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Window Light Photography Tips

window light
Photo by Dennis Wilkinson

Photography is a play with light and shades; this is most true with window light photography where day-light enters from the window from one direction giving the photographer endless options to position the subject and expose it as desired. He/she can modify the light to create different effects and set a mood, thus creating an image exactly in accordance with his dreams.

When working indoors; using of window light as source can work magic; perhaps no artificial source of light can match the beauty rendered by simple freely available window-light. It is readily available, very effective and lets you set up attractive lighting for your various photographic needs.

Many Hollywood movies are shining examples for the best utilization of window-lighting; while works of great painters like Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Vermeer are proofs of its effectiveness. Refer any books of art by master painters; there may be ever so many cases for the effective usage of window light.

portrait photography lighting tips using window light
Photo by Sebastiano Pitruzzello

There is a learning curve in using window light effectively; first there is a need to understand its   characteristics; learn how to control the light by modifying it with the help of various light modifiers, learn how to control contrast etc. then there is placement of subjects and camera to master. Mastering the use of accessories like reflectors, diffusers and gobos to modify the light to perfectly sculpt the scene also require practice.

Tips for Perfect Window Lighting

window light photography
Photo by The Q

1. Choose a window facing north or one that does not receive direct sunlight; direct sunlight could be harsh and produce unpleasant shadows.

2.    Bigger windows produce softer light and you could use it to light large subjects or for full length portraits. To make the light source (window) smaller place some opaque material like black foam-core boards to cover extra area.

3. A bigger room allows some distance between the subjects being lit by the window and the background; thus enabling you to control contrast between the two.

4. For using the directional quality of window light (use of light and shadows to show shape and form) requires a room with dark walls; same time to create a high key, soft look, a room with white walls is ideal.

5. To make your lighting look natural it should appear that the light is coming from above your subject so you will require either a tall window or one that is positioned higher than your subject. If this is not the case one work around is to seat your subject on the floor.

Types of lighting Possible using a Window as the Light Source

Front Lighting: photographer in the space between the window and the subject.

Front window light has your subject facing the window or door and you the photographer with your back in front of the light source or outside the door. This renders simple, soft and even light; the result could at times even look flat and uninteresting. Front lighting may darken the background since your subject is closer to the light. When front-lighting is done; make sure the shadows of you or your equipment is not falling on any part of your subject which is in the frame.

Back Lighting: subject facing the camera with his/her back at the window. 

backlighting using window light
Photo by AurĂ©lien Calonne

This lighting can produce dramatic lighting with high contrast. On most occasions one or more reflectors are used to bounce light on to the subject to show details. Setting exposure for the subject; in most cases may render the background getting completely blown out.  

Side Lighting: subject facing the camera with the window at sides.

window lighting in photography
Photo by Lintmachine

Side window light has the window light coming from a 90 degree angle to the side of the photographer and the subject. This is a very dramatic lighting; with more shadow and definition than front light, perfect for enhancing texture and form. Reflectors come in handy to bounce light to the shadow portion of the subject to control contrast.

Accessories for Window Light Photography

photography tips working with window light
Photo by Luca Rossato

To make the most out of the situation one need to control the light to sculpt the scene. The following accessories if aesthetically used will go a great way in achieving that.

Reflectors: to bounce light to areas which need it, they are placed at the opposite side of the light source. Their main purpose is to reduce contrast but a black reflector could be used to increase it, positioning a black reflector in the opposite direction of light will darken shadows.

Diffusers: to soften the light; they are placed between the window and the subject so that the diffuser now becomes the new light source.

Gobos: to reduce light from specific parts of the scene. They are opaque materials placed in between the light source (in this case the window) and the subject.

Find yourselves a suitable window and a simple subject and experiment with the different light modifiers to see the how each of them affect your shots.

Positioning Your Subject

window light photography tips
Photo by Nathalie Babineau-Griffiths

Usually the subject is first placed and then lights positioned, but when working with window light, we are actually working with a light source that cannot be moved, so move the subject to get the desired lighting effect.  Here are some tips on positioning of the subject.

1. Remember the inverse square law; the closer the subject is to the window the greater the contrast. So if your intention is to enhance contrast move the subject closer to the window; while for even lighting move your subject away from the window.

2. When using reflectors to bounce light on to the shadow areas; remember moving the reflector closer to the subject will bounce more light; while too far will render too less.

3. When using a diffuser moving the diffuser closer towards the subject will soften the light and moving it further away from the subject (closer to the window) will make the light hard. White bed sheets, semi-transparent window/ shower curtains, white paper etc. make good diffusers.

4. When using a gobo to selectively control the amount of light falling on a particular area, remember moving the gobo closer towards the subject will result in sharp transitions between shade and light and moving it further away from the subject, more towards the light source will make the transitions smoother. A good starting position to use a gobo will be to place it half distance from the light to subject.

window light photography tutorial
Photo by Martin Gommel

5. When photographing people it is better to have the highlight side of the model against a darker background, while the shadow side is against a lighter background. This concept of light against dark and dark against light helps to frame your subject and keeps the viewer’s eye engaged. The directional quality of window light works well for such effects.

Working with Big Windows

window light portraiture
Photo by Wendy Nelson

Big windows have a lot of advantages as far as the photographer is concerned. Big windows can light a big area. An area like this is great for full-length shots of individuals or for groups of people, big, soft light, in a white space. 

It also creates an interesting value contrast to a darker subject. Since the whole “set” is flooded with light, you can make a compelling portrait if your subject has darker clothes or skin than the bright background. Another possibility is to have your subject wear white or light-colored clothes against a bright area, such as this. Then their skin would stand out in contrast as the darkest tone in the shot. 

Always have some opaque materials at hand with which you could reduce the effective size of your light source if needed. A big window will let in more light and the light will reflect back from all directions, especially if the room has light colored walls. If this is not the look you intend; you can modify the window for better control.

Working with Small Windows

window light portrait photography
Photo by Jesse Barker

Small windows projects light only on a small area; a potential problem when shooting in window light is that one has to work in insufficient light. The combination of a small window, dark walled room and   overcast conditions make matters worse; compel you to use a slow shutter speed or higher ISO. On the plus side such a scene gives the photographer a chance of creating dynamic tension in the image; provided the camera shake is within limits.

Understanding Camera-shake

Understanding how camera shake works will help you create some really interesting effects. one interesting aspect of camera shake is that it will seem to blur middle tones more than bright white tones or dark tones. Because there is simply not enough information in whites or blacks to show any blur. That means the whites of your subject’s eyes will seem to have less blur than the rest of their face, which can create an interesting effect. A la “hippy hippy shake shake!
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