Photography Tips: Lighting

Welcome back to the third part of my photography series: lighting tips for interior photography. Click the links for part 1 (equipment) and part 2 (staging and composition).

Lighting for interior photography- Maison de Pax

I’ve heard it said that photography is 90% lighting and 10% subject. It is, after all, simply a matter of the light you allow into your camera – how much and how long – that creates your image.

Step by step instructions on how to paint stairs - Maison de Pax

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I don’t at all profess to be a professional (or even to understand what all the buttons on my camera actually do), but after much trial and error, I have found ways to photograph even some very dark rooms in their best light.

And while there are 10 “tips” for you today, they are as much a process as they are suggestions. The last two are optional, but the first 8 are really simply a step-by-step explanation of how I manipulate the light for my interior photographs. Note: I shoot in manual mode. If you aren’t familiar with shooting that way, then some of these suggestions may not make sense to you… but I hope you can still glean some helpful information.

1. Turn out the lights
Even in the darkest rooms, what little natural light you can muster will be better than artificial light. Compare, for example, these images taken of my living room.

natural light versus artificial light- Maison de Pax

2. Filter the natural light
Adjust your blinds or use sheer curtains, a sheet, or a filter like this one to soften the light, if necessary. I’ve even taped computer paper to a window before to soften a particularly sharp glare. No one wants zebra stripes of sunlight distracting from the subject.

naturally lit and photographed- Maison de Pax

3. Set your ISO to 100
No matter how dark the room, you will achieve crisper, sharper, more edit-able (is that even a word?) pictures with a low ISO. I sometimes adjust the ISO to 200 or 400 if necessary, but almost never. With your tripod and remote, you can have shutter speeds up to 20 seconds or so, sometimes, and still have gorgeous images. This room, for example, has just the one window behind the bed, and that opens onto a neighbor’s house which blocks the sun… you’d never know, would you?

photographed bedroom with natural light- Maison de Pax

4. Use a tripod (I use this one – inexpensive yet sturdy)
Most important tip ever. This is what allows you to set your ISO so low and make a room that looks  more like this to the naked eye…

dark and poorly lit living room- Maison de Pax

Look like this in your photographs.

gorgeous neutral living room with blue and turquoise accent - Maison de Pax

5. Set your F-stop
This is a personal preference – both for the photographer and for the image. Generally, if I am shooting a close up, I go for a low F-stop to create “bokeh” or background blur. My favorite lens for close ups allows me to go to 1.8, creating gorgeous bokeh.

close-up view of Swedish work table- Maison de Pax

For a full room image (though there are exceptions), I often switch to a higher F-stop – anywhere from 5.6 to 22. I usually use my zoom lens for these kinds of images.

Naturally lit and photographed white kitchen - Maison de Pax

6. Use your auto-focus and light meter
I use a Canon Rebel, but whatever the DSLR, I’m sure there is a similar feature. On the Rebel, when you push the shutter button halfway down, you see red lights in your viewfinder that are focus points. By pushing the little button on the top right of the back (see, I’m very technical with my camera lingo! 😉 ), you can scroll your adjustment button and choose a different point for focus. Wherever that red light is will not only be what your lens focuses on but also what your camera’s light meter reads. This is especially important when you have a low F-stop because it determines what part of the image will be in focus (i.e. make sure the red light is on the part you want in focus!).

Outdoor dining set with a pitcher of water- Maison de Pax

Some might ask why I use autofocus rather than manual? The answer is that I am often working in low light conditions (because I turn off the lights!), and I confess that my eyes don’t see well enough to get a crisp manual focus in dark rooms! Plus, the autofocus is just plain awesome. 🙂  And if I am having trouble getting the camera to autofocus (which sometimes happens, especially in dark rooms), I simply set the F-stop super high (like 22) and focus on almost anything in the room.

gorgeous neutral living room with blue and turquoise accents - Maison de Pax

7. Overexpose by 1-2 stops
Remember how I said that your little red light is what your light meter reads? You don’t have to understand how it works (because, honestly, I don’t either!), but press your button halfway down and then overexpose (i.e. set your shutter speed by scrolling towards the positive numbers) one or two stops ABOVE zero.

naturally lit and photographed bedroom- Maison de Pax

8. Use a remote (I use this one)
This is almost always necessary after you have set your ISO to 100 and slowed your shutter speed down to compensate. Bonus: your kids can even help you take pictures this way. Little did you know that my 3 year old has taken some of my best pictures. Ha! I just hand him the remote and tell him when to push it. 😉

gorgeous classic white kitchen renovation - Maison de Pax

And now, a couple of extra suggestions…
9. Don’t be afraid to shoot into your windows
To do this, expose for the item you are photographing (remember the little red light?). It will probably blow out the window behind it, but I am growing to love that look. If it’s too much, find a way to filter the light (see step 2 above).

Gorgeous, simple gray chalk paint coffee and side table makeover - Maison de Pax

10. Use a reflector to brighten parts of your subject
What if your only window is on one side of the room? Or you are trying to photograph something with side light but you are losing all the details on the other side? Or you want to shoot into the window but that leaves no light on the surface of your subject? Try a reflector. White paper or poster board can sometimes work, but I am loving this new reflector. It works as a filter or a reflector, and it’s very affordable.

Gorgeous butlers pantry and kitchen makeover with affordable sources - Maison de Pax

And that’s it for today. Next step: post processing (i.e. editing) your photographs to make them blog or print worthy.  (Update: find the next tutorial in the series here!)

Any questions? Just ask!

My Favorite Lightroom Presets
I have started sharing my best photography tips with some of my favorite readers, and it all starts off with my two favorite go-to custom Lightroom presets… and I’m giving them away for free!! If you aren’t already a Lightroom user, scroll down for all the details on this must-have photo editing software. And either way, sign up here to get your free presets!

Lightroom tips for gorgeous interior photography- Maison de Pax

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  1. Rachel, this is a great post just llike your last one. Now I have to go in the corner and study it very carefully. Thanks for all the tips! I am using an automatic camera right now, but hope to work up to an RSL, then your tips will really come in handy and I can battle all the technical stuff. Thanks so much for sharing!

    1. Haha… Have fun in your corner, Mary. 😉 Really, I’m so so glad you’re finding them helpful! xx

  2. Hi Rachel. I’m really enjoying your photography series and am getting some great tips! Not sure if my question belongs with this post or the next one that you have coming up. One of the problems that I continue to run into is that a lot of my photos seem to have sort of a haze to them and I can’t sharpen them enough in post-editing to get the image crisp without adding too much black or throwing the colors way off. Any tips for that?

    1. Great question, Suzy! I’m off to Haven early in the morning, but shoot me an example of one of your images straight out of the camera, and I’ll take a look when I get back. Like you said, it may be more of an editing issue than a lighting issue, but I’ll look at one and see. 🙂 So glad you’re enjoying the series!

      1. You’re so sweet to offer to do that, Rachel. I’m sure that you’re uber busy at the moment, so I’ll send it to you sometime next week. Have fun at Haven! Now I’m wishing that I had decided to go.

  3. Rachel, thanks so much for the tips! I just recently started shooting in manual and while my pictures have definitely improved, I still have so much to learn. I appreciate you sharing the things you’ve learned and hope to implement them soon!

  4. These tips have been so great! I honestly can’t wait until the editing one. I always love to learn editing tricks. Thanks for the series.

    1. I am so glad you are finding them helpful, Cami! I hope I have some new editing tips for you when the time comes. 🙂

  5. Rachel,
    Thank you so much for doing this series! I am such a “virgin” photographer and literally learning as I go. Your tutorials and suggestions have helped so much! Looking forward to the next post in the series!

    1. You take beautiful photographs, Cindy! But I so appreciate your kind comment, and I’m so glad you’re finding them helpful!

  6. Hi Rachel! I really enjoyed meeting you at Haven! And I am really enjoying this series, too. Especially since I just found it yesterday, and ironically, I ordered the same camera you have on Sunday. I am still waiting to receive it, and I have no idea how to use it. So I will definitely refer back to this series to help me along the way. One thing I might suggest that would be helpful to me, and probably lots of your readers, is that you do a part of the series where you show pictures, and you go into details about exactly what you did when you took each picture, and then what you did when you edited each picture. For example, where were you holding the reflector when you took the last picture you have in this post? As someone who is really wanting to improve my photography, those are the kinds of question that come to my mind. Anyway, just a suggestion! Either way, I am really loving this and finding it helpful, so thanks for sharing!

    1. You are so sweet, Nicki! I’m so glad I got to meet you, too. 🙂 And that’s a lovely idea… Maybe I’ll follow up this fall with a few case study tutorials. Thanks!

  7. Seriously, I just stumbled on your site via Pinterest and it might be the best thing that’s happened to me (since Starbucks…) I have looked SO long for advice on how to take decent interior photos and it’s always too in-depth and complicated (as I am not very camera savvy even though I’ve tried). This is JUST what I NEEDED!!!!!! Thank you 🙂

  8. Love your photos! So I’m gonna try a few tip you have shared. I would actually love to know your editing process. Do you have any YouTube tutorials on this? How do you get the smooth almost blurry texture of your photos? Thanks 🙂

    1. Thank you so much, Christina! I don’t have any YouTube tutorials, but all the tutorials are in the following posts in the series. Start here. I hope this helps!

  9. Thank you so much! I need to take photos of my work to get a portfolio and website started, and your photography tips have been so helpful!

  10. Hi Rachel,
    What is the color you used on the last bathroom photo that has the title Lighting tips for gorgeous interior photography? It looks like Celestial but not sure. Thank you in advance!

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