For many photographers, capturing beautiful indoor photos is a real challenge. Limited light, not to mention an apparent lack of interesting subjects, can make it feel like an impossible task.
Fortunately, I have some good news:
With a basic understanding of light and a few simple techniques, you can produce amazing indoor photography in practically any environment. You don’t need fancy studio strobes or speedlights, either; I personally like to capture indoor shots by relying only on natural light, and that’s what I explore in this article. (Plus, in addition to the tips and tricks I use in my own shooting process, I also share plenty of examples along the way – so that you can see my advice in action!)
Let’s dive right in.
1. It’s all about the windows
If you’ve ever tried to take images indoors, you know that this approach to photograph comes with a significant problem:
A lack of light. And without light, you can’t get beautiful, well-exposed photos.
So what do you do? Some photographers turn to artificial lighting, such as studio strobes and flashes. But these light sources require significant know-how to use effectively, they can get very expensive, and they take up a lot of space.
I prefer to keep things natural, which is why I like to use light from the sun – specifically, the beautiful, flattering light that comes through my windows!
Window light may not sound fancy, but it can be an amazingly effective way to capture all sorts of indoor photos: portraits, product shots, food setups, and more. It can also offer a surprising amount of variation (assuming you know how to use it well!).
For the best results, it’s important to spend some time really thinking about the quality of the window light – in fact, as soon as you’ve chosen a subject, walk around your indoor space. Think about the quality of light that the different windows provide; does it flood the room softly? Does it beam in, bouncing off the walls and floors? How would it look when illuminating your subject?
Soft light will add a soft glow, and harsh light will give a dramatic or moody look. Also recognize that the color of light changes throughout the day. Light looks warm at sunrise, cool at midday, and warm at sunset.
Once you know indoor lighting well, you’ll be able to use it to achieve the perfect effects!
2. Think about the lighting direction
When you’re photographing indoors with natural light, your primary light source should generally be a window (see above!). This means the light will enter your space from a specific direction, impacting the look and feel of your photos. Here are the three main directions of (window) light and the kind of effects you can achieve with each:
- Frontlight: With your subject facing the window, you get frontlighting. Frontlight illuminates detail while softening shadows, making it flattering for portraits and product photos. However, it can feel a little flat, which is where sidelight comes into play:
- Sidelight: If you position your subject at an angle to the window and allow the light to fall across them, you get sidelight! This type of lighting creates beautiful contrast and can highlight surface textures. The mix of detail and drama is excellent for still life, food photography, and anything where you want to create a sense of depth.
- Backlight: With backlight, the window becomes your backdrop as you are shooting toward the light source. This can lead to intense silhouettes and glowing outlines around your subject, though it can also result in over- or under-exposed images if you’re not careful. For backlit photos, remember to consciously adjust your exposure to get the effect you want.
3. Turn off the lights
Natural light doesn’t like competition.
Specifically, natural light doesn’t like electric lights, which cause two problems:
- Electric lights cast unexpected shadows and will interfere with the directionality of your main window light.
- Electric lights produce warmer or cooler illumination, which contrasts with the color of the natural light.
In particular, skin tones can look odd when artificial and natural light start to mix.
The easiest way to fix this?
Just turn off all electric lights! That way, you can keep your colors looking natural while focusing on a single light source.
4. Shoot in Aperture Priority mode
Aperture Priority is generally marked with an AV or an A, as shown below:
So what settings should you dial in for the best indoor natural light photography?
I’d recommend starting with a wide-open aperture to let in lots of light. Choose a low f-number such as f/2.8 or f/1.8 to keep your exposure nice and bright.
Plus, when you use a wide aperture, your depth of field will be shallow. So your subject will stay in focus while your background is left soft and blurry. This adds a beautiful effect to portrait, nature, and product shots.
Note that, for portraits, an aperture of around f/5.6 or f/6.3 will keep the entire face in focus (though this will depend on your focal length and your distance from the subject). Focus on your subject’s eyes for best results.
Also, shoot in RAW. A RAW file will give you a lot more to work with when editing – so you can enhance your indoor photos for stunning results.
5. Choose your white balance in advance
But while this can work, it’s often easier to get the white balance right before taking a photo (plus, it’ll save you lots of time during editing).
So take your camera off Auto White Balance. Observe the light and consider which white balance preset works best for your situation.
For instance, I generally use Daylight for indoor portrait photography, though you might also pick Cloudy for a warmer look. And the other white balance presets can work, too, depending on the effect you’re after.
Honestly, I’d recommend you try several different white balance settings when first starting out – that way, you can determine which looks you like and which looks you’d prefer to avoid.
(Always bear in mind, however, that the white balance results will change depending on the quality of the light. Applying a Cloudy white balance to a shot lit by cloudy light will give a neutral look, while applying a Cloudy white balance to a shot lit by warm evening light will actually enhance the warm effect.)
If all else fails, you can always adjust your white balance while editing.
6. Use a tripod (or good handholding technique)
As I’ve emphasized throughout this article, indoor environments lack the bright light you find outdoors. It might feel tempting to crank up your camera’s ISO or slow down your shutter speed to let in more light, but there are downsides to both approaches. High ISOs will make your images look grainy, while slow shutter speeds can cause blur due to camera shake.
One of the easiest ways to avoid these issues is by shooting with a tripod. A tripod allows you to keep your camera still, use lower ISOs, and let that glorious natural light illuminate your subject while using longer shutter speeds, resulting in cleaner, sharper images. Of course, this works best with stationary subjects (a tripod won’t do enough to help you capture a sharp shot of a fast-moving subject!).
If you don’t own a tripod, or find it limits your movement when trying to photograph people or pets, you can try handholding, but good technique is crucial. Tuck your elbows close to your body and gently press your camera against your face. Also, make sure that you roll your index finger along the shutter button (don’t jab!).
7. Try getting close
If you’re struggling to find some good indoor photography subjects, then embrace the magic of close-up photography!
Many lenses can focus reasonably close, and you can get very nice results with a standard lens (such as a 50mm f/1.8). However, a dedicated macro lens will unlock extra-close focusing to capture those incredible, often-missed details. So if you do have access to a macro lens, make sure you use it!
The beauty of indoor close-up photography is that it turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. The pattern of fabric, a droplet of water in the sink, and the fine fur of your family pet become abstract art when you get close enough.
One quick tip: Experiment with shallow depth of field (which happens naturally with closer focusing!) to blur out distracting backgrounds and highlight those intricate details.
8. Use a light-catching backdrop
Remember how I said that indoor settings tend to lack light? It’s certainly possible to get nice results by carefully tweaking your camera settings and/or using a tripod, but for a bit of a boost, you might want to try using a reflective backdrop.
A white backdrop will help catch the light and bounce it back onto your subject. Here’s the type of setup I’m talking about:
The white material helps cradle the light around the flowers:
And creating a simple light-catching backdrop isn’t hard, either. The one featured in the above photo was made with a freestanding collapsible clothes rack and a long piece of white material.
(It’s very easy to set up and very easy to move around!)
9. Use a light box
A light box will create a similar effect as a reflective backdrop, but it will help control the light even more.
In fact, you can construct a light box with lots of cloth – but instead of putting it behind your subject, wrap it all around. Here’s a makeshift light box I used for this food still life:
And here’s the final image:
10. Use a reflector
A reflector bounces light back toward your subject.
And it’s a great way to keep your entire subject nicely lit.
For the shots below, I set up a backdrop and positioned my daughter so that her left side faced the window. She held a reflector in her right hand, which helped lighten the shadows:
And here’s a behind-the-scenes photo:
11. Use a mirror
A mirror is another great way to control natural light. Simply hang a mirror in the window; I used a large suction cup with a hook to hang the mirror pictured below:
Then have your model look in the mirror. As you take your shot, make sure your reflection doesn’t appear. (It can take some patience to get the angles and reflections under control, but it’s worth it.)
I used a small handheld mirror for this shot. A larger mirror would require less cropping:
12. Experiment with morning and evening light
We’ve discussed how the direction of light makes a huge difference in your indoor photos. And I’ve also touched on the quality of light, but in this section, I want to delve into that a little more – specifically, how golden hour – that period just after sunrise and before sunset when the sun sits low in the sky – can produce truly magical indoor photographs.
You see, warm golden light streaming through a window offers the perfect opportunity to experiment with your indoor shooting. Look for rays of light and see how they interact with your subject. Adjust your exposure to emphasize the bright detail or underexpose to create more stark contrasts depending on the mood you desire.
Because golden hour light changes by the minute, you’ll want to work quickly while playing with different compositions. But the fun and surprising images you capture will make the effort worthwhile! Make it a practice to seek out that special evening and morning light regularly, because it can take your indoor photography to a whole new level.
13. Tidy up
There are often things lying around the house, especially if you have kids. And this clutter can be distracting in a photograph. It’s worth taking a couple minutes to tidy up before you start shooting.
In fact, a backdrop can serve a double purpose here: it can control light, while also covering up all the background clutter! It can help make a small space more workable.
For most of the photos in this article, I pushed our sofa and table into the middle of the living room, then I set up in front of our largest window. Without the backdrop, this location would look far too busy.
14. Place your subject close to the window
Earlier in this article, I talked about the importance of windows when doing indoor photography.
But it’s not enough to just use windows. You also need to carefully position your subject.
Specifically, place your subject a foot or two away from the light source. That way, you’ll make use of the natural light, and you’ll also avoid the harsh contrast that comes from being too close to the window.
Note that you’ll get different results depending on the position of the sun and the light’s intensity. If you’re photographing on a cloudy day, for instance, you’ll need to position the subject closer due to the more subdued light. But if you’re shooting on a sunny day, you can move your subject farther back, especially if they’re directly in a pool of beautiful light!
15. Use the curtains
If the light is harsh, you’ll get unpleasant shadows and contrasty subjects – unless you can diffuse it!
So here’s what I recommend:
Use curtains or blinds!
If you have translucent curtains, let them cover the window completely. If your curtains are opaque, consider closing them partway, then let the light feather onto your subject.
Alternatively, if your curtains aren’t suitable for diffusing the light, you could hang a piece of diffusive material over your curtain rods.
16. Shoot reflective objects
Natural light can turn the most common thing (like the moisture on the window pictured below) into something beautiful.
Personally, I think reflective objects look gorgeous when hit by sunlight. Here are just a few examples:
So have fun playing around with reflective objects and natural light. The light will create all sorts of interesting reflections, and it’ll even glisten off shiny objects:
Indoor natural light photography: You’ve got to love it!
It’s easy to love indoor natural light photography.
The setup is inexpensive, portable, and easy to use, plus you can create beautiful photos no matter the weather or time of day.
But experimentation is key. The more you shoot using natural light indoors, the more intuitive it will feel. Remember, mistakes often fuel creativity and you may stumble upon a stunning effect purely by accident. The most important thing is to have fun and remember that with natural light, your only limit is your imagination!
Don’t forget to have fun and let that inner beauty shine through!
Now over to you:
Have you tried indoor natural light photography? Let me know how your natural light shoots go by commenting below!