Indoor Photography Challenges

It’s that time of year in the Northern Hemisphere where the holidays and the fun have just finished and the effects of winter begin to set in. The days are short, the light is minimal, the weather is cold, and everyone spends a lot of time hibernating inside until spring. It’s often a time where creative ruts set in, inspiration is hard to find and the camera doesn’t get picked up much. BUT that doesn’t have to be the case!

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If you’re not used to it, photographing indoors can come with some challenges, but it also comes with a whole heap of rewards! You’ll be pushed creatively without even trying, you’ll be forced to learn how to work with the different types of light available, and you can experiment with different angles and compositions you can’t get outdoors. Not to mention, you’ll also be able to capture all of your memories that happen indoors (and there are quite a few of them!).

I don’t use professional studio lighting and I don’t even own a flash (gasp!). Yet, I photograph my everyday in my home all year round. I also photograph in my client’s homes all year round, many of which I have never been to before or know anything about their space and available light. AND some of my most favourite and loved photographs have been made indoors. It may come with some challenges, but you can overcome them and confidently capture your everyday life in your home too!

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Here are a few of the challenges faced indoors and how I tackle them:

Natural Light: You can make beautiful indoor images with natural light only, but you’ll need to study the light to understand how best to use it. Soft light will offer a lovely soft glow while hard light can add a dramatic or moody feel. The colour of the light also changes throughout the day. You often have a warmer light during sunrise and sunset and a cooler light at midday.

I recommend spending some time studying the light in your home. If you don’t have a willing subject to help you, practice with still life. See how the light falls in different rooms at different times of the day. Practice placing your subject in different positions to best see how to use the light (for even light, have the subject face the window/door, for partly shadowed light for added depth have your subject be parallel to the light for side light, or try a silhouette or partial silhouette with your subject standing in front of the window for backlight). Experiment with different exposures such as exposing for the highlights for deepened shadows. Practice playing with the curtains and blinds too to see how they affect the light and how you can use them to your advantage.

The more you study and practice with the light in your home, the more confident you’ll be with using natural light in your client’s homes. You might even surprise yourself and find a room with beautiful light that you may not have thought of (both of our bathrooms get the most beautiful light in the late afternoon). You might also be surprised by how many different images you can make in one room with only one window as your light source!

Tight Spaces: Ever find yourself pressed up against walls trying to get further away from your subject in some rooms? Choose a wide angle lens (a 24 or 35mm are very common). You’ll probably find your longer lens are far too tight indoors. Even a 50mm can be too tight in some rooms!

I shoot primarily with a 35mm but there are times when I long for a 24mm (especially in small hospital rooms)! In those cases, I get creative with my compositions and my perspective. If I’ve hit a wall (literally!) and can’t back up any further, I often look even further back and will take myself out of the room. I’ll use the door to frame my subject and/or act as a leading line and shoot from the hallway or outside.

I also become part photographer/part gymnast and climb up on furniture (A LOT!). Get your core working and balance up on sofas, tables, chairs, stretch over a bathtub, use your own step stool or whatever is in the room and find a new angle to shoot from. Try getting down low on the floor and shoot up. If the space is stopping you from getting the shot you wanted, change your perspective and get a different shot!

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High ISO: Embrace the grain! If you’re a documentary shooter than grain is part of the game! Our cameras need light to work, and when there isn’t much light to work with we have to push our settings, maybe more than we’d like to. You have a few choices to let more light in; you could shoot at a wider aperture, a slower shutter speed or can increase your ISO (sometimes you’ll need to do a combination of all three!). You may be restricted on your aperture based on your lens, and if you don’t want motion blur or camera shake you can only slow your shutter speed so far. So without a lot of light, if you want sharp images you’ll have to increase your ISO (I promise it really isn’t that scary once you get used to doing it!).

Depending on your camera body and how it handles higher ISOs you may have some noise. BUT if you are exposing properly, you will have much less noise and retain more of the detail than if you under expose at a lower ISO.

It ultimately comes down to blur or noise, and personally I’ll take noise and a sharp image over unintentional blur any day!

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Artificial Light: I think many would agree with me that overhead lights are not very flattering. They can mess with your white balance, they light up the top of heads, add crazy shadows and compete with any natural light you have. For these reasons, during the day when there IS natural light (even a little bit), I turn overhead lights off.

When there is no natural light available, I still prefer to leave them off and will use lamps, fairy lights or other artificial light sources instead (computer, tv, phone or other electronic device, torch, refrigerator light, etc). Rather than an overhead light that is going to light your subject from above, you can use lamps to your advantage and place them where you want them in relation to your subject. I like to use them on their own as the only light source. You can get creative with them to make unique images such as using them as a spotlight.

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Distracting Background: Sometimes including all of the elements in the home can help tell a story…the toys on the floor, the books on the shelf, the dishes in the sink, the colourful children’s wallpaper. But sometimes those elements are distracting from your subject. It’s not always possible to move these elements out of the frame so in these cases I’ll convert my images to black and white. Without all the colour in the frame, the viewer is forced to look at the subject and those distracting elements will blend into the background much more easily.

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So yes, shooting indoors can come with some challenges. But those challenges can all be overcome and shouldn’t stop you from picking up your camera. In my mind the rewards of having my memories captured and being pushed creatively outweigh the challenges a million to one.

Just remember, look for the light (natural or artificial), embrace the grain, get creative with your compositions and perspective and get shooting!

So what are you waiting for you? Whatever the weather, whatever time of day of it is and no matter how much natural light there is, go grab your camera and get shooting indoors!

- Jenny