Indoor portrait photography: 10 tips for using only one lens and natural light

Indoor portrait photography: 10 tips for using only one lens and natural light

If you’re interested in portraiture, but don’t have a lot of cash, you don’t necessarily need a home photo studio and lots of expensive equipment to get great pictures. Below we offer our best tips for shooting indoor portrait photography without investing in pricey studio equipment.

Indoor portrait photography: 10 tips for using only one lens and natural light

Image by Pete Travers

01 Use window light
Place your subject close to a window to make the most of any available natural light – this will generally give more flattering results than flash-lit shots.

02 A little reflection
A reflector is invaluable for filling in shadows on faces. Position it on the opposite side of your subject to the window, and slightly below them to reflect light back onto their features.

03 Go prime
A focal length of around 85mm is the classic choice for portraits; wide-angle lenses can contort facial features when shooting up close, while telephoto lenses are impractical. If you’re using a crop-sensor camera, then a using a prime lens like Canon’s budget EF 50mm f/1.8 lens will give you an effective focal length of 80mm and has a wonderfully wide f/1.8 aperture.

04 Use a wide aperture
When shooting indoors, set Aperture Priority mode and select a wide aperture (such as f/2.8 or greater). This will not only allow you to make the most of the lower light levels, but will also give you a shallow depth of field that will help your subjects stand out from cluttered backgrounds.

05 Up the ISO
To avoid camera shake, you need to select a shutter speed of at least ‘one over’ the effective focal length – so for 85mm you’d need 1/100 sec or faster. Shooting indoor portrait photography in low light will mean you’re likely to need to shoot at ISO 800 or 1600 to obtain a good shutter speed. While higher ISOs mean more image noise, this is very well controlled in most recent DSLRs, and a little noise is far preferable to a shaky shot.

06 It’s all about the eyes
Getting your focus spot-on for portraits is critical – always focus on the eyes (or the nearest eye, if your subject isn’t square-on to you). Switch to the single AF point mode and use one of the off-centre AF points for sharp focusing and to help improve your compositions. If you use the central AF point and focus and recompose, when shooting with a shallow DoF, you may end up with a pin-sharp nose but out-of-focus eyes.

07 Find a model
It goes without saying the some people are more photogenic than others, so it may be worth engaging the services of a model. Websites such as Model Mayhem are great places to find willing subjects, and many models starting out will do it for free, in exchange for images for their portfolio.

08 Keep up the rapport
You’ll get better portraits if you really engage with your subjects. Give them direction for their poses and offer encouragement. Show your subjects your shots on the LCD every so often 
so they can see how good they look!

09 Make them pop
A simple Photoshop workflow will help make your portraits pop. Once you’ve processed the raw format file, use a Levels adjustment layer to selectively brighten the eyes and teeth, and use the Unsharp Mask to ensure the eyes are pin-sharp – values of Amount 80%, Radius 2 and Threshold 0 are good starting points.

10 Make it mono
Portraits are often transformed by a black-and-white conversion; this removes distractions from colourful clothing of blotchy skin. Mono is also brilliant for gritty character portraits.


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