Using Available Light for Indoor Photography

May 21, 2012

in Lighting, Photography Creative Team, Photography Tips, Photography Tutorials, Susan Keller

I Heart Faces Available Light Photography Tutorial

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.

I Heart Faces Available Light Tutorial

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 Heart Faces Available Light Tutorial

I like the natural light photo ever so much better!

Window Light

Let’s move on to window light, and the 3 different ways to use it (as front light, side light, and back light).

Front Light

First up: front light (baby is on bed, directly facing a window).
1250 ISO, 55mm f/2.8, 1/125 sec.

I Heart Faces Available Light Tutorial

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).

Side Lighting

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.

I Heart Faces Available Light Tutorial

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.

I Heart Faces Available Light Tutorial

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.

I Heart Faces Available Light Tutorial

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.)

I Heart Faces Available Light Tutorial

Back Lighting

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

I Heart Faces Available Light Tutorial

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? 😉
I Heart Faces Available Light Tutorial

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!
I Heart Faces Available Light Tutorial

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 for I Heart FacesSusan 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.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Surendar July 21, 2015



Mesaque February 5, 2013

Hello Susan, I am a novice photographer. I just get a DLSR and the first photo I tried to do was using light side of the window. I think it’s cool. Not sure if the composition is good, but I think the light was good.

1 Seg f/3.5 ISO 100 18mm


Brefafd October 5, 2012



Christy Harper May 24, 2012

wonderful article!! Thanks for sharing :)


Declan Mc Glone May 22, 2012

Using Available Light for Indoor Photography #photography


Annie May 22, 2012

I really love those photos so much and I guess a lot of people would agree with me here.. I think I would want to be a photographer now..


Skeller May 21, 2012

Jenny – they’re facing out (so front lit), but there is a sliding glass door about 30ft behind them (so, ever-so-slightly backlit also – tho, too far back to really impact the exposure)


Jenny Lowe May 21, 2012

i just read this 3 times. To soak it all up. One ?, in the last tip is the family facing towards the inside of the house or the outside? so are you front lighting or back lighting?


Angie May 21, 2012

Great tips from Susan Keller on how to use available light indoors most effectively! #iheartfaces #photography


angie {the arthur clan} May 21, 2012

@Felicia MacFarland – I also shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II and can say with confidence that you can definitely shoot at higher ISO’s with little to no noise. It rocks the ISO! :) Go for it and try kicking the ISO up higher if you’re having problems. You’ll be pleasantly surprised!

co-founder of I Heart Faces


Carrie May 21, 2012

Fabulous fabulous fabulous. Thank you! I’m all about natural light


Felicia MacFarland May 21, 2012

So one lesson I got from your post – I should stop being so scared of high ISOs. I just upgraded from a Canon Rebel XTi to a 5D Mark II, so I guess I’ve carried that fear with me to the camera. Was it unnecessary all this time? I try to shoot at ISO 400 or lower, and have found that I wasn’t wild about my images.


shelly May 21, 2012

These tips are really useful, must put them to use.


Kate Reyes May 21, 2012

I envy you! Now I’m beginning to wonder, is it me or the light or the camera. I have been trying to capture a moment as great and vivid as these using only natural light but I can’t seem to find the right angle! I think that’s it! Angle. Or not? Any suggestions?

Thanks! These are really wonderful and inspiring pictures.


AmberMcB May 21, 2012

OMG! That last tip is so perfect for me!! We live in an apt. where you open the front door and walk up the stairs. I love putting my kids on the stairs to get pictures and now they will actually be GOOD pictures because I can open the door for natural light. Thanks!!


Born27 May 21, 2012

Stunning photos! You have the talent in photography. The light is so perfect, that adds beauty to the photo and to the subject itself. By the way you have beautiful kids!


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