Most portrait photographers shoot outdoors or in the studio, both of which come with problems. Outdoor portrait photography is heavily dependent on the weather and the quality of the light, while indoor studio portraits require significant space, not to mention money.
Fortunately, there’s a fantastic alternative to both these approaches, and it’s what I discuss in this article: Window-light portraits.
Window light is highly accessible, you can use it (for the most part) independent of the weather, and it’s more controllable than outdoor lighting.
In this tutorial, I explain everything you need to know for beautiful results, including:
- How to pick the perfect window
- How to position your subject in relation to the light
- How to make your subject’s eyes sparkle
- Much more!
Along the way, I’ll share examples of infants, children, and adults – all captured with the help of stunning window light. So if you’re ready to become an expert, then let’s dive right in!
1. Find a big window
The first thing you should know about making portraits with window light? The bigger the window, the better the light will look – so if you can find a reasonably large window to work with, you’ll be off to a great start.
Of course, what each photographer considers to be “good” light is relative, and you can certainly create amazing portraits using any type of light (given enough time and skill). But most portrait shooters prefer working with soft light, which is highly flattering and won’t create unpleasant shadows.
Because larger light sources produce softer light, if you want softer light for your portraits, you’re going to need a large window. (On the other hand, if you like the high-contrast look of hard light, seek out a smaller window.)
Here’s an image captured using a very small window. Note the hard shadows and rapid transitions on the right-hand side of my subject’s face:
Then compare it to this next shot, which used a window about ten times as large:
As you can see, the shadow transitions are far smoother, and the dynamic range of the scene is far more limited.
If you don’t have a large window to work with, one trick is to move your subject closer to the window (thus increasing the relative size of the light source). Another trick is to shoot on overcast days; the clouds will diffuse the light, making it far softer from the get-go.
2. Position your subject carefully
Once you’ve chosen a good window for your portraits, it’s important that you consider the direction of the light and position your subject accordingly. If you use beautiful soft light but you position the person poorly, then the light won’t look great on their face!
Portrait photographers (and artists) have been exploring different lighting directions for centuries, so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. Most portraitists agree that the best way to position your subject is partially off to the side so that the light is coming in at an angle. It also helps to position your subject slightly below the light source (here, you can cover the bottom portion of your window to block out the light, or you can have your subject sit on the floor or on a chair).
Why is partial side lighting so nice? Primarily for its ability to create depth. When light hits the subject from off to the right or left, it’ll cast shadows on the opposite side of the subject’s face, which produces a real sense of three-dimensionality.
Note the position of the child relative to the window in this next photo:
And thanks to the partial side lighting, the resulting portrait has a lot of depth:
One more thing: Different positions and lighting angles will suit different subjects, so make sure you spend some time experimenting with various positions. Don’t just find an approach you like and use it non-stop; instead, test out various forms of side light as well as front light and even backlight!
3. Do not position your subject in direct sunlight
Direct sunlight, while very powerful, rarely looks good in portraits. It results in hard, unpleasant light that’ll make your subject look their worst, even if you use a huge window. (When direct sunlight is streaming through a window, the window will no longer be the true light source; rather, it’ll be the harsh sunlight.)
You can deal with this problem in a few ways. One option is to find a window that isn’t experiencing direct sunlight. (If you aim to do window-light portraiture on a regular basis, north- and south-facing windows work great for this.)
Another option is to position your subject out of the sunlight but near the window (which will get you a nice side-lit angle, anyway). Notice how the two girls are positioned in this next photo. While the one on the left is in direct sunlight, the one on the right is in the shade:
Finally, you can cover the window with some form of translucent fabric, such as a white bedsheet. The fabric will diffuse the light, ensuring that it becomes lovely and soft before it reaches your subject!
4. Create that catchlight
A catchlight refers to that sparkle you can sometimes see in your portrait subject’s eyes, and it looks amazing. But how do you actually create catchlights?
Fortunately, it’s pretty simple! Catchlights are produced when the light source is reflected in your subject’s eyes. In this case, your light source is the window – so as you’re setting up each shot, make sure you check your subject’s eyes carefully for that little pinprick of light.
If you can see the reflection, great! If not, try adjusting your position or directing your subject to move their head until it appears.
5. Reduce shadows with a reflector
While it’s certainly not bad to have shadows in your portraits – after all, shadows are what create a sense of three-dimensionality! – it’s often a good idea to reduce heavy shadows, especially those under your subject’s chin (but also on the side of their face).
My advice here is to use a reflector, which you can buy for cheap online or make using a bit of white card. Position the reflector near the shadowy portion of your subject, then let it do its thing. If the effect is too strong, feel free to move the reflector farther back – and if the effect is too weak, go ahead and bring it forward.
Another option here is to use fill flash, but in my experience, a reflector works just fine!
6. Start with some headshots
When you’re first delving into window-light portraits, I encourage you to find a cooperative model (perhaps a friend or family member) and create some headshots.
Headshot photography is a lot of fun, and it’s also a great starting point because it removes some of the more difficult variables (such as dealing with a large background and full-body posing). That way, you can concentrate on producing beautiful portraits with different lighting angles. In other words, it’ll help you familiarize yourself with the power of window light!
You might try a setup like this one, where you have your subject sit on a stool and place solid black paper behind them:
That’s how I created this next image:
Of course, once you can confidently work with window light, go wider. Go ahead and capture some full-body images. See what you can create!
7. Don’t forget about candid photography!
Now that you understand how window light can be used for beautiful portraits, don’t just stick to posed photos; try to capture some candid shots, as well!
Bring out your camera when some potential subjects are in a room with some nice light, then position yourself carefully and wait for an interesting composition to present itself! Remember that it is often good to have the light source coming from the side, but you can also experiment by putting the window behind your subject to make silhouettes.
And while I don’t generally recommend using direct sunlight, it can make for some interesting creative effects:
Not all of your candid portraits will turn out great, but every once in a while, you’ll capture a real keeper that makes it worth the effort.
Window-light portraits: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to capture some amazing portraits using window light.
As long as you choose your window carefully, spend some time positioning your subject, and work to achieve a nice catchlight, you’re bound to end up with some amazing shots.
So grab your camera and create some window-light portraits!
Now over to you:
Do you have any tips for window-light portraits that we missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- How to Achieve Great Portraits with Window Light
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES