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A Guide for Stunning Indoor Portrait Photography (+ Tips)

A guide to amazing indoor portraits

This article was updated in January 2024 with contributions from Ed Verosky and Jaymes Dempsey.

Looking to create high-quality indoor portraits? You’ve come to the right place.

Indoor portrait photography has its own set of charms and challenges. Unlike outdoor shoots, you have more control over the lighting, background, and props – but you also have more to get right, and if you’re using natural light, you’ll need to work especially hard to prevent low-quality results.

Fortunately, 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. Specifically, I share:

  • A few easy ways to set up (or find) beautiful lighting
  • How to choose the perfect indoor portrait camera settings
  • How to post-process your photos for a beautiful final look
  • Much more!

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!

The best gear for indoor portrait photos

If you want to capture gorgeous portraits indoors – whether you plan to work in a studio or in a more informal area – it’s important to use the right equipment. You’ll be working with limited light, and if you’re not careful, your shots will turn out blurry, grainy, and/or unpleasantly dark. So what gear is necessary for indoor portrait photography?

A full-frame camera

Indoor portrait photography

Let’s start with a crucial element: your camera. A full-frame camera is your best bet for indoor portrait photography. It’ll perform exceptionally well in low light – because boosting the ISO is often necessary to get those perfect indoor shots, and a full-frame camera will let you do that without sacrificing image quality.

A fast lens

Next on the list is a fast lens. You want something with a large aperture: think f/1.8 or f/1.4. These lenses let in more light, allowing you to use faster shutter speeds and lower ISO settings. They also enable you to get that beautifully blurred background, keeping the focus squarely on your subject.

A reflector and/or a flash

Even if you have the best camera and lens, poor lighting can ruin your shot. This is where a flash or a reflector comes into play. A flash provides you with a powerful burst of light, ideal for creating different moods. A reflector, on the other hand, is great for balancing out shadows and highlights, and while it won’t be as powerful as a flash, it’s portable and easy to use.

A tripod

Indoor portrait photography

Lastly, let’s talk tripods. While not absolutely necessary, a tripod can be incredibly helpful for indoor portraits. Once you frame your shot, you can take your hands off the camera and focus on other elements. Want to adjust your subject’s pose? Go ahead. Need to reposition the lighting? No problem. Your camera will remain undisturbed, freeing you to make any adjustments without losing your original composition.

Indoor portrait photography tips

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 l

How to capture beautiful portraits indoors: 10 tips

Now that you’re familiar with the ideal equipment and camera settings for indoor portraits, here are a handful of practical tips to level up your shots:

1. Start with natural light

Indoor portrait photography tips

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

Indoor portrait photography tips

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, use a modified flash

Indoor portrait photography tips

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. Use a reflector to handle heavy shadows

Shadows can be a tricky business. Even when your lighting seems just right, you might find pockets of darkness that you’d rather do without. A reflector can be a boon in these situations. Placed opposite your light source, a reflector bounces light back onto your subject, filling in those dark shadows to create a more balanced, visually pleasing portrait.

Reflectors are also incredibly versatile. If you’re bothered by dark shadows under the subject’s chin, simply angle the reflector to direct some light upward; if you want a bit more separation between the subject and the background, adjust the reflector so it’s farther back. These are easy adjustments that make a world of difference!

Finally, from collapsible reflectors that are perfect for small spaces to large, more specialized versions, there’s a model for every need and budget. While you can improvise with a simple piece of white cardboard, a professional reflector designed for photography will provide more consistent results.

5. Get the background right

Indoor portrait photography

Now, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: the background. A messy or distracting background can pull focus away from your subject, marring what could have been a perfect portrait. One way to mitigate this is to use a wide aperture. With settings like f/1.8 or f/2, your lens will naturally blur the background, putting your subject front and center.

However, the best photos generally start with a clean background to begin with. If you’re striving for a polished, studio-portrait look, consider investing in high-quality backdrops. These can be ordered online and come in various textures and colors. Alternatively, you can also create your own backgrounds. Grab a canvas and some paint, and let your creativity flow! Either way, the more you eliminate distractions from the get-go, the better your photos will be.

6. Shoot in RAW

Indoor portrait photography tips

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. Experiment with different props

A Guide for Stunning Indoor Portrait Photography (+ Tips)

One of the joys of indoor photography is the freedom to use props creatively. The sky’s the limit when you don’t have to cart items to an outdoor location. Consider using everyday objects like books or teacups to add a whimsical or sophisticated touch to your portraits. These props not only make your photos more engaging but also help in telling a story.

Props like umbrellas, balloons, and scarves offer opportunities for dynamic compositions. They add layers to your photos, creating depth and visual interest. You can play around with props of various textures and colors to achieve a look that complements your subject and setting. Experimenting before your shoot can help you find combinations that work well together, giving you a much more harmonious final product.

8. Go for a low-key look

Indoor portrait photography

There’s something incredibly dramatic and captivating about low-key portraits, and achieving this look is much easier indoors. Start with your lighting; you’ll need a source much stronger than the room’s ambient light. A standard speedlight or strobe will both work great!

Now, the goal is to have the light source focused on your subject while leaving the background in darkness. Distance is key. Make sure your subject isn’t too close to the background. You want to prevent your flash from illuminating it, keeping the attention squarely on your subject.

Playing around with camera settings and angles can also help you achieve this look more effectively. A good starting point is to position the light source around 45 degrees from the lens. And don’t neglect your camera settings; slight underexposure – by using a narrower aperture and a low ISO setting – can help the background fall into complete darkness.

9. Post-process your indoor portraits

Indoor portrait photography tips

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: final words

By now, you should be armed with a variety of techniques and insights to elevate your indoor portrait photography. From investing in the right gear to the nuanced use of props and lighting, each element plays a pivotal role in the final outcome. And don’t forget the magic of low-key portraits; they offer a dramatic flair that’s easier to achieve indoors.

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!

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Ed Verosky
Ed Verosky

is a photographer, instructor, and author based in New York.

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