When you are arranging your lighting for photography at home, this is the tip that blows every non-photographer’s mind. And it blows the minds of a few photographers, too!

We celebrated a birthday last week. It’s winter, the sun sets early, and the lighting stinks when it’s time to get a photo of the birthday girl blowing out her candles.

(These birthday photos are always a challenge for me. Here’s a tip on editing them. And this tutorial will show you a fun solution for all of the photos you take on burst while they blow out the candles.)

What you’ll read below doesn’t apply just to birthday cake photos, by the way – it will help any photos that include artificial light in addition to natural light. And by artificial light, I’m not talking about studio strobes or speedlites. I’m talking about the lamps and overhead lights that illuminate your home every day.

Lighting for Photography at Home: The Challenge

Taking photos using the lights in your home instead of natural lighting presents many problems:

  • Mixed lighting is terrible for photos. Unless each light that illuminates your scene has exactly the same type of light bulb, each of those lights is going to have a slightly different color. One side of your subject’s face could look more orange, and the other more green, for instance. See this article for examples.
  • The direction of light isn’t necessarily flattering. You know how photos of people that you take outside at high noon create raccoon eyes? When the sun shines from directly overhead, the eye sockets are dark because your skull creates shadows in your eyes. Or think about shining a flashlight on your face from below your chin – that’s scary, not flattering!
  • Glare makes distracting hotspots and harsh shadows on your photo. This is related to the direction of the light and it’s also related to the fact that most indoor lights are harsh. In other words, your home lights probably don’t all have lampshades that create diffuse light. You can read more about soft and harsh lighting here.

The next photo, which actually came from a relatively well-lit room, would have been much better if I had turned off the light on camera left. See how the lighting is yellow on the left and blue on the right? You can also see harsh shadows – look at the shadow the unicorn’s ear casts. And see how the top of the cake and the back of the table have hotspots from the bright light?lighting for photography at home

Ideally, in a situation like this, you would move your subject to natural light for a better photo:

lighting for photography at home


But this isn’t one of those tutorials that tells you to find natural light, to find soft open shade, to find the golden hour before you shoot. Because those tips don’t work at home all the time. Or even most of the time.

Lighting for Photography at Home – The Technique

When you are shooting at home and can’t rely on natural light, you can still improve your lighting. The first step for success is to accept that you aren’t going to get a prize-winning, technically perfect photo if the sun has set and you are using only your home fixtures to light your scene.

Coming to this realization removes the pressure to get a perfect shot and allows you to concentrate on the best way to capture the moment.

The next step is to get your exposure set before the candles are lit. Or before the action – whatever it is – starts. I used my other daughter as a model. Once we were ready to sing the birthday song, all I had to do was pick up my camera and start shooting.

And here comes the tip. The one that defies logic and will make people think you don’t know what you are doing.

Turn off some of the lights in your home.

When you are setting your camera’s exposure, experiment with which lights you leave on and which you turn off. The more you take photos in your home, the less you’ll have to experiment. For example, when I take a photo at my kitchen table, I know that I need to turn off the light that hangs above it.

Depending on your home and your lighting situation, you might not have a choice. You might have to leave all the lights on in order to avoid a severely underexposed and un-fixable photo. And capturing the moment should always be your first priority, whether the photo is technically perfect or not.

But let me show you an example of how turning off the lights can improve your photos. In the first photo below, I had the overhead light on. Look at the harsh shadows under my daughter’s chin and in her eyes. Look at the crazy shadow under the cake. And look how much lighter the top of the cake is, where the light is shining directly on it. This is uneven lighting – the top of the cake almost looks like it came from a different batch of icing than the sides.

In addition to the overhead light, I have light coming from the kitchen behind me, and light coming from the living room behind her.

The original is on the left, and the edited photo is on the right. But it was hardly worth editing – no matter what I do in Lightroom or Photoshop, I’ll never be able to remove the shadows or even out the tone of the icing perfectly. Not within a reasonable amount of time, anyway.

lighting for photography at home

The settings for this photo were F/3.5, 1/125, and ISO 1250.

Next, I turned off the overhead light, widened my aperture to F/2.5 and increased ISO to 3200. You can see the original on the left below. Yes, it’s dark. Yes, the white balance is funky. (There was a candle in front of her behind the cake – you can see it shining through the cake plate.) But the photo is editable!

lighting for photography at home

With a few tweaks to exposure, white balance, and noise, plus some work brightening and adjusting skin tone on her face, I have the photo on the right. Look at the details in her eyes compared to the photo of my other daughter.

As I said, it will never be a prize-winning photo. But it looks better than the photo with the overhead light turned on. Note that the harsh shadows are gone, the cake’s color and tone are even, and the lighting pattern on her face is much more flattering.

But the ISO, you say! Am I not worried about the noise? Yes, I absolutely am worried about the noise. But several factors mitigate it:

  • On my camera, I know that ISO 3200 doesn’t create terrible noise.
  • I know that I can reduce noise in editing more easily than I can remove shadows or mixed lighting.
  • Even if I had to shoot at a higher ISO, I’d rather have a noisy photo than one with unflattering lighting.

You’ll rarely hear me say that I shoot a photo planning to edit it intensely – it’s much better to get it right on camera. But when the light is tricky like this, I know I’ll need to edit it.

So to sum up, weigh your options before you take the shot. When you are setting up your lighting for photography at home and have low light and mixed lighting and lights at unflattering angles, will it help to turn off a light or two knowing that you can edit your photo? If so, turn off that light – you don’t need it.

Lighting for Photography at Home: A Stupid Simple Trick