Tips for photographing with natural light indoors and minimal gear

Photographing with natural light indoors wasn’t my idea of ideal photography lighting. I’m a studio light photographer first and foremost. But for a while I decided to change the way I photographed boudoir completely and, instead of using flash, I started using natural light only indoors.

Indoor natural light has such a soft quality to it, that it was perfectly suited to a soft, feminine boudoir style.

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

Shooting with natural light indoors

Lit with natural light from two large windows – one behind her and one to camera left.

Type of natural light indoors – direct vs indirect

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

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

Indirect natural light is ideal for portrait photography, because of the soft light quality it offers. The window acts like a huge softbox when indirect light shines in, creating soft light for portraits. So, if you’re aiming for soft shadows, this is what you want.


Soft natural light filters in through windowsThe 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 for natural light indoors

When photographing indoors, you naturally have less light than photographing outdoors, so you need to think through your exposure settings carefully for the low light conditions.

1. ISO for indoor photos

Your ISO camera setting is your first consideration for natural light photography indoors.

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’ll be far less smooth than a slightly noisy image.

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

2. Aperture setting

In order to make the most of any available natural light indoors, widen your aperture camera setting. 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.

3. Shutter speed setting

When photographing indoors, the shutter speed camera setting is the last consideration for me. My indoor subjects 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 indoors without too much noise. This is particularly helpful when photographing still life, such as food photography.

When photographing with natural light indoors, I sometimes 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.

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 camera’s white balance.

You may need to set a custom white balance for photographing with natural light indoors, or you could use the shade setting. The room that you use will have a direct impact on your white balance setting.

The color temperature of light in an all white room has a very different kelvin rating from a room with wooden floors and dark walls.

When photographing with natural light indoors it’s best to switch off any overhead lights.

There are two reason for this:

  • It’ll mess with your white balance
  • An overhead light casts 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’ll purposefully use bedside lights.

This, however, is the only time and the only type of incandescent light I would have on indoors when photographing with natural light.

Modifying natural light indoors

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

Like off camera flash with studio strobes or speedlights, natural light is very manipulatable (that should be a real word). You have 4 ways to control natural light indoors:

  • Diffuse light
  • Reflect light
  • Subtract light

1. Diffusing natural light indoors

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

If you’re photographing 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 pushed together.

2. Reflecting natural light indoor

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

You can add natural light by using a reflector.

If you have a 3 in one reflector, experiment with the light that’s reflected when you use the gold, the silver or the white side.

  • Gold adds a lot of warmth to an image
  • Silver is great when you really need to bump up the light
  • White reflects a nice soft light

White is my favorite when photographing with 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. Subtracting light

If you want to deepen the shadows in an image, use 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 modifiers.

If you’re photographing with direct light shining into the room, 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 direction of natural light indoors

Just as when you use studio lights or flash, when photographing with natural light indoors you need to consider the angle of the light to create a pleasing image. This applies to photographing both still life and people.

It’s the play of light that adds form to features and drama to an image.

The three directions of light that you can use with window light indoors are:

  • Front lit
  • Back lit
  • Side lit

1. Front lighting

When you photograph with front light indoors your subject is facing the window and you have your back to the window.

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

Front lighting using natural lightA 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

When photographing backlit with natural light indoors, 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 photographing 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 emphasize 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 subject’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 won’t have catchlights, so you need to create them by reflecting light back.

Backlit image shot indoors with natural lightA 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

When photographing with natural light indoors for side lighting, the subject is positioned sideways 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 change the light pattern. Knowing portrait lighting patterns and how to use them is key to great portraiture. It’s a big subject, so I’ve written about that separately.

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 indoorsDiffused 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 photograph and 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 photographing with a wide aperture, 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 photography is your best friend.

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

Don’t miss out

Make sure that you don’t miss out on future tutorials – drop me your email address. You’ll receive my aperture cheatsheet instantly and every week I’ll send you my weekly bulletin of helpful photography tips and tutorials.

More photography lighting tips

Photographing indoors often means that you’ll have walls in the background. Sometimes, depending on the light, you might end up with your subject’s shadow on the wall, which isn’t a good look. Here’s how to avoid shadows on the background – applicable to both flash and natural light.

And to get a really good handle on how to use light in photography, I recommend reading my essential photography lighting tips.

8 thoughts on “Tips for photographing with natural light indoors and minimal gear”

  1. Hands down the best article I’ve read regarding indoor photography using natural light. Really helpful to see the beautiful photographs and the settings used to achieve them. Thank you.


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