Indoor Photography Lighting Techniques

light through window

There are many creative ways that you can use props and lighting techniques to add volume and depth to your indoor landscapes and portraits. Most creative indoor lighting effects will use the drama created from low light situations; therefore, understanding how to work with your camera in low lighting situations is a must.

Venetian Blind Effect

Indoor lighting can open the door to several creative lighting opportunities in a setting where you get to control the light source, direction, and placement. A fun, unique lighting effect that you can use on your subject is a venetian blind effect, which will create horizontal shadows across your subject. The alternating lights and darks add volume and mystic to the image.

Dramatic Lighting

Since this is a very dramatic effect, it is typically only done on a single subject in front of a minimal background. You'll usually see this as a close up since it adds mystery and intrigue to the image. It's very reminiscent of old black and white detective movies or classic photography. Speaking of black and white images, using this lighting technique are generally either in high contrast color or black and white pics.

So, how do you create it? Well, there are a few ways. You can either use a window and venetian blinds if they are available. Or you can choose to use a gobo, which is something that gets between the light source and the subject. In this case, you would use a stencil to simulate blinds. By varying the intensity of the light source with the gobo, you can create either a very dramatic or softer more subtle lighting effect.


Candle light

Another great lighting effect that won't break your wallet are candles. Depending on the scene you are setting, the candles can be interpreted several ways. For example, you could choose to shoot an image of just the candles, making the viewer wonder about the significance of the image... a memorial maybe. You can also use candles to light a couple and create a warm romantic feel. Using candles to light the face of a child, however, can be a reminder of fun or birthdays.

High Contrast, Low Light

When you are using candles as lighting, all you need to do is light the candles and set up your scene. However, to get the image that you crave in such a low lighting situation, you will need to use a high ISO, large aperture and fast lens, say f1.4, to avoid blur. You'll also want to keep a shutter speed of about 1/30th to avoid motion blur. A tripod is also a must.

Additionally, lighting other candles out of the frame can create nice ambient background light. Another thing to consider for candle lighting is underexposure due to the flame; therefore, you'll want to play with your settings a bit to ensure they aren't under- or overexposed.

Christmas Lights

Christmas Tree lights

Are you looking to make a fabulous holiday greeting card or searching for a fun, unique idea for Christmas family pics, think Christmas lights. These offer a fun, warm, and possibly colorful light for your scene or subjects. These lights are perfectly tailored to family photographs and close up of pets or children. You can use Christmas lights to create unique shadows and effects to your Christmas scenes as well.

Lights, Lights, and More Lights

While Christmas lights are a must for this type of lighting technique, you'll also want to surround the scene with other low intensity white lights to light any human subjects equally. These can include a lamp, if you are low budget, or you can use a softbox reflector with a low intensity white light bulb. Since this is a low lighting effect, you'll need to use a tripod and low light camera settings.

However, if you're just photographing an indoor Christmas scene without any movers or shakers, you can use a longer shutter speed like 1/15th or less and only use the lights as your light source. This will give you a more dramatic image.

Light Rays

If you are looking to create dramatic silhouettes or high contrast profile images, then light rays are your friend in the photography world. This type of lighting situation is best for capturing moments. For example, light rays can work great to create a silhouette of a pregnant mother. Or, it can be used to capture a beautiful kiss or even showcase a bride on her wedding day.

Haze Is Important

To get the dramatic light rays effect, you need a window as your single lighting source, but you'll also need a way to create a haze to up the overall effect. This can be done by using a vaporizer, fog machine, steam from a bathroom, flour, or even dirt, if you are in a building with a dirt floor. The particles in the air are what really create the dramatic rays on the subject. Fun props like blinds, shutters and morning light can also add to the effect.

Using Lamps

reading lamp

Lamps can create fun exaggerated lighting effects that really up the shadow depth of an image. Using a lamp can take several paths. You can use them to set the scene or mood of an image without a human subject, or you can use them to up the contrast and mystery to a close-up face. For example, you can use lamps of varying color and wattage bulbs on either side of your portrait subject and create a very mysterious harsh, yet warm lighting effect. You can also use a lamp within a scene to create a warm mood within a scene. This can be fun to add ambiguity to fantasy or horror images.

Vary the Wattage

To create this lighting technique, you'll need lamps and bulbs of varying wattages. Since this is a lower light situation, a tripod will also be important. To create a high contrast image, you can use one lamp far away from a subject without the shade. However, if you want to vary lighting effects, you can use two lamps on either side of the subject with varied watt and color bulbs. Using a lampshade on the lamp can also work to concentrate the light into one area and add depth to the shadows in a scene.

Spotlight From Above


Another interesting indoor lighting technique used sparingly in photography is using a spotlight from above. This is usually done to create depth and deep shadows on human subjects. This can be an exciting way to add obscurity to your image or set an ominous mood.

Light Them Up

You'll need a spot light mounted above your subject for this high-contrast effect. Additionally, you might try using different watt bulbs. If you are looking for a softer effect, try adding a white light filter or softbox over the spotlight. This can more evenly distribute the light taking away some of the melodramatic appeal. Depending on the intensity of the light, you might need to play with your camera settings to get the optimal exposure and aperture combination. It will also be really important to check your white light balance before taking the shot.

Add Color

Colored Light

If you are looking for a unique way to light your subject indoors, then think in color. Adding a colored light like hot pink, blue, or even green can add contours and highlights to a subject's body, face, and even hair. The light varies the specific features of the subject, setting a different mood or tone depending on the color and intensity of the light. For example, red light on a subject can add passion or spice to an image, while blue light might add melancholy or despair.

While you can use colored light to add interest to a stagnant scene, this technique adds the most depth to single figures or couples. Images with multiple subjects might lose the effect. Additionally, this can work in for a full body frame or close-up.

Choose Your Color Wisely

Creating the high contrast color in your photograph will require a colored gel for your light, which is a filter that goes over your light source. While you can use continuous light with colored gels, make sure they don't get too close. Using a strobe lighting system and reflectors might be a better option. Colored bulbs or colored reflectors are also a viable option to create the colored lighting effect.

Placement of the colored light will come from a single source positioned on one side of the subject or multiple locations, highlighting different angles of the face or hair with different colored lighting tones. It is really dependent on the mood or effect you are trying to create.

Using Gobos


Another way to add drama to your lighting game is to use gobos to vary the light and shadow on your subjects. For example, a piece of ripped fabric dangling in front of your continuous light source can create unique highlights and shadows along your figure, which can give the photograph an ominous or mysterious feel. Additionally, shining your light source through a fan can make the woven pattern on their features and in the background, adding interest and an ambiguous tone. If you use the gobos with a single light source directly to the left or right of the subject, you can juxtapose the light and shadow created by the gobo and light source adding a gritty, depth to the image.

Finding the Right Gobo

Depending on the effect that you are trying to create, there are several ways that you can use a unique gobo to create interesting shapes and shadows in your image. You can use pre-created stencils or other natural materials available like plants, fans, twine, fabric, and other materials to interfere with your light and create fascinating shadows on subjects.

Other Indoor Lighting Techniques

In addition to creative lighting techniques, there are also other tips and tricks that can improve your indoor lighting game.

  • Use natural light as opposed to artificial. If it is possible, set your scene or subject up next to a window or in a well-lit room with a sky light. The natural light will soften your images and shadows. Using a sheer white curtain over the window can help to soften the light, as well.
  • Mix continuous and strobe lighting. Having continuous lights in addition to strobes in the studio can help you to frame your shot. This can also allow you to see where your shadows will fall before clicking the button.
  • To create dramatic side or under lighting, position your strobe or continuous light on the side or directly below your subject. This will give you sharp, dramatic, high-contrast images, which are especially popular for close-up portraiture.
  • Use broad light sources. Using broad light sources will lessen the shadows and contrast in an image. Likewise, using a narrow light source will create more depth and darker shadows.
  • Use reflectors to help bounce light. Using a large matt surface to bounce light in your studio will help to diffuse and disperse the light more evenly. This will create softer lighting situations.
  • Make sure you choose the right bulbs. Using white bulbs that mimic daylight are best in your equipment. This helps to keep the appropriate tones within your images, otherwise they may look yellow or too warm.

The Perfect Lighting Situation

Finding that perfect mix between too much and not enough light can be difficult, especially indoors. However, trying a few creative lighting techniques or adding some gobos can really mix up your photography as well as add shadows and volume to your work. While it might take a few tries to get your settings right, finding the perfect balance can take your photos for just okay to extraordinary. Now, pull out your camera and see what you can do with some white Christmas lights!

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Indoor Photography Lighting Techniques