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.
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.
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.
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?
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…
Look like this in your photographs.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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. 😉
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).
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.
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!