Lighting Tips for Photographing your DIY Projects

veranda roof trusses from below In my previous article a little while back – 5 Reasons to Photograph Your DIY Projects – I suggested several good reasons why you should take progress photos at various stages of your home reno or woodworking projects.

Now I’ll share a few simple photography lighting tips that will help you end up with better images.

This is not a guide to taking magazine-quality photos by any means. That’s in a whole different category.

Camera Equipment

For the purpose of this article I’m assuming that you have a basic point-and-shoot digital camera or cell phone camera with auto focus and auto exposure. If you’re working alone and the pictures you want require you (or your hands) to be in the picture, a small tripod or camera clamp mount are useful.joby gorillapod flexible tripod

Camera shake

Blurry pictures are a result of camera movement while the picture is being taken. This invariably happens in low light conditions when the aperture is wide open and the shutter speed is slower than 1/60th of a second. There are two ways to get around this – add more light or stabilize the camera.

If adding light isn’t an option, then steady the camera using a tripod or other camera mount like these bean bag camera supports. You can often achieve reasonable results by pressing your arm against a wall or post, or resting it on a sawhorse, stepladder or car roof and gently squeezing the shutter button.

camera on tripod triggered using self-timerSome cameras have a self-timer which delays tripping the shutter for a few seconds after you press the button. If you place the camera on a tripod or a stable surface, you can press the button and let go of the camera. This feature is useful for reducing camera shake in low light or if you need to be in the picture to demonstrate a procedure.


The origins of the word photography essentially come down to “drawing with light”. In a nutshell, the better the lighting – the better the picture. You’ll likely have three potential sources of light depending on your situation and time of day.

  1. Natural ambient light from windows (ie. daylight)
  2. Artificial room lighting (ie, fluorescent, incandescent, halogen)
  3. On-camera Flash

natural diffuse backlight from large window Natural, diffuse (indirect) light from a window will usually give you the best results. The light reflects off all the surfaces in all directions without creating harsh shadows like direct sunlight will.

Cameras often don’t handle the difference in brightness (contrast) between direct sunlight and the surrounding area very well. Sometimes changing your location or camera angle to avoid the sunny area or just waiting twenty minutes for the sun to move can make all the difference in your results. In pinch, you can also try shooting with the flash on – the flash might help to brighten up the dark areas.

mixed lighting - flash & incandescent Artificial lighting mixed with natural window light will likely give you some colour variations within the image. Daylight (and flash) tend to look blue, incandescent lighting has a yellow cast and fluorescent can look a bit greenish. Your camera will try to determine what is “white” but you’ll inevitably end up with different colours in different areas of the image. Severely off-colour pictures can be improved somewhat with free or inexpensive computer software.

I try to reserve the on-camera flash as a last resort because it can create harsh shadows and presents a very “flat” look. But it does the job when you need it – like in the corner of a basement or late in the day when there is no other light source available. Light from a flash only travels so far, so foreground objects will be much brighter than objects further away.

light source - on-camera flash & overhead fluorescent shop lighting light source - overhead fluorescent shop lighting

The picture on the right (blue tinge) was taken with the on-camera flash. The picture on left was taken under the exact same shop lighting with the flash disabled.

Auto Exposure

auto exposure in direct sunlight with harsh shadows Exposure refers to the total amount of light that reaches the imaging sensor which is achieved in two ways – aperture size and shutter speed. Most of today’s cameras can automate this function to achieve what it “sees” as the best combination of these two variables. The camera’s auto exposure function works quite well in most situations, but there are times when it doesn’t give you what you need.

The most common situation where auto exposure fails is when you’re taking a picture that has a window (or a patch of direct sunlight) in the frame. The camera aperture will close down to “estimate” the middle between the brightest and darkest parts of the image. Usually the scene outside the window will look fine but the interior of the room will be very dark. You can trick some digital cameras by setting the exposure correctly for the interior and then re-framing your shot to include the the window.

Shooting with a window in the picture:

  1. Frame the picture you want to take and look at your display. The room interior will likely be very dark with few visible details.
  2. Move the camera just enough to place the window at the edge or outside the edge of the display. The wall should brighten up so you can see the details you want. NOTE: it’s better to tilt the camera up or down to keep the auto focusing distance closer to the final framing.
  3. Press the button part way  – your camera should try to autofocus and determine the correct exposure.
  4. Hold the button and re-frame your shot as you want it. Many cameras will hold the exposure as long as you don’t release the button.
  5. Press the button the rest of the way to take the picture.

auto exposure set by camera auto exposure fooled for brighter interior
The picture on the left was taken by just pointing and shooting. The picture on the right was taken using the steps described above.

To get the correct interior exposure with my DSLR, I had to switch to manual exposure since it continuously adjusted for the light entering the lens.

Hopefully, these tips will help shed some light on how to get better results in your DIY pictures under less than ideal lighting situations. I’ll follow up in the final article in this series with a few tips on subject matter and reference points.

Part 3 – Photographing Your DIY Project: What to Shoot

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