Skip to main content

How to shoot natural light portraits at home

You don’t need a photo studio in your house to shoot professional-looking portraits at home. All you need is a camera, a window, and a willing muse.

We’re all spending a lot more time at home right now. For many photographers, being unable to get out and create photographs is their worst nightmare. But even when faced with a worldwide quarantine, there’s still ample opportunity to pick up your camera, start shooting, and improve your skills. Portraiture is one of the easiest genres of photography to do at home — so long as a family member, roommate, or pet is also stuck at home with you.

Here’s how to turn any room with a window into a natural light studio.

Good light vs. bad light

Not all natural light is equal. The best kind of light for portraiture is what’s called diffused light. This is the type of light that occurs on overcast days, where clouds scatter the light from the sun, turning a harsh point light source into a very large and soft one. Studio photographers use umbrellas or soft boxes to recreate this look, but you can also get it from a window.

Unfortunately, window light has some drawbacks. On a clear, bright day with the sun piercing through your window, the light will be too direct and harsh for a good portrait. Direct light will cause your subject to squint, and it creates heavy, unflattering shadows. This kind of light also makes it extremely challenging to get the perfect exposure.

Dan Ginn/Digital Trends

There are, however, some steps you can take to soften direct sunlight through a window. The first is to simply use a different window or wait for a different time of day when the sun is no longer directly shining through. Or, if you have thin, preferably white curtains, closing them will turn a window into a giant soft box. You can also cover a window in paper to achieve a similar effect.

For the photo above, I also shut the blinds, adding an extra layer of protection between the light and the subject. Notice that even very soft light can still make shadows when you want them. By placing my subject side-on against the window, and very close to it, I was able to achieve a more dramatic look with the opposite side of his face falling into shadow.

Setting the scene

Good portraiture isn’t just about good lighting. Identifying your light is half the battle. After that, you need to set up your scene and start to get some emotion and character from your subject.

Dan Ginn/Digital Trends

The image above is an unedited JPEG that wasn’t selected in the final batch of photographs. My intention was to use the plant in the foreground for extra context, but it ended up being a distraction that didn’t add value to the photograph. Changing the position of the plant or subject might have improved it, but given the limitations of the space, I decided to just remove the plant.

Dan Ginn/Digital Trends

While contextual clues can often contribute to the story of a portrait, sometimes a simple frame is the best way to go. This might be especially true for at-home portraits, where you may not want every image to look like it was obviously shot in your kitchen or living room.

Use your environment to your advantage

From spiral staircases to apartment balconies, most homes offer some form of visually interesting architecture. Examine your home closely. There are probably things you don’t notice in everyday life that could be used photographically. Finding elements to frame your subject adds depth and character, and ultimately makes your portraits less repetitive and more compelling.

Dan Ginn/Digital Trends

Don’t forget photography 101

Photography’s basic rules — which are more like guidelines — still apply here. There are two primary rules to keep in mind for in-home portraiture: The rule of thirds and framing. Even if you ultimately choose to ignore them, these rules will help you think creatively and encourage you to look for the best possible shots.

Rule of thirds

The gist of this rule is that a subject placed off-center tends to be more aesthetically pleasing than a centered subject. Dividing the frame into thirds both horizontally and vertically will reveal four points of intersection. Putting your subject on one of these points is a good place to start.

Dan Ginn/Digital Trends


Framing is a simple, yet often overlooked method of bringing more focus and attention to your subject. I used the spiral bars in this instance as a frame for my subject. Shooting at an aperture of f/2.8 ensured the bars are out of focus, but with enough detail to maintain context.

Dan Ginn/Digital Trends

Here, the light source was made up of large skylight panels that allowed the natural light to flow into the room.

Camera settings

What camera settings should you use for natural light portraits?

Although a valid question, the answer is often overthought and made unnecessarily complicated. That’s because there’s no one-size-fits-all for camera settings. But here are some things to consider.

Sharp subject, soft background

A common look for portraits is to have your in-focus subject placed against a very out-of-focus background. This is called a shallow depth of field, while the background blur itself is called bokeh. A wide aperture, which could be anything from f/1.4 to f/4 depending on your lens, will result in a shallower depth of field and more bokeh. Physical distance also impacts depth of field. Standing closer to your subject or having them stand farther from the background will also make for a shallower depth of field.

Dan Ginn/Digital Trends

Keep everything sharp

Sometimes, you don’t want elements of your frame out of focus. You may want the whole scene to be nice and sharp in order to include more context. To do this, you’ll want to stand farther back from your subject and shoot a small aperture, like f/8 or f/16. You can also increase depth of field by shooting from farther away, or using a wider-angle lens.

Adding and freezing motion

We tend to think of portrait subjects as being sharp and stationary, but motion blur can be an effective tool in some types of portraits. For example, if you have kids who like to dance or run around, motion blur can be used to translate that energy to a photograph.

To achieve a sense of motion in a portrait, you need to use a slow shutter speed. What speed, exactly, depends on how much motion you’re trying to capture, but you might start around 1/40 second and slow down from there. If you have a tripod, this is a good time to use it, as handholding a camera with a slow shutter speed will add blur from the camera movement when what you want is the blur from the subject.

Alternatively, if you wish to freeze motion, then you’re going to want to use a faster shutter speed. Start at 1/125 second and increase depending on how much you wish to freeze your subject while they are in motion.

Have fun!

Shooting natural light portraits at home is a lot of fun. Even if you don’t nail perfect shots right away, keep at it — you might be surprised with how much creative potential hides in your home once you know how to find it.

Editors' Recommendations

Dan Ginn
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Dan Ginn is an internationally published street photographer, feature writer and content creator. Through his writing, he has…
How to use Snapchat filters
how to use snapchat filters ar

Since 2014, the social media app, Snapchat, has been updating the app with new, fun features. In addition to the drawing tool, users can apply a number of themed stickers to their snaps. Snapchat's most popular feature by far, though, is its filters. With Snapchat's face-detecting lens technology, you can make yourself old, add beauty filters, or give yourself cat ears and whiskers. The list of available filters goes on and on, with more added every day, especially now that users can create and upload their own. Filters are awesome, but they can seem confusing if you don't know how to use them. Luckily, we're here to show you!
Give permission
First things first: In order to access all of Snapchat's filters, you first need to enable them. Head to the app's settings (from the main viewfinder, tap your profile pic in the upper-left corner, followed by the gear icon in the upper-right corner), and then select Permissions (under Privacy). From there, enable the camera permissions. Some filters require geolocation to be enabled, so go ahead and turn that on in your phone's settings as well.
Using filters
Once everything is enabled, you're all ready to start filtering. Head back to the viewfinder and tap the screen. Your camera will take a second to adjust and map your surroundings, then a series of circles will appear to the right of the photo-taking button. Each of the circles contains a little preview of what the filter might be like; tap on one of these to select it (or swipe to scroll through several at once), and the app will apply the filter. The list of filters is refreshed daily, so if you can't find one you like, check back later (some popular choices, though, are semi-permanent).

Some filters are completely autonomous, while some require you to perform an action, like tapping on the screen or looking around in different directions. Snapchat is great at giving clear instructions on how to activate filters, and many of them are downright hilarious. For instance, one filter placed a chicken on the screen, which we could then drag around in 3D space; other filters filled the screen with digital bubbles, or little floating balloons with cat faces.
Perhaps more popular and ubiquitous than Snapchat's area filters is the "lens" feature, which uses face detection technology to apply filters to users' faces via the phone's front "selfie" camera. The process here works the same way: Aim the camera at your face (it should be easy, since you'll be displayed on-screen), tap the screen, and wait for the list of filters to appear. Here, you'll find filters that warp your visage in creative ways and filters that add goofy aftereffects.

Read more
How to print Instagram photos, from mobile printers to online photo labs
how to use instagram guide 2

Photographs may look great on a digital screen, but there's nothing quite like bringing them to life through the form of a print. Most of our photographic creations sit on Instagram. We take pride in curating our feeds, making them look all fancy for our audience. But what about making them look fancy on our wall? Thankfully several platforms give us the option of printing our favorite photos from Instagram. However, there are a few things you need to know before you go ahead and do so. Here's how to get the best results when printing from Instagram and all the best places where you can make it happen.
What Instagram photos can you print, and how big can you print them?
First, beware that these tools for printing Instagram photos are designed exclusively for printing your own shots. Printing someone else’s photograph that you swipe off of Instagram is photo theft. If you see a photo on Instagram you’d really love on your wall, reach out via a comment or private message to arrange a print with the original photographer. Don’t be that Instagram user that finds a way to beat the system to steal someone else’s work.

Second, Instagram doesn’t save your photograph in all its high-resolution glory. Images are downsized to just 1,080 pixels wide -- that's fine for a small phone screen, but won't hold up for a large print. Instagram photos can still make great prints, but they should be kept under five inches wide -- such as a 5 by 5 for a square shot. If you try to print out an 11 by 14, you’ll end up with a pixelated print. For larger prints, find the original photo and make a print from that -- you'll lose whatever edits you made in Instagram, however, so you may want to edit in a different app first.
How to print Instagram photos from a printer

Read more
How to take pictures of Christmas lights
how to take pictures of christmas lights jamie davies a8x39eo35be unsplash

Photographing Christmas lights is almost as hard as hanging them while wearing oversized mittens and balancing on an icy metal ladder. Night photography is always difficult, and cold weather and flickering lights only add to the challenge. Before you head out to ooh and aww over the local light displays this year, learn how to take pictures of Christmas lights with the steps below.
What you’ll need
A camera and lens
For the most control and best results, a DSLR or mirrorless camera is the go-to tool for photographing Christmas lights, but a newer phone with a good night mode -- like the iPhone 11 Pro or Google Pixel 4 -- can get great results for more casual photographers. With an interchangeable lens camera, a lens with a bright aperture, like f/1.8, is recommended, but it's possible to photograph Christmas lights with a kit lens, too.

Smartphones won’t offer the detail and performance of a larger camera, but you can move beyond some of their limitations with an app that offers more control over the settings compared to the native camera app. Check out Camera+ 2, Halide, or Open Camera.
A tripod
Unless you’ve got a camera with a crazy good optical stabilization system -- like the Olympus OM-D EM1X -- a tripod is a huge help. While some scenes will be bright enough to shoot handheld, you’ll get sharper photos, less grain, and more creative options if you can steady your camera. You don't necessarily need one of the best tripods, but make sure what you get can safely support the weight of your camera and lens.
Cold weather gear
Be sure to protect yourself and your gear when photographing in cold weather. If the weather calls for snowfall, you’ll want to be working with a weather-sealed camera or use a rain cover or be sure to brush off any snow before it melts. Fingerless gloves or touchscreen gloves are also a favorite among photographers for keeping warm while still having access to all the camera controls.
Optional accessories
There are a few accessories that add an extra dash of magic to pictures of lights. A cross screen star point filter will turn each light into a starburst -- the effect can be overwhelming for some situations, but can work well if there aren't too many lights in the scene. Prisms can also be used create cool reflections, and the Lensbaby Omni system gives you a few different options for special effects.

Read more