Deal 7: How to make money through your photography
Ed Verosky is a professional photographer and author based in New York. In this article, Verosky explains how to create portraits using natural and ambient light only. To learn more about achieving great lighting in any situation, check out Verosky’s popular eBook, “100% Reliable Flash Photography.“
Note: this post contains one image with very mild nudity (in fact so mild you might not even see it).
For me, using flash can be the most efficient way to create a high-quality portrait. There’s nothing like it for an editorial shoot when you need that combination of full lighting control, minimal shooting time, and predictable results. Sure, you have to know what you’re doing to make it come together like that. But that ability comes with knowledge and experience. Mastering flash, means mastering your light in any situation. Sometimes, however, there is beautiful light to be found, just waiting there for you to use it. Natural and constant ambient light can be your best friends if you have a little time and flexibility with the environment and your subject.
Constant light, as opposed to flash/strobe lighting, will allow you to see and adjust its effect on your subject and the environment in real-time. This is a great way to learn about lighting placement and this knowledge and experience will certainly carry over into your flash portraiture. As I like to say, "light is light," meaning the principles of lighting a subject and their environment are essentially the same whether the light source is a quick "flash" or a constant illumination. The main difference is that the flash is capable of producing a more intense light but with too short of a duration for the photographer to see the effects of its position on the subject in real-time. With constant lighting, you can casually move the lights and your subject around and know instantly how the changes will affect the portrait you’re making. With a few test shots to check exposure, you’re good to go.
Natural Light. Window light as just about the most beautiful light you can find when the conditions are right. It can serve as a huge softbox and be manipulated with any combination of window dressings such as blinds and curtains. Simply place your subject nearby the window and let the light create much of the portrait’s drama. I like to position the subject so that there is plenty of shadow to one side, providing many options for classic portraiture looks.
Window light narrowed with curtains. ISO 800, 50mm, f/2.8, 1/80 sec.
Household Lights. You can also make great use of simple household lamps. I like to remove the shades off the room lights and utilize them as bare bulb light sources. To start off, just position the main light in front and to one side of your subject, preferably several inches higher than her head. This will give you a classic lighting pattern to work with. A second light may be placed farther back from the subject and serve as a back light or kicker which will add dimension.
Setup consisting of two household lamps, minus the lamp shades. Kicker is behind Kelly and main lamp is almost directly in front of her, just to camera right. ISO 800, 50mm, f/2.8, 1/60 sec.
My general advice for any indoor shooting is to think "fast and wide." Your initial camera settings should be a balance of the highest ISO possible that will still provide acceptable noise levels for your purposes, the widest aperture your lens will allow, and the fastest workable shutter speed. Of course, each of these controls are interrelated and integral to overall exposure, so you’ll have to make some adjustments, and concessions, for the environment you’re working in and the effect you’re trying to achieve in your shots.
Fortunately, most DSLRs are now capable of low noise even when using high ISO speeds, so most room lighting and even low natural light won’t be a problem for you. But even if your camera happens to produce lots of noise at higher ISOs, that isn’t necessarily a big concern. Either leave the noise as is, or bring some of it down in post-processing using your choice of available noise reduction techniques. Many photographers are actually artificially adding noise BACK into their images in order to reproduce the look of film, or otherwise reduce the super-clean, slick, digital look coming out of the camera. Simple advice: Don’t worry about the noise unless it gets in the way of the image you’re trying to create.
Another thing that will really help with achieving beautiful portraits in lower lighting situations is a fast lens. By "fast" we’re referring to a lens with a wide aperture of at least f/2.8. The wider the aperture, the more light the lens allows to pass through in a given unit of time. This will give you more freedom with your ISO settings (as they won’t have to be so high to compensate for less light coming in through the lens), and faster shutter speeds (as they won’t have to be so low to compensate for less light coming in through the lens). Lenses with wider apertures also have the capability of shallow depth-of-field, which can greatly add to the interest and mystique of your portraiture.
Shutter speed is an important consideration not just because of its effect on overall exposure, but also because of potential blur with lower speeds. As with ISO however, the effect of supposedly less-than-optimal shutter speeds is what you make it. You might find an occasional blurry image makes a rather artistic statement. Every portrait doesn’t have to be sharp as a tack.
Another household light bulb setup, featuring Chris. Bare household light bulb off to camera left illuminating her on one side and the background at the same time. Main light is coming in from camera right. ISO 800, 85mm, f/1.8, 1/60 sec.
So, with those factors in mind, you might want to try the following exposure combination as a starting point and adjust according to your needs:
In Aperture Priority mode, your camera will automatically set the shutter speed for you while you control everything else. You’ll have to pay attention to your shutter speed to make sure it isn’t falling so low as to create unwanted blurring. Again, these are just starting points. With a stationary pose and a steady hand, I’ve managed hand-held shutter speeds as low as 1/15 sec. to produce good results. You might also want to try your camera’s Manual mode to maintain full control of your settings. If your lighting conditions are going to be fairly static, I’d recommend it.
Also, you will most likely benefit from shooting in your camera’s RAW (NEF) format so critical adjustments, like white balance, exposure, and contrast can be made easily and with minimal loss of information in post-processing. Although white balance settings aren’t actually imposed on the RAW file, you can set WB as you wish during shooting in order to get an idea of what the final image might look like. Plus, a chosen WB setting will tell your RAW conversion/processing software what color temperature and tint settings to best start off with for each image.
Window light illuminates Satu. ISO 800, 50mm, f/4, 1/200 sec.
Aside from the creative post-processing possible with your ambient light images, there are some things you might want to address in initial post:
White Balance: Not all light sources produce the same color temperatures. Despite what they look like to our eyes, the camera will record various types of household lighting (florescent, tungsten, daylight balanced) and natural light (sunset, cloudy, shade) as producing different color casts. So, if you are shooting a portrait using a bright tungsten light as your subject’s main light, but you have a strong window light coming through in the background, you might have an undesirable color mix to deal with.
Fortunately, you can correct these types of color mismatches in post-processing by making a general white balance setting choice in your software, and selectively altering the offending colors in specific parts of the image. If this isn’t something you’d like to worry about, then don’t. The colors might be acceptable just the way they are. If not, you always have artistic color altering effects and even black and white conversion options. So, it’s all good.
Noise Issues: I personally like a little noise in my images most of the time. But if you had to use very high ISO settings to get your shots, and have the need to bring some of the noise down, there are a number of good built-in, stand-alone, and plug-in software options to handle this. I will occasionally use the noise reduction tools in Lightroom or my Noise Ninja plug-in in Photoshop, for example.
Natural and ambient light photography indoors can be a great way to learn the finer points of lighting your portraits. The actual experience for you and your subject is also worlds apart from the strobe and studio effect of working with flash. Unlike outdoor shooting, indoor work without flash can introduce problems having to do with lower lighting situations. Using some to of the advice above, you should be able to handle the challenges of low-light portraiture and come away with great-looking images.
If you would like to learn how to get amazing light in any situation, check out Ed Verosky’s eBook, “100% Reliable Flash Photography.”
It’s a great resource that has helped thousands of photographers improve their use of flash and ambient light for portraiture.
Become a Contributor: Check out Write for DPS page for details about how YOU can share your photography tips with the DPS community.
September 23, 2013 11:21 am
I have a Sony A33 w/ a kit lens and tried to do something along these lines using your settings - "Window light illuminates Satu. ISO 800, 50mm, f/4, 1/200 sec" but got an entirely black screen. I set my camera to ISO800, f/4, 50mm and a shutter speed of 1/4 sec but it comes out all grainy. I tried to set my shutter speed to 1/2000 sec but the screen is entirely black... what am I doing wrong?
July 2, 2013 09:16 am
I have a newborn session tomorrow. I have two huge windows to place the baby by. What time should I start the shoot? Pacific standard time.
December 27, 2011 12:18 pm
Great and very useful tips for taking portraits indoors using natural light. Only those very few superbly skillful people with noble heart can possibly do this. My profound appreciation and respect to you.
January 30, 2011 03:40 am
I've got a portrait session this weekend which I'm going to keep the bare bulb lighting in mind for. I've got three of Ed's ebooks, and those have been helpful also.
October 11, 2010 03:31 pm
NSFW means Not Safe For Work.
October 9, 2010 10:20 pm
Best article I've read on DPS in a long time! It's very well written, and I appreciate the excellent photographic examples to help expound the points made throughout the article. Thank you!!
October 6, 2010 08:51 am
The link you put on here is the best read. I am learning a lot and took some pictures at night that I couldn't before.
I am still trying to find out what type of light bulbs are the best to use at home...lol
Thanks for the best link I have seen.
October 5, 2010 03:11 am
Good information about photography.
October 2, 2010 12:34 pm
Well, I agree, one of the best articles written in here in a long time, I actually found two good ones, perhaps the quality is getting better, or our writers are learning new tricks. :) After a conversation with my sister-in-law recently I think it's important to differentiate noise from grain though as while I in analogue day's many people saw them as the same thing, in digital they are not.
In case anyone doesn't know the difference in a DSLR, grain is a sandy look in your pictures whereas noise is generally errors in the camera sensor producing artifacting such as bright red pixels in your image.
This is actually an area where I get dissappointed in RAW because unless you have fancy denoising software, you're often better off with the inbuilt noise reduction that the camera provides by shooting jpeg.
October 2, 2010 12:07 pm
I’m not getting any answers for anything I have asked so I will try you on this one with the white balance video which is great, will this work on the nikon d5000 also.
Do you have anymor videos because that was very easy to understand.
It's all right I have the answer now,NO it doesn't work.
October 2, 2010 09:35 am
Awesome stuff!! Great article, detailed yet I'm sure also easy for beginners!
October 2, 2010 02:17 am
Sorry but what is NSFW?
October 2, 2010 12:58 am
This is one of your best examples to work outside the frame and creatively use natural light for all the beauty it brings.
October 2, 2010 12:41 am
I googled WB and found this at http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/d5000/users-guide/index.htm
which should work. Good Luck
Use this as a last resort in difficult lighting where none of the other easy settings give you what you want.
This setting presets the D5000 to render whatever you want as a neutral color. By pointing the D5000 at something white or gray as you set this, you set the D5000 to render the subject without any color casts.
To set the PREset setting to match any lighting:
1.) Ensure your white object is in the same sort of light as your subject. Changing the angle of the object often will favor one kind of a light or another in mixed light, which will greatly affect your result. Avoid gray items, since items other than formal gray cards usually aren't really neutral.
2.) Select PREset in whichever way you prefer (INFO panel or Shooting Menu).
3.) Press and hold the button again until PRE starts to blink. Release the button and PRE continues to flash.
4.) Point your D5000 at the white object and press the shutter.
5.) If the display flashes "gd" (good) you're all set.
6.) If the display flashes "ng" then repeat from step 3.)
Trick: when setting a PREset WB, since the D5000 forces whatever it sees to become neutral, point it at something colored and the D5000 will tint everything to an opposite color! Set a PREset WB on a bluish sky to make everything more orange, or set it on something orange to tint everything more blue.
I never use an actual card. I always grab a napkin, t-shirt, back of a menu or other piece of white. Black text makes no difference, so long as the background is white. If you choose a bluish piece of paper (like a glossy printed piece), your results will be warmer (more orange), and if you use a more orange piece of paper (like a cheap paper napkin), your results will be more blue.
October 1, 2010 09:54 pm
I'm not getting any answers for anything I have asked so I will try you on this one with the white balance video which is great, will this work on the nikon d5000 also.
Do you have anymor videos because that was very easy to understand.
October 1, 2010 08:39 pm
great post, i often use this technique when shooting indoors without my flashes.
Here is one of my best portraits using natural light coming through the window...
October 1, 2010 06:51 pm
This article was very useful and in time, because just two weeks ago only I acquired a 1.8 prime lens.
October 1, 2010 06:41 pm
I like this article. though I agree with the comments about wattage, it could also say something about hertz. But that's kind of irrelevant in many cases...
October 1, 2010 05:50 pm
??? What a waste of time, sitting there and putting this together,
even more wasteful, sitting in front of a pc and reading it.
Lets hope it does not happen to often. Over and out.
Happy Days, Axel
October 1, 2010 04:16 pm
Its a wonderful discussion and suggestion. It helps any body even a amateur to excel in photography...
October 1, 2010 01:19 pm
I just HATE acronyms! I had no idea what "NSFW" meant so I had to go look it up. I got so annoyed that I decided not to even read the article. Why do people assume that everyone knows these damn acronyms????
October 1, 2010 12:24 pm
I love shooting available light from ISO 200 to 3200. Noise on high ISO also tells story of a scene or portrait. I Like this post. 2 thumbs up!
October 1, 2010 12:07 pm
Very nice article with plenty of useful tips for those who haven't done much along these lines before. People need to know you can shoot really beautiful indoor portraits without a fancy studio set up.
In addition to the tips found here, I also find it can help to pre-set your white balance to the "temperature" (warmth or coolness) of the room light. Beyond a simple "flourescent", "incandescent", "cloudy" type of setting, or "more red" / "more blue", even some inexpensive, non-DSLR's offer the option to either enter in the light temperature if you know it, or to sample a piece of white paper or card to capture the "true white" value for the light you're using. This eliminates, in most cases, any need to mess with the white balance in post processing.
To get images as sharp as possible, I'd suggest adding even a cheap tripod as part of your set up. At low speeds, a tripod makes a big difference. Further "crispness" can be gained by using either a remote fire device (that will cost you something in most cases) or the built in self timer to eliminate shooting wiggle.
Another help can be a simple piece of white or gold poster board or foam core to use as a reflector to help shape the light around your model's face if the light from the window or lamps isn't all going where you want it. For just a few dollars, this simple tool can make a big difference.
And if you've got the urge to work with a model, there are several very good online services through which you can hire a model from your area for a surprisingly small price. Go ahead and try. It's fun! And a LOT cheaper than you think.
October 1, 2010 12:07 pm
Great article. I always enjoy this website. I get beautiful shots with minimal noise at iso 1600 even at 3200. (i use sony a550).
SAL50mm lens at f3.2 1/300
October 1, 2010 11:22 am
Darren, those are excellent tips. If your fans are worried about WB adjustment and happen to have a Nikon D40 - D200 Camera check out this YouTube video on how to setup a custom WB. It's quick and simple and works very well. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6U_I5CUMcDU. I don't know if Cannon has anything similar.
October 1, 2010 09:27 am
i enjoyed this article, i teach a basic photography at the local arts center and this is a perfect project for my student to do to learn lighting, good job.
October 1, 2010 08:37 am
Excellent article will definitely try that. I didn't see much about white balance which is super important as far as I know, especially when using household lights. Keep posting!
October 1, 2010 07:38 am
Thank you for these suggestions. I cannot afford expensive photography equipment and appreciate any ideas that I can use to get those beautiful portraits we all desire.
October 1, 2010 07:36 am
Also I noticed that it nevers says which type of household light or watt. I have tried house hold lights and never get anything close to what I see here. I have tried every setting I could but never see good results. What type of light do you need.
October 1, 2010 06:54 am
Very good article. Also with the 40D you can create good picturesat 800 iso if the exposure is good and you do not have to correct you pictures. On my blog I've an article about working with window light. Look here: http://beeldkracht.blogspot.com/search/label/Lightstudy%20%2F%20lichtstudie
Sometimes, with the long exposure settings you portraits will be more exiting because of the movements!
Thanks for posting!
October 1, 2010 05:20 am
To become a great photographer you need to learn as much as possible about light. This article helps us learn, and it inspired me to try no flash portraits indoors. Thank you for taking the time to write and post it!
October 1, 2010 04:51 am
My compliments on quality of photos (allure and personality)
October 1, 2010 04:47 am
Excellent stuff - have downloaded a couple of Ed's e-books courtesy of this site. Beautiful pictures.
October 1, 2010 04:43 am
I loved it, really gave me some ideas. I really enjoy your articles you have good information that people can use.
September 30, 2010 11:49 am
this is a good remainder post that great portrait light is often at times all around you. its just a matter of taking a risk at times on assignment and taking a chance at unexpected results.
September 30, 2010 03:05 am
This was also perfect timing for me as well as I just had a friend ask me about getting some portraits and I have no lighting setup, I am sure the info here will come in handy. I hope to see more posts like this.
September 30, 2010 02:16 am
Holly cow! Double comment; I have no idea what happened! Sorry.
September 30, 2010 12:40 am
Portraits look more natural and the camera captures the subject's personality when using the natural light. Nice article.
September 29, 2010 01:37 pm
@Karen: actually, none of the examples above use any flash whatsoever. The terms I used to describe the lighting such as "kicker" and "main" refer to the role of the house lamps.
@mike: a 50mm lens is a 50mm lens. There is a crop factor, but then again, I regularly crop my photos in post, too.
For the 40D users, these were taken with a 40D. I do get noise at ISO 800 and above, but I don't feel it takes away from the images.
September 29, 2010 08:59 am
the post was marked NSFW because one of the images has a little nudity in it. You need to look close but it turns out some of our readers did and found it a little concerning as they were viewing the article at work. While we don't think it's particularly confronting - we thought it best to at least give people a small warning.
September 29, 2010 07:42 am
great articlem thank you for great tips. i'm huge fan of natural light portraits. here's my last one http://www.flickr.com/photos/matabum/5009724328/
September 29, 2010 03:18 am
Interesting, but why is it "rated" NSFW ? :)
September 29, 2010 02:50 am
You guys keep hitting Homerus with these great articles! Keep up the great work!
September 29, 2010 12:50 am
Great article, pictures look so much better without the flash bleaching everything
September 28, 2010 11:22 pm
Great article. Like Craig mentioned above I have a 40D and 800 ISO is pushing it. However the look might work for a Black and White portrait.
I find my 50mm 1.8 works great for indoor portraits with no flash. I can get away with using ISO 400.
September 28, 2010 11:14 pm
Great tips! :) I too find that at ISO 800...it's way too grainy. At least with the camera I am using.
September 28, 2010 09:17 pm
Very nice post, thanks.
Just a question: is it "real" 50mm you're using or is there a multiplication factor?
September 28, 2010 09:02 pm
Sorry but I really fail to see what is NSFW in this post ...
September 28, 2010 08:30 pm
Interesting, but why it was "rated" NSFW ? :)
September 28, 2010 06:58 pm
lots of informative article on dps but so far this is the most helpful article ive read.
September 28, 2010 04:28 pm
Very useful and impressive. The complex matter explained in simple way with simple techniques. Good innovation. Keep posting more tips for a better world.
September 28, 2010 03:49 pm
Nice article, however I find that ISO800 is way too high and grainy for me.
This might be down to my camera (Canon 40D) but I know that if I try to replicate those above all I get is a very grainy shot.
September 28, 2010 11:39 am
Excellent info! Thanks, I can't wait to try this!
September 28, 2010 05:40 am
This is absolutely one of the best, informative and useful articles I have read on DPS in a long time.
The photos are stunning. I think the one with the flash looks like it was taken with a flash but it works and the bulk of the article is about how to get around not using a flash with ambient light or off camera light.
I like that you realize that most people don't have studio set ups and tell us about a workaround. And these photos LOOK like studio portraits. Sure, there's a place for candids which to me are photographs that photograpers without studios shoot and call portraits. But a lot of people want a more formal approach.
In this article, you have shown a way to achieve that without expensive lighting and backdrops.
I hope you write some more articles.
September 28, 2010 03:42 am
Perfect timing on this article, as I have an in-home portrait session with a client this coming weekend, and we intend to use ambient light only. Thanks, great article!
September 28, 2010 02:53 am
Nice article though it isn't something new for a photographer who has even a bit of experience with his equipment... May be works as a checklist
September 28, 2010 02:51 am
Very helpful, I've always been having trouble getting the lighting right when I'm shooting portraits indoors. Thank you so much!
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