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01. Deep into a room the window light can fall away in quantity but the quality still remains. ISO 200, 1/6th second at f/4. I shot Mike from a high viewpoint to add interest.

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.

window light portrait 02

02. The mood, contrast and drama in this portrait comes from both working at 90 degrees to the light source and there being very little reflection coming from the opposite side. Don’t rule out using cellars like this because the light in cellars coming through gratings or sunken windows can be very dramatic as it tends to fall off very quickly. The textures on cellar walls can be fabulous too.

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.

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03. A house style of mine is to have my client or model looking towards the light. It highlights the facial bone structure and delivers a dramatic image. I love the diagonals working both ways in this image taken in a derelict mansion in Phnom Penh.

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.

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04. I created this signature lighting set up by placing the sofa under a North facing window and blocking out all the other windows and light sources in the room. ISO 1600, 1/125th second at f/2.

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.

04. Soft delicate window light from two directions is the finest available.

05. Soft delicate window light from two directions is considered by many to be the finest available.  I like to shoot at 90 degrees to the light source. ISO 800, 1/180th second at f/2.5.  Shooting into the corner of a room with windows on two facades gives this simple two point lighting style.

Ever since Rembrandt used the light from a single smallish elevated window to light his portraits that style of lighting has been widely used.

01. A small window about 30cm square provided the light for Rembrandt's classic self portraits.

06. A small window about 30cm square provided the light for Rembrandt’s classic self portraits.

2. Girl at a Window by Rembrand shows how he established controlled side lighting from a relatively large window to create a mood. You can tell the portrait was taken in a basement with the light coming through the window from above.

07. Girl at a Window by Rembrandt shows how he established controlled side lighting from a relatively large window to create a mood. You can tell the portrait was taken in a basement with the light coming through the window from above. I’m guessing it was painted in the kitchen of a big house. Kitchens were always the warmest place to be and the girl’s rosy cheeks are a big clue. Rembrandt chose to paint the girl with the unlit side of her face nearest the easel. This has the effect of making the lit and unlit sides of the face appear equal in size. I love the texture in the walls and the colour palette of this shot. This would make a wonderful shoot location today.

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.

06. This high key study in Norway is completely contré jour. There are no windows on the camera side of the room just masses of reflected light from the pale walls and white floors.

08. This high key study in Sweden is completely contré jour.  There are no windows on the camera side of the room just masses of reflected light from the pale walls and white floors.

09. Into the light. Deep into a room with plus a couple of stops on where the camera would place the exposure .

09. Into the light. Deep into a room with plus a couple of stops on where the camera would place the exposure.  Simple elegant and supremely delicate. I love Chloe’s scalped back hair. I often go back into a room and shoot back towards the windows because the light becomes calmer. I nearly always use a monopod to keep the camera still. ISO 800, 1/25th second at f/4.

10. This is utilising the same strategy as I used in the shot above but taken 5 years later.

10. This is utilising the same strategy that I used in the shot above but taken 5 years later. I have even rested Iskra’s head on the wardrobe door to soften and relax her neck muscles. The only window in the room is behind Iskra over her left shoulder.

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.

13. If you have sun

11. If you have sunlight coming into the room use it however you can. I use a Venetian blind attached to a lighting stand to create patterns and shapes. Other sorts of Gobos work well too.

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.

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12. Contemporary commercial portraits can utilise widow light too. I kept this frame beautifully simple. The darkest and lightest tones are on my subject. The shadow tones in the walls are crucial to hold interest and justify the extreme framing. ISO 800, 1/60th second at f/5.

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.

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13. I love subtle tones, light walls and coordinated styling. You can see the pattern repeating. I’m using the bench to give me a strong diagonal. Incidentally if I shot from a lower position the bench line would become horizontal. I’ve asked Alicia to look through the window and light has revealed her beautiful facial structure.

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.

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14. Just one metre from a deep sash window is a fine place to be. This light has been used by many of the great photographers over the past 100 or so years and it has a timeless look.

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15. When you create shape in a figure always work with asymmetry. I asked Katy to raise her left arm above her and lift her posture to create a wonderful curve in her back. I then rotated Katy until the light revealed the the structure of her back. Horrible orange curtains don’t look so bad in black and white.

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16. With the room curtains closed to create the shape of a strip light it forms a perfect rim light from this angle. Standing next to the window to take the picture would have still make a beautiful shot but perhaps it would have been more obvious. ISO 400, 1/60th second at f/4.

Top tips:
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.

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17. This shot is lit by the light from two windows in a bar in Bristol. I placed my model between the windows and shot at 90 degrees. The light on the table in front of her is from a downlighter spot. ISO 800, 1/50th second at f/4.

Kit list:
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.

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18. This intimate picture was lit by two windows either side of the bedroom. ISO 800, 1/125th second at f/3.2.

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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18. If you look carefully in this shot you can see where I have hung my IKEA net curtains up in the window with croc clips. This shot could have been exposed at several levels but I chose to let the white go yet maintain black level beneath the sofa. ISO 800, 1/60th at f/4.

19. If you find yourself in an abandoned palace on Bokor mountain in Cambodia with the clouds rolling in you will know exactly what to do. Shoot at 90 degrees to the light and point your subject towards the light. Oh and make some diagonals work for you too.

19. If you find yourself in an abandoned palace on Bokor mountain in Cambodia with the clouds rolling in you will know exactly what to do. Shoot at 90 degrees to the windows and point your subject towards the light. Oh and make some diagonals work for you too.

You can view more of my work on my website where there are over 2000 images arranged in 23 galleries. Or you can join me on a photographic adventure. See my Passion website for the latest information on my workshops and photographic holidays.

Do this next: Learn more about lighting and portraiture by downloading my Illumination video right now.

Feel free to comment on this post below.

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35 Responses

  1. Jeremy Hoare

    Reference to Rembrandt, something I do whenever I give TV Camera & Lighting or Hollywood Portraits workshops. I tell students to spend a day at the National Gallery (or any gallery) and study light and composition, you can’t beat the masters!

    Reply
  2. Gary Hogan

    Great article Damien I find myself reading them time and time again hoping it will all sink in. I find your articles very enlightening if you’ll excuse the pun.

    Reply
    • Damien

      Many thanks Gary, That’s the beauty of the written word and indeed video. You can replay a video as often as you want and that is why I use it as the backbone for my training. Kindest regards, Damien.

      Reply
  3. Jin

    Another great article. I am learning so much on lighting from your videos and articles. I bought a few of your videos, and enjoy the production quality as well as the multitude of setups/examples. Hope you will come out with an advanced post-processing video in the future.

    Reply
    • Damien

      Hi Jin,

      Thank you ever so much for your kind words. I will be doing bite sized post production tutorials at some point. A bit of politics has stopped me from making the follow up video on Lightroom but feel free to ask me any questions that arise from the first Lightroom video I made.

      Kind regards,

      Damien.

      Reply
  4. Robert Wilson

    Another illuminating article Damien,interesting and informative as ever. Your articles are not to be missed thank you so much for sharing your knowledge Damien.

    Reply
  5. Ryan

    I found your tutorials about a month ago, and love the way you work… Especially with the high ISO… Inspirational and game changing for me…

    Reply
    • Damien

      Hi Ryan,

      Thanks for your compliments. High ISO is nothing new to me. I spent many years in the 80s and 90s shooting on 35mm Fuji Neopan 1600 ASA film. A bit of grain and texture really adds to the soul of an image. It’s a characteristic lost by those seeking technical perfection with digital photography.

      Kindest regards,

      Damien.

      Reply
  6. Mark

    Hi Damien, I stumbled across your website recently and I am blown away by the sheer quality of your work, inspirational and a fantastic blog. I few weeks ago I ditched Canon gear in favour of an XE-2 with the 18-55, happy days ahead!

    Reply
  7. Christian

    Hi, I trying to learn how to take a photo like the first one on the page of the guy in the chair with window light. I understand the setting you used but what about the light meter? When taking photos like that is your meter in the middle at 0 with the settings you listed or is it okay to not have it in the center? Just trying to figure out how to get those cool, deep, dark looking photos. Wasn’t sure how you came up with the settings. It seems like it would be too dark on the histogram. Please explain your method.

    Reply
    • Damien

      Hi Christian,

      Thanks for your questions. I don’t use a meter or look at the histogram. I use the LCD or EVF and adjust the camera settings (ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed) until I like the look of the picture then I press the shutter button. That’s the beauty of working mirrorless. What you see is what you get. I have the screen brightness set to manual and in the centre position.

      I hope this helps.

      Damien.

      Reply
  8. Jon

    Excellent work! I’ve enjoyed looking through the various images and it’s nice to see so many great photos being made with the Fuji products. Inspiration for me :-)

    Reply
  9. Tom

    Thanks heaps for this great tutorial featuring true insights and many great tips.

    I don’t think that mirrorless cameras are always a better choice, though. Can you not achieve the same exposure preview with a DSLR by using live view? In any event, neither camera type can show a proper preview as soon as a speedlight is added to the mix.

    BTW, if you would like to have stabilised primes, or in fact any lens old or new, long or wide then try a Pentax DSLR where the image stabilisation is accomplished through shifting the sensor.

    Thanks again for the tutorial, I’ll make sure to look at your other posts as well.

    Reply
    • Damien

      Hi Tom, thanks for the compliments. A mirrorless camera EVF and LCD screen show exactly the frame and exposure/ colour rendition etc. Live view on a DSLR is usually optimised for video at 16×9 and there is always a delay while the shutter closes, the mirror flips down, the aperture is set then the mirror flips up and the shutter opens to make the picture. I agree with the Speedlight scenario but the mirrorless camera can show you exactly how the background will look so if you want to cut back the ambient exposure a nats you can dial it in using the LCD or EVF. Mirrorless is definateley the way forward for many if not most photographers. The next generation of mirrorless cameras will be even faster to use and have the latest sensors/ processors etc. The important thing to understand is the gear you use is so immaterial, the shots you take are what really matters and I’d be able to shoot this stuff on any camera. I just love shooting it on my Fuji. It’s like driving from London to Birmingham. Any car will do but some will be more exciting than others. The Fuji is exciting :)

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  10. Anna

    Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge. The tips on metering (or the lack of it) were especially useful, as were the practical set up tips and cheap equipment suggestions.

    Reply
  11. Immanuel

    From time to time, I come to your blog and get great inspiration. Your genres and styles are different from mine, but I find you a very good communicator, and I appreciate that you explain some of the choices you made while making the photographs – be they technical or aesthetic or interpersonal. I’ve just ordered your ebook on portraits. I didn’t do it before, because I had the impression it was only for iOS and Android, and I didn’t feel my smartphone would be all that great for the purpose. Now, I’ll enjoy it on my PC for sure :-)

    Reply
  12. Dilip Joshi

    Damien, many thanks for sharing your knowledge! I have been to a couple of your workshops and really enjoyed them but can’t seem to apply the knowledge as well as I would like and you make it look effortless. I guess it is a case of practice makes better (rather than perfect, in my case!) and I have bought your ebooks too. Do you suggest I start with a real ‘formulaic’ approach – rather like a recipie for particular conditions as a starting point? For example, many of your indoor photos here are on 800 ISO. My problem is getting lost in fiddling with settings and losing connection with the subject.
    Thank you again for your brilliant articles and blogs – I don’t know how you find the time!
    By the way, I have moved to Fuji (from Nikon) and have the XT2 and a few primes (16mm f1.4, 35mm f2, 56,, f1.2) and zooms (10-20mm, 55-200 and 50-140)
    Best wishes, Dilip

    Reply
    • Damien

      Hi Dilip, Thank you. The first thing to understand is you are not alone.The second is you need to separate the technical from the creative. What I mean is get the camera settings, lens settings and all that stuff right and dialled in BEFORE you engage with the person you are photographing. I use every ISO imaginable. Whatever is needed for the shot. I use a tripod most of the time too so that I can use a slower shutter speed and a low ISO as well. A tripod allows me to get the composition spot on then sort out the other settings and fine tweaking of any pose etc knowing I don’t need to recompose the shot every time I make an adjustment. Don’t look for formulas unless you are defining a style. A typical process would be…

      Set up your camera with the right lens and take test shots to establish the exposure settings.
      Pop your client or model into the shot. Explain to them that you need to fine tune your settings.
      Adjust your composition as required, take a test frame then if everything is good you can make a start on the shoot.
      Get the attention of the person you are shooting. Direct them to do exactly what you want. Use narrative, describe emotions etc.
      Shoot, and develop a rhythm so that the person you are photographing knows when the shutter is going to be activated.

      Never let camera settings get between you and the person you are shooting. Practice, practice, practice.

      I hope this helps,

      Damien.

      Reply
  13. Robin Goodlad

    A really valuable article, really interesting. I have always shied away from studio lighting set ups particularly when shooting weddings and prefer the simplicity of window lighting, Lots of really useful tips and ideas there for making the most of the simplest light source available, thank you.

    Reply