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Light: shooting indoors with natural light

Shooting indoors with natural light only was not my idea of ideal. I’m a studio light photographer first and foremost. Then I decided to change the way I photograph boudoir completely and, instead of shooting with studio lights, I started shooting with natural light.

Indoor natural light has such a soft quality to it, that it seemed perfectly suited to the soft, feminine boudoir style I like to shoot. I did this for two years and found that it even changed the way I was posing my clients.

Before then the only time I shot with natural light indoors was at wedding receptions and the occasional at-home newborn shoot. Now I also photograph families at home using natural light.

Type of light – direct vs indirect

I should clarify when I say that indoor light has a soft quality to it – I mean indirect natural light indoors. In other words, light that is filtering through a window, not shining directly in.

In the northern hemisphere, a north facing window generally offers great indirect light. However, in the southern hemisphere a south facing window is ideal.

The reason for this is that the window acts like a huge softbox when indirect light shines in. So, if you’re aiming for soft shadows, this is what you want.

Soft natural light filters in through windows The soft light is created by natural light filtering in through the large window and is further diffused by net curtains. The all white room allows the light to reflect back and further soften and fill in any shadows. Camera settings: 1/100, f2.8, ISO 400

Camera settings

1. ISO

Being indoors, you will naturally have less light than when shooting outdoors so ISO is your first consideration when it comes to camera settings. Rather have an image with noise than an underexposed image. You can reduce the noise in post production, but when you lighten an underexposed image in post production, it will be far less smooth than a slightly noisy image.

Consider starting with an ISO of at least 400 if it is a bright sunny day. Any other kind of weather and you’ll need to go higher.

Further reading on ISO: The exposure triangle – what role does ISO play?

2. Aperture

In order to make the most of any available light, widen your aperture. I prefer not to go any narrower than f4 unless I am photographing a group. I find f2.8 or wider works well indoors.

If you have a fast lens that can stop down to f1.4, great. This of course also depends on subject matter, because you may need to have a greater depth of field than f1.4 would allow.

Further reading on aperture: The exposure triangle – what role does aperture play?

3. Shutter speed

When shooting indoors, shutter speed is the last consideration for me. Subjects photographed indoors are usually quite still, unlike busy kids running around outdoors.

Consider using a tripod if you need to lower your shutter speed to capture an accurately exposed image without too much noise. This is particularly helpful when shooting still life, such as food photography.

When shooting boudoir, I often use a monopod to avoid camera shake. I’m not able to handhold without camera shake below 1/80th. Even 1/100th is a stretch for me.

Further reading on shutter speed: The exposure triangle – what role does shutter speed play?

The boy is in an alcove so there is a window behind him, to his right and to camera left - this is the window creating the catchlights in his eyes. Camera settings 1/320, f8, ISO 1250

4. White balance

Remember to set your white balance. You may need to set a custom white balance, or you could use the shade setting. The room that you’re using will have a direct impact on this – an all white room will have a very different kelvin rating than a room with wooden floors and dark walls.

When shooting indoors it is best to switch off any overhead lights. There are two reason for this. Firstly, it will mess with your white balance. Secondly, and more importantly, an overhead light adds shadow below a person’s eyes, and nobody wants the appearance of bags under their eyes.

If you have any table lights on in the background, bear in mind that they will show as quite warm. For boudoir, I like the orangey yellow tone of a light in the background as it adds depth and warmth to the image, so I will purposefully use bedside lights. This, however, is the only time and the only type of incandescent light I would have on indoors.

Modifying the light

Just because you’re shooting with natural light, doesn’t mean that all your work is done when it comes to lighting.

Just like studio or flash light, natural light is very manipulatable (that should be a real word). When it comes to light you can do three things:

  • Diffuse light
  • Add light
  • Subtract light

1. Diffusion

The purpose of diffusing the light is to soften the shadows and reduce the contrast in an image.

If you’re shooting in a room where direct light is flooding in, diffuse the light with fabric or a diffuser. If you don’t have a diffuser, you could use thin cotton in front of the window, or a lot of net curtaining tightly pushed together.

2. Addition

When you add light, you’re sculpting with light. Adding light will soften and fill in the shadows.

You can add light by using a reflector. If you have a 3 in one reflector, experiment with the light that is reflected when you use the gold, the silver or the white side. Gold will add a lot of warmth to an image. Silver is great when you really need to bump up the light and white reflect a nice soft light. White is my favourite when shooting natural light indoors.

If you don’t have a reflector, use a piece of white cardboard, polystyrene or a white sheet. You could even wrap foil over a sheet of cardboard for a DIY silver reflector - use the non-shiny side of the foil. A mirror is also handy for bouncing back tons of light.

3. Subtraction

If you want to deepen the shadows, use a black material near your subject. This can be a black sheet, black cardboard or a diffuser. Any non-shiny black surface.

Bear in mind that any manipulation of the light is going to affect your exposure reading, so you’ll need to check your camera settings whenever you change your light modifyers.

If you are shooting in an all white room with direct light shining in, a large piece of black material on the floor in front of your subject will prevent light bouncing upward into their face and creating “monster light”. Put a torch under your chin in a darkened room and have a look in the mirror - you’ll see exactly what monster light looks like.

Using angles

Just as when you use studio lights or flash, when shooting with natural light indoors you need to consider the angle of the light to create a pleasing image. This is applicable to photographing both still life and people. It is the play of light that adds shape and drama to an image.

There are three light angles that you can use:

  • Front lit
  • Back lit
  • Side lit

1. Front lighting

Subject is facing the window and you have your back to the window.

When you shoot with front light, your subject is positioned in front of the window with the light coming at it straight on.

This can be very flattering for a person as it evens out all wrinkles, but it can also be dull. Because the light is flat, there is no definition to your subject.

Front lighting using natural light A window in front of the child is providing natural front light, so the light is even, but a bit flat. Camera settings: 1/400, f2.8, ISO 1600

2. Back lighting

The window is behind your subject.

Shooting a backlit subject can create a very pleasing image. The backlight, if bright enough, can create a rim light around the subject which can be lovely when light is reflected back on the subject to fill in the shadows.

With more diffused backlight you won’t necessarily have rim light, but the gentle gradation of light to shadow on the front of your subject gives it depth and shape. Again, you would need to reflect light back onto your subject to fill in the shadows.

If you’re shooting still life, such as a bowl of apples, bouncing light back into the apples brightens the image by filling in the shadows and helps define their shape. How much you fill in the shadow depends on the look you want to create and how much light you reflect back.

Another really important reason for using a reflector is that light bounced from a reflector will create specular highlights. A specular highlight is the bright patch of light you see on a smooth surface, such as apples, tomatoes, billiard balls, glasses, etc. These highlights emphasise the subject's texture and help define shape.

So, if you’re bouncing enough light back into your bowl of apples with a silver reflector, you can create specular highlights on the apples.

Catchlights in a person’s eyes are also specular highlights. Catchlights lighten and, very importantly, bring life to eyes. A photograph of a person with glinting eyes is instantly more appealing than flat, lifeless eyes. If light is coming from behind your subject, you will not have catchlights, so you need to create them by reflecting light back.

Backlit image shot indoors with natural light A large window provides a soft back light, with the natural light further diffused by net curtains. Camera settings: 1/100, f2.8, ISO 400

3. Side lighting

Subject is positioned next to the window.

Another way to bring shape and depth to a subject is to light from the side. When photographing a person, subtle repositioning of your subject’s head will lead to changes in light pattern. Knowing portrait light patterns and how to use them is key to great portraiture. It’s a big subject, so we’ll get into that another time.

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A reflector on the side opposite the window, in other words your subject’s shadow side, will fill in and reduce the shadows. Alternatively, for more contrast and mood, you can subtract the light on the shadow side and deepen the shadows with black card or material.

Using side light to shoot with natural light indoors Diffused natural light is coming in from camera left to side light Helen. Camera settings: 1/250, f2.8, ISO 400

Perfecting the image

Now that you’ve decided what you want to shoot, how you want to light your subject with natural light indoors, you need to have a look at your environment.

Remove all clutter from the background and consider what lines are leading into the image and how they will impact on the composition of your image. Clutter is another reason for shooting wide as this will blur out the background and help to make the clutter less distracting.

If you can’t avoid a distracting element, such as brightly coloured background objects, black and white is your best friend.

Clear clutter from the background Remove clutter, like photos on the mantlepiece, from the background when shooting indoors using natural light. Alternatively, use a wide aperture to blur the background, or change change angles. Camera settings: 1/200, f4, ISO 1600

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Easy tips for using natural light indoors to create great photographs. You don't need fancy studio equipment to take amazing photos indoors using just natural light, reflectors and diffusers. It's all about how to diffuse, add and subtract natural light indoors. #naturallight #light #phototips #indoorphotography
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