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How to use natural light to shoot appealing portraits

Jan Stimel (photocyan)

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

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.  



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.

Young woman\'s face lit by window light

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Jan Stimel (photocyan) on February 27, 2014

Thank you, Daniel :)

daniel wade (dmaconthe1) on February 25, 2014

Best 'common sense' approach to the topic I've seen in sometime. Thank you, Jan.

Jan Stimel (photocyan) on February 21, 2014

Hi Alan, thank you for you comment. Light is a magical thing and it is essential for us photographers.

Alan Dooley (ajdooley) on February 20, 2014

Awarded for his frequent encouraging comments, sharing his knowledge in the Nikonians spirit. Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the 2017-2018 fundraising campaign Awarded for his in-depth knowledge and high level of skill in several areas, especially photojo Ribbon awarded for his repeated generous contributions to the 2019 Fundraising campaign

Interesting subject here. This lighting worked for centuries for painters and was also used by early photographers. It is worth considering for sure. Thanks, Jan.