As a lifestyle family and newborn photographer based in San Francisco, I often find myself in homes or hospital rooms with one tiny window or on a ground floor with little natural light.
In fact, I lived in a studio apartment with one sad window at one end and one bay window at the other for seven years, so living with low light is almost part of my DNA at this point.
My photography style, however, is joyful and bright so an entire session or personal scrapbook of moody images just won’t cut it.
I’ve developed some tips over my years of shooting in-home to achieve that airy look without using off-camera flash or artificial light.
Know your ISO and camera limits
Each camera has different limits when it comes to ISO and ability to recover from bad exposure choices. Mine, a Canon Mark 5D III, can be pushed fairly high (25,600 in some cases) and still be useable.
That means that unless it’s nighttime, I can get away with no flash a lot easier than if I was limited to 800 ISO. However, my current camera, as well as my last camera, also a Canon, showed grain even at 400 if I underexposed and tried to bring it up to proper exposure in post processing.
On the other hand, if I don’t blow any highlights, I can hit proper exposure or even overexpose and my images still will look great even at a high ISO. Some camera brands are the exact opposite.
You can test your camera by shooting in low light, either with natural or artificial light at night and taking test shots at different ISOs. Make sure you take shots underexposed, properly exposed and overexposed each time, then correcting the exposure in post processing and studying the grain.
Move your subjects
In low light situations, the light can fall off and darken quickly. Therefore, I always put my subjects as close to the light source as possible.
Many times that means that they are cuddled up on a window bench or on one chair right up against the window, facing the window. If they are side lit, I always have a large white reflector with me to fill in the shadows as they do get harsh easily.
If the window has any window treatments, I pull them back and if it can be opened, I open it! With this approach, if metering for the faces of your subjects, the rest of the room can go dark and you can either get a nice spotlight approach, or crop in close for an airy feel.
Know when and how to go moody
Low light is the perfect opportunity to go moody, but execution is key. In general, I try to keep my sessions 90% airy and 10% moody, particularly if they are in-home newborn sessions. When going moody, I usually convert to black and white to enhance the mood.
Babies and young children typically have a more bright and airy feel about them, so I like to keep those upbeat, where I’m more likely to go moody with a couple.
When going a bit darker in feel, with more contrast and blacks in an image, you want to make sure to pay attention to your shadows more than you normally would. Any shadow you see in person will be amplified by your camera so pull the camera from your eye and study your scene with attention to shadows before pressing the shutter.
Change your location
Sometimes you’ve done all you can do with one location, one window and you just need to make a change. If I have a very limiting situation, I will often recommend a change in location either to a different room that we hadn’t planned on shooting in or outside.
Sure, it’s not always ideal, but even moving onto the porch threshold or stepping outside for a minute can provide a change in scenery that is much needed to give variety to a gallery or, if you are shooting for yourself, give you the break and confidence you need to try low light again soon.
Practicing these tips and keeping them in my head at all times has kept me from pulling out my flash in even the most challenging situations, including the ones photographed here, which were taken with one window each time and with an ISO of at least 1,000!