Tips For Great Indoor Portraits Using Natural Light

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You don’t have to have an amazing dedicated photography studio to get great shots indoors. Most homes have at least one or two spots that work just fine. You don’t have to have a lot of additional equipment, in fact, these tips will help you take indoor photos with just your camera and natural window light (and even incandescent light in a pinch).180

Seek the best light

Take a tour of the home you are going to shoot in to scout out the best light. I’ve done newborn sessions in a kitchen multiple times because that’s where the light was best. Often times bedrooms are little havens of sunshine as well. It might not be the room with the prettiest furniture, but that’s okay. Light is most important to me, and the other things in the room are secondary.

Eliminate clutter or simplify

Once you’ve found some nice light, do all that you can to eliminate clutter in the area you are going to shoot. Move distracting objects if possible; it’s much easier to move them before you shoot than to try to take them out later in post-processing. If you can’t avoid clutter, try getting in close to your subject.

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Shooting in low light

Most of the time I shoot indoors with my 50mm f/1.4 lens on a full-frame body (try a 35mm lens on an APS-C or cropped sensor). It gives me enough space to get everything in the photo that I want, and gives me the ability to open the aperture wide enough to take photos in poorly lit rooms, if needed. Other lenses can work just as well, depending on what you are trying to achieve, but this is the lens that I have found has the most versatility for my indoor shooting.

You will often need to push the ISO higher if you don’t have a lot of natural light coming in. I prefer some noise, or grain, to the look of a flash, so this doesn’t bother me too much. Ideally you’ll want to shoot on days with plenty of sunlight, and a time of day when you have plenty of light indoors. This isn’t the situation to shoot in the golden hour, right before sunset. You might want to try late morning or early afternoon for more natural light.

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Direction of light is important to create mood

When you are shooting with natural window light, pay attention to the direction the light is coming in, just as you would when shooting outdoors with the sun. You can have a beautiful hazy backlit photo, or a dimensional dramatic side-lit photo, or a flattering crisp photo lit directly from the front. Decide what mood you’d like in your photo, and also pay attention to the space you have to maneuver, and any clutter that may be in the background. 451

Mixed lighting situations

Sometimes you have to just work with what you’ve got. If you’re forced to shoot with incandescent lighting, you can still get some meaningful photos. Try not to have incandescent lighting and natural window lighting fighting to light your subject at the same time. It usually creates a crazy white balance issue, and it’s hard to make right, unless you just convert the photo to black and white. I’ll usually turn overhead lighting off, unless there is absolutely not enough light without it, or I’m shooting in a situation where I don’t have control over where the action happens.

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Fitting it all in the shot

At times I have had to be very creative to get everything in the photo that I need to include. You can always use a wider angle lens, but that can distort things, and you might not want that look. I’ve stood on counter tops in the kitchen, on beds (watch out for ceiling fans-I’ve had a couple of close calls when I wasn’t paying attention), and wedged myself behind furniture. Anything for a good shot, right?

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Finally

One last tip: Sometimes you may not be sure exactly where the best spot is for the lighting you’re hoping for. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and move your subject around until you’re happy with the way everything looks. If I have a newborn on a blanket, it’s a simple thing to rotate the blanket around until I like the way the light rests on his face.

Don’t be afraid to get your camera out indoors! With some practice and experimentation, you’ll find lots of ways to make great photos without any extra equipment.

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Melinda Smith

was born to be a teacher. She teaches violin lessons and fitness classes, as well as photography classes and mentoring. She lives on a mini farm in Eastern Utah with her camera, husband, kids, chickens, horses, bunnies, dogs, and cats. Visit her at Melinda Smith Photography.

  • Michael Owens

    Great article. One thing though I would have appreciated. Is the EXIF data for the example images.

    Otherwise, great informative article!

  • Great suggestion, Michael! I will keep that in mind for future articles. Thank you. πŸ™‚

  • Michael Owens

    That would be great! Always like your articles. :))

  • Tony

    Was a reflector used in any the above photos?

  • Thank you, Michael!

  • Tony, I didn’t use a reflector in any of the above photos. Just my camera and available light.

  • Vaibhav Bandhu

    Can these shots come using Canon 50mm 1.8 f lens. …If yes please advise how to use it settings I mean.

  • Jeetu

    Its a Great article and helpful Article. All the shots are very cool. you have done amazing with with indoor natural light.
    Thankyou Melinda Smith for sharing these valuable things with us.

    Really Like your Article. πŸ™‚

  • Richard Taylor

    I shoot our familly in light like this. The settings will depend on the available light.

    Normally the lens, a 35mm f2 or a 85mm f1.8, will be wide open or there abouts.
    ISO will be high enough so that unwanted subject motion or camera motion is not a problem, usually ISO 800 and upwards. Shutter speed will be 1/100 at the minimum, when using an 85mm lens on a full frame camera body. If the shutter speed gets shorter it doesn’t really matter that much. I always shoot RAW as it gives me more control when post processing, and centre focussing point only active and focus on the eyes (which must be sharp).

    For the attached photograph with shaded window light directly behind me was 1/100 @ f2 and ISO 800, f=85mm on a full frame body. Hand held.

  • Richard Taylor

    Here is the image

  • Richard Taylor

    …….

  • Thank you for your kind words, Jeetu!

  • Absolutely, Vaibhav. The 50mm 1.8 lens will work great. The settings will depend a lot on how much available light that you have. If the room is full of natural light, you may be able to set the ISO at 400 or so, but as Richard said, you often may need to bump your ISO higher. I shoot close to wide open most of the time indoors, so on a 1.8 lens, you will have the aperture at f1.8 or possible f2.0 to f2.2. (It really depends on how much light you have. If it’s at all dim, you’ll need every bit of openness you can get, so f1.8 would be where you’d want to be). I like to keep the shutter speed at 1/80 or faster.

    So, to sum up: first I set ISO, and that can vary depending on how much light is in the room. You may need to experiment with this. Then, I set the aperture as wide open as I need depending on the light available. Then, I set the shutter speed so the exposure is correct. If I can’t get the shutter speed fast enough with the ISO and aperture settings that I have already set, then I go back and adjust those as needed. Does that make sense?

  • Darling baby! Thank you for sharing your settings and process to get this photo. πŸ™‚

  • I looked up the EXIF data for the photos, because I agree that with this article in particular, that could be very helpful. No flash on any of these, and all were taken with the Nikon D700. All photos were handheld, no tripod.

    Photo 1 (baby in blue blanket): 50mm 1.4 lens, 1/100, f/1.8, ISO 400
    Photo 2 (woman by fireplace): 50mm 1.4, 1/320, f/2.0, ISO 800
    Photo 3 (sisters): 85mm 1.4, 1/125, f/2.5, ISO 800
    Photo 4 (baby in white): 50mm 1.4, 1/60, f/2.0, ISO 800
    Photo 5 (mom & daughter): 50mm 1.4, 1/60, f/1.4, ISO 640
    Photo 6 (bride): 50mm 1.4, 1/100, f/1.4, ISO 640
    Photo 7 (big family): 50mm 1.8, 1/125, f/4.5, ISO 800
    Photo 8 (brothers): 50mm 1.4, 1/125, f/2.5, ISO 800

    Hope that helps!!

  • Vaibhav, here are the settings for all of the photos in the article. That may be helpful for you. πŸ™‚

    No flash on any of these, and all were taken with the Nikon D700. All photos were handheld, no tripod.

    Photo 1 (baby in blue blanket): 50mm 1.4 lens, 1/100, f/1.8, ISO 400
    Photo 2 (woman by fireplace): 50mm 1.4, 1/320, f/2.0, ISO 800
    Photo 3 (sisters): 85mm 1.4, 1/125, f/2.5, ISO 800
    Photo 4 (baby in white): 50mm 1.4, 1/60, f/2.0, ISO 800
    Photo 5 (mom & daughter): 50mm 1.4, 1/60, f/1.4, ISO 640
    Photo 6 (bride): 50mm 1.4, 1/100, f/1.4, ISO 640
    Photo 7 (big family): 50mm 1.8, 1/125, f/4.5, ISO 800
    Photo 8 (brothers): 50mm 1.4, 1/125, f/2.5, ISO 800

  • Michael Owens

    Ahh that’s excellent Melinda, thank you, a great help!
    It’s just good to know, so we hopefully, can attempt recreations, and learn from it!

    Thanks again for taking the time, really appreciate that!

  • I too have almost chopped my head with a ceiling fan – watch out.
    Can’t say enough about getting a different perspective or eliminating the clutter. Just these 2 will greatly improve your shots.
    http:bit.ly/oufr4c

  • You’re welcome!

  • Oh dear… so I’m not the only one who gets into shooting so much that I forget about ceiling fans? πŸ˜‰ And you are so right about a different perspective and eliminating clutter. Thanks for the comment!

  • Mark

    Your photo of the bride and her attendants is beautiful. I love how the warm light centres around the brides face. The natural light, gone blue on the edges from the white balance, frames and focuses so well that the mixed light blends away and looks intentional and gives the photo a beautiful feel.

  • Thank you so much, Mark! I love it when moments come together like that and create something wonderful.

  • Michael

    Hi Malinda! I just recently bought the primal 50 mm fixed focal length f/1.8 EF lens and started shooting indoor with my ASP-C sensor Canon EOS 20D camera. Well, yes you can shoot without a flash using the maximum aperture f/1.8 with safe hand-hold shutter speed like 1/125 or even lower and even still keep ISO at 200 depending of the intensity of an ambient lightening. However, there is trade off that is a DOF as it gets very shallow. So we have to accept that only the subject you set at your AF point will be in clear focus (like eyes) and all the rest that is not in the same plane will be soft and blur. I still rather use my modified Speedlite and always shoot portraits at least using f/5.6 or better off at f/8 or even at f/11 – sweet spot of your lens so I don’t have to worry about shallow DOF and having some of my subject’s features out od focus. Thanks!

  • I prefer the look of no flash and shallow DOF, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the only way to shoot indoors. Your method is a great alternative for those who prefer that style. πŸ™‚ Thanks for sharing!

  • Nikhil Rawal

    Great article and good tips Melinda. Here is one that i shot of my daughter …with natural light. Lens used Canon 85/1.8 on 5D Mk iii

  • Thank you, Nikhil!

  • Melanie

    Would really love to know how you get such a fresh clean white balance with indoor incandescent shots. I struggle with images coming out too tungsten even with my camera set for tungsten white balance. Thanks!

  • Thanks for your great question, Melanie! My best advice is to shoot RAW, so you have the flexibility to change the white balance in post-processing as needed. Sometimes I can get fresh clean white balance with camera settings, but sometimes I just adjust later. If you shoot RAW, no harm done. πŸ™‚

  • Melanie

    Hi Melinda, thanks for your quick reply. So I have never shot in RAW beforeβ€”mostly because I’m intimidated by the mammoth file size. After you edit your batch of photos as JPEGs, then do you delete your RAW files so they don’t fill your computer? Thanks for any adviceβ€”I’m eager to learn.

  • I go back to my files a few months later and delete all the RAW files and leave my edited JPEGs. I leave the RAW there for a few months just in case I need to go back to one, but I figure after that much time if I haven’t, then I probably never will. πŸ™‚ Also, I store my files on an external drive, so I’m not taking up a lot of space on my computer. You can get so much space in external drives now for not very much money! Totally worth it!

  • Chris C

    Helpful article and beautiful photos Melinda.

  • Chris stevens

    what woukd u use for photographing paintings indoor, i.e, ISO on a digital that u can change settings?

  • If you are photographing paintings indoors, the most important thing is to find soft light that isn’t going to glare on your painting. Experiment with different times of day and different windows. I find north facing windows work best to photograph a painting or another photograph.

    The ISO will depend on how much light you have. You’re pretty safe setting it at 200 and moving it up from there if needed. Good luck!

  • Carmen Ray Anderson

    I find that I enjoy indoor, natural or indirect light the best. I am still a beginner, but this is what I find has been working well for me so far. This is a shot I took last night in the kitchen of a friend’s house… ISO 3200, f4.5 1/60 with a -3 exposure compensation. Could I have done it any differently to lower the noise level?

  • It looks like you took this photo in a fairly dark place, so it’s hard not to get noise with that. If you look into a prime lens, like a 50mm 1.4, or even 50mm 1.8, you would be able to put the aperture lower, like 1.8, which would allow you to lower the ISO quite a bit.

    Adorable subject! πŸ™‚

  • Carmen Ray Anderson

    Thank you Melinda, I have added the prime lens to my wishlist πŸ™‚ I also want to get an off camera flash and I am not sure which should come first

  • It depends on what you are planning to do with your photography, and what kind of photos speak to you, but I don’t even use an off camera flash, because I prefer grain look to flash look. I would suggest getting the prime lens first, but, like I said, it depends on what you are aiming to achieve in the end. πŸ™‚

  • Carmen Ray Anderson

    That is good advice… I don’t really use a flash and someone suggested putting a plastic grocery bag around the on-camera flash to act as a defuser, so I will experiment with that when opportunity next arises πŸ™‚

  • Eric Lloyd

    I love these articles…your talent is enjoyable to see each time. Here is a photo of our son, early morning, with natural light from our back windows. Yes…he’s still waking up, as you can tell…

  • Eric Lloyd

    For a shot like the big family, what do you feel is the maximum aperture you can use (see that you used f/4.5) and still get everyone in focus? I struggle with this from time to time…

  • Thank you for your comment! Your son has beautiful eyes! Great shot!

  • Tkm Check

    Just got this one with my newly purchased nifty fifty about three days ago. Not bad for a first-timer, huh? πŸ™‚ This is my 1 year old. His name is Samuel. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/d3c5b836b1832cad0d58df4105dca49a4ee7fd97a66164f3014ba960f78a4e78.jpg

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