It seems like it ought to be easy, but it presents one of the biggest sources of frustration for photographers. How do you create those dreamy looking photos indoors when there is low light?
Let's say you are photographing a young child or a new baby. Maybe you want to capture a gorgeous looking dish you just cooked. Perhaps you have assumed the role of an official photographer at a family gathering. Whatever the reason for your indoor shoot, some simple principles can help increase your chances of success.
Use this checklist to help you take dramatic images inside using natural light:
Try a fast lens
Choose a lens that gives you a low number on your f-stop. For many of you, that might be a prime lens like a 50 mm. A basic model will open to f/1.8. You zoom with your feet, but that lens will let in almost 12 times more light than your kit lens at f/5.6. Professional lenses typically open to f/2.8, but they have zoom built in. See more about fast lenses.
Select a large aperture
Now that you have a fast lens, you have to use it wisely. Choose a low number for your f-stop. That usually translates to a wide opening, which we use to gather as much natural light as possible.
Monitor your shutter speed
Camera shake presents your biggest risk for poor indoor photos. When you depress the shutter to take a photo, you move the camera. If the shutter speed is slow enough, that movement can make your photo look like it is out of focus.
Check your shutter speed to make sure it equals your focal length or faster. For instance, if you are zoomed to 60 mm, then 1/60th second is the slowest shutter speed you should use without a tripod. If you zoom to 200 mm, then your shutter speed should be 1/200th second or faster.
Some lenses and cameras have stabilizers built in. If you turn on your stabilizer, you can cut the minimum number in half for most lenses. That means at 200 mm, you can shoot at 1/100th second without a tripod. See Why are my pictures blurry.
Raise your ISO
If you can’t get a fast enough shutter speed because there isn’t enough light, you will have to raise your ISO. Your ISO measures your camera’s sensitivity to light. That means at higher ISOs, you can get a faster shutter speed and not need a flash.
There’s a trade off, however. As you select higher ISOs, you will lose image quality. In digital photos, you will see more noise. It’s a trade off you will accept because the alternative is usually camera shake. When your photo looks blurry because of camera shake, it is near impossible to fix.
Use a tripod or stabilizer
One of the surest ways to avoid camera shake in low light is using a tripod or some kind of stabilizer. You will depress the shutter using a remote control or cable release. If you don’t have either, use the self timer. You’ll want to avoid touching the camera when the shutter is depressed.
Go near window or natural light source
Just like outdoors, we also pay attention to our light sources inside. Use natural light from a window or skylight. The window diffuses and softens the light, not to mention brightens up your shot. If you are photographing your food in a restaurant, don’t be afraid to ask your host or hostess to seat you near a window.
Find a white wall or use a reflector
Using a side light from a window will cast a shadow on the opposite side of your subject. You can fill in the shadows with a big white card, a wall, or even a reflector. Position your reflecting object opposite the window or light source. That will give you more even coverage.
Check your white balance
If your indoor photos look like the colors are wrong, your white balance likely needs adjusting. Lights have their own color temperature, and your camera represents them on the Kelvin scale. If your camera selects the wrong white balance option, your image can look too yellow or blue...or some unnatural color. Start with one of the presets for sunlight, shade, tungsten, fluorescent, etc. If neither of them seems accurate, you might have to do a custom white balance, which means using a white card to calibrate your camera to the exact color temperature. More on white balance.
Photographing young children indoors or even a meal at your favorite restaurant doesn’t have to be a stressful experience.
If you have checked all the options on this list, you should be on your way to beautiful indoor photos.