How to Create Natural Light Indoors
Natural light photography is the art of using available light instead of flash units to expose your scene or subject. While both styles have their pros and cons, natural light is a bit trickier because it’s difficult to control and there may not be as much light as you like where you want it to be. However, you can actually capture the ambient environment beautifully with just a bit of knowledge and practice — and without having to cart around additional electronic gear. This is particularly handy in rooms where you’re paying a premium for the space (or you’re simply looking to limit the size of your kit). Without further ado, let’s take a look at how to create natural light indoors.
Mixed lighting situations
Anyone who has operated a camera knows that it’s easy to get an unattractive yellow color to photographs without white balancing for incandescent lighting. But what if you’re working with mixed lighting (incandescent/fluorescent in combination with natural lighting)?
If you’re working solely with natural light, then turn off interior lights that aren’t close to the color temperature of the available light. Measured in Kelvin units, natural daylight is at around 5000-6500K. The warmer light of interior incandescents sits below that, around 2000-3000K, and household incandescents around 3400K, depending on the brand and color cast.
Given how relatively close and bright interior lighting can be compared to natural lighting, white balancing a scene is much more difficult if you have competing color temperatures and your subjects shift closer to a given light source. Skin and clothing tones can vary wildly as your subject moves across the room, as can your exposure values. This is less of an issue if you’re working with a model taking direction but much more of a challenge if you’re shooting an event.
If you can’t manipulate your aperture, ISO, or shutter speed enough to compensate with all interior lighting off or turn off the lights then keep shooting and fix the white balance issues in post processing.
Getting the exposure right via the Exposure Triangle
Controlling the aperture setting of our lens allows us to maximize the amount of natural light available for proper exposure and creating natural light indoors. Aperture, expressed as an f/number, is the size of the hole that allows light to strike the sensor. The aperture function is inverse to the size of the hole; the smaller the f/number the larger the hole becomes. But be aware that aperture is lens dependent; lenses with wider maximum apertures tend to be more expensive than narrower ones.
Using aperture values wider than f/2.8 will ensure you can work in most natural light settings, with f/2 and below lenses being particularly well suited to good exposure in most lighting situations. Aperture values are a bit deceptive; f/2 is actually twice the amount of light collected compared to f/2.8 and f/1.4 twice that of f/2. So go as low as possible with natural light.
Wider apertures also create a shallower depth of field. Depth of field is how much of a scene is in sharp focus and is essential to the classic portrait look. Depth of field is also a function of the focal length of the lens; f/4 on a 16mm wide angle lens will have an entirely different look from f/4 on a 135mm telephoto lens.
ISO and shutter speed, the two other components of the exposure triangle, are just as important as aperture control. ISO is how sensitive your (digital) film is to the light and shutter speed controls how quickly the shutter mechanism allows light to strike your sensor/film. Increasing your ISO value along with your aperture are the first two things you’ll want to do since you’re usually working with moving subjects with natural light portraits and need to freeze the action via shutter speed. How sensitive an ISO value you use depends on your camera and aperture and will take some pre-shoot test images to determine.
Working with windows
Windows are our most obvious source of natural lighting and having our subject close to the source maximizes the amount of exposure for photographs. Ideally, we want our subject front lit by the window, with the photographer positioned in between the subject and window. If the lighting is direct and creating harsh shadows over the face of your subject, consider closing the curtains or bringing your own white curtain or sheet. Curtains will diffuse the incoming natural light, scattering it so that it’s less harsh and more flattering towards skin for portraiture. The more somber lighting also creates a pleasing ambience.
Backlighting from the windows can also work so long as you meter for your subject instead of the windows. This does mean that the highlights coming from the windows will be blown out. However, if your sensor or camera settings have enough dynamic range to compensate and you’re shooting in RAW, you may be able to recover your highlights in post-processing. Alternatively, you can expose for the windows to capture a striking silhouette of your subject instead.
Reflectors and catch lights
Reflectors are another great tool used to create natural light indoors. If your subject is facing in a way that’s pleasing but underexposed, a reflector can bounce back light from the window to give just enough fill lighting to create the image you want.
Reflectors and working near a window also helps create catch lights in the eyes of your subject. The spark of luminescence in the eyes of your subject is key to creating a magnetic portrait full of life. Keep in mind: you’ll need an assistant when working with a reflector to create optimal exposure or catch lights. The position of the catch lights is also something to consider, with 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock being traditional. Note that the light positions will shift relative to the position of your model to the reflector, window, or other natural light sources.
Natural light is sometimes derided as “lazy photography” for photographers who can’t learn to properly utilize a flash unit. There’s some truth to that, but just as much to say that many photographers are unable to work with available lighting in creative ways and unwilling to learn.
The exposure triangle is foundational to working with natural light, particularly aperture in portraits of people. Of all the tips listed here the exposure triangle is the one most limited by the gear you bring; all of the others require little to no investment in additional money.
Understanding how color temperature works will assist in ensuring your white balance isn’t thrown off in mixed lighting situations. And positioning your subject properly at a window while directing natural light with reflectors and diffuser tools gives you nearly as much control over your lighting as flash photography offers. Knowing how to create natural light indoors means you’ll capture stellar portraits no matter the ambient lighting situation.