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Indoor Lighting for Beginners: Portraits, Events, and Beyond

Simple ways to create beautiful lighting even in the dark indoors

As a photographer, you will likely be shooting indoors more often than outdoors. For one, weather is typically a deciding factor in location, but also most events happen indoors unless it’s the summertime and almost every event happening after dark will be indoors. The unfortunate thing about this is that you’ll always run into situations where you won’t be able to control the light. Although the same is true when you’re shooting outdoors, shooting indoors can prove a particularly difficult challenge because of the overall lack of light. Don’t have a choice in where you’re shooting or they won’t let you use a flash? It’s ok, shooting indoors can result in just as beautiful photos as long as you utilize a few simple tools.

Windows

Window light is a magical little (not-so) photographic secret in indoor lighting. I shot a portrait series in front of a garage-sized window and no one could tell that I didn’t shoot it in a studio. This is because the window acts as a diffuser for the outdoor light source, and emulates studio lighting. It distributes this gorgeous, even lighting that resembles what in studio photography is called a soft box. You can see some examples here, all shot straight on in front of windows:

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You can do this straight on or at an angle. An angle will give you more depth, but you will lose that even beauty lighting. You will attain instead more shadows that create a more dramatic look:

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Another thing you can experiment with is using the window as a backlight. If you do this by positioning your subjects in front of the window, you will immediately see that you will have to light their faces. If you’re doing portraits, try lighting them with a reflector and you can see the effect. It’s not quite the effect you’ll see with using outdoor backlight, but it’s fun to play with.

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If you are shooting an event, however, backlighting will require a flash to compensate.

Flash

In the cases that you are allowed to use flash, use this privilege to your advantage. If you’re shooting an event indoors, you’re likely to run into fluorescent lighting (insert blood-curdling scream here). If you’ve ever shot under fluorescent light without using a flash, you know the horror of this light. It makes even models looks sallow and jaundice-y. Flash can usually counteract this.

My general advice for utilizing a flash on a shoot is to use it as little as possible. Photographers often lean towards using TTL mode, but this is not always the best option. This is because it’s the “auto” mode of a professional flash, standing for “Through-the-Lens” metering, and adjusts based on the exposure settings of your camera. TTL mode frequently results in unnatural-looking images, so experiment with manual mode if you can. To do this, make sure your exposure settings are right first.

Flash is best used as a fill light, or rather a compensating light, as opposed to the primary light source. This means you will want to set your camera exposure slightly dark, but not too dark, so as to let in a bit of ambient light. Start with 1-2 stops underexposed and go from there. This is what allows your images to look more natural while still using the flash.

Power down to about 1/8 and adjust the power up or down from there. Point the flash directly upwards to create what is called “bounce flash” lighting. You could also angle the flash or point it straight at the subjects (called direct flash), but I’ve found that pointing the flash straight up produces the most natural-looking light with a flash, so long as the ceiling isn’t painted some color other than white or grey. You can see the results:

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Of course professional flashes are not cheap, anywhere from $200-600, but they are very handy for shooting events or even portraiture in darker situations and I would recommend adding it to your tool kit if you can afford it.

Available Light

Of course, you will run into shoots where you are not allowed to use a flash, so you will have to work with the existing light. This will require you to adjust your camera settings considerably. Raise your ISO to as high as it can go without too much noise showing up in the image. Noise, or that inexplicable graininess in photos when you use a higher ISO, is the result of your digital sensor making numerous pixel-level errors in registering light to color or brightness. This is something you will have to get acquainted with on your own camera. On mine, I can get away with ISO 3200-5000 without having to worry about noticeable noise. ISO 800-1600 will usually be high enough to let in enough light for indoor photography, but after dark I have to bump it up to at least 3200.

Open up your aperture to around f/2.8 and slow your shutter speed to around 1/125. If you’re shooting portraiture, you can usually get away with 1/100. I have a shaky hand, so I never go below this. If you’re shooting an event, play around with the exposure and make sure you’re not underexposing too much. There’s only so much you can save of an image in post production.

When shooting portraits, experiment with positioning your subject under one direct source light, such as an overhead light or a lamp. Remove the shade if you can, play with the light angle, and you can achieve dramatic, portrait-friendly lighting.

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Overall, the challenges of indoor lighting can be an avenue for you to grow as a photographer and find your own lighting fixes. I’ve shot weddings, portraits, events, and commercial shoots with other photographers and everyone has their own tricks to lighting in tough spots. Testing and assessing these different methods of lighting will be pivotal in achieving the results you want. Some of my best portfolio images are indoor shots, so be confident that you can capture stunning images even if you’re shooting after dark in a fluorescent-lit room.

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