Window Light Photography: How to Make the Most of Available Light
Window light photography has a lot of advantages. It's easy, it's free light, and it can really have some beautiful results. I love using my flashes and strobes, but I'll never turn down a good portrait with window lighting.
Why Bother with Window Light Photography When You Have Off Camera Flash?
I admit there are times when I've lugged a bunch of lighting gear out to a location and ended up choosing available light for my photos. It may seem counter-intuitive, but there's a method to my madness.
Despite what many photographers believe, there is no such thing as artificial light. All light is natural. Why do I say that?
Because light is merely electromagnetic radiation that is within our visual spectrum.
It does not matter what creates the light. It's all the same thing. EM radiation within the visual spectrum. Natural light is not superior to flash, nor vice versa. Light is light.
What does that have to do with window light vs. flash photography?
Since the source of the light is irrelevant, you have to look at other factors to decide how to craft your photo.
What Kind of Light Do I Need?
Since light is light, it isn't really a matter of the “kind” of light, but rather what qualities are available.
When I'm looking at light for a photo, I have a few factors in mind.
- Is there enough light to use for an exposure?
- Does the direction of light work for my scene?
- Can I work with the quality of light (hard or soft) with my subject?
- Is there a color cast to the light?
- Can I bend the light to my will?
If you walk onto a location and the available light is working for you, why spend time setting up a bunch of light stands, strobes and light modifiers to recreate something that already exists?
How Does Window Light Work?
I'm glad you asked.
Just because you have a window doesn't mean you have everything you need. They don't work all the time because the sun is an irascible light source that insists upon moving every moment of its existence. Actually, the problem is really because the Earth is moving, but I can't feel it. So it seems like the Sun moves from our point of view.
Given that the source of the light seems to be moving, there are going to be times when the direction and quality of light coming through a window are better than other times.
You have to make a value judgment. Does the light work for you?
The good news is that it works very often. Even in harsh daylight, you can get some great quality of light through a window.
Here's an example. You can see that the light outside the window is extremely harsh. It's midday sunlight burning down upon the land. Only a portion of that light enters the room, though.
So what does that do for your subject?
The light that enters has direction. That's good, as it means you can create shadows to help define the features of your subject.
It's still a bit harsh. You can see the shine on his forehead and the tip of his nose. That's because this window has no glass or anything else to diffuse the light. If you wanted, you could hold up a diffuser between your subject and the sunlight and eliminate those highlights. On the other hand, you could leave them if it works for the character and mood you want to set in your image.
Which Side of the Window Should You Use?
I took the photo above while inside the room. It works, but you aren't limited to shooting from the same place as your subject. There are other considerations that may come into play when you choose your composition.
Here's an example I never wanted to show, but it illustrates the problem.
Can you spot the problem?
There is an inexplicable hole in the wall! I loved this interior. It was warm and I thought it played nicely off the weathered shutters behind my model. Then I noticed the light pouring into a hole in the wall. An inexplicable and amazingly frustrating source of light in my composition.
As much as I wanted this photo to work, it didn't. That's because of the light. Not my key light coming from the window on the left, but due to an architectural blunder that I didn't even notice until I took the photo.
The problem I faced was how to eliminate a distraction from my composition. I could tighten my composition on her, but then I lost her legs. Going with a wide-angle lens close enough to eliminate the hole in the wall didn't seem pleasing due to distortion.
I needed another solution.
Stepping outside resolved the issue. I still had directional light and managed to use some of the interior that I liked. It's a reminder that you need to move around your model and shoot. See what you get. Eliminate some distractions. Find the possibilities in your location and with your light.
Uses for Window Light Photography
Let's start with the most basic use for window light photography. It's free. My examples are for portraits, but you can use it for other subjects. Some of my favorite food photographers use window light for their shots.
Combine some reflectors or bounce cards with light from a window and you have a viable table-top studio. The fact that light can only come in from one direction helps you provide dimension and depth with shadows. You can use bounce cards to add fill light if those shadows are too harsh.
If the available light coming in your window doesn't have the right qualities, don't be afraid to put a flash or strobe outside and fire it. The window light works the same way, no matter how you generate the light.
Remember, you don't have to spend a ton of money on lighting gear. While I love my gear and the fact that it affords me the ability to create the light I want when I want it, many fine photographers are content to wait for the right light to appear through their window.
Now that's convenient.