The Best Light Source…Ever - 11/24/08
Make every image great with the simple beauty of window light
Almost no light source is as flattering for portraits as a soft light. Studio professionals use softboxes and bounce cards to achieve this look, and it occurs naturally outside on cloudy days too. On sunny days this soft light can be found in open shade. This great light is all around, but what do you do without resorting to watching the weather or purchasing expensive strobe lighting and accessories? There’s one surefire way to achieve this effect almost anywhere: go to the window.
Window light is perhaps as flattering a soft source as a photographer can ask for—particularly if he’s shooting a portrait. Any window will do, as long as the sun isn’t shining directly in. Cloudy days make any window super-soft, and sunny days typically find north-facing windows providing the softest illumination from dawn to dusk. (East facing windows are good in the afternoon, west facing are good in the morning; both times when direct sunlight isn’t shining through.)
To use window light to your advantage, simply plunk your subject down (it doesn’t have to be a portrait, but they work well) in front of the window and get to shooting. With the window at the side of the subject (at a 90-degree angle to the camera) it makes for a dramatic side-lighting effect that is controlled by moving the subject closer to and farther from the windows.
The closer to the windows a subject is, the deeper the shadows will be on the dark side—but the softer the transition from light to shadow. It will create a contrastier photograph with the subject close to the window, but because the light is so soft to begin with it’s often quite pleasing for portraits. (A white wall or fill card can work well on the shadow side to reduce the dramatic contrast while still maintaining the ultimate softness of such a close window source. It’s not necessary, though, as that shadow shows shape, which is part of the beauty of this light.)
As the subject moves farther from the window, the contrast will decrease, but so will the drama. The light is less wrap-around as it gets farther from the window and the ratio from light to dark tends to flatten a bit. The window can also be used for flattering front-lit portraits when the photographer shoots a subject toward the center of the room, the photographer standing with his back to the window and creating a large, soft source right behind the camera.
Another option is to put the subject’s back toward the window, shooting fully or three-quarters into the window light. This backlighting effect—with enough fill from a card or flash on the camera side—is a great way to show the texture and detail of a subject. Window light is both a pleasing source and versatile as well. Perhaps that’s why so many photographers—with the resources to choose any number of lighting styles and sources—choose to shoot simply with window light.