Use window lighting to make great portraits

There are a hundred different lighting setups you can use to shoot portraits, from 4 lights with painted backgrounds, down to natural light with a wall or a natural background outdoors.

One of the coolest, easiest and most versatile lighting setups you can use, and one of my favorites, is a window light setup. You can make portraits look just like they were shot in a studio if you want, or you can get some very cool and dramatic shots, with a little work and knowledge.

What windows should you use for window light portraits? Pick the best windows you have available. You can use a south facing window if you're careful and you stay far enough away from it, or if it's cloudy, to stay out of the harsh light. The best windows for window light portraits are north facing, or East facing later in the day, or west facing early in the day. A window where you can avoid the harsh direct sunlight.


Special window portraits

Sometimes you will see the window in the shot. Generally speaking you don’t want to show the window in the shot, unless it adds to the shot in a dramatic way. The shot below is done as a silhouette and uses the widow as part of the shot. If your objective is a shot like this, then it’s fine to show the window. If you’re wanting to show the subjects face, generally keep the window out of the shot.

The shot below is a shot of my grandson, sitting on a stool, on a table in front of a North facing window with mid day sunlight. I used a white foam board reflector close to me, to light up the right side of his face, while leaving shadows in the far right. I thought it looked great. I used a tripod with a remote, so I could move around with the reflector and wait for just the right moment to shot the shot.

In thought
In thought

Set up

Setting up for the shot. Set up the camera close to the window on a tripod, you can get some great hand held shots if you're lucky, but it's better to use a tripod. Have the subject 1 to 6 feet from the window, depending on the intensity of the light.

You need to look at the light on the subject, look at shadows on the face, to find the right location. After you get the distance set, set the camera to a setting around 1/100th and adjust the aperture as open as you can to help blur the background as much as possible. You can play with the ISO as well to get the right balance, just keep it low enough to keep the noise out of the dark areas.

You can have the subject looking at the camera, or out the window, or in between the window and the camera, whatever looks the best for the shot you’re trying to create. Experiment and try some shots of several poses to find shot. The more the shadows are on the face, the more dramatic the shot.

Here are some shots that I took real quick on my kitchen counter, to use for illustration to show the dramatic differences you can achieve very easily.

The first shot shows the dramatic look you can get with just the natural look and no reflector and no special settings. This shot is obviously too close to the light source overexposing the right side of the shot, unless your looking for harsh light in the shot.

This next shot shows the huge difference you can get very easily. All I did for this shot to make such a huge difference is to hold a white dish towel a couple feet to the left of the statue to soften and bounce the light back at the statue, and moved the statue about 8 inches to the left out of the harsh direct sunlight.

This shot shows what happens when you turn directly into the harsh light and the highlights are blown out of usable range. Not a good look for any shot.

This shot show how a small move away from the light source and a slight turn make a huge difference and give some interesting light and shadow areas on the statue that make the shot more interesting.

And the last shot shows how using some harsh light, and moving the reflector farther from the statue, will still slightly light the dark side of the face, while giving a dramatic look to the overall shot.

The point of this is to show you how much you can affect the shot by moving literally inches and reflecting some of the light onto the dark side of the subject, and by just turning slightly how the subject is facing. Try different things and experiment.

Unless you are looking for something different in your shot, you generally want the light to be coming from high and down onto the subject. To get the right light pattern, you can use a reflector down low next to the window, to bounce the light up and off the ceiling for the right light to light the subject.

To get good at window light portraits and know what you want and what works. Get an object with a face, or a willing subject, get them set up in the right position with the light coming in from high and move around the dark side with a reflector to see what it does. A little movement can make a big difference. Doing this will also give a you a better idea of how to use light to get what you want.

Window light

As for what to use for a reflector, you can use almost anything that will reflect light. The best thing to use if you don’t have an actual photography reflector, is a piece of foam board for crafts. White and gold and silver work well, they will each give you a different look. Experiment and see what you get.

Take lots of shots, Shoot from close to the window, move away from the window, try shooting from above the subject and below. Move the subject around to different positions with different poses and see what looks good. The best way to learn how to do any type of photography is to look for different angles and experiment with different lighting and poses and practice. Have fun and you will get some really cool shots if you give it a try, and the cost is close to nothing.

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TolovajWordsmith profile image

TolovajWordsmith 19 months ago from Ljubljana

I am always impressed when I see how spectacular results can be achieved with seemingly so simple approach. On the other hand, simple approach often only looks simple. Thanks for the tips!

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