Five years ago, my husband Jon and I were on a slow, diligent, 6-month hunt for the perfect DSLR, even though we hardly knew what qualified a DSLR to be perfect. Our first baby would be joining our family in the fall, and we wanted to be able to document everything about him—and document it well. We're both visual people with a pinch of creativity, and we were enamored with the thought of having awesome pictures. We'd maxed out our point-and-shoot, we were constantly drooling over the gorgeous photos of professionals, and we had so determined to learn how to take them ourselves, having no idea how big the learning curve would be. So with high hopes, we finally made a decision and took the plunge. Despite my hesitation to move on from the convenience of a pocket camera, Jon knew we would love it, and I was surprised how quickly I realized he was right. (And luckily phones have now fulfilled the need for a pocket camera :) We saw a huge difference from our point-and-shoot when taking photos outside, but the hurdle we hadn't even thought of was taking good photos inside the new place we had just moved into—a cozy little basement apartment.
Not only was our baby boy on his way, I was also about to quit my full-time job to stay at home all day, and fall and winter were looming just around the corner; meaning we were about to spend a LOT of time indoors. A very low-lit, nearly-sunlightless indoors at that. And this was the infamous winter of Snowmaggedon and Snowpocalypse in DC, which meant many snow days cooped up in our little cave with the new babe (yes, the snow totally covered our little basement windows).
For months we felt our pictures inside weren't quite right and didn't turn out the way we wanted (by far). So we devoured photography books, endless professional blogs, and online lessons to un-stump ourselves, and it was like magic when we finally found out how to fix them. The basement apartment was hardly ideal for wannabe budding photographers, but thanks to that little apartment, we got a crash course in low lighting and indoor lighting that made the biggest difference ever.
From our own cabin fever experience, here are the most important things we learned about taking awesome photos inside (that we actually loved).
1. Adjust your white balanceIf I could tell everyone just one thing about indoor photography, this would be it. White balance. It will change your life (it totally changed ours). We lived through months of orange basement photos and random blue photos thanks to "auto white balance," and I'm here to tell you there's a cure! Little did we know it would be so easy. To simplify WB, just know that it is the coloring of the light. Different light sources come with different colors or temperatures. Our eyes are awesome and can adjust to the different hue of light each light source provides, but digital cameras can't do that on their own. You want to adjust white balance to get the colors in your images as accurate as possible. For example, the coloring of shade is much cooler than sunlight, but light bulbs inside the house are much warmer than sunlight. Because of the change of coloring, you need to adjust your WB to compensate. Auto white balance (AWB) does an okay job, especially outside with the sun, where your camera can guess coloring pretty well. But low light and mixed indoor lighting throws it off, and you may have found you'd like a little more (or a LOT more) control to avoid those bluish or orangey-reddish pics you're getting (like what we got for months!!). Adjusting your own WB will make the most obvious difference indoors at night, but it's always better than auto. There are almost always presets on a DSLR, which are displayed as icons you can choose from to match your lighting:
2. Lose the flashI have to confess...with the exception of big fancy weddings we shot, I (we) have never used a flash. Even with our point and shoot. Granted we've probably ruined a lot of shots that way, and when we finally had to suck it up and learn how to use our external flashes for receptions, we hit a learning curve the size of China. And I'll admit, there is a time and a place for flash. Large events in the dark being a good example. But (I could totally be going out on a social limb here) I'm a believer that inside our house we can all take great photos without it. We can also take a lot of not-so-great photos without it, but that's what the delete button is for :) And my guess is that even then, you will not regret having ditched your flash. Our goal with photos is to make them authentic, and flash will sadly take your moment and flatten all the depth right out of it. It removes soft shadows that show definition and replaces it with harsh shadows that are super distracting. Work with the real light you have and learn everything you can about your camera so you can adjust it to make your shot light enough without flash (look for more posts on the best ways to do that in the future).
3. Use your biggest apertureAnother confession (all the sudden it feels like I have a lot of things to confess)...I am addicted to large apertures. Huge, open, suck-in-every-speck-of-light apertures. A depth of field that turns everything into a watery blur (except the tiny point I focused on) makes me melt. This is to a fault, and I stick to it even against Jon's better judgment in family sessions or group shots. I seriously can't help myself. Good thing he's my other half on a shoot so he can be getting the people I've blurred away! But I digress. Aperture. This is hard for me to even mention without going into more detail (so it's a good thing I got to go into all sorts of detail here), but for now, know that your aperture is the size of the opening on your lens. The bigger the opening of your lens, the more light you will let in, and the more background you will blur out. Both of these things are the best news ever for indoor shots. You need light, and you want the busy background to melt away. Try switching to Aperture Priority setting ("Av" for Canon and "A" for Nikon) and get your aperture to the smallest number possible (they're fractions, the smaller the number, the larger the opening). That's a good start. (If you're ready to up your aperture game, head over to my Exposure Made Easy Part I: Aperture to learn more, or check out Lenses: What You Want to Know to find out which lenses will get you the biggest apertures for the best price.)
4. Clean up the clutterAs a family of five, we've always got some form of a tornado running through our house, so a constant mess is inevitable. But we have a little secret. Jon and I like to practice the idea of quickly cleaning up the background of any shot before we take it. This doesn't mean sweeping and vacuuming or putting everything away on their proper shelf. We would miss the moment we wanted to capture if we did that. Let's call it the 10 Second Sweep. We do a quick scan of the scene, and if anything is distracting from what we want our focus to be on, we just move it away so that it's out of the shot. Literally, like to the side of the couch. Or to the opposite wall. It's fake cleaning. And it works like a charm. We do it all the time :) I'm all about being real, but if I'm taking a photo that I may potentially frame on my wall, or send off to grandparents, or if I just want to make myself feel better, it's worth a fake cleaning. 10 seconds. No big deal.
5. Look for catchlightsA catchlight is when indirect light fills your subjects eyes and lights them up. We're pretty hooked on them, they have an awesome way of bringing the eyes—and entire face—to life. To know if you’re getting a good catchlight, look for the source of light reflecting in your subject’s eyes, and notice how much the eyes light up compared to a direct light or backlit photo. We're secretly crazy about backlighting, but we've noticed most clients prefer a radiant face to a radiant halo of glowing hair at the top of their head. Weird, I know. That said, even as a lover of backlighting, when I'm shooting indoors I am a sucker for catchlights, and I'll always choose indirect light in the eyes over the hazy background and darker face you get with backlight. You can get awesome catchlights with indoor window light during the day by having your subject look toward the window. Try it...you'll fall in love with it.
BONUSThere are routine ways to make your camera let the maximum amount of light in, and each of these will require their own post at some point, but in the meantime, here are some numbers you should know to give you a starting point when you're hurting for light: You want to adjust your aperture first (make it as large as possible), your shutter speed second (no slower than 1/80th of a second to keep from blurring), and your ISO last (anything above 800 is usually too grainy and may have poor color quality). If you're still not getting enough light or you have a lot of blur, we'll need to start talking about getting a new lens. And we'll definitely be doing that sometime soon.
Let me know if you have any questions, I'm an open book!
What about you? Have you found anything that helps you with your indoor photos? Or any specific challenges?
If you have a question about lenses, you may want to read Lenses: What You Want to Know.