In this 2600 word guide I’ll show you how to create wonderful portraits using just window light.
“Portrait lighting doesn’t have to be complicated to be good.” Damien Lovegrove
Window light is a natural light that we are all familiar with in our day to day lives. It is easy on the eye and easy for us to decode in a photograph because we are so familiar with the way light rattles around in a room.
A window is not a light source it is merely a hole that the light from outside comes through. Objects outside the window, including trees and neighbouring houses, tend to block the light from the lower angles and this results in light nearly always coming through the window steeply from the sky above. Light from above falls on the floor and furniture in the near vicinity by the window. The taller the window the deeper into the room the light can reach. This downward lighting direction leaves the bottom half of a room lighter than the top half. Incidentally this is why bounced flash pictures look unnatural because the top half of the room with bounced flash is brighter than the bottom.
There are some notable exceptions to the light through a window coming from above rule and those include skyscrapers and clifftop cottages. When I book a hotel for a boudoir or portrait shoot I always ask for a top floor room. Going up just one or two floors can make all the difference with not only how far into a room the light penetrates but the quantity of light there is too.
North facing windows have the most consistent light throughout the day whatever the weather come rain or shine. When you have sunlight to work with it moves fast when you are shooting inside. The sunlight moves at 15 degrees an hour so predict the best time to shoot and then work quickly once you start.
Ever since Rembrandt used the light from a single smallish elevated window to light his portraits that style of lighting has been widely used.
One thing Rembrandt never used was a contré jour, or into the light style. This has become very popular in photography because the camera exposure can be greatly increased to create a high key ethereal look that we are not used to experiencing with our eyes ability to resolve a very wide dynamic range. When I’m shooting into the light I take the exposure right up to a point that would be maybe 4 or 5 stops more than the camera metering would give in multi pattern or average mode. I make the picture so bright it is screaming at me on the back of the camera and then knock it back a click or two. Each click is 1/3rd of a stop when adjusting the ISO, shutter speed or aperture.
I use the image on the LCD or EVF of my Fujifilm X-T1 as my guide to exposure. I change the camera settings based on the look I want to achieve. There are often many acceptable exposures from silhouette to super bright or high key. No light meter can make the decision about exposure for me. This part is art not a science. I often have large areas of pure white or black in my images so I avoid consulting the histogram too. I just zoom in on camera and have a scoot around at what detail will be recorded. You can’t rely on the camera’s meter either because even if you use it in spot meter mode, we all have a different tone of skin so unless you are going to faff with grey cards it’s best to use your eyes and the LCD screen to assess if the sitter’s skin tone looks right. With a mirror less camera you can usually set it to ‘preview exposure in manual mode’ so you see what you have before you take the picture. With an SLR you have to take a test shot then assess the exposure making any necessary adjustments to your settings that are required.
Avoid any form of automatic exposure for portraits with a window in the frame. Even the slightest adjustment of the composition can result in big swings in exposure. Stick with manual exposure because once it is set you can adjust your framing at will and the exposure will remain correct. That is one less thing to think about during the shooting process leaving you free to create a buzz or maintain the rapport with your subject.
Take control of the light. Closing curtains until just a strip of light enters the room is a great way of adding mood or drama to a shot. To reduce the effective height of a window I drape a piece of fabric over a boom arm that has been rigged horizontally on a lighting stand. Making a window smaller is a great and easy way to add mood to a picture.
Winter can be a good season to shoot window lit interiors as there are no leaves on deciduous trees to block the light entering a window. This often makes some ground floor and cellar rooms more suitable to shoot in.
Adding a reflector out of shot on the unlit side of your subject opposite a window will change the visual perception of how big the room your subject is standing in. Without a reflector there is a dark side that indicates how far the opposite wall is from the subject. With a reflector it can look like you have taken the picture in a corridor even though only one wall is in the shot.
Shoot at 90º to the light source for a dramatic portrait. The light and shade glancing across your subject will reveal shape and features beautifully.
When you include the window in your shot let the highlights go. Concentrate on the mood and vibrance of the picture. Make a holistic exposure judgement while viewing the whole image. Don’t try and recover the highlights in post production it will look unnatural.
Use a camera with a fast prime lens. A standard prime lens with an aperture of f/1.8 or better is perfect for interior portraits lit by window light. I use a Fujifilm X-T1 with 14mm, 23mm, 35mm and 56mm prime lenses. I also have a 50-140mm zoom with OIS that I’m about to start using. Zooms are good too especially if they have optical image stabilisation. You may still need to use a higher ISO though to compensate for the smaller maximum aperture that a zoom lens usually has especially if your subject is laughing or animated.
Monopod. The prime lenses I use are not equipped with image stabilisation so I use a monopod to keep my camera steady. I have a Gitzo monopod with a Really Right Stuff head and an L-Plate for my X-T1.
Subtle diffusion filter. I use a Tiffen Black Pro Mist 1/4 filter. This is not essential but I find the subtle highlight bleed from the Pro Mist filter gives my images more of a filmic look. You can try wafting an old UV filter through some hair spray that has been sprayed into the air to create a diffusing filter.
A graduated ND filter. I occasionally use the Lee 75 System 0.6 or 0.9 ND hard grad filter to allow the darker areas in a room to record brighter. I find lifting shadow detail in post production results in a noisy image. I find the hard grads work best with smaller camera formats like the Fuji X series.
A pair of Ikea net curtains. To make a window into a soft light source clip a net curtain up onto the curtain track. I use IKEA net curtains as they have a long drop and are very reasonably priced at £10 a pair.
Step by step: How to achieve a great window lit portrait
Go around your location to find the best windows and backgrounds to use. Take a stand in model so you can see exactly how the light is falling on them. Move around and look at them from all angles. Sometimes the light looks best viewed from a direction you wouldn’t normally think of shooting from.
Decide on the look you are aiming to achieve, high key, rim lit, or dark and moody etc. If you know what you are looking to achieve it makes the rest of the process easier.
Preparation is everything. Practice twice then shoot once. I always ensure I am not ‘practicing’ on my clients. Shooting portraits requires a constant rapport and interaction. A systematic and seemingly effortless flow of the shoot that comes from having practiced the shots will build confidence in your sitter and help them enjoy the shoot.
Set the direction and shape of the window light by taking control of any shutters or curtains. You can always add a makeshift blind by draping a cloth over a boom arm.
Shoot in manual mode in camera. Ignore the inbuilt meter. Set the aperture to taste so that you get the look you want, (usually at or near the widest aperture of the lens). Set the required shutter speed to give you sharp pictures. Adjust the ISO to set the exposure. If the shot on the camera is too dark increase the ISO and visa versa.
Review each shot using the camera LCD screen. Does the picture have the look you want? Is the contrast right? What could make the shot better? Zoom into 100% and scoot around. Is there enough shadow detail? Is the shot sharp? Have the highlights that you want to keep been clipped? Is your subject’s skin looking vibrant and healthy? Get it right in camera.
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