Photographing someone in front of a bright window may seem easy but it’s actually one of the trickier lighting situations you’ll encounter for portraits. The problem is that when someone is backlit by window light, getting the right exposure with your camera becomes a challenge.
If you expose for the person standing in front of the window, the background gets extremely overexposed or “blown out.” The result is you’ll lose most of the detail in the window. If, on the other hand, you try exposing for the window light, the person you are photographing will be darkened by shadows and underexposed.
So how do you correct for the lighting problem of portraits in front of bright windows? Professional portrait photographer Yuliya Panchenko shares two helpful solutions in the below video tutorial on how to properly expose a camera for window shots.
Lighting Solution #1
With her first tip, Panchenko advises a two-step approach to get a proper exposure for a portrait in front of a window.
Step one: Expose the camera to the background (the window)
Step two: Bring in an additional light source or a reflector to exposure the subject
Using herself as the subject, Panchenko demonstrates the process during a live shoot. “In situations like this, always expose your camera to the background,” Panchenko says. “Disregard your model, pay attention to the background and make sure it’s properly exposed.”
Then Panchenko brings in an additional light source, in her case a studio-quality continuous light to illuminate herself in front of the window. That’s an expensive lighting choice, however, and we’d suggest trying something less pricey for your window portrait such as one of the three ring lights we recommended in this product guide.
Simply point the light at the subject to create a proper exposure for both the person you are photographing and the background window light. “As you can see, my face is properly exposed, and the background is properly exposed as well.”
Lighting Solution #2
In her second tip, Panchenko shows you how to use a reflector to create a proper exposure for window portraits. “If you don’t have an additional source of light just bring in a reflector and position it in a way that would bounce the light. In my case, the sun is over there, and the reflector will bounce the light back on my face and make my face completely properly exposed.”
If you haven’t used reflectors before, you should read our guide on how to use a collapsible light reflector for portraits.
Panchenko adds that if neither of these lighting tools is available to you, you should experiment with shooting full body silhouettes of your subject in front of the window for a dramatic effect. “If you don’t have an additional source of light and you don’t have a reflector, the third solution is just to go with a silhouette image,” she says. “It’s always better than having an overexposed portrait.”
Watch the full tutorial below and then go read our recent story from pro photographer Jerry Ghionis with five easy tips on shooting portraits.