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How to Use Windows like Softboxes and Softboxes like Windows

Above: This cropped section of a larger photo was lit almost entirely by large windows located to the right of the cat. After cropping, catchlights from the windows can clearly be seen in the cat’s eyes.

Post by Andrew Darlow

For centuries, window light has been used by artists as an important source of light for visualizing portraits, still-life arrangements, and a wide range of other subjects. The advent of photography brought with it many opportunities for capturing scenes lit by window light, and for more than 100 years, photographers have used window light in countless ways.

In this article, I will describe how you can achieve the look of studio lighting from windows, and vice-versa. Like windows, softboxes come in an incredible array of sizes and styles, and one of the primary reasons for this article is to help you create the look and feel of window lighting anywhere you go, and at any time of the day.

Tips For Using Windows Like Softboxes

1. Have the window light come from about 3, 6 or 9 o’clock. In most cases, to replicate the look of typical studio lighting using a softbox, you will want the light from the main window to shine on your subject at 3, 6 or 9 o’clock, with you and your camera being the center of the clock facing 12 o’clock. In “map terms,” light should come from due East, due West, or due South.

2. Use “gobos.” When shooting with window light, it’s often more difficult to control compared with softboxes, so gobos can be very helpful. Gobos or “cards” can be just about anything that you place between your lights and your subject. Examples include: tracing paper, cardboard, aluminum foil, a chair, poster board or even a person’s hands or entire body (with their approval of course!).

3. Consider using fill light. Fill light can be as important as your main light because it can help soften shadows and create nice overall effects. Fill light can come from another window, a flash unit or continuous light (for example, a lamp). You can also use reflectors to bounce light back into your subject. Like gobos, reflectors can be made just about anything that does the job, from commercially available white, silver or gold reflectors, to the back of a printed poster.

Tips For Using Softboxes Like Windows

1. Use tape and other materials creatively. Black heat-resistant (and removable) tape can be added to a softbox to simulate the look of a window. Just two pieces (about one-inch-wide) attached in a cross-like pattern over the face of a softbox can create the look of a window, and just one piece stretched horizontally across the center of a softbox can also create the look of a window. If you don’t want to adhere anything to your softboxes, you can create the same effect by clamping materials such as black illustration board or thin pieces of fabric to the edges of your softbox using traditional clothes pins or “A-Clamps,” which are available in most hardware stores. Always use caution around lights that get very hot since many materials are flammable.

2. Put shades, blinds or extra diffusion in front of your softbox. If you think about the design of most windows, most contain at least two panes of glass, and many are covered (at least partially) with blinds, shades, curtains, etc. You can experiment with placing diffusion materials like frosted acrylic or tracing paper on or in front of part or all of the softbox. And just about any product made for windows can be hung from a lightstand with an extension arm in front of a softbox to create interesting effects.

3. Move softboxes in closer for larger catchlights and softer lighting. One of the most visually interesting things about portraits are the range of catch lights that you can capture in your subjects’ eyes. Whether your softbox contains a strobe (electronic flash) or continuous lighting, experiment and look closely at the size and shape of the catchlights that are being created in your subjects’ eyes. Catchlights will have even more impact as you zoom (or crop) into a photo. You should also notice larger catchlights, and a softer quality of light as you move the softbox closer to your subject-similar to the light you’ll find when photographing a subject in front of a large window.
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