Super Simple Tips For Great Indoor Portraits

Super Simple Tips For Great Indoor Portraits

When thinking about shooting portraits, we often envision big, expensive lights flashing before our eyes. But you can make incredible portraits without those fancy studio lights. Let’s explore a few simple ways to make great portraits indoors.

This portrait of Queen Latifah by Matthew Jordan Smith is an excellent example of how window light can be used to take great portraits indoors.

A little backstory

A few years ago, I was photographing a celebrity for a magazine cover story. I rented a large studio and brought tons of lighting gear. The day was going amazingly well, and we were getting great pictures in the studio using strobe lights. Suddenly, I noticed the sunlight streaming through the windows. I rushed my subject over by the light and started taking her picture.

A moment later, my client pulled me to the side and asked why I was using sunlight when I had a beautiful studio and tons of strobe lights. I told her that sometimes the most beautiful images happen when you use window light, and this was one of those moments.

I felt that I already had the most powerful images of the day, but went back to shooting in the studio to complete the job. When my clients saw the images the next day, they called and told me that they decided to use the portraits taken by the window for the magazine cover image.

Where to shoot indoors

Here are a few tips to help you create your own powerful, cover-worthy portraits indoors.

This photo of Christian Slater by Matthew Jordan Smith is a great example of how direct sunlight coming through a window can set the scene for a great indoor portrait.

Rays of light

Direct sunlight coming through a window in the early morning or late afternoon hours makes for a great portrait. As the light enters the room at an angle, it creates beautiful shapes and shadows. To take advantage of this type of light, place your subject in an area where the sun is directly hitting their face. Shadows in other areas around your subject are fine, but keep their eyes free of shadows to create a striking portrait. Pay attention to your own shadow, so that it doesn’t creep into your picture.

This portrait of Boris Kodjoe by Matthew Jordan Smith shows how windows can make great settings for indoor portraits.

Soft window light

Window light provides a super simple way to make your subjects look incredible. Look for a window with soft light coming through and position your body with your back to it. Have your subject face the window, making sure your body isn’t blocking the light. You will be able to see the soft light in your subject’s eyes if the window is big enough.

This type of light makes your subject stand out, because it hits your subject standing close to the window and the other areas of the room appear darker. Experiment by moving to the side of the window, so that your subject’s face receives more light. For another variation, have your subject stand at the window looking out as you photograph them from outside, looking through the glass.

Beautiful portraits—like this one by Matthew Jordan Smith—can be created indoors with a little photography know-how.

An open door

A doorway can provide beautiful lighting for portraits. The light comes in through the door, but the door can also block the light in other areas of the room—this creates a beam of light that’s perfect for taking portraits.

Start by looking for a door that leads outside, like the entrance to a home. Position your subject inside the doorway as you shoot from outside, looking in through the doorway.

If you have a stairwell close to a door, try a variation with your subject sitting on the stairs. Again, make sure your body isn’t casting a shadow on your subject or blocking any light. And remember to have fun!

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Matthew Jordan Smith
Matthew Jordan Smith is a celebrity, fashion & beauty photographer based in Los Angeles, California. Some of his clients include Revlon, Pantene, Olay and his celebrity subjects include Oprah, Carlos Slim and the President of Iceland. He is a Nikon Ambassador and host of the podcast Master Your Lens.