How to Take Beautiful Instagram Photos in Low Light

Moving from sunny Las Vegas to the rainy Pacific Northwest brought a lot of changes. Most, I was more than able to prepare for. But there was one that for some reason caught me completely off guard.

 

The light is so different here!

 

I remember feeling so proud that I’d managed to wake up so early our first morning in Oregon. The sun wasn’t even out yet!

 

Then I looked at my phone and realized it was almost 9 AM. What the heck?!  

 

I quickly realized I had zero skills for taking photos in low light. Even on the cloudiest days in Las Vegas, I was still able to set up near a window and get good photos. Not so in Salem, Oregon.

 

My phone photos had to work. I was just starting my branded Instagram account, there wasn’t a budget for a lighting kit, and I didn’t want to learn how to set it up and make it work anyway. Keeping a photographer on retainer to shoot all my Insta posts was a tempting idea, but also completely impossible for a bootstrapped business.

 

It took a full year of trial and error, more than a few hazy Instagram posts, and about a million and half versions of each shot, but I learned! Just take a look at these two Instagram photos side-by-side: 

These two photos were taken during the same season, a year apart. My 2015 photo could have been so great. But instead, it's got dark shadows, weird coloring, and tons of motion blur.
These two photos were taken during the same season, a year apart. My 2015 photo could have been so great. But instead, it’s got dark shadows, weird coloring, and tons of motion blur. The second photo has much softer shadows, good color, and feels clear and sharp.

 

And now I’m sharing my hard-won lessons so that you can take amazing Instagram shots in low light too! Here’s what I learned:

Study the light

In Las Vegas, there was always so much light that I could shoot in pretty much any room at pretty much any time of day without a problem. Now that I’m working with low light, I have to be really intentional about when and where I take my photos.

 

Pay attention to how light moves through your house during the course of the day. Take mental notes on which rooms are the brightest and at what times. What does the morning light look like in your kitchen, living room, and bedroom? What does it look like at your desk?

 

Look for soft warm light. The kind that gently glows in through your windows and makes everything feel cozy. It makes for much better photos than the harsh light that beams in and casts dark shadows in the afternoon.  

How to Take Beautiful Instagram Photos in Low Light - Hard Light Vs. Soft Light
Hard light casts heavy shadows with sharp outlines. Soft light creates an image that feels more balanced.

Set up near a window or glass door

Once you know when and where your best light is, find a good place to set up your stuff. You’ll want to be near a window or sliding glass doors. You’ll also need enough room to set up your background and move around easily.

 

Your setup won’t always look the same because light always loves to change. On really dark days, I set up near my open front door because I need as much light as I can possibly get. On brighter days, I move to the couch, right up against the window where I know my whites won’t get blown out. 

How to Take Beautiful Instagram Photos in Low Light - Indoor Setup
You don’t need fancy lights and expensive setups to take good photos in your home. Just look at what I’m working with! (Please ignore the really dirty couch which was purchased before the kiddo came along.)

 

Play around with a few different setups until you find 2 or 3 that work for you. If you don’t have a toddler in the house like I do, maybe you can even arrange your props and backgrounds nearby and declare that spot your Instagramming territory! (I so wish I could do that!)

 

Or go outside

If I weren’t such a chicken about the horrid cold here (don’t laugh at me, guys!), I would just take all my Instagram photos outside year round. Outside light is almost always better and easier to work with.

 

Grab a good background like a piece of white foam core, large sketch pad, fabric, or painted wood board and set up in a shaded spot outside. You want to avoid that harsh direct sunlight, just like when you’re shooting inside.

 

You might find that taking your Instagram photos outside just feels better. You’ll feel less pressured and worried about the light, and that will leave so much more room for creativity. I always have the most fun when I’m taking photos outside!

How to Take Beautiful Instagram Photos in Low Light - Outdoor Setup
For my outdoor setup, I literally open my front door and drop my art school sketch pad on my door mat for a background. It’s that easy and I don’t know why I don’t do it more often.

 

Use your phone’s HDR mode

Sometimes, it’s just not possible to get the best light. Maybe it rains way too many days in a row or you’re busy with other projects and miss your best light. Whatever the case, there’s a little something called your phone’s HDR mode to help you out!

 

When you activate HDR mode, your phone takes multiple photos at different exposures and layers them all into one. The result is a more balanced photo with a wider range of light and dark tones. And that means brighter highlights and softer shadows!

How to Take Beautiful Instagram Photos in Low Light - HDR Comparison
The differences may be subtle, but HDR mode gives you a wider range of colors, lights and darks to work with.

 

To activate HDR mode, just tap the little HDR icon at the top of your camera screen and select On. When it’s on, you’ll see a small yellow HDR icon at the top of your screen. Tah-dah! You’re in HDR mode! Use this as a last resort, when you really can’t get any better light.

instagram_photos_low_light_hdr_mode_tutorial

Find a good editing app

Let’s be real. Instagram is great, but their filters and editing options aren’t exactly awesome. While I have no problem editing a photo directly on Instagram for my personal account, I rarely do the same for my business posts. 99% of those photos get edited in an outside app.

How to Take Beautiful Instagram Photos in Low Light - Editing Before and After

My favorite editing app by far is VSCO. It’s editing capabilities are much better than Instagram’s and you can fine tune things like exposure, contrast, and saturation with much more control. I don’t personally use any of their filters, but I have seen plenty of beautiful high-quality ones that might be worth checking out.

 

Again, you don’t want to rely on editing apps alone to get you a good photo. There’s only so much even the most sophisticated programs can do with a really dark shot. The goal is to take a great photo with good lighting and make it even better with an editing app.


Be prepared

The single most important thing to do when you’re working with low light is plan ahead. If you want beautiful consistent Instagram photos, you can’t be posting on the fly. You need to be ready for the busy days when you don’t get a break until 5:30 and the sun’s already gone.

 

Plan all your week’s posts on Monday morning, get all the materials you need together, and shoot all the photos you can in one go. You’ll have beautiful consistent light in all your photos, one less thing on your to-do list, and a total boss moment to relish in!

 

And guess what? I have a printable weekly Instagram planner page that you can download for free! Use it to plan your posts and hashtags and track your growth. Enter your email below to download.

Instagram Planner Page - Free Download

 


 

Taking beautiful Instagram photos in low light is all about taking advantage of the best time and location in your home. You don’t need fancy equipment, a new camera, or magical powers to control the sun.

 

You can totally figure this out and take gorgeous Instagram photos even in winter! I hope these tips will help you take several big steps in that direction.

 

Tell me!

 

Do you have trouble taking good Instagram photos this time of year?

 

Which of these tips was most helpful?

 

Let me know in the comments!

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