Home photography ideas: No flash? No problem! Shoot candlelit portraits

Watch video: Home photography ideas – Shoot candlelit portraits

If you're lucky enough to have a set of flashguns, LEDs or studio lights, the current lockdown won't prevent you from shooting even if the sun isn't on your side. But what if you don't have any lighting kit, or if you don't have the right modifiers for them – how do you take creative shots with great lighting?

Well, this project is the most straightforward of portrait photography tips...  using candles as your key light not only enables you to illuminate your images for virtually no cost, it also gives you the ability to create beautifully evocative and atmospheric portraits right in your own home. 

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Home photography ideas

There are, of course, some best practice techniques. First off, we’re using a wooden floor to act as a reflective surface for the candlelight. Avoid drafty locations as otherwise the flames will flicker – like a candle in the wind!

Shooting at night with the lights off is best, but shooting during daytime with the curtains closed should be dark enough. We draped black material behind our model; this area doesn’t need to be totally dark as we’re exposing for candlelight, which renders the backdrop and surroundings black. 

More candles throws more light onto your subject; we found around 20 tea lights worked well, placed in a rough triangle a foot in front of our model. They produce a cooler, bluer light than regular candles, but as we were shooting in RAW, we could easily adjust the white balance and warm up the color temperature of our image afterwards.

A focal length around 50mm works well, as you can fill the frame without being too far back from your subject – ideal when shooting in tight spaces. It’s best to shoot in Manual mode so you can control your exposure. Even so, it’s tricky to expose in one shot as there’s a marked difference in light levels from the candlelight compared to the model’s face, but there’s a quick Photoshop fix…

01 "I said four candles…"

We found that using 20 tea lights produced enough light for our model’s face. Tea lights produce a slightly cooler tone than regular candles, as the light is reflected against their silvery tins.

02 Camera, lens and setup

We're using a standard zoom f/2.8 lens – specifically, the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L – zoomed to about 50mm. Of course, if you want to shoot after dusk so that there really is nothing but pure candlelight in your shot, you could go with a fast aperture 50mm prime, such as the premium-but-pricey Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L or the fast-and-affordable Mitakon Speedmaster 50mm f/0.95. 

On our standard zoom we're using an f/2.8 aperture, to blur the foreground and background, maintaining a 1/100 sec shutter speed to shoot handheld, and shooting at ISO500 to capture enough light while rendering the background dark.

03 Take the shot

We lay down to make the most of the candlelight reflecting against the floor – shoot any higher and too much foreground will appear in your frame – then focused on our subject’s face before taking the shot.

04 A little Photoshop help

The model’s face is a tad too dark in our RAW image, but this is easy to fix using Adobe Camera Raw's Adjustment Brush, with Exposure +2.00 and Shadows +40 to brighten the face, while ensuring that the surroundings stay dark.

05 Candlelight Scene mode

Some cameras, such as the Canon EOS 80D and 750D, actually have a dedicated Candlelight scene mode. You need to use the viewfinder when using it (you can’t use Live View) but it’s a handy preset that’s worth trying. You can also change Color Tone to increase the candlelight’s reddish tinge, by setting it towards Warm or towards Cool tone if it’s too red already.

Read more: 

Stuck at home: 11 photo projects to try indoors during the COVID-19 crisis
DIY photography hack: add camera stabilization to ANY camera body!
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Peter Travers

The editor of PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine, Peter 14 years of experience as both a journalist and professional photographer. He is a hands-on photographer with a passion and expertise for sharing his practical shooting skills. Equally adept at turning his hand to portraits, landscape, sports and wildlife, he has a fantastic knowledge of camera technique and principles. As you'd expect of the editor of a Canon publication, Peter is a devout Canon user and can often be found reeling off shots with his EOS 5D Mark IV DSLR.