Find inspiration in the everyday when shooting portraits at home

Michaela Efford reveals her top tips for photographing eye-catching portraits in your living room.
A woman with butterfly clips in her hair fastens more butterfly clips to pieces of string hanging from a silver bar.

Professional portrait and fashion photographer, rising TikTok star and keen Instagrammer Michaela Efford has built a worldwide following on social media. Her success is partly due to sharing 'how-to' videos offering creative inspiration and guidance to photographers with wide-ranging levels of expertise.

Like many of us, Michaela felt somewhat stifled during lockdown and was keen to find outlets for her creativity. She turned limitations on her work to her advantage, using everyday items and different locations around her house to bring creative flair to stay-at-home shoots.

"I was thinking about how I could create dreamy photos at home and how I could experiment with lighting," she says. "I used Pinterest as inspiration for the kind of images I wanted to create and saw how other photographers had gone about shooting them. Music videos are another great springboard for creative ideas."

Here are some of her top tips and tricks for shooting creative portraits in your home.

1. Let your creative side shine

Coming up with creative ideas is often the biggest challenge when shooting at home. "I usually try to get an image in my head of how I want the shoot to turn out," says Michaela. "I think about which colours will go together, what materials to use, and whether or not to include a backdrop. I love to use unconventional materials, like glass and tin foil."

Michaela says she always approaches a shoot with an idea but doesn't necessarily stick to it. She advises others to be open to their plans evolving during a shoot and to think outside the box. "Even when I'm shooting at home, I don't allow myself to be limited by any four walls. Different rooms around the house can give a different look and feel to images, so I'd advise you to not stick to a single location."

A portrait of a smiling young woman against a pink background. Paper butterflies surround her head and adorn her hair.

It pays to get experimental. This portrait has a dreamy look that was created at the shooting stage rather than in post-production. The effect is generated simply by stretching some cellophane around the periphery of the lens. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 67mm, 1/160 sec, f/3.5 and ISO320.

A portrait of young woman stands against a green background. Paper butterflies surround her head and adorn her hair.

Here, Michaela used the same setup but transformed the mood of the image by changing the background colour and her pose. "Creativity counts when editing your images as well as at the shooting stage," she adds. "I like to play around with black- and white-levels for overall contrast, and to emphasise colour so that images have real pop." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 67mm, 1/160 sec, f/3.5 and ISO320.

She advises others to focus on the kind of mood they want to convey when coming up with a concept for a shoot. "Pinterest comes in handy for looking at alternative styles, and I often make a mini mood board which helps to work out which props, materials and colours I want to use," she says. "It's important to be flexible and open to alternatives, rather than being too formulaic."

2. Find inspiration in the everyday

A portrait of a young woman twirling her hair and blowing what looks like a bubble gum bubble.

"I wanted to show that you can use a random prop to manipulate it to look like something else," explains TikTok star Michaela Efford of this striking self-portrait, which she took during lockdown. "It looks like it's pink bubble gum, but it's actually a half-blown balloon." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 42mm, 1/100 sec, f/2.8 and ISO400. © Michaela Efford

A portrait of a young woman holding a bunch of sunflowers. She is wearing a daisy-patterned dress and standing in front of a blue background covered with flower-filled clouds.

This portrait was inspired by Michaela's daisy-patterned dress. "I bought the outfit and that was how I got the flower theme for the shoot," she says. "I made the cloud backdrop from polyester and glued it onto cardboard, then topped off the clouds with mini daisies." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 26mm, 1/125 sec, f/3.2 and ISO640. © Michaela Efford

Stuck at home, Michaela realised the objects and rooms around her could work as a studio, with a little creative touch. "I have some beautiful objects and ornaments around my home, which I took for granted before lockdown," she says. "Seeing them every day, it's like they became invisible. Staying at home made me look at them with fresh eyes and I started to think about how I could include them creatively in shoots."

3. Light and location

A young woman stares at the camera, wearing glasses with blue light-up outlines and a pink wig, a circle of blue light directly behind her.

"You can't beat good props," says Michaela. "I bought these light-up glasses and as soon as I put them on, I felt like character in a sci-fi movie, which dictated the theme of the shoot. The mood is enhanced by using a sheet of tin foil for the background." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm, 1/160 sec, f/3.5 and ISO640. © Michaela Efford

A young woman tilts her head to the side resting it on one hand, staring at a glass of water in front of her with two goldfish, which have been added digitally, swimming in it.

"This shot was taken in my garden with a bedsheet as the backdrop to act as a diffuser," says Michaela. "I used a glass of water as the main prop. I was originally taking photos to distort my face but I ended up adding images of fish in the glass digitally instead, as I felt like the shot was missing a creative element." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 33mm, 1/1000 sec, f/3.2 and ISO100. © Michaela Efford

Michaela is a firm believer that good photography starts with the quality of light. "I use my sitting room or bedroom for most of my home shoots, as they have the best light in the morning, but different rooms work better at other times of the day," she says. If you're shooting at home, take a look at these tips for making your own home studio.

For self-portraits, and for videos that she posts on TikTok, Michaela prefers to focus on head-and-shoulders shots. "Working out poses for full-body shots can be awkward with so many limbs involved, and I think close-ups are more engaging anyway," she adds.

"When I'm doing self-portraits, I use a remote controller or the camera's self-timer. A lot of recent Canon cameras have vari-angle screens which are great for putting yourself in the picture. If I'm shooting someone else, I'll still often start with self-portraits to work out the best lighting and how the props and backgrounds all work together, then just go from there."

4. Choose the right kit

A Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, a tripod and various stationery placed on a tabletop.

Michaela uses a range of tools, techniques and equipment for her photo shoots. "Images can convey powerful messages, so never be afraid to say what's on your mind through pictures," she says.

A woman in a white dress, with paper butterflies in her hair and over her mouth.

As well as kit, Michaela used props, and simple household items such as cling film to create her final look. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 67mm, 1/160 sec, f/3.5 and ISO320.

Michaela shoots with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, after falling in love with the EOS 5D-series cameras when she started out as a photographer. "Now though, I'm really tempted by the mirrorless Canon EOS R6. I've seen photographers using it for Fashion Week shoots. It's so compact and lightweight, and I've seen spectacular results for both stills and video."

You don't need to stretch to the expense of buying a full-frame camera to get striking results, however. Both the interchangeable-lens Canon EOS M50 Mark II and the compact Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III offer superb performance for both stills and 4K UHD video capture.

"I'm totally sold on Canon cameras because I love the way they handle colour," Michaela continues. "It's something I researched before buying and it's really paid off in my work. When it comes to portrait lenses, my go-to choices are the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM and the EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM. The natural perspective really suits the way I shoot, and the wide aperture gives me great control over depth of field."

Michaela is very keen to try the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 IS Macro STM lens. Like the Canon EOS RP and EOS R6 camera bodies, it's conveniently compact but delivers outstanding image quality and all-round performance, while adding the bonus of hybrid optical image stabilisation and the versatility of 0.5x macro magnification for extreme close-ups.

5. Collaborating and sharing

A woman with bright blue eyeshadow and jewel teardrops submerged in vibrant blue water. Only her head and arms can be seen.

An image from one of Michaela's client shoots. "We added blue dye to the water so it would be super vibrant," she says. "Colour can be a key ingredient. Think about how colours go together instead of feeling you need to splash out on fancy props." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 63mm, 1/125 sec, f/3.2 and ISO320. © Michaela Efford

Against a fluffy pink background, a young blonde woman dressed in a tight lilac top feigns shock as she holds a pink phone to her ear.

"We wanted to go for the super girly 90s pop-style," explains Michaela of this eye-catching image, which she captured as part of a fashion shoot in May 2021. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 61mm, 1/160 sec, f/8 and ISO125. © Michaela Efford

If you're shooting portraits of a friend, Michaela recommends giving them effective direction on how you want them to pose. "I'm better with body language than words so, for poses, I'll act out what I want people to do rather than telling them," she says. "It's more natural and interactive. And it's really important that people do feel as natural and comfortable as possible."

"When I'm shooting video for TikTok, I always try to capture some behind-the-scenes footage to edit in later. It adds a whole extra level of interest and people are often fascinated by seeing how a shot comes together."

If you experiment with shooting portraits you'll discover your own style. "Be confident and don't be afraid to express yourself," says Michaela. "Follow other photographers for inspiration but, as you develop your own style, stay true to it and celebrate being unique."

Written by Matthew Richards

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