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How to Achieve Great Portraits with Window Light


When you learn to do portraits with window light you can set up a studio anywhere there is a window.

In this tutorial, I’ll give you all the important information, including what to do with different window sizes, where to position the person, and how to make their eyes sparkle.

You’ll see examples of newborns/infants, children, professional headshots, and candid moments.

The bigger the window, the nicer the light

The first thing that you should know about making portraits with window light is that the bigger the window, the nicer the light. What each photographer considers to be “good” light is relative. But many photographers want soft light for portraits.

If you would like soft light for your portraits, then you need a large window. If you want harsh light, look for a smaller window.

This principle is true for all light sources; the larger the light source, the softer the light will appear on your subject.

Natural light portrait
Notice how dark and crisp the shadows are when using a small window (approximately 12 inches by 12 inches). ISO 1600 f/2.5 1/320 sec
window light portrait
But the window in this photo was about ten times the size, resulting in brighter light and softer shadows. ISO 1600 f/2.4 1/500 sec

Remember that small windows are more likely to create harsh looking light with dark, crisp shadows, while larger windows will produce softer-looking light with gradual, subtle shadows.

A larger window will also create more sparkle in the eyes (you’ll learn how to do that below).

Where to position the person

Now you know how to get soft light or harsh light for your portraits.

The next thing you need to know is where to position the person for the portrait.

If you have beautiful soft light, but you position the person wrong, then the light won’t look pleasing on the person’s face.

Portrait lighting usually looks best when the light source is in front of the person, but off to the side. It also helps if the light source is a little higher up.

portraits with window light
Notice that the window is beside the infant and that she is placed back a bit.
Natural portraits portrait with window light
This is the resulting portrait. 50mm ISO 1600 f/4.0 1/500 sec
laying down portraits with window light
In this case, I laid her down with the window above her. I could have turned her to the side a little bit, but decided not to because I like the way the catchlights will appear in her eyes.
laying down portraits with window light
This is the resulting portrait with bright catchlights. 50mm ISO 1600 f/4.0 1/250 sec

Do not sit them in direct sunlight

If there is direct sunlight coming in the window, make sure that you do not sit your subject in the direct sunlight. If you do, the window will no longer be the true light source; rather, the harsh sunlight will now be the light source.

infant portraits with window light
Notice how the two girls are positioned in this photo. The one on the left is in direct sunlight, while the one on the right is out of the direct sunlight.

How to make their eyes sparkle

The sparkle in the eye that you see in portraits is called a catchlight. You create catchlights by making sure that the window is reflected in your subject’s eyes.

catch lights portraits with window light
Do you see the sparkle in the top left corner of her eyes? This is the window reflecting in her eyes. 50mm ISO 1600 f/4.0 1/500 sec
Position of catch lights
You can tell where the window is positioned by where the reflection is in her eyes. Now that she has turned her head, the catchlights are in the lower part of her eyes. 50mm ISO 1600 f/4.0 1/500 sec

When doing portraits with window light, be sure to bring your portrait to life with catchlights.

How to get rid of unwanted shadows

It can be hard to take a portrait using a window and have no shadows on the face. But you can fill in those shadows or make them disappear using a reflector. Remember, you can use any large white surface as a reflector.

Window light for headshots

At this point, you understand that large windows create soft light, you can use a reflector to fill in shadows, and that catchlights create a sparkle in the eye. You’re on your way to having a pro studio set up in your living room!

Here is a setup that you can use for headshot portraits with window light.

portraits with window light
The same principles apply; a large window will make softer light, set your subject beside and behind the window a bit.
window light headshots
Notice the soft light and nice catchlights. A reflector was used for this portrait.
candid portrait with window light
No reflector was used for this portrait.

Window light in everyday life

Now that you know the principles, you can use window light with candid photography as well.

Remember that it is often good to have the light source coming from the side. However, you can experiment by putting the window behind your subject to make creative silhouettes. You can also get creative by allowing direct sunlight to fall on your subject.

Did you know your home was filled with such great light sources?

Studio strobe lights are wonderful to use, but they’re not always affordable or practical to drag around.

Once you know the principles, you can use windows just as effectively and creatively as strobe lights.

Remember these principles when making portraits with window light:

  • Larger windows create softer light
  • Smaller windows create harsh shadows
  • Do not sit your subject in direct sunlight
  • Have the window to the side and in front of your subject
  • Use a reflector to fill in shadows
  • Catchlights create a sparkle in the eyes
  • Use a backdrop for professional portraits
  • Get creative with backlight and candid moments

One of the best ways to get started is to use a toy as a model. Go and have some fun with this and share your results with us in the comments!

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Mat Coker
Mat Coker

is a family photographer from Ontario, Canada. He teaches photography to parents and families, showing them how to document their life and adventures. You can get his free photography ebook, and learn more about taking creative photos.

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