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What do we know about window light for portrait photography?

If you come to the photographer and say that you would like to have a photo session with natural light, he or she will immediately ask you a question: which one?

You will surely be surprised after it. Can natural light be different? The answer is yes, of course it can! Therefore, before we answer the question, whether there is enough only natural light in photography, let us first look through different types of  the natural light and also how to work with them. This video named Window Light Portraits will surely help you with it too.


So, the types of natural light.

1. Sidelight 

With this type of lighting, light falls laterally. This usually provides a wonderful contrast, creates a long shadow and makes pictures more deep. This type of lighting can create a dramatic effect when shooting different buildings and portraits.

Example of such light is a picture of the photographer from the Netherlands, Jack Burger. 


2. Backlight

Backlight occurs when the source of light is placed behind the subject and opposite the camera. For example, if the model stands with his back to the Sun, and you take pictures of her face. To obtain this light in the frame, you should work with directional light source, in other words, when the light is diffused, the backlight will not be able to get. If you shoot in front of the window in a shaded room, then you're more likely to get soft light behind. As example, look at a picture made by Larry Woodmann.


This type of lighting is very interesting.  It gives you the ability to create a "mood footage", they can be tender, romantic or funny. You also can experiment with highlights and reflections. Perhaps pictures would look pretty strange, but to call them "pale" will be really difficult.

It is quite hard to work with backlight. You need to understand what effect you want to get from the very beginning. One of the window light photography tips: If you want to create sunny haze and to experiment with highlights, then make sure that the light source is hidden behind your model or any object in the frame (such as foliage). Minimize the background and remember that setting of exposure depends on the face of the model. Don’t hesitate, experiment with angles, it affects the distribution of glare in the frame. However, often the glare is an undesirable side effect, coupled with a reduction of a contrast of a picture, so then these factors can be attributed to disadvantages of the blacklight.


In conjunction with certain atmospheric conditions, such as fog or dust in the air, you can get a stunning lighting effects.

If you have problems with the work with the light, or you just would like to change its direction in any photo, refer to photo processing professionals. Examples of different processed photos can be found in digital retouching portfolio

3. Lights from the edges

When light falls on an object at a sharp angle, it can create the effect of illumination from the edges. This type of lighting provides a strong contrast that highlights the shape of the object.

4. Reflected light

Reflected light is soft, it does not have a certain direction and often reflected from one surface to another. Because it is indirect, the brightness of the object will be lower than with other types of lighting. Actually it's quite misleading, because we rarely consciously perceive it. Picture below was taken by Larry Woodmann.


Most photographers just ignore it and search for other types of lighting. Surrounding light is well suited for various photographic genres.

5. Soft or diffuse light

It is one of the most common types of light, so we will discuss it in detail. This type of lighting can be observed, for example, in cloudy weather or twilight. In the case working of indoor this type of natural light in photography is provided by windows from the non-sunny side, and thick curtains if the Sun is still trying to  get through.

Look at a picture taken by already familiar for us Larry Woodmann as an example.


Diffused light is very easy to work with. It enables you to evenly illuminate an object and to get soft shadows. In general, this type of lighting is the best.

But many photographers notice that in certain cases the object in such lighting looks pretty flat due to low contrast of image. Perhaps, it is the only drawback of this type of light. In fact, it always depends on the basic goal of shooting and mood that you want to show. Diffused light works well when you need the usual beautiful shots without undue drama and clear details.

When shooting outdoors, it is harder to control it than indoors. If you take a window light portrait, then you can work both with frontal lighting, and with a soft side one. For the backlight this type fit worse, however, it can also be used if you want to create a soft frame with non-obvious circuit.

Another advantage of natural light from the window it is very well suited for shooting in the interior. As an example, there is photo taken by Stephanie Beaty.


6. Hard light

It is popular with photographers, despite the fact that working  with it is quite difficult. 

What does hard light mean? We can see this type of light when the Sun is at straight angle that we called zenith, or close to it, that is, the light source is located at the top or above and slightly to the side. Photographers usually are not very favorable to this type of lighting, as it is not so easy to deal with it.  If you're not happy with a photo taken with this type of light and you would like to fix it or something else, you can look at different sets of services on photo retouching rates. Had light creates harsh shadows, where details are fully lost in.

Of all it is true. However, everything has its own advantages, and this example is not the exception. Firstly, those harsh shadows impart extra volume to the frame and split it visually into layers. Secondly, you can get very interesting effects with those harsh shadows: for example, if the subject is  approximately in the same plane with the background, the frame comes out flat and very graphic, as if it was drawn on paper with a pencil.  Such lighting can help to create  very stylish, contrasting fashion photos. 

Harsh shadows very well highlight cheekbones and jawline in portrait photography, as well as studio "Butterfly", that is used to shoot "glamour". 

This type of lighting will be more than enough even indoors. Therefore, window light portrait turn out to be very bright and fresh. 


Picture above is taken by Larry Woodmann.

In order to correct the negative aspects of this type of lighting, reflector for lighting shadows can be used while shooting.  The bigger the reflector, the more effectively it will cope with this task. Reflectors are used to steer the reflected light on the part of the face model, which remains in the shadows. Therefore it would be logical to assume that when shooting at the window you should place the reflector directly near the face of a model that is less lit (located in the shade), right? Right. And you can safely do so. But there is another way. Reflect the light directly neat the camera just little above your head and send it from this point to that part of model’s face that is in shadow.

7. Sunlight at sunset/dawn

This is a favorite type of lighting of most photographers. You can watch it about an hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset. If the Sun is low on the horizon, the colour of the light is very warm, golden-orange and shades in the frame look bright and saturated. It is possible to characterize window light portrait photography in the same way. Plus the shadows in this case are long, soft and lay down more beautiful than in daytime. Warm picture taken by Larry Woodmann is an excellent example of this type of light.


8. Spot light

Spot light arises when you focus a certain amount of light on certain part of your object or scene. It can form deep shadows and high contrast. Also it can bring dramatic component in a snapshot of almost any photographic genre.  The picture below was taken by Radoslaw Pujan


9.  Combined light

Sometimes, in one picture you can see a few examples of different lighting.

So, we have learned the types of natural lighting, and some of them have already said a couple of words about the shooting at the window.

Window light provides acceptable lightning. A big plus of this is that it is fairly easy to control it. For example, good results can be achieved, if you pull down the blinds. Use these tricks to find the right balance between shadows and light in the frame. Large windows are especially good.

Natural light in photography, as well as studio softboxes, can set multifarious moods,  that can vary depending on the time of the shooting. From theatrical harsh effect when natural light falls direct from the window in the middle of the day,  to soft romantic glow, typical for early evening. This light perfectly suits to nude photos. Even if such lighting fail to hide possible imperfections or just hide some parts of the body, at the request of the model, you can always use body retouch

It is clear that for large-scale portraits or for shooting small groups you will need a lot of light. 

In such cases, a large window will provide good lighting.

When is the best time to take pictures?

How it was said before, a good rule of thumb is to shoot in the late evening or early morning. So you learn to notice the "chemistry" that occurs in subjects in connection with changing natural light. 

If you take a picture in the room and the room serves as a part of the background in the frame, keep in mind that you can arrange furniture in its depth, not just near the window. This provides more flexibility, you can control the intensity of the lighting and contrast by varying the position of the model. Closing the window with translucent material (like a veil), you soften lighting and achieve quality of natural light that will be similar to a softbox. The only drawback is the inability to control the angle of the rays of the Sun, because it depends on the time of day. 

The second Window light photography tips: 

If the Sun is located high, its beams will fall at an acute angle. So you need to place the model below the window, for example, say her or him to sit on the floor or a chair. If you shoot natural window light portrait and want to remove the shadows under the eyes, you can ask the model to lift her head up to a light source. As an example picture taken by Larry Woodmann:


This rule applies, by the way, not only in terms of a hard afternoon light. Even if light is diffused, you may notice that if the model lowers the head down and the surface underneath has low level of reflection, then shadows appear under eye. In bright sunshine, however, one problem arises with a reflector and with raising face to the Sun. One hardly can look at bright object for a while, they will probably start crying. 

Well, it seems that we have found that for natural window light portrait sunlight enters through the window is perfect, because you can take a great photo with dramatic effect. Soft light through the window is the perfect moment for strong shooting, it works especially well if the light highlight only one side of the face, leaving the other in shadow. In order to get rid of skin imperfections, like acne that is obviously not desirable in the pictures where the a face is taken picture of in such a close-up, you can use skin retouching online.

A few words about position

Another thing that you need to pay attention is necessity of movement of the photographer and the model for finding the optimal picture. By the way, useful information about poses and so on you can find in article named How to become a model: Tips, new trends and model poses for photo shoots.


Picture of a beautiful girl in a hat was taken by Larry Woodmann.

 If the light from the window would be sent to the front, it means the model turns her face directly to the window, and photographer takes photos by the window, we will get the usual flat front lighting. Despite of some disadvantages of this lighting, it hides undesirable forms, and also, if you shoot old people, soften wrinkles.

 Now let’s look through the opposite situation, when the model stands with his back to the window, and the photographer shoots against the light. In this case, the large role plays the distance from the window and its size. If the model is close to the window, you can get a characteristic modulation of light along the contour of the body. For example, such a juicy picture taken by Larry Woodmann.


To model’s face does not completely fall in shadow and window light portrait photography is not entirely ruined, you must use already mentioned many times thing that is called reflector. The most popular is the combined reflector, which has one silver side and another one is golden. Silver side is generally used for shooting in the studio, and gold is for shooting outdoors. As the reflected light also takes on a golden hue, you'll get a very warm light similar to sunlight. 

For example, a photo titled "Romanzo criminale" that was taken by Larry Woodmann. 


 When shooting a portrait near the window, the camera should be exactly by the window, and shoulder of a photographer should almost “look out” of the window. Taking the starting position, photographer should bend a little to the side of the subject, which must be located at a distance of 2 m from the window, on opposite side of its edges. (Photographer almost sit on the windowsill, only slightly lean towards the object of a photography.)

Why light from the window is so good?

The light from the window has several advantages:

1. Availability (almost anywhere)

2. Free (you do not need to pay for a window)

3. The dimensions of the window (sometimes it is possible to find so large window that softbox with the same size you will not find in any studio)

Despite the fact that the windowsill is a great place to take natural window light portrait of children, male and female, as well as for shooting pets, in order to obtain beautiful pictures is not enough to just place the subject on the windowsill and pushing the shutter button. You must come up with a story that will rest against photoshoot. Thus, your pictures will be interesting for any viewer.

It is also worth remembering that all people are much better in window light portrait photography if their trunk turned at an angle to the camera lens. When the model just stands straight to the camera lens he or she will seem too broad in the picture. In such a photo, you can even find hidden hint at some kind of confrontation. But even if only one shoulder is slightly turned to the lens, a portrait will change significantly. Beautiful picture below was taken by Radoslaw Pujan.


 Shoulders seem to be narrower and viewer focuses on the head of the model. Remember: a person can look straight into the camera, but his trunk must be turn at least at a slight angle to the lens.

If you take pictures of a model which lying on a bed, you find useful tips in article called Elegant and sexy – How to make fantastic bedroom photography.

What should photographer do if his model is uncomfortable?

If you see that your model is nervous and uncomfortable, then ask her or him to sit down. Generally, people feel more cozy and more comfortable when sitting in an armchair or on a chair. The following picture was taken by Olivier Valsecchi.


When a person is comfortable, you can get great pictures, capturing a man in a natural and relaxed poses. When a person stands in the middle of the studio and he or she is in the center of all imaginable and unimaginable lighting, you simply must take care of his or her comfort. If a person feels uncomfortable, he or she will never look natural at the pictures for sure. There are several window light photography tips about posture, that model should take on a chair or even on the couch: say her or him to sit on the edge of the piece of furniture, so she or he couldn't lean on the backrest. As a result, she or he will sit straight, take a natural pose and lean a little to the lens. So the next time you notice that your model feels discomfort, ask her to sit down, and this will certainly have a positive impact on the quality of the not only received window light portrait, but also of other types of pictures as well. They turn out to be more natural.

Well, hope this article has opened you all the secrets of successful photography with using natural light from the window. Good luck to you!

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