Tips for Shooting Indoors

****For those of you stopping by to see my calendar brush tutorial, it’s still in production. I am having technical difficulties, which in other words means I have no idea how to get a clean crisp looking tutorial from screenflow to youtube or vimeo. I hope to have it figured out soon!

A lot of life happens indoors, so naturally we all want to capture it. This can be challenging due to many factors, but the one I find that people struggle with the most is how to not end up with a dark photo. So today I thought I would share a few tips and tricks to help you get a bit more light into your photos.

For the record, a lot of the indoor shots you see in my Project Life album are taken with a Nikon D700. One of it’s greatest assets is its ability to shoot in low light situations–which is one of the reasons my photos do not often appear to be too dark or grainy. I know many of you take photos with your iphone or a compact point and shoot camera, so for the purpose of this post my examples will be shot with this type of equipment. I want to show you that you don’t necessarily need a big DSLR to get a good indoor shot if you know a few tricks.

The most important bit of information I can provide is to always, always, have your subject facing the light.  This tip doesn’t necessarily translate to a very spur of the moment shot, but when things can be manipulated it’s the first thing you can do that will completely transform your photo. (And if what is happening can’t move you will often find me trying to place myself exactly where you see below–with the window or light source behind me. If the subjects won’t or can’t move, I move to where I know I need to be!) Here is a diagram that illustrates this:

It’s best to stand a bit off to the side, because if you are directly between your subject and the window you are more likely to block light falling onto your subject. This is my go-to technique, and is used the most often in our kitchen. If you look back at my layouts where there are “kitchen shots” you will notice that more often than not the photos are taken with the appliances in the background. That’s because the table sits at the north end, with north-facing windows. My daughter’s lack of enthusiasm about not getting to sit exactly where she wants when we do crafts or play board games sometimes creates a road block, but if I can get my way she is always sitting on the south side of the table!

Here is an example of Holly at our kitchen table facing the window. This was taken with my iphone with no flash on a cloudy day. The only editing done to this photo was adding a bit of contrast (through a soft light layer at 70% opacity) just so the image didn’t appear too flat. The sharpness? That’s the power of that iphone, standing still, and knowing how to use light to your advantage:

This type of shot always gives you those wonderful catchlights–the little white sparkle in her eyes that is actually the window behind me. You will always get these if your subject is pointing towards the light and you have wide open space behind you. If you point your subject towards the interior of the room, versus facing the window, you are probably going to end up with a shot like this. (This photo was taken with my iphone with the flash off and a very uncooperative subject):

Have any of you wondered why this consistently happens? Your sure you have a great photo and then when you upload it it’s really dark. I know I used to. When your camera is in charge of the settings (otherwise known as automatic) it does the best it can and what is happening here is the light meter within the camera is compensating for the light from the window. The camera assumes that there is actually a lot of light in the photo (which I suppose their technically is) but since the light is not on your subject the subject becomes underexposed. This can be aided with the help of a flash, but personally I am not always crazy about that look. Direct flash (which is what is most often found on point and shoot cameras) has a tendency to really wash out the colors and people in a photo so I rarely use it. If you have a DSLR and have a flash mounted on the top of your camera, you can get more light in your photo without washing everything out by pointing the straight up to the ceiling. The flash will “bounce” back down and create an even illumination. If your ceilings won’t bounce a sufficient amount of light back, pop up the white card (while still pointing the flash straight up) if your flash has one, or make one like they show here.

Like I said before, this all works great if you can manipulate what is going on. If you cannot, you can still try to capture an indoor shot but I have found that the results are really going to be hit or miss if you are on automatic or shooting with your phone. If my iphone is all I have in situation like this I try to stay as still as I possibly can (often using my elbows as a tripod or placing the phone against a wall, doorframe, or on something to prevent it from moving) and pray that my subjects do the same. If they move, or if I move, I am going to get blur. That’s just how it goes…the shutter speeds only go so far on the iphone!

But for those of you that have a DSLR? You have all of the opportunity in the world to play and see what you can come up with. You have the option of manipulating your settings, so my tip for you would be to—

Set the camera to manual!

This is a big undertaking, I get that. Up until May of 2010 I owned a Nikon D70 and had never, ever taken it off automatic. Honestly I didn’t even know where to begin. Luckily a photographer friend recommended a book to me that I have now recommended over and over again: Understanding Exposure. That book is literally what taught me how to shoot in manual and I am sure it can help any of you that have an interest to learn more about your camera. I didn’t find it hard to read or too dry for a how-to book–it actually was very readable and straight forward. Once I got the basic concepts down it was practice, practice, practice. I remember thinking I was NEVER going to be able to move my fingers fast enough (adjusting shutter speed and ISO with moving kids can be a bit tricky if they are moving in and out of  different lighting situations) but after awhile it really is second nature.

If you have a DSLR, here is a quick list of what I do and recommend:

  1. I spot meter 100% of the time. For a good description of each type of metering–check out this site. I meter for skin tones, so most often I use the face. Sure there are times when the window or sky is blown in the background, but I don’t care. My subjects are the focus of my images!
  2. Use prime lenses (fixed focal length versus zoom lenses with different focal lengths). It’s been my experience that prime lenses are sharper, focus faster, and have wider apertures. Wide apertures are your best friend in low light situations. Which brings me to three….
  3. Shoot as wide open as possible. The lower the f-stop, the more wide open you are, thus letting the most light into your camera. If I am doing a portrait type shot I am always at a f/1.6 or f/1.8 because I am a sucker for bokeh, if I am trying to get more of the background in focus I go up to f/3.2 or so.
  4. Have a camera with as high of an ISO setting as you can afford. My camera goes to at least 6200 I believe, and although I do not routinely shoot that high indoors I think nothing of being between 1000-2500. The capabilities of my camera can handle it without creating much noise (or grain) in the photo at all. If your camera tops out at 800 you are likely going to struggle indoors getting enough light into your camera.
  5. Try and keep the shutter speed as low as possible, but not too low. (I do not like to go under 100.) The lower the shutter speed the more light that is let into your camera, the downside of course being that the lower it is the more opportunity there is for a blurry shot. I will be honest..sometimes when Holly and I are playing and I am taking a photo of it–she knows to FREEZE while I am taking the photo.

That was one of the first things I learned once I started my photography business, and learning so much more about Photoshop….most photos are nothing but smoke and mirrors and never what they seem! (I mean seriously–do you think I post a straight on shot of myself without fixing the area under my eyes where all of the bags are? HA! Of course I do.)

In the end if your photo is still a little darker than you would like, you can always play around a bit in photoshop. Bumping up curves will brighten your photos and when people end up being a little underexposed or dark my favorite action is MCP Actions Touch of Light/Touch of Darkness. Once the action is activated I make the brush a little bigger than the face, set the opacity to 25%, and just click a few times to give faces a little bit of a brightened lift. It’s a free download here,

I hope this short list of suggestions helps. I am by no means an expert, but I have found some things that work well for what I try to do so I am happy to share anything I know to help you get to know your camera better.

Are there any other photography related questions you have been wanting to ask?




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  • Sheena - Okay thanks I was just shooting yesterday with my rebel of my little girl playing with play doh at her kid table. I set her up with the bright patio doors behind her and kept wondering why it was dark LOL I like to meter light in Manuel but find it too hard to do inside so I just shoot auto and live with the harsh flash. Thought of getting an external flash but not sure if it would work like I want. I think my ISO goes up to 3200 but makes my pics grainy. 🙁 thanks for these reminders.ReplyCancel

  • Jen Wright - Thank you for this post. I got my first DSLR only two weeks ago and it’s overwhelming but I’m determined to know how to use it decently before we go to Disney in December. This is so helpful. Please keep posting tips, I need them. Hugs! JenReplyCancel

  • Amy O'H. - Thanks for these tips, Heather! I find on indoor shots that I move myself around until the clutter in the background is at a minimum- not exactly looking at the light! I’ll need to grab my 50mm lens more often too!ReplyCancel

  • libbywilko - Great tips 🙂ReplyCancel

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