How to Photograph People Indoors

There are many ways to attack photography and some are much more expensive than others. If you can take pictures of people on black-and-white films by artificial light, you should be able to tackle color portraiture successfully too.

When it comes to creativity then there is no limitation on resources. Here we talking about indoor photography. If you know how to shoot a photo then you can also change something fairly simple to something creative or abstract or otherwise more artistic. You don’t need any special skills for taking such shots. It all depends on the environment and perfect timing.


The first point to remember is that light sources of different color temperatures must not be mixed.

In all lighting experiments that you do for portraiture, the general set-up should conform to one of three patterns, according to the result desired.

For strong contrasts, use a single spot lamp as the main (and possibly the only) light.

For good modeling, supplement the main light by a secondary lamp to lighten the shadows.

Soft lighting calls for several diffused lamps placed in different positions. The number of lamps available limits the range of possible effects.

One Lamp

If you only have one light source, avoid too-harsh lighting.

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Place the subject close to a light-toned background, such as the meeting point of two white walls or against a large sheet of drawing paper that has been rolled to form a reflector.

Shine a diffused flood lamp down on the subject from a slight angle, positioned somewhat to one side.

Use a sheet of white card or a sufficiently large mirror, held close to the face on the side away from the lamp, as a reflector to light up the shadows.

Two Lamps

These can be one spot and one fill-in lamp, or two photofloods or flash bulbs or two electronic flash tubes. With spots and photofloods you need type A (artificial light) color film or flash type film with a suitable filter. With clear flash bulbs you need type F (flash light) color film. With the electronic flash or blue flash bulbs, use daylight film or artificial light film with a suitable filter.

instantShift - Photograph People Indoors

Place the main light to one side of the camera and direct it slightly downward at the subject.

Place the secondary light lower and close to the shadow side to lighten the shadows and act as fill-in illumination.

Place the subject near a light background, which will serve as a reflector (as in the single-lamp arrangement).

Three Lamps

You can use two spots and one fill-in lamp or three diffused flood lamps, flash bulbs or electronic flash tubes.

instantShift - Photograph People Indoors

Position the main light and fill-in as they were in the two-lamps scenario.

The third lamp will serve to illuminate the background, which was hardly feasible with only two lamps.

Four Lamps

With this number of lamps your equipment is quite versatile and flexible.

instantShift - Photograph People Indoors

Position the main lamp, fill-in and background lighting as explained.

The fourth lamp can now be used as effect light. A spotlight is most suitable for the purpose. Direct it at the subject from behind to make the head stand out against the background. You can’t go wrong with this lighting scheme. With more than four lamps you can achieve many beautiful and subtle effects, but four are usually enough.

After learning to light your subjects by the accepted methods described above, you can get creative; allow yourself to forget the rules and arrange lamps and subjects according to your fancy.

Contre-Jour Effects

Place lamps intended for back lighting just as they would be placed for black-and-white shots (to make the subject stand out against its background) to form a halo around the subject’s hair, cast a rim of light on the subject’s cheek, let light play on the subject’s shoulder, etc.

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Make sure the light is not too powerful. The brightness ranges of the subject must not exceed the contrast range of the film, otherwise the shadow colors will be false.

Follow this basic rule: lighten the shadows of the subject until the light falling on them is at least one quarter of the brightness measured on the brightest part of the face. Why? Color film can only faithfully record a brightness range of about 30:1.

The subject brightness is, on average, already about 8:1 in diffused light (between the lightest face tone and the darkest area in the clothing), the lighting contrast must not therefore exceed 4:1 in order to stay within an overall subject contrast ratio of 30:1.

Reversal films can accommodate a greater brightness range but have little exposure latitude; colors look wrong if the brightness range becomes too much. Negative films can also deal with a reasonable range but it is restricted by what the paper print can reproduce.

If the shadows receive only one fifth, one sixth or one tenth of the light of the bright area, shadow colors will be under-exposed and a false rendering is inevitable. An exposure meter is therefore invaluable for measuring brightness differences with lamps.

Background Colors

Choosing the right background is one of the most important aspects of portrait photography, especially in color photography.

Backgrounds can be made from pieces of fabric or sheets cut from rolls of wallpaper or drawing paper, then painted with poster color, which is easy to apply.

Choose the background color with care, for the quality of the portrait depends on it. Do not use strong colors; stick to pastel shades such as those seen on old walls and buildings.

Your range of colors need only include those that harmonize with flesh tints, and flesh is a “warm” color. For portraits of children, the most suitable backgrounds are white and pale blue. In the latter case the color should merge into white toward the base.

For glamour portraits there are many options: black, gray, blue, white or pale green. Black makes the face look pale while medium gray—especially with a slight blue tint—renders the face tone luminous. White also emphasizes the face tone, as do pale blue and pale green.

For adult portraits you can use black, medium gray with a slight blue tint, white, blue-green, red-purple or dark orange.

Practice will enable you to determine suitable hues for background colors based on what you observe of your subject’s face by direct observation or on the focusing screen.

Background and Subject Lighting

After arranging the lighting to your taste, check the brightness range between highlights and shadows in the subject.

First, measure the light falling on the brightest part of the face.

Then adjust the light that falls on the shadowy areas of the subject so that these areas receive at least one quarter of the light intensity of the light that falls on the brightest part. Place the colored background at least three feet behind the subject so as to prevent it from reflecting its color on to the subject.

As with the shadowy areas of the subject, the intensity of the background illumination must be closely related to the amount of light reflected by the highlights of the main subject. According to the effect desired, it should be kept within the following limits:

  • If the background color is to be reproduced with full intensity, light it as brightly as the highlights of the face. The color transparency or color print will then show the background color identical to the original subject.

    instantShift - Photograph People Indoors

  • If the background color is to be reproduced lightly, direct two to four times more light on it. When the background is lit more brightly than the subject’s face, it will be over-exposed by comparison and will appear to be de-saturated or washed out, as if white had been added to it.

    instantShift - Photograph People Indoors

  • If the background color is to be reproduced darkly, but in the same hue, lower its brightness to between one half and one quarter of the subject’s brightness.

    instantShift - Photograph People Indoors

Thus, vary the color value of the background in either direction; you can lighten it or tone it down at will—but remember that the brightness difference between the face and background should not exceed 4:1 (the range within which reversal color film gives a true color rendering) or 6:1 for negative color film.

instantShift - Photograph People Indoors

Here’s a practical method of judging different background color values obtainable within permissible limits of brilliance: cut out three small sample pieces of the background material. Hold or affix one piece directly in front of the subject’s face, and the other two at intermediate positions between the subject and the background. Stand near the camera and observe (either directly or on the focusing screen) the variations of color value between the sample that is level with the face, the others behind the subject and the background itself. You’ll see the results you can expect, and you’ll be able to determine what lighting adjustments are necessary.


Most of your feminine subjects will insist that they look best with their face made up. Persuade them to go easy and especially to avoid violent tints. Pigments can appear vastly different on film than they appear to the eye! Professionals often do tests beforehand.

While we’re on the subject: if you shoot a glamorous lady in a low-cut evening gown, check whether her shoulders and bare arms are the same color as her made-up face!

Exposure Readings

As already mentioned, correctly rendering flesh tints is most important in color portraiture, and this applies equally to artificial-light work. In fact, there is scarcely any margin of error to play with. Color likeness is much more critical than acceptable likeness in black and white.

When taking portraits in color, determine the exposure for the highlights in the face; this should be the key to the brightness of all other parts of the picture.

Unless your lamps are permanently fixed in position, it is impossible to estimate exposure correctly without a meter. Take a meter reading every time you adjust your lamps.

With an optical photometer, measuring your subject’s brightness range is made easy by the narrow acceptance angle (about two degrees). Successive readings can easily be taken on the brightest part of the face, which gives the correct exposure, and on the darker areas (such as shadowy parts of the face, clothing and background) for the purpose of contrast control.

If you are using a reflected light meter, hold it close to the face to exclude other areas from its field of view. Take care not to cast a shadow on the part of the face that is being measured (this is not easy).

Shield the meter cell from back lighting. As a precaution, switch off background and effect lights while taking the reading.

If you’re worried about disturbing your model by holding the exposure meter a few inches from his or her face, hold one of your hands out in front and take a reading on it. If the face seems brighter or darker than your hand, close or open the lens diaphragm by about a quarter to half a stop.

When using an incident light meter, hold it fairly close to the subject’s face, with the meter cone pointed toward the camera lens. The exposure reading on an incident light meter is correct for the majority of portraits, but adjustment is needed if the model has a dark complexion. In this event, open the lens diaphragm by a quarter to half a stop.

Flash in Portraiture

If you intend to use a flash, study the lighting effect in advance by using a substitute pilot lamp. This can be done by placing a powerful electric torch or photoflood lamp at the spot from which you propose to fire the flash or flashes.

This method, of course, is possible only if you have sufficient time to plan the portrait and the model is prepared to cooperate. If you’re in a hurry, dispense with these preliminaries and mount the flash gun beside the camera so that the bulb is slightly above the lens. In color portraiture you can safely use direct frontal lighting; many excellent portraits published in reviews and magazines are taken this way.

A second flash in an extension flash holder can be most valuable when trying to lift the subject from the background. Aim the second flash either at the background or toward the subject from behind it.

The second flash can also be used as a fill-in light to soften the shadows.

When working in a well-lit room with a model that does not remain absolutely still (such as a child), do not use a shutter speed slower than 1/60 second. Should you go down to 1/30 s or 1/15 s the general room light falling on the subject will have sufficient time to register on the film before and after the flash makes its impact. Then, if your model moves, you will get a blurred or fuzzy image on top of the sharp one obtained with the flash.

Guide Numbers for Portraits

When working with a flash as your only light, select your shutter speed and lens diaphragm first, then calculate the lamp-to-subject distance for the flash bulb or electronic flash tube accordingly. The commonest speed is 1/30 second, which can be used with all types of flash bulb. With an electronic flash and a properly synchronized between-lens shutter, high speeds are also possible.

An average lens aperture will be f5.6 or f8. The figure chosen and the guide number of the flash bulb will give the correct lamp-to-subject distance.

Special Effects

For a blue-tinted background, utilize the higher color temperature of an electronic flash. This is one of those occasions on which mixing different light sources can serve a special purpose.

Light the subject with spots and floods. Load the camera with artificial light film. Fire an electronic flash tube placed behind the subject and pointed towards a white background. A sky-blue background will result, and the blue will be deeper or paler according to the distance from the tube.

If the ordinary room lighting seems to provide a readymade portrait surround, you can recapture the informal atmosphere by firing a powerful flash bulb, or a cluster of bulbs, toward a reflecting surface such as the ceiling or a lightly colored wall.


We’ve already dealt with filters for artificial light. Most lamp-film combinations can be covered with light-balancing or conversion filters. However, with electronic flash it may not be possible to obtain your desired color rendering without prior experiment.

The following is a simple method of testing the effect with reversal film. It may not be scientifically accurate, but it does give good results in practice.

Take a half-length portrait of a young model, wearing makeup, against a neutral gray or black background. If you have a color chart, get your model to hold it or place some solid-colored objects in the field of view for reference.

The test film must be correctly exposed: neither too much nor too little.

Examine the color transparency obtained in a suitable illuminated viewer. If you don’t have a viewer, place the transparency in a retouching desk, and light it indirectly with a sheet of white cardboard (or the back of a print) that is illuminated by a 60-watt opal bulb held close to it.

You now require fairly complete sets of yellowish light balancing, and magenta, cyan and yellow color-compensating filters. The latter are the type used in color printing and are made by major manufacturers.

Now examine the picture by transmitted light. If the colors appear too cold, look at the picture through one or more of the filters, in combination if necessary, until you are satisfied with the flesh tones and the color-chart rendering or the reference colors included in the photograph.

All you have to do now is use the same filter combination on the camera lens. Another test exposure should then give a satisfactory rendering. Don’t forget to apply the exposure factor recommended by the filter manufacturer.

With most negative emulsions, no filters are required at the exposure stage, and color correction can be obtained when making the paper print.



Unless you have a powerful battery of studio lamps, you’ll find that flash bulbs and electronic flashes are the best light sources for capturing fleeting expressions and stopping movement in child portraiture.

Generally: keep the lighting soft and evenly distributed. If you’re shooting a group of children playing and moving about, mount the flash gun on the camera; the light will then be frontal and you won’t get deep shadows.


Much has been written about the difficulty of arranging a group photograph, and many jokes have been made at the expense of unfortunate photographers. It is not easy to make a group of people look natural! One can forgive the subjects for wanting to stand beside their particular friends and the photographer for separating the tall from the short.

It’s easiest if you know the group well. Arrange them this way:

Use an armchair or fireplace as a focal point around which to construct a little everyday-life tableau. I recommend hash bulbs because of their great power. Hold one bulb slightly above the heads of the group members to provide the main lighting, and, if possible, fire a second bulb toward the ceiling or a wall to soften the shadows.

For a professional-looking group shot, you’ll need a battery of flash bulbs. Let’s assume that a group of about twelve people is to be shown drinking tea or cocktails in a room with lightly colored walls.

Frontal lighting can be provided by three flash bulbs held beside the camera at six feet from the floor and eight feet from the group. Aim a second group of three bulbs at the ceiling at an angle of 45 degrees. “Bounce” two more bulbs, one at either end of the group, off the wall. Place a ninth bulb behind the group and fire it toward the camera. Point the tenth (and final) through the doorway in the background toward an adjoining room.

The main purpose of this lighting set-up is to obtain even illumination throughout the room and avoid dark “holes.” Count only the bulbs used for frontal lighting when calculating the exposure.

With 21-BSI (British Standards Institution) daylight-type film, the suggested guide number with, for example, one PF 60/97 (blue) bulb is 80. With a lamp-subject distance of eight feet, the aperture for one bulb would be about /11, and for the three bulbs actually used, approximately /16. The walls and ceiling are bright enough to reflect plenty of light from the five bulbs that are bounced off of them, and the aperture chosen will provide sufficient depth of field to cover the whole group adequately with most cameras.


Fashion photography is a field largely reserved for professionals, but if you want to try it, glean inspiration and pointers from the work of the best fashion photographers in the variety of available fashion magazines.

Studio work calls for a powerful battery of lamps, while flash bulbs are the usual light source for outdoor assignments.

There are at present two main trends in lighting technique. One involves the use of concentrated light; the rays are made to fall on the subject in pencil lines or shafts to create patterns of light and shadow and contre-jour effects. Diffused light is sometimes added. The second uses only diffused light to cover the whole subject. The resulting soft shadows give the photograph the appearance of having been taken by daylight with the sun obscured by light cloud cover.

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  1. Great tips! Thanks for sharing.

  2. nice tutorial thanks

  3. Good and useful article, but pictures so old and ugly! Is there no normal pictures?

  4. Thank you for sharing your experience. Any advice to avoid red eyes on shooting portrait?

  5. Excellent tutorial

  6. As I am just getting into Photography as a hobby this is great information!

    Thanks for your help.

  7. I just started studying Photography.. this is what I need… thanks for the tutorial very comprehensive… I like it

  8. Very Interesting Read… thanks!

  9. Excellent article as per usual.

  10. Guide on lens settings would be more appreciated!

  11. you in your writing some good advice. It allows the reader to read it think. This is veryinteresting, well-written, compelling content.

  12. We pretty much appreciate your blog post. You can find a multitude of techniques we could put it to decent use with a minimum of effort on time and hard earned cash.

  13. Very Interesting Read… thanks!

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