Window Lighting

Today's post comes from the book Monte Zucker's Portrait Photography Handbook. This book is available from and other fine retailers.

One of the most popular choices for indoor lighting is window light. It’s available for a good part of the day and it’s cheap. When you’ve got indirect sunlight through the window, it’s also easy to work with. Even with direct sunlight, a simple translucent scrim, such as the Westcott 1707, can make it useable for portraiture. The key to successful window lighting is that you want to achieve the same lighting patterns as you would when creating a studio portrait.

When you know what you’re doing, window light can create a dramatic impact.

Sometimes it works to show the window itself in your image. This can be a distraction, though, so you should use the setup judiciously.

When photographers first began creating daylight portraits, they favored north light as their main light source. That’s because a north-facing window gets no direct sunlight and is usable most of the day. Of course, if you live in the southern hemisphere, you need to go to a window with a southern exposure.

To create a fullface view, the camera is next to the wall with the window.

To create a two-thirds view, the camera moves further out into the room.

For a profile, move the camera even further into the room. For all these views, the subject never moves; the camera is simply repositioned. The background has been muted, however, by positioning the camera.

Height of the Light Source. There are several pitfalls with using window light. One of them is the height of the light source. As we discussed in a previous chapter, good portrait lighting should come from above the eye level of the subject. You might think that this would not be a problem with light coming through a window, but quite often the light is not coming from the sky. Often, it’s bouncing off a building or off the sidewalk outside. This means the light will be coming up from below the subject. That’s not good at all; the more powerful light will miss your subject’s face and concentrate on the lower part of their body.

When you see this happening, you need to seat your subject so that the predominant amount of light is hitting their face with a slight fall-off toward the lower part of their body. Alternately, you can cover the bottom of the window and hope that the light coming in over top of that obstruction will be more appropriate. Better yet, find a different window.

Window Treatments. Another thing to be aware of is window treatments that cover the top of the opening and force most of the light to come in from below. If you’re standing your subject near a window like this, the strongest light will be on the bottom of that person, missing the face. Not good! To correct that problem, you would need to seat your subject so that the strongest light illuminates their face.

Showing the Window. Many photographers who use window light show the window in all of their photographs. For the most part, I find the windows to be a distraction. Certainly, you wouldn’t want to get your portrait lights in a photograph, would you? I can see including the window in a portrait from time to time, but not in every image.

If you keep your subjects a short distance from the window, you’ll find that the light wraps around them more beautifully and with much less contrast than when they’re very close to the window. Therefore, I’ve found it best to work a few feet from the window. With digital cameras, it’s easy to increase your ISO setting to 600, 800, or 1000 without degrading the photograph,
so the drop in light intensity shouldn’t be a big problem.


One of the biggest problems photographers have with window lighting is knowing where to stand when setting up for the portrait, and how to change from one facial view to another during the session. Here’s the secret: When photographing with a light source that you cannot move, you have to position your subject’s face to attain the proper lighting first, then adjust your camera position to get the desired view of the face. In other words, when you can’t move the light, move the camera.

Position the Subject. Many photographers have trouble finding the right pattern on their subjects’ faces. Often, this is because they are not standing in the right place. To really see what you’re doing and to “set” the light pattern, you need to be standing against the wall—right next to the window. Your subjects should be standing a few feet away from the window and around the middle or slightly closer to the far end of the opening. Then, turn the face toward the window—but not directly into the window.When you do that you get flat lighting and lose all dimension to the face. Once you see the desired pattern, keep the subject’s face in place and pose the body to support the face.

Position the Camera. Once the proper pose is achieved—that’s it; you cannot turn the subject to achieve full-face, two-thirds, and profile views. Instead, you will move the camera from one position to another. For a full-face picture by a window, the camera will need to be located right against the wall by the window. That’s the only place that you can position yourself and still get a proper light pattern. For a two-thirds view, move away from the wall toward the center of the room. For a profile, move still further into the room. Because the subject and the window remain stationary, the lighting on the subject’s face will be consistent.

When placing a reflector to enhance the window light you have two choices—just as you do when using a reflector in the studio. If the light pattern is already there and all you want to do is to open up the shadows, then the reflector goes on the shadowed side of the face. If, however, there is light only on one side of the face, there is no light in the eyes, and there is no appropriate lighting pattern, then the reflector should be placed on the highlight side of the face; it is what will create the lighting pattern for you.

One of the biggest problems photographers have with window lighting is knowing where to stand when setting up for the portrait, and how to change no appropriate lighting pattern, then the reflector should be placed on the highlight side of the face; it is what will create the lighting pattern for you.

In some cases, a reflector can be be paired with window light to be used as the main light.

Reflector for Fill Light. The most common use for a reflector is to open up the shadows in a portrait, allowing you to render detail throughout the image.When used for this purpose, the reflector should remain forward of the face, not beside the it. When it is in front of the face, it can pick up the light from the window and push it around to open up the shadows. When it is beside the face, on the other hand, it tends to act like a second main light source, bringing in noticeable light from the side opposite the main light.

Reflector for Main Light. Another use for a reflector is when the window lights only half of the face. In this case, what you need is an appropriate main light. To accomplish this, the reflector should be placed on the highlight side of the face and, initially, turned toward the window. Then, slowly turn the reflector until it bounces the light onto the shadow side of the face and creates the desired lighting pattern.


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