During this strange and unique time of being quarantined in our homes, some photographers might feel discouraged — especially those who work with clients or are strictly outdoor photographers — but this is a great time to utilize whatever space you have for photography. It doesn’t matter if your home is Instagram-worthy, you can create interesting and beautiful photos in small spaces.

My small space is about 900 square feet. I have a big, long living room that has a sliding glass door with blinds (although that sounds pretty, it’s really not) and I don’t get a lot of light. The windows in the back of my space get morning and all-day light, while the windows in the front get evening light (but only in the summer). Our two bedrooms have one window each. I really have to find the light and make each space work for me. But that’s OK!

I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t matter if your living space is small or dark or not professionally decorated. This is where you are now and you should capture your kids and your memories. You can create beautiful, impactful photos in small spaces.

Baby girl stands in front of sliding glass door in small space photo

My gear for photos in small spaces

I am a firm believer in using the gear you have. That said, I think it’s important to have a wide-angle lens (my pick is the Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art lens) so that you can get everything you want in the frame — even in a small space. If you don’t have a wide-angle lens, use what you have but back up as far as you can to include the whole scene.

Here’s what I use for photos in small spaces:

I included my 85mm lens because I actually do use it indoors from time to time. It creates such beautiful depth, especially for portraits. I’ve found that I really love it for self-portraits.

1. Use light to add depth to photos in small spaces.

Lighting is important in all types of photography — it’s what gives your photos depth and life — but for photographing in small spaces, it’s even more important.

I know firsthand that some apartments don’t always have the best lighting. You might argue that your apartment has small windows or that none of them get “good light.” I hear you. It’s challenging! But, it can also be exciting and fun to find the light.

In my own apartment, I only get golden-hour light in the spring and summer. The rest of the year, I don’t get any golden-hour lighting indoors. But, I do get morning light, and I can achieve dramatic light and sidelight year round.

I encourage you to put your camera down and look at the light that happens in your home throughout the day. You could even create a light journal where you write down your observations. Which room, season, and time gets you sun flare, side light, back light, light shapes? Write down when you get the best light for each room and season. Before long, you’ll remember exactly when to use each room.

Pro tip: Look for catchlights.

Look for light that creates pretty catchlights in your subject’s eyes. If your subject doesn’t have catchlights in both eyes, move them around the room until they do.

Little boy sleeping on a sofa in dramatic light

2. Use a higher ISO when needed.

There will be times when you have hardly any natural light to work with. In these instances, I recommend exposing your images the best you can in-camera. This might mean pushing your ISO higher than you’re used to. But, when you expose an image correctly in-camera (even with a high ISO) you will reduce the amount of grain in your image more than if you had used a lower ISO but underexposed the image.

My general rule of thumb for setting up indoor shots is to set my aperture and shutter speed first, then let my ISO fall where it may. My go-to aperture is around f/2.5-3.2 and my shutter speed is never below 1/250. Then I raise my ISO to WHATEVER it needs to be for the image to be properly exposed. If that’s ISO 12,000, so be it.

A high ISO is nothing to be afraid of. I am more afraid of messing up an exposure in-camera. There’s nothing wrong with a high ISO or a little bit of noise!

Hands holding a baby girl in black and white photo
Little kids on a bed in black and white photo of small space

3. Make creative use of artificial light.

For those of you who really believe you don’t get any great natural light, what about dabbling in some artificial light? I’m not talking about buying yourself an expensive studio light. No, I’m talking about the light that comes with your apartment: the overhead lights, lamps, your computer screen, your phone’s light, the iPad screen or light from the television. I could keep going. Any source of light you have, use it.

Some of my favorite images were created using artificial light sources. The key is to make sure the artificial light you choose is the only light source, because mixed lighting is hard to work with. I typically use artificial light sources at night when no natural light is flooding in. I also turn off any and all additional light sources.

A child reading against a dark background for photos in small spaces

4. Compose your shots purposefully.

Here’s where the magic really happens when creating photos in small spaces: composing your shot to make your space seem bigger than it is. A few of my favorite compositional elements for small spaces are reflections, framing, negative space and perspective. These can all lead the viewer to believe the space is bigger than it actually is.

I love using doorways to frame my subjects interestingly, while also using some negative space to give the illusion of more space. You can also use windows and light to frame your subjects.

I love to use the spot in my home where we have a mirror for our closet doors near the entry to our bathroom. It makes for the perfect reflection and I use it for a variety of different shots. I love to change my angle and include the reflection in a variety of ways. Have you ever seen an episode of Fixer Upper? Joanna Gaines ALWAYS uses mirrors to make a space look bigger. I love this trick in photography, also! If you don’t have any mirrors in your house (doubtful) then you could also try to get a nice reflection from your window.

Another awesome perspective or composition is shooting from above. I actually use a tutorial from Click for this by Dana Walton called How to create artistic selfies from above using your smartphone. I adore incorporating this perspective in my work and I also feel like it makes the scene and space look bigger than it is.

Reflection of dad and son brushing teeth, photos in small spaces
Backlit photo of little kids opening a door

5. Focus on moments.

Although backing up and capturing the whole scene can definitely create an illusion of the space being larger than it is, it’s also important to focus on the moments rather than the space itself. Moments trump “Instagram worthy” spaces any day in my book.

I like to make a list of the things I want to photograph. Then as they naturally unfold, I capture them. Occasionally, I have to encourage good light (I can plant some props in beautiful light to make this happen). On my list, I typically include what I want to photograph. And while I usually have a clear idea of how I want my picture to come out, I am always flexible with the end result. Sometimes my picture comes out way better than I imagined, and sometimes it’s a total flop. But the idea is that I had intention in my shooting.

A few moments to add to your shot list:

  • Sibling kisses
  • Your kids playing together
  • Quiet moments, like homework time
  • Watching television or a movie together
  • Bedtime routines
  • Tickle fights

The list could go on. The key is to shoot with intention. I really believe that when we shoot with intention, we become better photographers.

Little kids on a bed in black and white photo of small space

6. Create a variety of shots in one space.

Just because your space is small, doesn’t mean you can’t get different shots in the same room! Thinking about lighting, composition, and capturing moments will help you get a variety of different shots. Another way to get variety is by changing your perspective.

For example, take a wide-angle shot and then get in for a close-up of the details. Or, shoot from above and then shoot straight on. Backlight your subject and then move to use that same light for side light.

Sometimes I set up my camera in one spot and variety results from the changing moments.

A child's face against a dark background for photos in small spaces

Get in the frame

When we get in the frame, we create something so special: a memory of us. The space we create these memories in doesn’t matter, just as long as we are a part of the journey.

Getting in the frame doesn’t have to be difficult. It doesn’t have to be creative (although that’s also welcomed). It can be as simple as a few shots with your kids. When I get in the frame in my small space, I make sure there’s good lighting, intentional composition, and a special moment to capture. But honestly, my favorite self-portraits are the ones of me just loving my babies, because that is my life 90 percent of the time.

Getting in the frame doesn’t have to be scary. It can be fun! Set up an activity for you and your children to do and then set up the tripod and hop in the frame. I typically use the timer on my camera. I have it set so that I have 10 seconds after I press the shutter to get in position, and so that it will take 10 images, 2 seconds apart. I never use a remote because I don’t want to have to hide it and the timer works well for me.

Mom and two little kids on a bed in a small space photo

No matter what your space looks like, it’s yours. And it deserves to be photographed and loved! My home is where my kids are growing up, so why wouldn’t I want to photograph this space? I encourage you to embrace creating your own creative, memorable photos in small spaces.

Photos by Alyssa Ahern

How to create beautiful photos in small spaces or dark apartments