How to Photograph Family Collections From Home

Tip 1: Get familiar with your camera.

If you are using a DSLR camera these settings are a basic guideline for shooting in natural light/sunlight-

  • ISO – 400 in cloudy conditions, 200 in bright sunlight
  • Shutter speed above 1/60 unless you have a tripod
  • White balance set to daylight if using natural daylight- use AWB if unsure or using mixed lighting (i.e. indoor lights and sunlight).

No DSLR? – don’t worry you can use a little point and shoot camera or your camera phone and still get good results- but the images will be of a lower quality and you will have less control over what the camera does. Whatever camera you use keep practicing and experimenting until it becomes familiar.

Tip 2: Build your own still life studio

  1. Find some thick black material (velvet is the best material as it absorbs light but any dark and heavy-ish fabric will work).
  2. Use the material to line the inside of a cardboard box or drape over a chair/table.
  3. Place your object on the material inside the box/on the chair.
  4. Use your light meter in the camera to expose for the object (meaning the background will look dark and your object will be well exposed)- Take your photos! See my sample photos below:
an open locket on a chain that displays two small black and white photographs inside

A locket photographed inside a shoe-box lined with black material

Black and white photograph of a man and woman stood in a garden

An old photograph placed on black material and re-photographed

a green leafy plant in a decorated plant pot on black background

Black material draped over a chair to create a backdrop for larger items

Tip 3: Make use of any natural light you have.

You don’t always need flash photography or a studio- you can get great results using the natural light you have available.

Just remember whatever your light source the shadows will always be cast in the same direction as your light – so if you can’t move the light source move your subject!

TOP TIP! : Direction of light= direction of shadow

diagram of photo studio set up with one light showing direction of light equals the direction the shadows fall

Classic photographic studio set-up with one light and a reflector.


diagram of photo studio set up using sunlight as main light source

No studio lights? Don’t worry – the sun can act as your key light instead










Tip 4: Use a Reflector

A reflector takes light that would usually spill out to the sides and redirects it back towards the subject. Without the use of a reflector a large quantity of usable light is lost. The colour of the reflector will be seen in the light reflected onto the subject.

Gold – to produce warm tones

White – creates neutral colour effect photograph showing three different coloured reflectors, one gold, one silver and one white

Silver – creates neutral tones but brighter than white

Don’t have a reflector? Then make one!



How to make a homemade reflector:

An old shoebox

1.) Get an old shoe box or large piece of cardboard.

shoebox covered in tinfoil

2.) Cover it in tin foil- that’s it! You now have a reflector 🙂

If you don’t have any tin foil you can also use some large bits of white card or layer up a few sheets of white paper (note the reflected light won’t be as bright as if you use tin foil so the effect will be much subtler).



object lit evenly using a reflector

With reflector

object with a shadow on one side

Without reflector

These images were taken in the same location in my house using only sunlight. The camera used is the same in each (Nikon D750) and the camera settings/exposure are also the same. The only difference is that on the first image I didn’t use my homemade reflector and on the second image I did!

You can really see the difference the reflector has made in lifting the shadows and making the lighting look even on the second image.

Tip 5: Get to know your collections

Spending time with your family archives or personal collections allows you the time to get to know them better, as strange as that may sound, and sometimes new narratives can form. The more time I spend looking at the photographs and objects I have at home, the more I notice.

For example, in the photograph below of my Grandmother, it was only after zooming in on it after I had re-photographed it and had the image as a digital file, that I noticed the sign behind her read “Fresh Cream”. This really made me chuckle as I remembered how much she loved Cream Teas and how I once had fresh scones and clotted cream shipped to her from Cornwall to her home in Yorkshire for her birthday. It’s the little details I love so much in family photographs, the accidental or seemingly unimportant visual information that fill up the frame. Whatever it is within your own family collections, you’ll find it.

Black and white photograph of a seated woman

My Grandmother, (who loved cream teas)!

If you have any questions about the technical stuff please feel free to get in touch. Have fun going through your own collections. Keep well everyone. Rachel 🙂

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