December 29, 2022

Will My In-Home Family Portraits Be Light and Bright or Dark and Dramatic?

One of the unique aspects of in-home family portraits is no two sessions are alike. While I often see photos of my clients’ homes prior to arriving for their session, I really have no idea until I get there what the space will be like or how much light we’ll actually have to work with. This is part of the challenge and fun of in-home family portraits — finding the best light and using the unique features of every space to create something special.

If you’ve checked out my newborn and family portfolios, you’ll probably notice that some of my in-home work is light and bright, whereas other sessions embrace the shadows. Maybe you’re wondering how in-home photos would turn out in your home. I’m going to discuss here some of the factors that can affect the look of your in-home photos.

Light and bright?
Or dark and dramatic?

The Number and Size of the Windows

Probably the biggest factor affecting the aesthetic of in-home photos is the number of windows and the size of those windows. I’ve done many in-home sessions in high rise buildings where many of the rooms had entire walls of floor to ceiling windows high in the sky. Not surprisingly, those photos tend to be light and bright because the rooms are drenched in sunlight.

For example, this couple is standing in front of a wall of windows. That’s a huge light source that filled the entire room with light enabling us to shoot almost anywhere in the room such as on the living room couch.

In contrast, historic brownstones and prewar buildings tend to have fewer windows that are smaller in size. In these sessions we often stay a bit closer to the windows and there is a beautiful contrast between the window light and the shadows where the light falls off. I think these shadows create a beautiful intimacy that is special in its own way.

I love how the light hits their faces and then falls away.
This room only had one small window, but we stayed close to it.

The Weather

It may seem odd that the weather should matter when we’re shooting indoors, but since we’re usually relying only on window light, the quality of that light is important! The light coming in through the windows is going to look different on a sunny day compared to a cloudy day. Light can also look different in different seasons, and whether it’s streaming in directly or blocked by other buildings. I’m used to working in all of these conditions and the specific light coming into your home on any given day is part of what will make the session unique.

In this photo below, the light was streaming directly into the brownstone windows creating a sun flare and lighting up mom’s hair. Had it been overcast, the aesthetic would have looked very different and I probably would have posed mom and baby facing the window rather than backlit.

Direct sunlight can create magical effects.

Your Decor

Light colors reflect light, while dark colors absorb light. So if you have mostly light colored decor, your photos will most likely be light and bright, and we can use the reflected light to allow us to shoot throughout your space even away from the windows.

This family had a wall of windows AND light decor AND they wore light colors! No surprise that their photos have a bright aesthetic.

In contrast, if you have dark hardwood floors and dark colored walls, your photos may have a darker overall aesthetic no matter how much window light is coming in. In this situation, with darker colors absorbing the light, we may need to be strategic about where we shoot, staying close to windows and finding interesting pockets of light. This is not a bad thing! These “limitations” and how we problem solve around them can result in truly creative and unique photos.

You can see that this home had dark hardwood floors and some amazing! but dark wallpaper. It was also cloudy outside. We problem solved by using flash for the photos in this room.

What You Wear

While it may seem unexpected that your outfit choice will make much of a difference, it does! While your shirt isn’t taking up the same square footage as a rug or wall, it’s the item that is closest to your face. A light colored top is going to reflect light back onto your face (flattering), whereas a dark shirt is likely to cast shadows onto your face and also anyone next to you (not ideal). Dark shirts also reflect darkness into peoples’ eyes, sometimes making blue eyes appear darker than they are. For this reason, I always recommend to clients that they choose lighter colored tops for in-home sessions. I send all of my clients a wardrobe guide with these and other tips prior to their session.

Below are a couple examples that demonstrate how darker outfits can affect the overall look of the photos. To be clear, I love these kinds of darker photos just as much as the light and bright ones. I especially love how the light falls on the subjects and then is absorbed by the darkness. But imagine that the subjects in these photos were wearing light colors. You can easily see how it would change the overall look of the photos. These darker outfits worked because we still had enough light coming in through the windows. But in some spaces with suboptimal light, a darker outfit is a risky choice.

It’s Not One or the Other

The reality is that photos are rarely only light or dark. There’s usually a mix of lights and darks going on in any session. We can also use flash to help with extreme low light situations. However, natural lights is far preferable, and when a space gets only limited natural light, having light decor or wearing light colored outfits can help tremendously with leveraging what light we do have.

Having shot in-home sessions in basement apartments, windowless rooms, and on rainy days, I can attest that every space has the potential to allow for beautiful in-home photos. Contact me to discuss booking a session!

  1. Leigh Ann says:

    What a great bit of information that client’s might not think to ask about.

  2. Jaime says:

    I love this!! I always feel like you should let the light be the light. Dark and moody or light and bright is so beautiful! Your work is ALWAYS phenomenal!

  3. Becca says:

    So many good points! There’s a ton of factors that will effect the brightness in the finished product and I love how you explained them all so clearly!

  4. Lynda says:

    Great information! Thanks!

  5. Charis says:

    This is an excellent explanation of how photos can look different in different homes! Good things to think about for different situations.

  6. Jamie says:

    I’m a photographer too and I love how concise your post is. Great description and explanations. I need a post like this on my site too! Your clients will be so grateful.


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