You already know that light is the most important element in every single photograph you take. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to find great light, and your photos practically take themselves. At other times you are stuck with some really challenging light, and you’ve got to employ some strategies to make the best out of the situation.
Perhaps no lighting situation presents quite the same sort of challenge as windows and doors do. The light that comes through an opening in a building—whether it is covered by a piece of glass or not—is extremely bright compared to the ambient light in a room. If you don’t think through a shot that includes a window or door, you may end up with a bright, white, burned-out rectangle where that window or door is supposed to be. So is photographing windows and doors just an impossible task? Read on to find out.
At the window... by Flickr user Pensiero
You have more than likely taken photos that are lit by the light from a window. It can be a great way to light a portrait or a still-life image, because the light itself is indirect and filtered. Even light that shines directly through a window can be softened up with a simple sheer curtain or a photographer’s diffuser. If you place your subject next to this type of light, you’ll get a beautiful, three-dimensional looking image with great detail and form.
But what if you include the window in the image? That’s a different story altogether. When you have a photo that includes the interior of the building as well as a window, it’s nearly impossible to capture detail in both parts of the scene—at least not in a single shot. You can expose for the interior and get a nice detailed photo of the room with a bright, white square where that window is, or you can expose for the window and get a nice view of what’s on the other side of it, along with a dark room without a lot of detail in it. Sometimes it really is going to be OK to just make that choice.
A subject sitting indoors next to the window is often going to be more important than what’s outside the window—unless you have an image that requires the context of what’s outside (if she’s looking out the window at an approaching storm, for example, it may be important to include the storm clouds in the shot). But in most cases, you just need to make sure the subject is well-exposed. And a burned out window isn’t always a bad thing—it can make your image look mysterious and even a little bit ethereal. So if you don’t have a great reason to include the world outside that window, you may simply choose to let it burn out.
Snow and Socrates by Flickr user Earl - What I Saw 2.0
On the other hand, it could be that the world outside the window is the whole point of the shot. In that case, ask yourself if it’s OK to let everything else in the photograph become a silhouette. Let’s say, for example, that your cat is sitting in the windowsill, watching the snow fall outdoors. If you expose for the window, then the cat is going to become an all-black silhouette. But most of the time, a silhouetted cat is going to be perfectly identifiable to anyone who sees it, so in this situation it might be the right choice.
How to expose for the window
You can get a good exposure for the window by putting your camera in manual mode and then filling the frame with the window. Dial in your camera’s suggested settings and then add the person/cat or other silhouetted object to the scene. Note that your camera’s suggested settings are going to change once that subject enters the frame, because your camera’s meter works in averages and it will always attempt to give you an exposure that averages everything in the scene out to roughly a middle gray tone. But in this situation you’re going to get the wrong exposure for the window if you make the suggested changes after the subject enters the frame—so leave things as they are and take the photo. You’ll get that silhouetted subject and a nicely exposed outdoor world.
How to expose for your subject
If you want your subject to be correctly exposed (which will result in a burned out window) your method is going to be somewhat different. Switch to spot metering and take a meter reading off of your subject’s face. Now remember again that your meter is going to assume that that spot is a middle gray tone, which may or may not be the case depending on who or what your subject is. If your subject is a gray cat, you’re in luck. Otherwise, you will have to make some guesses or default to metering off of a photographer’s gray card, which is the easiest way to get an accurate exposure.
Most Caucasian faces are about one stop above middle gray in tone, so after you take that spot meter reading you’ll need to add exposure compensation of +1 to get the right exposure. With subjects who have darker skin, you may not need to use exposure compensation at all, or you may need to use negative exposure compensation. If all of this is starting to make your head spin, there’s a very simple solution—have your subject stand as if you’re about to take the photo, then ask her to hold a gray card in front of her face. Take the spot meter reading off of the gray card, lock in the settings, then have her drop the card for the photo.
But what if I want a well-exposed window and a well-exposed interior?
Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer you’re probably looking for—the truth is that there’s just too much dynamic range between the world outside that window and the world inside whatever room you happen to be standing in. Your camera—and most modern cameras—just isn’t capable of capturing that entire range of tones in a single exposure. No matter what you do, you’re going to have to choose between a well-exposed window/dark room or a well-exposed room/burned-out window. It’s like trying to shoot the moon in the evening and expecting to see detail on both that lunar landscape and the earthly one.
Now, I know you’ve seen images that appear to defy this explanation, I’ll let you in on a secret: those photos are not single exposures. The photographer has combined two different photos—one that he exposed for the interior, and one that he exposed for the window. This is actually a really simple process provided that you have a tripod and a post processing package that can help you accomplish it.
The reason you need the tripod is because the two exposures have to line up perfectly, so you can easily combine them. The sturdier the tripod, the better, because you don’t want any change in position between one frame and another, even though you’ll be messing around with your camera’s settings between exposures. Use the techniques outlined above to determine the correct exposure for the interior and for the window, and then take one shot each using the suggested settings.
How to combine images
Some post processing packages will let you open two images as separate layers of the same file, but I’m going to give you the manual way to do this since you may not be lucky enough to own software that makes it easy on you.
First, you need to open up each image in your post-processing package. Go to the image with the correctly exposed interior and choose Select > All, then Edit > Copy.
Switch to the second image and make sure the layers panel is visible. Choose Edit > Paste and the copied file should be added as a second layer. Now shift+click to select both layers, and choose Edit > Auto-Align Layers. Select “Reposition Only,” then click OK. Your software will automatically find the edges of each image and align them, just in case you were a little off between the two exposures.
Now click the top layer (the one with the correctly exposed interior and blown-out window) and click on the little circle-in-square icon at the bottom of the layers panel. Go to Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal all.
Now go down to the left corner of the window and find the two overlapping squares. Just above them is a smaller set of overlapping squares—click on them to select a black foreground and white background. Now choose the paintbrush tool above (note that it might be hidden by the pencil tool) and choose a smallish brush tip from the selections at the top of the window.
Now zoom in and make sure that the layer mask (not the image) is selected in the layers panel. Carefully paint over the top layer where the window is. You’ll reveal the correctly exposed window in the layer below. When you’re finished, you can merge the two layers to create a complete image.
With the right tricks it is possible to get a nice interior shot that includes both window details and foreground details, but think first about whether or not you need to have details in both areas. Chances are that you can get a strong image in a single exposure, provided you’re willing to sacrifice some detail in certain parts of the scene. If you think it through and you’re just not willing to let go of that detail, that’s OK too. A little post-processing practice and you’ll be able to quickly combine two images and create a single photo that has all the detail you want.
- 1. Expose for the window
- Fill the frame/meter off the window
- Use manual mode to lock in your settings
- Expose for the subject
- Switch to spot metering
- Meter off your subject’s face (you may need to add exposure compensation)
- OR meter off a gray card
- Achieve a good exposure on both window and interior
- Shoot two images: one exposed for the window and one for the interior
- Combine in post processing
Most people think this post is Interesting. What do you think?