Window Light - Six Tips

You can't tell from the comments but the most popular post last week by far was the tiny little post on window light that I put up on the site. This is all stuff that "we" already know but tend to forget about and don't practice it as time goes by and little TTL flashes creep into the mix and experiments with HDR cram our brains, and, and. I thought it would be useful to every once in a while call a time out for all that and get back to some basic simple stuff that anyone can do almost anywhere, with any equipment and produce some great results that are a little off the beaten track from the eye-poping, retina burning, wild ride, "lighting effects" that are assaulting us all daily.

As I mentioned you can get close but never can quite reproduce window light by artificial means. More on that someday soon - I worked on it for years and still prefer a real window with real sunlight, and real sky. So let's get on with the tips.

  1. Windows are fixed but you can produce any direction you want as long as you move your subject. Duhhh.
  2. Big dark colored rooms produce dramatically different effects than smaller light colored rooms. I do mean dramatic. In fact small rooms with dark walls simulate larger rooms with light colored walls and vis-a-vis. Narrow long rooms are different from square rooms - by far. Of course you know why this is - fill ratio and just as important where that fill comes from. You can simulate one or the other with either reflectors or black anti reflectors but the effect will be a little different. The shot included with this post is one of my favorite "rooms - an open stairwell with a window at the bottom of the stairs and enough room to shoot width wise but still very narrow. This creates a tiny bit of fill from the front but very little from the opposite end off the window or side.
  3. Window light - I am talking about sky through window not sun through window - is way more contrasty than you think it is. Window light is very soft but very contrasty. Soft light does not mean low contrast scene. The closer your subject is to the window relative to the walls the more contrasty it will get. Your eyes will fool you. You can make adjustments to this ratio by moving your subject closer to the window or farther away from it but this changes a lot of other things to. Don't be afraid of the contrast, don't always try to eliminate it to get a "good histogram", at least not always. Contrast is not your enemy. Use it, be aware of it and pay attention to where your shadows are - they can be your friend, digital guys - let the freaking shadows go black for once. It's okay.
  4. Try something you almost never do - or at least I never do with strobes - put your subject almost against your background. With strobes - even with soft boxes this almost always looks like crap for a lot of reasons (especially without enormous care), with windows you can get some fantastic effects and it can actually help your background / subject separation. Look at the included image - not the best image but pleasing light. The subject is almost right against the background. Some things to look out for is the gradient / fall-off of the window light. With a little practice you will be able to see this very clearly. Strategiclly placing your subject so the wall is lit behind the shadow on your subject looks fantastic. If your subject casts a shadow that masks that beautiful gradient - move him/her forward a bit - as in inches not feet. You can see the difference this few inches makes if you compare the image I posted in the last window light post.
  5. Speaking of separation - watch the luminance separation of subject skin vs background, not just the color separation. Again you can do this with the gradient on the wall in some cases. In others dark hair works - as in the attached image where the face is framed on the highlight side of the face. In any case just watch for it.
  6. If you include the window - you have two choices. Factor it into your exposure or ignore it as it relates to your exposure. For the most part ignore it and base your exposure on the subject so the highlights on the subject are where you want them - bright. This means the actual window with be "blown" (well at least for you digital guys) So what! You are including the actual light source in the photo - this is fine it should be white, really white. This means manual exposure. The only case that I have seen really work where you really care about detail in the window is when you are backlighting and actually want a silhouette. Just a guide line - feel free to play around in between the two extremes.



Ps one more thing for the curious. Photo above shot with Hasselblad 503CXi, 80mm CFe, APX 100, processed in Rodinal 1+50 by yours truly. No digital non-sense or local adjustments just a black point setting to make film base black and a resize.

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