This is the second in a 3-part series of Indoor Photography Tips tutorials that Susan Keller wrote for I Heart Faces. Be sure to read the first part of her series here:
Choosing the Best Lens for Natural Light Photography
In Part 1, we discussed strategies for gobbling as much light as possible and looked at the effectiveness of prime vs. zoom lenses. In this post, we’ll be examining different types of light that are available for our use and manipulation indoors – including window (yay!) and light bulb (blech!) and how best to use these light sources.
Let’s talk briefly about camera settings. I like to keep my ISO as low as possible and my shutter speed at or above 1/100 second. As soon as my shutter speed drops below 1/100 second, I bump my ISO. It’s not completely unusual for me to shoot an entire indoor session at 1600 ISO, which isn’t ideal, but is sometimes unavoidable.
Light Bulb Lighting
Let’s tackle light bulb lighting first. Confession: I HATE light bulb lighting. Florescent and tungsten are equally hideous, methinks. My clients are always trying to be so helpful, and so, invariably they’ve gone throughout their homes and turned on all the lights to make things as bright as possible. And I then politely ask if I can turn them all off.
I don’t particularly like the color casts that come off light bulbs. I’ll show you what I mean: the first picture below has the overhead dining room light ON. See the orange color cast? The unnatural “glow” on the tops of their heads? Some unpleasant shadowing? Bright reflections on the wall? Blech. Blechblechblech.
1600 ISO, 24mm, f/1.6, 1/200 sec.
Here’s what the image looked like after I turned off the dining room light:
1600 ISO, 24mm, f/1.6, 1/200 sec.
I like the natural light photo ever so much better!
Let’s move on to window light, and the 3 different ways to use it (as front light, side light, and back light).
First up: front light (baby is on bed, directly facing a window).
1250 ISO, 55mm f/2.8, 1/125 sec.
Notice the following attributes of direct window light: bright, even lighting, no shadows, nice catch light in his big baby blues. (the bonus factor is the bright white bedding that also reflects light back onto his face).
In this next series of photos, baby turns his face progressively away from the window, allowing us to see what side lighting looks like …
1250 ISO, 35mm, f/2.8, 1/125 sec.
The main benefit of side lighting is interesting shadowing that adds depth and dimension to your subject. I’ve noticed in various Fix-it-Friday edits over the last couple years, that many are quick to lighten/brighten away any effects of shadowing. I always think this is a little sad. Shadows are great! Embrace them! Not so great – and the main disadvantage of side lighting – is the way catchlights in eyes can disappear as the subject turns further from the window. Notice Baby Boy has catchlights in the first frame, but no catchlights in the next two frames.
Another side lighting example with pleasing shadows and a sliver of catchlight:
1250 ISO, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/400 sec.
Here is yet another example of side lighting, plus a little back lighting. Pleasing shadows (yay!). No catchlight, as Baby is turned completely away from window (boo). And take note: due to introduction of back light, a slower shutter speed is necessary to properly light baby.
1250 ISO, 30mm, f/2.8, 1/160 sec.
Below, Darling Girl is technically sideways to the window, but I’m shooting straight into the window, so I have to expose for back light. What I mean by that is that I have to “overexpose” for Darling Girl in order to compensate for, or override, the strong back light. Shooting with back light requires the photographer to gobble the most light possible out of all the lighting possibilities. A couple of years back, I wrote a post about “overexposing” – how-tos, why-fors, reading histograms, the whole 9 yards…
1600 ISO, 70mm, f/2.8, 1/160 sec. (note: bumped ISO to keep shutter speed above 1/100 sec.)
So now we’re officially in back light territory. I adore back light and utilize it … often. But it can be tricky in low light, indoor locations. Here’s what you need to know about it: you will probably need to bump your ISO as high as your camera can competently go. You will probably need a slower shutter speed. You will absolutely need to be ok with “blowing out” all back light detail (i.e. anything that might be outside that window). You may want to resort to some of the “light gobbling” strategies laid out in last week’s tutorial on choosing the right lens for indoor natural light photography.
2000 ISO (high ISO!), 85mm (fixed lens), f/1.8 (widest aperture), 1/160
This living room pictured above was not a bright room. I definitely blew out all the background detail. I only cared about properly exposing Dear Family, which in this case meant that I was probably 2 stops over what my camera thought was “proper” exposure.
As a comparison, the photos below are taken in exactly the same spot, at nearly the same time; the one on the left is front lit and the one on the right is back lit. Both have the following camera settings in common: 1000 ISO, 70mm, f/2.8. Only the shutter speeds differ. One is 1/320 sec. and the other is 1/125 sec. Pop quiz: which shutter speed goes with which picture? 😉
One Last Tip
One last – and very easy – lighting scenario. Don’t forget to utilize that front or back door. Have your Dear People stand right in the doorway (with the door open, of course). There’s plenty of light. Likely that light is sheltered with open shade. And, if that door faces North, well, you get bonus points for that!
Whew. I think that covers some of the basics of utilizing natural light when shooting indoors. Please share some of your indoor shooting strategies in the comments!
Susan Keller is an Orange County Baby, Child & Family Photographer who loves coffee, good books, big landscapes, her dudes, and using ellipses instead of words… You can find her on Facebook and blogging at Short on Words.