Understanding Basic Lighting Techniques – Window Light


If a tight budget does not allow for expensive lighting equipment, consider window light as an excellent and free alternative that can result in the same effect.  When considering what a large window, look at it as a large softbox that diffuses light.  The light is spread about the room and around the object placed in front of the window.  Remember, in the early days of photography, there was no other option for lighting except big windows.

Consider a large window a softbox and apply rules used with a softbox to the window.  All the rules will be relevant.  A larger window will create softer lighting since the light has a larger angle to light a face, which means there will be less shadows in the image.  

This is an especially important rule to remember if the aim of the photograph is to capture the subject with hard shadows.  A window is better than a softbox because it is found in different sizes, it can be found anywhere, used for free and simple to experiment with.  The bad part of using windows as a light source is the dependence on the weather and time of day.  Instead of moving the light source, when using a window, the subject must be moved if there is not ample light coming through the window being used. 

The characteristically soft light provided by a window is flattering because it creates natural shadows on the face while not accentuating any features.  If there were features that needed to be hidden for the success of the photograph, stand farther away from the window, or use a smaller window, which will make the light harder.  Using window light gives photographs an expensive look and quality, for free.  However, in the end, it is up to the photographer to decide how to use the window light.

First, the window light is sidelight, which is directional, unless the window light is shining from above.  Being in close proximity to the window will make the light bigger and brighter.  When using window light, the room size is very important because in order to get desired looks for the images, everyone involved in the shoot must be able to move around and experiment with the light.  Also, a time of day that provides the light necessary for the type of photographs desired must be planned ahead of time.  

Do not forget to consider the difference a sunny day versus an overcast day will make in the window light.  A sunny day will make window light harder, while an overcast day will create a bigger light source, using the entire sky, instead of just the sun.

Subject placement in correlation to the window will make a difference in how the subject is lighted.  If the subject stands in the middle of the window, with the window to their left, then it stands to reason that the left side of their face will be lit far more than the right side of their face. This can create great photographic effects as long as the photographer remembers to expose for the left side of the face only, lest the photo turn out underexposed.

Moving the subject farther from the window, keeping the window behind them will soften the light on the face as the left and right sides even out.  Going the other way will even out the light, evening out the lighting on the subject as well.  Experimentation is the key to finding the look you are aiming for in the photographs.  

Windows can be used for many other subjects, in addition to models, but that is up to the individual photographer to decide.

If the subject faces the window, the image will end up soft, but flat because it will have fewer shadows.  It will light the subject, but not in an interesting way, so experiment before giving up or settling for a look that might not be completely satisfying.  Another key item is remembering to not have any other light source in the room except for the window because this will make the camera unable to set the correct white balance.

In order to produce an interesting effect, place the subject in front of the window and use spot metering to overexpose the background and let the subject and foreground be exposed.  If spot metering is not used, the camera will try to expose for the window and result in an image of a silhouette.  

Remember, with the window behind the subject, the same rules apply as when shooting into the sun.

For harder light, the photographer can stand farther back from a large window, or use a smaller window. Standing farther away from the large window will still give a soft light source, but not as soft since the light is unable to reach as far and touch as many angles.  Using a smaller window creates a similar situation, but instead of the window being smaller because of the distance away from it, the window is physically smaller, letting in less light to reach as far as the larger window.