Tips for Using Window Light in Portrait Photography

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Back in the 80′s and 90′s window lighting was very avant-garde and fashionable. However, then the window was always part of the scene. The subject was facing directly into the window or at a 45 degree angle so the light would softly illuminate the side facing the window. Reflectors were sometimes used to fill in the shadow side. This produced a dramatic look.

window light portrait

“morning” captured by shovona karmakar (click image to see more from shovona karmakar)

Other than window lighting, most portrait photographers used studio lights inside a camera room or on location. Using natural light as the only light source meant they were just starting out, were too poor to afford lights and were not smart enough to figure out lighting. I know this because I was one of them.

Now fast forward to 2010. Natural light has made a comeback, not only for newbies but for pros as well. Natural light is the new look for portraits for newborns, infants, children and seniors. Now with minimal equipment almost anyone with a good camera and lens can take exceptional indoor images. It is definitely a sought after look, so how do you nail it?

First you need windows with a northern or southern exposure. This will provide a very soft, indirect light all day long. Next you will need a room with lots of window (floor to ceiling the best). You will need to raise the blinds or drapes for the entire room. Next, turn off all interior lights as they may cause a color balance shift or unnecessary shadows under the eyes.

Once you have the room set up, you need to place your subject in an ideal location. Best to have them face a window, with your back to the window. (you do not want to block the light). You can use your built in spot meter and meter on their face to obtain an optimal exposure for skin tones. I recommend using a wide aperture (2.8 or wider) for a selective focus look. You will most likely need to balance the wide aperture with a fast shutter speed, but that is okay, especially if you are photographing children. Be prepared to increase you ISO to 800 or even more.

What if you want to have the window as the background? That would be a very tricky lighting situation to have your subject back-lit. The back-lighting would result in an over-exposed background and underexposed skin tones. It is best to avoid this situation unless you want to take several exposures and apply a little HDR in Photoshop, or you want to use flash.

Not all interiors are suitable for natural lighting. If you want your scene to be 100% natural light (no cheating with fill flash) you will need to do test shots prior to the assignment. Also rooms that have windows facing east or west may offer too much direct lighting. You can still use them; however you will need to be more careful where you place your subject.

window light portrait tips

“PA Window Light Portrait” captured by Rayme (Click Image to See More From Rayme)

What you might save on lighting you will need to spend on equipment. Generally full frame DSLR’s provide higher ISO settings with the least amount of noise. The Canon 5D Mark ii is an example. Also the lens will need to be a fast lens, one which opens up to 1.2 or 1.8. A very popular lens now is the Canon 50mm 1.2 lens. Also the Canon 85mm 1.8 lens is a good choice. Neither is a zoom lens, so you will need to be move instead of the lens zooming. They are very affordable and best of all, lightweight.

You may want to consider having a tripod with you in case you need to shoot a slow shutter speeds. I also recommend a white balance target so you can custom white balance your shots. Interiors with brightly colored walls can sometimes cause a color cast on the subject so a custom white balance is a must.

The qualities of a naturally lit portrait are many: the subject has a soft, flattering look, the eyes have catch-lights, the background is out of focus from the shallow depth of field and the subject looks relaxed in an un-staged environment. If you photograph infants or children your client will appreciate the at home service. A studio can also offer this service if there are ample windows.

indoor potraits with window light

Photo captured by Barbara Klein (Click Image to See More From Barbara Klein)

Experiment at home before you go out on assignment. It will be easier than you think to achieve this highly desirable type of lighting. Go for it while the time is right; you never know what tomorrow is going to bring.

About the Author:
Mary Buck is a professional photographer with Lightscapes Photographic Artwork in Duluth, GA (www.lightscapesphoto.com). She has a tutorial on “How to Start a First Year Infant Program” which can be found at; http://www.nuovo-amore.com.¬†She is also an educator and mentor for photographers who need help building their business.

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4 Comments

  1. Great tips and wonderful example.
    This light, this natural light, is actually my favorite way to take portraits.
    Here is an example –

    http://www.ilanbresler.com/2009/07/morning-ritual.html

    Taken in Barcelona, early morning.

  2. B J Hughes says:

    Great and useful website. the articles have been very helpful! Thanks for a great service.

  3. Walter says:

    uhmmm.. when did the Canon 50mm 1.2 become affordable? Or did I miss a memo and is $1600 now considered to be cheap? Or perhaps it was supposed to be canon 50mm 1.4 or 1.8?

  4. Caryl Anne says:

    Great article! I love the use of natural light. It really does add a dramatic appeal to the photo that other types of lighting can’t do or copy. Thanks for sharing!

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