We’ve all seen the beautiful shots of models that made us go “wow!” But when we pick up our own cameras, our pictures don’t seem to quite add up. While indoor photography has its challenges, if you apply these lighting tricks you’ll be leveling up your photo-taking skills in no time. Best of all, you don’t need much space and you don’t need the weather to play fair!
Good lighting is probably the most important factor in indoor photography. There are three big points to think about here: lighting color, how much lighting you have, and where your lighting is coming from.
The color light bulbs throw out is dependent on their temperature range. There are typically three variants: the lowest temperature is a “warm light,” which is a yellow and soft light. Middling temperature is a “cool light,” which is a harsher light that throws off red or green luminosity depending on the type of bulb. High temperature is termed “daylight,” which is slightly on the cooler side but meant to be a bright and neutral and as close to replicating sunlight as possible. The one you really want to get are the daylight bulbs. These are usually LEDs, but not always. Shooting with daylight bulbs will represent your model's color the most accurately. The below three photos of Bristol demonstrate the differences, if slightly exaggerated.
X A low temperature bulb has a soft yellow glow.
X The green cast typically seen under fluorescent lighting.
✓ Perfect representation with a daylight bulb.
There will almost never be such a thing as not enough lighting in indoor photography. Think about how powerful the sun is. Now think about the amount of light a little bulb throws off. The more wattage in a bulb the better! There are photography light setups you can buy to make things brighter and easier during a photoshoot for sure.
I believe two lights are a minimum for taking photos. Your camera flash can be one of these. I find the best setup is to have a light on each side and slightly forward of the piece, plus your camera’s flash. A lamp or lightbulb that throws off a kind of general, omni-directional glow will throw less glare than a more of a pointed beam.
PRO TIP: With more lighting comes more glare. To eliminate glare on a piece, use a diffuser on your flash or around your lighting. These are cheap and will fit any flash. You can use pieces of vellum paper around your lights or set up a light tent around your subject. You can also reflect your light by aiming your flash upwards to a white ceiling or piece of paper, which bounces it down to your model.
Windows can help you out, but never to put your model in front of a window. If a window is your background, then your camera lens will look at all that light coming in and will compensate by taking a very dim/dark shot. You never want to point your camera directly into any light for that same reason. If you have a window filling the room with daylight, then set up your photo area somewhere in the room taking advantage of that light, but not so where it’s directly in any sunlight beaming down through the window. Sometimes those harsh sun streams will cast shadows we don’t want on our pieces. As before with the bulbs - general light is good, pointed light is not desired.
Let’s go into why we want non-pointed lighting. Bluntly speaking, it’s harsh.
X An example of too much forward light with no diffuser. The model is glared out and there is a heavy shadow on the background. (Remember, we want to avoid that!)
X This image illustrates only one bulb just off to the right side of the subject. We can see there’s not enough light on the left side of the horse to actually get a good look at all of him. There’s also that shadow appearance, which we don’t want.
✓ Sometimes directional lighting can be fun if you’re going for a certain effect. This Bristol has light on the right of the shot as well as forward.
You want your horse to be the star of the shot, so you want to make sure you’ve got a clear area with no clutter to shoot in. Make sure all your model’s buddies are not around for this one!
What horse am I taking a picture of again?
For the same reason, you’ll want a simple piece of fabric or paper for your backdrop. Remember it’s the “background” - it’s not meant to draw attention to itself and should be something you don’t even notice.
The very best backgrounds are of a neutral value - not too light and not too dark. Your camera works by grabbing a “gray value” to base its exposure off of. Gray represents the middle ground of lightness between black and white. The background is the best place to grab this value off of. If you have a background that’s too light, it’s going to think your area is too bright, and so will “dim” the exposure of the shot. This means that any darker areas of the horse will end up being really dark and shadowed out. If you have a background that's too dark, then the camera thinks you need a lot more light and it will make light areas of the horse blinding and overexposed.
X "I’ve lost my socks!" Not only do our model’s white markings blend into the background, but he’s almost too dark to see!
X There is more blending in with the black background, and those white markings are also neon. We can’t even tell the hoof color from the white sock.
The gray value isn’t meant to be taken literally, and you don’t have to have a gray background (although those do work very nicely). Your background color just has to be somewhere in the middle ground of dark and light, like gray is for black and white. You want a color that compliments your model and doesn’t turn those pretty chestnuts orange or your palomino a shade of baby poop. For most horse colors, “cool tones” of medium-valued blues, greens, purples, grays and taupes work best. Pick something that is not the exact color of your horse so they stand out from it.
What to use for a background? Anything! If it’s one piece and doesn’t have seams or strange folds behind your piece, it will work. The very best backgrounds are painted muslin pieces sold by photography places, but those can be expensive. The good thing is they are usually huge, so you can go in with a bunch of friends and cut up pieces of it for each of you, making it affordable. You can also cut a sheet of craft paper from a big roll too, or use a piece of fabric (sold by the yard at art and fabric stores).
Try to get thicker material that light won't pass through if possible. You don’t want see-through backgrounds, so you just may have to double up at times.
✓ A painted muslin background really gives your shot a professional edge.
✓ But something as simple as shop towels will work!
PRO TIP: The farther away your model is from your background the better! Your camera will blur the background, which is in the distance, and focus on your piece, really making it the star. It also helps eliminate that flash shadow behind your horse, which is a major distraction.
Angles can make or break your presentation. Ideally, you are taking a shot straight from the level of the horse - this ensures the least amount of distortion in your photo. You don’t want to be super-close, but you don’t want to be so far back that you have to zoom all the way just to get the horse to fill the frame. This middle location also helps to eliminate distortion.
✓ This lower, frontal, slightly-off-to-the-right angle has yielded a kind of “in your face” movement shot.
✓ Rotating the camera brought to life this vision of Weather Girl's head up and stretched slightly outward, versus the actual arched neck and lowered head of the model.
Have fun and move the model around in a way you normally wouldn’t to see if you can spot any “new” angles to you piece!
Cropping is a very simple but powerful tool in your arsenal. Cropping allows for you to direct the eye of your viewer and point it to where you want it to go.
X Too much cropping can make your model feel constrained in the frame.
X On the other hand, not enough cropping will encourage eyes to wander - they won't really focus on your model.
✓ You want to find that happy middle ground.
PRO TIP: It’s the horse’s body you want to concentrate on centering your shot around - adjust your crop box only a little for mane and tail lengths. Croi Damsha is a great example of this. Notice how the image is cropped slightly closer to her tail than her front? This is because her body holds the most “weight” in the photo, so that’s what you want in the center.
Headshots hold the same principle. Your focus in this composition is the model’s face, so you don’t want to include too much of the rest of the model that you start to get lost on what should be holding your attention.
X That leg and chest are distracting us from her super-cute face!
✓ Much better. We clearly know what we're supposed to be looking at.
Now that you know some of the “rules” of indoor photography lighting, I hope you all grab your cameras and phones and put some of these tips into practice. Experiment on different lighting setups and locations to see what works best for you. But most importantly, have fun!