Looking to create high-quality indoor portraits? You’ve come to the right place.
While shooting indoors can be tough, you can get great results by mastering your lighting, carefully choosing your camera settings, and applying a dash of post-processing.
And that’s what I explain in this article. I share:
- A few easy ways to set up (or find) beautiful lighting
- How to choose the perfect camera settings
- How to post-process your photos for a beautiful final look
So if you’re scheduled for an indoor photoshoot and you don’t know what to do, or you’re simply looking to improve your portrait shots, then let’s get started!
1. Start with natural light
In my view, artificial lighting is perfect for indoor portrait photography – but working with flash can be intimidating, and purchasing all the necessary gear can be expensive, too. That’s why I recommend you start with natural light, which is certainly capable of producing excellent results.
As long as the conditions are right, window light is just about the most beautiful illumination you can find. Try to shoot on days when the sun is behind clouds or during times when the sunlight isn’t streaming directly through the window. (If you can find a north- or south-facing window, you can shoot practically nonstop!)
The window will serve as a huge softbox, and it can even be manipulated using any combination of window dressings such as blinds and curtains. (You can also diffuse harsh sunlight using a white sheet – always a handy trick to keep in mind.)
Simply place your subject nearby the window and let the light create some drama. I like to position the subject so that there are plenty of shadows on one side, which allows me to create beautiful classic portrait looks. With a nice window, you can create Rembrandt lighting, split lighting, loop lighting, and more. Of course, you’re also free to experiment, and you can often get amazing results just by playing around with different lighting styles.
2. Try using household lights
If you don’t like shooting with window light – it can be annoyingly inflexible – or you don’t have a window to use, you have another zero-cost option for your indoor portrait photography: household lights.
It may sound ridiculous, but I actually like to take the shades off lamps and use them as bare-bulb sources. Sure, the effect is harsh, but harsh lighting can look good when used well.
To start, just position the main light in front of your subject and off to one side. (I also recommend raising the light several inches above their head.) This will give you a classic split-lighting or Rembrandt-lighting pattern, though the shadows will look rather heavy. (To soften the illumination a bit, try adding a diffuser in front of the bare lightbulb; it won’t cost much, but it’ll make the lighting far more flattering!)
And once you master the basic one-light setup, place a second light behind and off to the side of the subject. This will serve as a backlight or kicker, adding a bit of three-dimensionality to the shot.
3. Once you’re comfortable, purchase a flash
It’s often best to start out with natural or household artificial light sources, but over time, you’ll likely want some added flexibility. That’s when dedicated flash units will come in handy.
You can purchase flashes with metering capabilities, but I’d recommend using a manual flash instead. You can mount it to a light stand, position it by your subject, then spend some time adjusting the strength until you get a good result. While you may struggle at first, you’ll quickly get a feel for the flash and how it works; pretty soon, you’ll wonder why you ever felt so intimidated in the first place!
I don’t recommend using a flash on its own, however. You’ll want to grab some sort of modifier – such as a softbox – to soften the light. (As you become more experienced, you may find yourself accumulating a whole collection of modifiers, and that’s okay!)
Working with a flash is no different than working with a window or a lamp. You’ll want to start with basic lighting patterns – such as Rembrandt lighting – but as discussed in the previous tips, don’t be afraid to experiment. Eventually, consider purchasing a second flash and even a third; you can use them to create more complex lighting setups that include fill lights, rim lights, and hair lights.
Note that you can always purchase a set of continuous lights rather than flashes. Continuous lights are weaker than flashes, but they do let you see the lighting effect and let you adjust it in real-time, so it’s worth considering whether they might be the better buy.
4. Choose the right indoor portrait camera settings
Indoor portrait photography is tricky; you want to keep your shots free of camera shake and motion blur, but you also want to prevent underexposure. It’s important that you use a semi-automatic mode (such as Aperture Priority) or Manual mode so you can have complete control over your settings.
If you’re using a flash or another bright light source, you can often set your camera’s ISO to 100, choose a reasonably fast shutter speed, and choose any aperture you desire, such as f/2.8 (for a shallow depth of field effect) or f/8 (for a deeper depth of field effect). Note that if you use a flash, you can’t push your shutter above the flash sync speed, which is generally around 1/200s. Also, with a flash, you can often set your ideal camera settings, then adjust the flash brightness until you get the exposure you want.
However, if you’re shooting in darker conditions, you’ll need to choose your settings very carefully. My general advice is to think both fast and wide. In other words, choose your lens’s widest aperture, choose a fast-enough shutter speed to avoid blur, then boost your ISO as required to capture a good exposure (while avoiding unacceptable noise levels).
Of course, you’ll have to make some adjustments and concessions depending on the environment you’re working in and the shots you’re trying to capture. Fortunately, most modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are capable of producing limited noise even at high ISOs, so if you’re in a pinch, you can generally increase the ISO without too much issue.
(And even if your camera does produce lots of noise at higher ISOs, it isn’t necessarily a big concern. Either leave the noise as a textured effect or reduce it in post-processing.)
With that in mind, these are some good settings to get you started:
- Camera Mode: Aperture Priority
- Aperture: f/2.8 (or the widest possible for your lens)
- ISO: 800
- Shutter Speed: 1/100s or higher
But again, these are just starting points. With a stationary pose and a steady hand, I’ve managed handheld shutter speeds as low as 1/15 sec. and produced good results. You might also want to try your camera’s Manual mode to maintain full control of your settings. It’s especially useful if your lighting conditions are fairly static; that way, you can set the exposure, forget about it, and concentrate on posing and composition.
5. Use a lens with a wide maximum aperture
Some lenses allow you to shoot at f/2.8, f/1.8, or even f/1.2 – and these so-called fast lenses are great for indoor portraits. The wider the aperture, the more light that’ll hit the sensor, and the more light that hits the sensor, the more freedom you’ll have with regard to your ISO and shutter speed settings.
A lens with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 may require relatively slow shutter speeds and high ISOs to capture a good exposure in dark indoor conditions, but a lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 will let you boost that shutter speed and keep the ISO low without causing exposure issues.
Lenses with wider maximum apertures can also create stunning shallow depth of field effects – when the background turns into a gorgeous blur – which can greatly add to the interest and mystique of your portraiture.
Unfortunately, these fast lenses are on the pricier side, but if you’re serious about indoor portraits, they’re probably worth buying.
6. Shoot in RAW
This is a quick tip, but a necessary one:
No matter your level of experience, make sure your camera is set to shoot in RAW.
The RAW format will retain all data gathered at the moment of capture. As a consequence, you’ll be able to adjust the exposure, the white balance, and the colors in post-processing to achieve a high-quality final image.
If you shoot in JPEG, on the other hand, your camera will discard information, so when you try to shift the colors or recover shadow detail, you’ll get subpar results.
Unfortunately, RAW files are larger than JPEGs and they do require (minimal) processing before they can be shared online or even viewed. But the benefits of the RAW format far outweigh the drawbacks.
7. Post-process your indoor portraits
Post-processing is a key part of the image-making process, even though it’s far less glamorous (and fun) than actually shooting with a camera.
Every image is different, but most RAW files can do with a contrast boost, a bit of extra vibrance or saturation, and some sharpening. You can also consider adding noise reduction, especially if you shot at a high ISO – though be careful not to go too far, as excessive noise reduction will degrade image quality.
I’d also recommend carefully adjusting your white balance until your files look natural. Not all light sources produce the same color temperatures, and it’s important that you handle these unwanted color casts from the get-go. If you’re struggling to get the white balance right, you might also try converting the images to black and white.
You can also add some artistic finishing touches to your portraits, such as a vignette or a subtle color grade. Finally, consider selectively increasing the exposure in the subject’s eyes for a bit of extra sparkle.
Even if you’re not totally comfortable working with a post-processing program, I encourage you to spend a little time each day experimenting with different editing sliders. Start small – with minor exposure and white balance adjustments – then build your confidence over time. Make sense?
Indoor portrait photography tips: final words
Indoor portraiture is a lot of fun, and it’s a great way to produce amazing images (especially in the winter).
So find a subject, determine the right lighting, and enjoy yourself. Follow the tips I’ve shared, and you’re bound to capture some amazing images!
Now over to you:
Which of these tips do you plan to use first? Do you have any advice of your own? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- Create Beautiful Indoor Portraits Without Flash (NSFW)
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES