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The Window Light: Use natural light to shoot appealing portraits

Jan Stimel (photocyan) on February 20, 2014

Keywords: portraiture, lighting, shooting_conditions, studio, guides, tips_and_tricks


Harness the photo power of  window light: use natural light to shoot appealing portraits


One of the most beneficial and powerful lighting accessories available is the window.  Everyone owns at least one. In this article I would like to show you certain ways of using a natural source such as the window light to give your images a pleasant moody look.

Many photographers use costly lighting equipment, special umbrella-shaped gear with expensive energy consuming light bulbs.  I am not saying all of these gadgets are superfluous, but the same or even a better effect can be achieved with a more simple method by even beginners. Daylight in its purest form contains all colors of the rainbow spectrum, distributed more or less equally (to be more precise it depends on the time, weather, season and location).  Although the light changes through the day, it is important  that it is the light in a location where you live, where you naturally take the pictures and therefore it is your light. This type of lighting is ideal when shooting adults, children and pets.  The image's appearance becomes more contemplative than a studio look, mostly because of the special catchlight in the eyes. It seems almost like one's soul is captured in that particular moment. Even known objects get a misty and nostalgic look, which makes it also ideal for shooting still life photographs.

To make a full use of this light condition, you may need a light reflector and maybe a mirror in some special cases, but generally you will get along with a window and reflected light from a door or a wall. When you spend some time learning the light's characteristics, you will quickly learn how to master its use.  



Choosing the appropriate location


A big window is half the key to success and a wise chosen background the other half. To find a right window and shooting location it takes some time and effort.  The window and the room have to be rather large. A small window can be used for shooting a head or a hand detail only, a nice and big window is therefore a better choice, because it lights the whole person and you can freely choose what to capture. The light coming from a small window may be only enough to light the face and not the body.  Larger rooms are usually brighter and there are a larger number of windows. 

A bounce box as a light reflector should be as big (or larger) as the photographed part.  For a head a smaller bounce box may be used.  When you photograph the body and hands as well, you should have a really big reflecting surface at hand.  In the final image it looks better when a person is lit all over.

When shooting with only one light source it bears the risk that one part of an object will be overexposed.  The light intensity can be easily adjusted in this case by moving the subject\model closer to the window or away from it. Overexposed parts which are burned out are very difficult or impossible to reconstruct during post-production. This method  (moving subject closer or farther from window) to over or under exposed images is easy, but bear in mind that with every move of the photographed object you have to also move the camera,  and that may change your background. It requires some time and practice to sculpt a scene adequately.


Too many items in the background are not good choice for a portrait.  It distracts a viewer's eye. A clear background is a preferred alternative. 


Choosing the background


A picture frame, a mirror on the wall, space between two objects or a shadow can be used to frame a person which is then separated from the background. For most situations I recommend a clear and unruffled wall when photographing a person.  A solid colored wall or a soft tapestry is a good choice as well. A dark old wooden cupboard or a fairly blurred background are also good choices, because they should not distract the viewer’s eye from the person. 

You want to avoid any objects in the back which may be distracting and redundant, even if the light conditions are good.  Be aware of the individual objects in the background. Items such as books or children’s toys may draw attention away from your prime subject. In a sense, the photographed subject will be drawn in an ocean of bits and pieces. On the other hand, a row of books on a shelf could help “paint” the picture of a studious person. A background when chosen sensibly can tell something about the person, e.g. a pink wall with a poster in the corner in a girl's room, an open window with curtains in the bedroom or a painting in the living room which invokes pleasant memories. 


No dark shadows but you see the photographer in the eye with the front light.


The angle of light


Most photographers use side light shining in 45 to 90 degrees. This illuminates one side of the subject, while creating a thrilling effect and intense deep shadows. A front light is achieved when you take a picture of a person frontally with the light source at your back.  This way of taking a picture has also its own unique characteristics. The face is flattened, the dark parts vanish, there is barely a shadow under the nose and eyes and the catchlight in the eyes is stronger and sharper. To compensate for the head-on light coming directly on your subject’s  face it may be necessary to step down the exposure and therefore the background gets darker.  Sometimes even the hair gets darker depending on the exposure and lighting. You should be careful also not to throw a shadow on the subject. Generally speaking it is difficult to shoot in these front light conditions and difficult to pay attention to all the details.


A light reflector is a great help to soften the shadows.


The light was very subtle and shone through the window at about a 45° angle on the day I was taking pictures of my good friend Lenka.  I shot the portrait of her looking towards the right of frame with my standard equipment - Nikon D3200 and AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8G IF-ED, occasionally using a white bounce box as a reflector. Lenka sits on a window sills and looks through the window glass, the light outside is very soft and it provides the skin a tender look. A gentle catchlight to the eyes helps Lenka's gaze into infinity with an overall softness which contributes to a dreamy atmosphere. Don't be afraid to pose a person into a posture. Communicating with the photographed person, whether a family member or a good friend, is a vital part of the photo shooting session, and it makes them more confident because they know where to look, how to stand etc. 


The light coming from a side gives the image more dramatic effect because of the emphasized highlights and shadows.  In some cases when the light is too strong, a part of the face may be overexposed and the other part underexposed.  Then it comes to what type of effect do you want to achieve. I recommend  experimenting  with a bounce box or other light reflector to correct the exposure on the darker side of the subject to achieve a more subtle look.  You can test to balance the light intensity and reduce the shadow on the averted side of the face.

For a certain effect you may want to use the window light as your only light source. In that case ask the subject to come closer to the windows and then measure the correct exposure for the lighter part of the face. This action would improve the dramatic effect, because one part of the face will be dim and the other part exposed normally. 


Lenka is not sad.  The scene was lit primarily from one side (the window). The exposure was measured and adjusted to the brighter part of her face.



The window direction


There is no major preference for a special window direction.  A window facing north can provide a nice diffused light as well as one facing east, but you may have to raise the ISO to get an adequate exposure.  The north side provides only little light in the most cases. When you shoot in different rooms at a number of windows, try some familiar places and new shooting angles and you will surely find a particular arrangement at which an image looks best.

Beware of intensive direct sunlight as this creates unpleasant shadows in the face and leads to overexposure in images, an indirect and diffused light source produces the best effect for most of the pictures. In case you can't avoid a strong light, you can use daylight in a creative way, perhaps using the curtains to produce a stripe effect with shadows on the persons face.  


Portrait of young woman lit by window light

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