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Portrait Tips

Portrait Tips: Using window light

Using the light from a window is a terrific way to illuminate your subject. It can be the biggest and softest light off all — and it’s free. One of the biggest advantages to using window light is that what you see is what you get, whereas with a flash you can’t see the light until it fires. Posing in a window can also be more relaxing for your subject because they can look at other things and don’t feel boxed in by the studio.

Window light is easy to use, but here are some tips to help you get the best results.

Indirect light

While you can get striking results with direct sunlight pouring through a window, it’s easier to make a flattering portrait when the sun is not shining directly in. North facing windows rarely have the sun shining directly in, but westward windows in the morning and eastward windows in the afternoon are also good. Or a window with an eave covering it. The indirect light means that the sky is your light source and it’s very large and soft and flattering.


Pay attention to the color of light you’re working with. If the blue sky is your source, then you’ll have blue light shining on your subject and choosing Shade white balance may be the best course. Watch out for green lawns that reflect green light up into the window seat. A white sidewalk or snow-covered lawn make excellent light outside a window.

Be careful, too, about other lights on in the room. If you have light bulbs shining, they are almost certainly not the same color as the light coming in the window and will make your picture look muddy. Of course, finishing your portrait in black and white can help alleviate these issues.


Be careful about the background. If you shoot through the window toward the street, there are often cars parked at the curb. The cars can be colorfully distracting, but they are also often shiny and create distracting highlights in the background. Pay attention for anything that will distract from your subject’s eyes.


A dirty window can be very distracting. Spots on the window are in the same plane as your subject’s face — they’re the same distance from the camera — and will be in focus. The visible detail will detract from your subject’s face. It is worth wiping the windows before you shoot. I carry a handkerchief in my bag for just such a situation.


Depending on the room around the window and how many other windows there are, the window can make a very contrasty situation. Use a reflector on the dark side of your subject to lift the shadows on her face and maybe even shine a little light on the wall behind her. Use the white side of your reflector whenever possible, but sometimes silver is appropriate, too.


The great thing about using window light is that you can practice doing it without a person. Put some fruit in the window and make a still life. Use a teddy bear. A cantaloupe would be good because you’ll see how light falls around a head-shaped object. Flowers are terrific because you can use the photo.

Every time you see a window, make a picture using it for light. Do it at the library, do it at church, do it at your friend’s house. Use your phone if you don’t have your camera. Practice with positioning your subject near and far and positioning your camera closer and farther from the window, too.

Window light is versatile. If you practice seeing window light all the time and minimizing its weaknesses, then you’ll be ready to utilize it when you are photographing a person.

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.

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