How to photograph with indoor light (plus reflectors, speedlights and softboxes)

Dom Salmon Technology & know-how15 Feb 20248 min read
Images by Dom Salmon for his Nikon magazine article How to control indoor light

Make life easier and more creative when you work inside with the light you’ve got

Indoor portrait shoots can often create problems you haven’t accounted for: nasty overhead lights you can’t turn off, or huge windows that turn every portrait into a true crime show silhouette. But, if you’ve been disappointed with results from your previous indoor shoots, don’t despair. Some simple concepts will help you even the odds. Couple that with the experience you’ll gain each time you improvise your way out of trouble, and soon you’ll win more great images than you lose.

 

In fact, being able to interpret, control and bend light to your will won’t just mean you can get the images you have in your head, but often you’ll find even better, more interesting ideas than you arrived with.

 

So, how do you stop that tricky interior from defeating your artistic dreams?

Dom Salmon
What’s in my kitbag?
Images by Dom Salmon for his Nikon magazine article How to control indoor light
With just a window and a big silver reflector, I could create this image in Africa with no flash at all and make the room part of the composition. ©Dom Salmon.
Go to the source

The key decision to ask is what light source (or sources) you should use as the main light provider. Do I like the nice soft light the windows are providing? Do I need to establish a light source I can control, like a flash? I ask myself these kinds of question every time I arrive at a location. Crucially, this choice determines the amount of work I’ll need to put in to get the image I want.

 

Check your White Balance

Multiple lights can often mean conflicting colour temperatures in the same frame. You might have daylight, fluorescent and tungsten lights all in the same scene. Check your White Balance and remove any lights you don’t need that might be complicating matters. Auto White Balance is usually set as a default in the camera, and there are presets in the menu for different types of light and light temperatures. Shoot RAW if you can, as that provides more flexibility when fixing issues later than JPEG does.

 
Move to make use of the light

Once you’ve identified your light source and got rid of any superfluous sources you don’t need, it’s time to look at where you and your subject are in relation to it. A big window behind a subject can overpower. Lights directly over a person can produce hard, unflattering shadows on faces. The thing to remember is, if you can’t move your light, move your subject, yourself, or probably both.

 

Mobility is the key to unlocking any scene in your frame, so don’t get too attached to a background or set-up and let it dictate how you’re shooting. Often changing a subject’s pose to be side-on or taking a few steps back from the light can change your frame – it can add drama, tame a harsh light, change the dominance of a background — plus it’s much easier to move a couple of feet than to introduce fill-in flash.  

Images by Dom Salmon for his Nikon magazine article How to control indoor light
Nine times out of ten, harsh overhead lights should be avoided. But if you’re stuck with them, as I was in this conference centre in Benin, try using them for a stark, high contrast look. ©Dom Salmon
Don’t overcorrect

There’s often a tendency to ‘overcorrect’ a scene. Bright background light overpowering your subject? Don’t reach for that big flash to fight against it. A simple white reflector can push that light back on to the subject in a very natural and flattering way. Face looks a bit flatly lit? Don’t just add more light to one side to achieve depth when a dark reflector just out of the frame can subtract a little light from one side, adding a very natural-feeling sense of 3D. Always think what small changes you can make, or you could end up ‘chasing’ a scene, adding more and more elements to control that first big light you set up.

 

Lights aren’t the only light

Anything that emits or reflects light can add to a scene. A computer or TV screen’s glare can help fill out a face and add some narrative to your shot. A large white wall is an awesome reflector to add some fill to a subject. An overhead light bounced off a table can fill in shadows under someone’s chin for a softer look. And a newspaper your subject is reading can bounce an overhead light on to their face as a fill. In the movies, this is called ‘motivational light.’ It makes added light look natural and hides the source. It’s a great tip to use in stills, too.

Images by Dom Salmon for his Nikon magazine article How to control indoor light
The weather may be dull and grey but, on the plus side, it turns every window into a giant, cool colour-temperature softbox! Great for some heavy lifting light-wise, as with here, where the light bounces off the table onto our subject, while the warm tungsten lights add flattering skin tones. ©Dom Salmon
Don’t rush in

The single best thing you can do to get a bit of light-mastery when it comes to an interior shoot is to take a moment. In a time of Electronic Viewfinders and monitors, people often dive right in and start taking pictures straight away. After all, you can see the result instantly, so why not? In fact, with your Nikon Z’s super smart metering and in-built programme setting, you will get a sharp, well-exposed shot nine times out of ten. But concentrate too much on a screen and you lose sight of the room you’re in – and you won’t make the most of the space.

 

Instead, take a minute to ask yourself:

  • What light source here is the most interesting?
  • What light am I stuck with?
  • How can I modify the light I have to make it more what I want?
  • How does changing where the subject and I are standing get a better, more engaging shot?

 

You’ll soon find your images are less ‘making do’ with what you light have, and more ‘making the most of’ what you have. You’ll even start to embrace these ‘limitations’. With bright, overpowering light, go for a very stark, high contrast look. Or, if it’s a dark interior with a lot of shadows, try something more moody and atmospheric. Ultimately, know what you can and can’t control when it comes to light. After all, if the light is too bright, try as you might, it’s you that’s going to have to move…not the sun.

 

Travel light

You don’t need to pack big guns for every shoot. In fact, often when travelling for shoots you can’t. So, don’t always think about how you can take your studio anywhere, but think about how you can turn anywhere into a studio. The following items are portable, cheap and total lifesavers.

 

Reflector

Bounce, diffuse, block… what can’t a reflector do? They are simply indispensable. In fact, outside of actually having a camera with you, there’s no more essential bit of kit on any assignment! If you don’t have one, any reflective surface can be used in a pinch. I’ve had subjects hold a tablecloth to bounce some flattering light from a window light source under their chin. It may have looked amateurish and DIY to an onlooker, but it got a very professional result in the camera.

 

Nikon recommends: Profoto

Nikon magazine assets by Dom Salmon. Behind the scenes.
Images by Dom Salmon for his Nikon magazine article How to control indoor light
Dom Salmon uses softboxes to capture indoor portraits
Speedlights

In the days of low-light excellence from your Z-series camera, these portable flashes are often left at home these days. This is a shame, as they are super handy to add light, depth and isolate subjects. Don’t point them directly at your subject, as they can be very harsh and tough to control and don’t forget you can bounce them off anything — walls, desktops, even a piece of paper you are holding. Speedlights can kick out a surprising amount of light, so you can afford to bounce and diffuse it to add some great fill or hair details. Even better, get a remote trigger and stand for your flash and put it away from the camera’s lens axis.

 

Nikon recommends: Nikon Speedlight SB-5000, Nikon Speedlight SB-700

 
Softboxes

These can often feel intimidating and very ‘pro’ to the photographer starting out so are often ignored. But they are just a way to turn a very bright, direct, small – and so unflattering, light – into something bigger, softer (hence the name) and more pleasing. They do a simple thing that makes a big difference.

 

Anything that can go over a light source to take the sting out of it is effectively a softbox. A couple of sheets of tissue paper over a speedlight can turn it from a nasty brash light into a flattering pro-looking catch light. As with reflectors, any modifier you can put over a light source is invaluable as it’s always quicker and easier to control a light source you have than to create a new one to add to a scene.

 

Nikon recommends: Profoto softboxes

 

LED lights

LED lights are small, powerful, inexpensive and everyone should have one. I have a SmallRig light that is bright and covers all colour and colour temperature. These lights can do anything from adding a catch light into eyes, to adding a decent amount of fill light power even outside, plus it will last for hours on a single charge and it’s smaller than my phone.

 

Nikon recommends: SmallRig

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