Window Light Photography – Using Natural Illumination for Great Portraits

The sun: That great, flaming ball of hydrogen and helium, 4.5 billion years old and the source of all our heat, light and energy. The window: not quite as old (it didn’t come into popular use in homes until the early 17th century), formed most commonly of silicon dioxide and found most commonly kicking around under your feet at your local beach. To the photographer, these two ingredients blended together in just the right way form the underlying framework, the holy grail, in fact, of natural light photography.

Here the pages of the book bounced the window light nicely into the face

Here the pages of the book bounced the window light nicely into the face

Your subject turned toward a large window will light the face evenly. Bounced light can then be used to fill in any shadows.

Your subject turned toward a large window will light the face evenly. Bounced light can then be used to fill in any shadows.

For anyone getting into photography in any serious way artificial light is an integral and essential element of the process. It would be very difficult to embark on a long photographic journey without some form of fill-flash or softbox , or combination of both. I personally use two lights for almost everything. However, there are times when turning off the electricity not only saves your wallet but also produces something quite magical in front of the camera. If the light is right (as in not too harsh with direct sunlight streaming straight in) fill the space a few feet away from a large window with a person or object and you’ve got yourself a giant softbox that didn’t take a lot of time to put together.

But if you think that’s all you must do don’t be fooled, life isn’t that simple. The camera sensor and the human eye read light differently. The human eye adjusts to changes in colour and quality, the camera does not. You must make the adjustments for the camera to read correctly, and in this case that means bouncing back the light from the opposite side of the window to create an evenly lit scene for you to photograph. If you didn’t do this then one side of your subject would be in bright light and the other in shadow, with your camera’s meter doing its best to find a middle ground. You can employ a variety of tools to bounce back the light, companies like Lastolite and California Sunbounce make purpose-built reflectors that quite often fold up neatly and then spring into action when required. You don’t have to go to such an expense though. I use sheets of white polypropylene or silver card, depending on how much light I want to kick back. I also have A4 metal sheets for smaller objects like food and still life (N.B: watch your fingers on these, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stabbed myself on the corners while reaching for them).

Getting this right takes time and practice and it’s unlikely that you’ll get it the first time around. Study your subject under the light you’ve created. Move them closer and further away from your window and try your reflector in various positions. A word of warning: choose the colour of your reflector wisely. White produces a subtle, soft fill light, whereas silver and metallic are quite a bit harsher. The gold side of your purpose-built reflector can put a warming glow on your subject but can also make them look like Donald Trump – I never use them.

As always experiment, have fun and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

The warmth of the surroundings in this picture reflects a subtle tint back onto the model.

The warmth of the surroundings in this picture reflects a subtle tint back onto the model.