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Light: photographing with natural light indoors

Photographing 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 using flash, I started photographing boudoir with natural light. Now I love it!

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.

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.

Further reading: How to use window light 3 ways for very different looks

Type of natural light – 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, light that is 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.

The reason why indirect natural light is ideal 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.

Further reading: Light quality & quantity of light – essential knowledge

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

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

Further reading: Low light photography – top 8 questions answered

1. ISO

ISO is your first consideration when it comes to camera settings 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 will 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.

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

2. Aperture

In order to make the most of any available natural light indoors, 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 photographing indoors, shutter speed 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 boudoir 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.

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 for photographing with natural light indoors, or you could use the shade setting. The room that you’re using will have a direct impact on your white balance setting. An all white room will have 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. 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 when photographing with natural light.

Further reading: What is white balance and does it matter?

Modifying natural light indoors

Just because you’re photography 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

Further reading: 10 must know photography lighting basics

1. Diffusion

The purpose of diffusing the 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. Addition

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

You can add natural 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 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. 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 modifiers.

If you are 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

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 is applicable to photographing both still life and people. It’s the play of light that adds shape and drama to an image.

There are three directions of light that you can use:

  • 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 a person as it evens out all 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 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 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.

Further reading: 5 portrait lighting patterns you need to know

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 is your best friend.

Further reading: Black and white photography tips for beginners

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

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By Jane Allan

Jane is the founder of The Lens Lounge and a professional portrait photographer living on the “sunny” south coast of England. Obsessed with light and composition. Will put her camera down to go landsailing.

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