyright holder of a photo. The default ownership is the photographer and creator of the photo. Most professional photographers, myself included, frequently hold the copyright and ownership of their photography. So what do those commissioning the photo actually get? This varies from one photographer to another.

For my clients, I allow unlimited use of the photographs, in any medium, forever; as long as the photo is used by the commissioning party for their primary business. In more legal terms these are the “rights” or “usage” that is being commissioned and there will be no other fees to purchase rights. Third party use of a photo falls outside the use described. This is when someone or another firm that commissioned the photography wants to use the photos to promote a different business. These third party uses are handled on a case by case basis.


CC: When a prospective client says they think professional photography is too expensive, how do you respond?

DDL: For the emerging designer the answer is yes, it can be expensive – in comparative numbers it might be the highest service expense a designer has within a year. For many designers the actual cost may not be as high as imagined. The final cost for most of my shoots for small firms is around $200 per photo.

It can help to ask how many project photos you need? What is the value of a photo that is saved to thousands of Ideabooks on Houzz or re-pinned on Pinterest? What is the value of a photo when used to make an expensive ad? How will you represent an important project five years from now? How will a good photographer make a project show best?

In selecting a photographer you may also ask yourself what is the value added that this photographer brings to a shoot? In my case I shoot interiors from an editorial point of view. I look to make a story with the photos. I understand the mindset and the “mix” the designer has installed and I make engaging photos efficiently and without attitude. I roll up my sleeves and make one great shot after another. My interior photos are regularly featured in books and magazines and my photos are sought out by national and regional editors.

CC: Can you help get a client’s photos into digital or print magazines?

DDL: Yes. First I do this by capturing the story. Magazines print stories, not just projects, and I look for the editorial hook that will be the story. When shooting I build cohesiveness by framing the “mix” shot by shot. I create openers, shoot spreads as horizontals and paired verticals, and seek to fill in with details and interior vignettes.

When shooting I size up the type of publication that might be interested in the story and take clues in my art direction to give the look they publish. Then through relationships with writers, editors, and scouts I introduce projects that might be the right fit for a publication. I regularly get asked to submit recent projects I have shot.

CC: You mention storytelling as part of your process, what do you mean by that?

DDL: Storytelling takes many forms. Shelter magazines may come to a story via a celebrity homeowner, an amazing collection, or by the color palette. I am forever surveying what is being published, the number of photos in a feature and the number of pages to a feature. Online magazines, blogs, Houzz, Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram and websites are other places for stories and each has specific imagery that works best. As a visual storyteller I imagine how stories are shared on multiple platforms.

CC: Any tips on ensuring a fabulous designer – photographer working relationship?

DDL: Have an intellectual dialogue that becomes the visual message for the designer.