As a real estate photographer, I am always asked in an occupied house how a room should look during a shoot. I am not an interior designer and don’t claim to be. I do have opinions, but my opinions are just that, opinions. However, I do have some tips and observations that I can share from a photographer’s perspective to make the photos of an occupied home stand out. These are not design tips, but tips to make the home shine in the listing photographs.

  • Hire a Professional Stager

Most professional stagers will work with the owners of an occupied home. They will help the home owners declutter, exchange furniture, and store personal items in a storage unit or garage. If a stager is not in the budget, then read points 2-11:

  • Declutter!

Yes, this is a no brainer. However, I often arrive at a home that is clean, but every room is filled to the brim with furniture and accessories. I always want to see places in the room where I can see floor-to-wall-to ceiling unobstructed. This will give the impression of openness to the room and thus make the room feel bigger in the photos. You don’t have to get rid of everything, but try to eliminate at least ¼ of furnishings and watch the room open up.

  • Kitchen Counters

This is the most common place where everything comes to a halt during a photo shoot and everyone turns to me and asks “Should that be there?” Well, the old saying… if you have to ask… If there’s any doubt in your mind, get rid of it. Most small appliances are ugly and will not add anything to the photos. Some cool Cuisinart appliances that have bold colors can look good in the photos. Leave them if you think they will enhance the photos. Go by the old adage of less is more! You don’t want empty counters, but you don’t want counters full of clutter either. You want a lot of counter surface to show in the photos. Gleaming shiny counter surfaces will make the kitchen look much bigger and more attractive.

  • Bold Colors Mean Bad Photos!

We’ve all seen it, the Deep Purple room. That one room or more, where the owners made a design statement and painted it a bold purple, red, or hunter green. Walls painted in those bold solid colors will wreak havoc with the camera. This is especially true if there is a window and bright sunlight is coming through. I have to bring a simple camera set-up and I can’t compensate enough to balance the bold dark colors and the bright sunlight.

If there isn’t bright sunlight, you’re not off the hook. Rooms with bold dark colors will look small and cavernous in the photos. Most of the time find these rooms in nice homes where the home owner put a lot of time and energy over the years updating the home. Imagine flipping through the photos on Zillow and a potential buyer seeing the beautiful updated kitchen, remodeled living room, and then a hunter green master bedroom. Suddenly the home goes from move-in-ready to needs-some-work with one swipe of a photo. This is what the photos will say.

If you want these rooms to come alive, it is best to paint over those walls with a bright off white color (avoid bright yellow). A bright color will bounce light much better making the room look bright and cheery. This will also help me match the brightness of the windows and bring in the view from the outside. Before listing the home, strongly recommend to the owner to paint the interior of the house in one neutral color. This will make it look neat, give the photos consistency, and allow the buyers to use their own imagination as to how they want to decorate the home when they view the photos.

  • Don’t be Afraid of Color!

I know I said to get rid of the bold colored walls and I hope you did! Now that you have clean and bright rooms, use colors to make them pop! My favorite stagers are those that don’t over stage and accent the rooms with bright colors. Brightly colored pillows against a solid bed spread will really make the photos come alive. I’ve seen brightly colored furniture pieces used by brave and skilled stagers to make a room jump right out of the photo! Don’t be afraid of colorful accents. Use good taste, which I know you have, and go wild with lots of color!

  • Beds, Beds, Beds

I have seen agents bring in bedding and pillows to replace the frumpy bedding that homeowners use on their beds. This is a smart move! You want the beds to be crisp, vibrant, and clean. This maneuver will make a world of difference in the photos. This is a small investment that will pay off big!

  • Neatness Counts!

This goes beyond decluttering. Those piles of magazines lying on the shelf under the coffee table—get rid of them! The camera will pick up those tattered edges and all the work you put in to decluttering will be wasted. Clothes hanging on the backs of doors, coat racks, or anywhere else visible will also be picked up by the camera. They will make the rooms look messy. Throw them in a closet and shut the door (and don’t open it until after you go into contract 😊)!

  • Exteriors are the Window into the Interiors

Garden hoses, garbage bins, covered BBQ grills, dilapidated lawn furniture, and unkempt yards are all things that are often overlooked. Although common items like garden hoses might seem like they are meant to be there, but in the photos they can stand out and look sloppy. Grills with unappealing covers can also make the yard/patio area look sloppy. Garbage bins in front of the home. I’ll move them, if I can find a quick and convenient place for them, but most photographers won’t move these. Garbage bins are one of the easiest items to remove from the view of the camera, yet I see them on a majority of my shoots. Hiring a gardener the day before the shoot (not the day of the shoot because we know gardeners have a different concept of time than we do) to spruce up the yard and blow off the driveway, patios, and sidewalks will make a huge difference.

  • Light Bulbs are not Just Another Bright Idea

This is one of most challenging issues I encounter when photographing an occupied home (and unoccupied homes too!). I’ll see an agent and homeowner that has done all of the hard work above—decluttered, neat beds, painted the interiors, and cleaned up the exteriors and yet the light bulbs burn an ugly yellow that will cast the entire house in a dirty yellow light. Old incandescent light bulbs will make the rooms look yellow and dingy. I can correct this while processing the photos, but let’s get it right onsite for a more natural look in the photos. The right choice is to change all light bulbs in the house to a white light or LED lights. I highly recommend the LED lights, especially in the inset lighting in the ceilings. LED lights are bright, white, and will make your rooms shine, not only in the photos, but when you show the home as well.

  • Personal Photos—Stop Looking at Me!

I know this is basic real estate 101—remove personal photos. However, many occupied homes still have them up on the walls when I come to take the photos. Here’s why they are bad in the photos—they are distracting. When you see human eyes looking back from within a photograph you immediately lock onto those eyes. It’s human instinct! That’s why portraits, journalistic photos, fashion, and art photography always try to pose the model looking at the camera. We are instantly programed to look into those eyes.

When I photograph a home and I can see recognizable people within photos I will blur them out to protect the homeowners’ identity. I’ve been requested to do this in the past and now do it automatically. It still looks bad. A cheap printed picture you find at TJ Maxx would look better in the place of blurred out personal photos.

What about those oversized dramatic wedding photos hanging over the bed in the master bedroom? Even if there is no eye contact they diminish the impact my photos will make, because the viewer will be drawn to the wedding photo more so than the room. Have them removed, you and the homeowner won’t regret it.

  • Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

I will arrive at a home and find an exhausted homeowner scrubbing the floors, wiping down the kitchen counters, or vacuuming the carpets and still find piles of clothes, magazines, and other clutter within view of the camera. Their time and effort are better spent getting rid of the clutter. Dusty floors and counter tops will not affect the photos. Clothes hanging on the back of the bathroom door visible in the mirror will. The exception to this tip are mirrors and shower doors. Make sure the mirrors and shower doors in the bathrooms are clean, the rest is ok. Also, remove personal toiletries from vanities and showers. Do the deep cleaning before the open house, not for the photographer.


Hopefully these steps will help you and your client get their home ready for that all important photo day and have a successful open house day.