Shooting Indoor Photography With Natural Light Doesn’t Have To Be Tricky

After painstakingly working to shoot a family in their living room, you come home, upload the images to your computer, and discover the light looks flat and unnatural.

The skin tones look odd, and the white balance seems off… your heart sinks. How do you avoid this common problem when shooting indoors?

Sadly, harsh shadows and weird skin tones are common problems for photographers shooting indoors with natural light. Even experienced photographers sometimes encounter these problems during a shoot.

The first step to getting comfortable shooting indoors in natural light is learning how to use the environment to your advantage. If you can harness the power of shooting in natural light – in many different conditions – then you will no longer be frustrated with your results.

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The goal: knowing how to work with what you’ve got in a photo shoot, and using what’s available to your advantage.

This post will teach you to recognize the advantages you have when shooting with natural light (there are quite a few!).

Tip 1: Know Your Camera’s Limits

The first step to getting those stunning indoors photos or portraits you want? Know your ISO.

When does the ISO start to get grainy? Knowing this will help you increase the ISO to the highest setting you can when you need to – without suffering the grain. Some cameras have higher noise tolerances than others, and many image editing programs do a great job at noise reduction. But if you’ve ever had to deal with noise in your photos, get to know this important setting for future shoots.

Note: Shooting in RAW is better than JPEG for indoor natural light – make sure to shoot in RAW files, which will give you a lot more to work with when editing.

Tip 2: There’s No Place Like Home

If you primarily shoot portraits of couples or families, I highly recommend shooting in their home. You really don’t need much besides good light coming from windows and a setting where your subjects feel comfortable is far better than an unfamiliar studio with prop furniture and scheduling restraints. Homes also represent memories and meaning, and a home setting can lend a personal touch to make your images special to your clients.

Wherever you’re shooting, it’s worth it to take some time to explore the space. If you’re at a client’s house, explore the rooms that may work for the shoot you’re planning to do. Check the windows in each room, and see what the light looks like without curtains or blinds drawn. If not the living room, does the kitchen, foyer, or bedroom work just as well if not better?

Tip 3: Control The Light

Your clients may want to shoot in a particular room with the windows open and overhead lights on. The more light the better, right? Not exactly. While you DO want as much light as possible to illuminate your subjects, you DON’T want to mix light sources.

So, to get the stunning natural light photos you want, it makes sense to keep the light natural. Mixing light sources is usually a bad idea here.  Why? Because of white balance. Remember those odd-colored skin tones we talked about earlier? Electric lighting will affect your white balance and can make skin tones look odd because of the variance between natural and artificial light. Keep the light natural and your subjects will look ‘natural’ too!

Even a stray hall or kitchen light kept on may spill into your shoot, so make sure all the lights are off. The opposite idea is also true. If you’re shooting in a studio, keep the windows closed and work with only artificial light sources.

It’s easy to control the light source if you’re working with just one – natural light from outside – but sometimes it helps to have some useful gear to direct the light where you want it. If you need more light in your shoots, further down I mention some equipment you can use to enhance the available light, but for all intents and purposes, you’ll want to keep the lights off (especially overhead lights).

4: Choose Aperture Priority Mode

Just like the previous tip, this one involves light. Working with Aperture Priority mode, you can choose a wider aperture, which helps you let in as much light as possible. The lower your aperture number (or f-stop) the wider your aperture is open and the more light your lens lets in.

For most indoor photography, where you’re shooting up close to your subject, you’ll want to use a wide aperture. This works well because when you use a wide aperture, your depth of field will be shallow – making your subject in focus and your background soft and blurry. For portraits and product shots, this works perfectly.

A shallow depth of field will place your subjects as the natural focal point in your photos. It also helps to blur and simplify potentially busy backgrounds that you typically encounter indoors, such as a messy room or wall in the background of your shot.

Aperture priority mode is usually marked with either an AV (Canon cameras) or an A (Nikon). For portraits in particular, keeping the aperture at around f/5 – f/6 will keep the entire face in focus. For the best results, focus on the eyes when shooting your portraits.

5: Pay Attention To White Balance

Just like taking your camera out of Auto mode, you’ll also want to take it out of Auto White Balance (AWB). You can find this setting either as a button marked ‘WB’ somewhere on the back of your camera, or in the menu settings if you shoot with Nikon.

To get the best results with skin tones, choose the Daylight setting for your white balance. If you want to warm your photos up a little more than this, choose the Cloudy setting. This adds a little more yellow. If you’re not sure, take a test shot in each setting and compare the results. You can make further adjustments in post-processing depending on what you prefer, but ‘getting it right’ while you’re shooting makes the editing process much easier.

6: Have Some Background Knowledge

What about backgrounds? Earlier I mentioned how a shallow depth of field and a wide aperture works well for indoor photography. But how do you choose where to place your subjects in the first place so that the background works harmoniously in the photo?

Working in your client’s home can be a wonderful opportunity, but it definitely presents some challenges because of busy backgrounds. First off, you’ll want to shoot so that your subjects are illuminated. This likely means placing them at or near windows or an open door.

Once your subjects are properly lit, pay attention to anything that might distract or draw the eye away from them in the background. Sometimes a little rearranging may need to happen before you can get the perfect shot. As long as you put it back later, it’s usually not an issue and your clients will understand.

If you happen to really like the background for the shoot, you can also play around with keeping shots that show of the background instead of those that show off your subjects. There is no blanket rule here, so experiment and see what you like!

You can also opt to bring your own light-catching backdrop to help bounce the light back onto your subject. An easy way to do this is to use a freestanding clothes rack and hang a large piece of white material from it (this is super easy to set up and move around!).

7: Work With Light

Portrait of a Woman | Dani Diamond

Portrait of a Woman | Dani Diamond

Just like a backdrop, using a lightbox will create a similar effect and reflect light back onto whatever you’re shooting, but in a more controlled way. If you want a good tutorial for making your own lightbox, check out our helpful DIY article here.

You can also use a reflector to bounce natural light back onto your subject. This is probably the easiest and cheapest ways to get gorgeous natural light effects in your photos.

Reflectors are great for many different kinds of photography as they provide natural light compensation wherever you use them. All you need to do is get a large piece of white (or gold or silver) poster board and position t to reflect the light back onto your subject. Test different placements of the reflector to find the best setup for your shoot.

So what about flash? It’s preferable to keep the light sources natural, but if you must use a flash due to low light conditions here are a few tips.

  • If you’re using a Speedlight, you can avoid the washed-out look from a flash by pointing it towards the ceiling or a nearby wall.
  • You can also modify your flash by placing a tissue, used fabric softener sheet, or square of white pantyhose over the flash to diffuse the light further.
  • You can ‘bounce’ your flash as well to keep the light as flattering and diffused as possible. If you want to see how this is done, check out this tutorial here.

Overall, the situations where you’ll absolutely have to use a flash when shooting in natural light will be rare. You’ll avoid spending tons of time setting things up and can shoot more spontaneously by keeping things ‘natural’ and simple. Only use lights and light modifiers if it makes sense and they clearly make the shot better.

8: The Right Lens = Better Light

When shooting indoors, choosing the right lens can make all the difference. Particularly, choosing a lens with wide aperture capabilities gives you the most control over the light you let into your shots.

Which lens do you use? It depends on personal preference, but generally, the lower the aperture settings, the better the lens is for shooting indoors with natural light. Here are a few good options for multiple camera bodies:

  • Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G
  • Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S
  • Tamron 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD
  • Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM
  • Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM
  • Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8
  • Sony FE 85mm f/1.8

You may still need to push the ISO setting higher than you normally would if there isn’t a lot of natural light coming inside. Ideally, shooting on days with plenty of sunlight outside prevents having to do this, but you can’t always plan for it. Personally, I’d prefer upping the ISO and getting a little grain than having to use a flash – programs like Lightroom or Nik Dfine 2 are great for noise reduction.

9: Windows Work Well

This is probably second nature but it bears repeating – shoot near the windows! As simple as it sounds, window light can make for some incredible photos and it’s what makes shooting indoors so appealing!

Placing your subject a couple feet away from the natural light coming through a window allows light to illuminate them without looking overly bright and direct. You can also try having them backlit, lit from the side, or in full light by having them face the window – depending on the mood you want in your images.

You can also control the amount of light falling through the window by adjusting the blinds or curtains around them. Bigger windows obviously let in more light, but small ones can be just as interesting for photography. If the light coming through them is sufficient, you can bring them up close to the window for a very intimate portrait.

As far as window direction, north and south-facing windows have the best diffused light for photography. But don’t ignore other windows because of this – it pays off to experiment with some test shots near different windows to see what works best.

Here are 3 different ways you can photograph your subject near a window:

  • Front: Placing your subject directly facing the light coming in from the window produces even, bright light that’s very flattering to almost anyone.
  • Side: Here your subject is turned to the side, parallel to the window. Depending on how strong the light is, you can produce lots of contrast this way.
  • Backlit: Having your subject placing in front of the window, facing you, will produce either an interesting silhouette or blown-out highlights outside the window, depending on the effect you want. To expose for your subject better you can also use a reflector to cast light back onto them from outside.

Keep in mind the mood you want your photos to convey. Soft, diffused light typically gives a comforting, soft glow to your images, while harsh light gives them a more dramatic or moody appeal.

The color of outdoor light also changes throughout the day. Generally, morning and early evening light will look warmer than bright, cool midday light. Keep this in mind when planning your shoot.

10: Try A Mirror

Mirror mirror …in the photo? Using a mirror is another great way to add interest to your photos and control the natural light. You can position a mirror just as you would a reflector, or you can have your model look into the mirror as part of your composition. Just make sure your reflection isn’t in it too!

In the same train of thought, shooting reflective objects in natural light can create truly stunning effects. Things like glass bottles, reflective objects, water, moisture, and jewelry become magical in the right natural light. Try including these in your portraiture or other indoor photography to see what you can do with them.

Try It For Yourself

Some photographers love it, some don’t. But indoor photography with natural light offers some beautiful opportunities for photographers of all levels.

The setup can be easy, inexpensive, and imaginative. Have fun with it and use these tips to make your photos stand out.