If the pandemic shutdown has you at home with more time on your hands, you might find yourself branching out to photograph things around the house. I’ve found myself photographing new things in new ways—tabletop objects, including food, toys and even impromptu still life images. And I’ve done it all, not with strobes or other special lighting equipment, but with the benefit of beautifully simple window light.
To photograph a still life with window light, you must first choose an appropriate window. Direct sunlight is less than ideal, so instead, choose a north-facing window or one that’s shaded from direct sun by nearby structures, foliage or time of day. (For instance, my due-south facing dining room windows often work well due to a huge oak tree that provides open shade.)
Next, you’ve got to position your setup. I like to generally get the subject as close as reasonably possible to the glass—just a foot or two if I’m able—in order to maximize the size of the source relative to the subject. This will make it very soft and wraparound, with smooth transitions from highlight to shadow, and it makes the falloff to shadow more dramatic. This contrast can be mitigated through the use of a simple white reflector—a foamcore fill card, for instance, or even a white sheet of paper.
Where you place the camera in relation to the window also matters. With the subject smack dab in front of the window, positioning the camera in the center of the room such that the window becomes the background is an ideal way to make a strong backlight for a silhouette. You can pull that back a bit and still shoot into the window at more of a quartering angle, which can help to provide a hint of drama and amplified texture—as evident in the shot of the pancakes below.
More likely, however, you’re going to want to treat the window as a more side-lit or front-lit key, so you’ll need to position the camera either 90 degrees from the window (so that the light source is side light) or even between the window and the subject such that the angle of the window light is more frontal. This angle is obviously trickiest, as it limits how close to the window the subject can get. For the image of the tomatoes shown above, the window is perpendicular to the sensor plane, just out of frame to the left.
From here, it’s all about choosing the appropriate lens for the setup, exposing for the highlights and then bringing in a reflector as needed to bounce light into the shadows. It doesn’t take much fill to bring up the black detail just a bit. In this way, you can make artful still life images—maybe even reminiscent of an oil painting if you squint hard enough.