Windows provide light and add beauty as an architectural feature. As a photographer your concerns about glare and reflections may cause you to steer clear of windows, but you may want to consider including them more. If you do it properly, including a window in your composition can actually add visual interest and of course light to your photos. If you are stuck in a creative rut, this may be just the ticket. Read on for six ways to use windows in your photographs.
Windows as Natural Frames
Whether you are shooting landscapes or people, windows make obvious natural frames. Adding a frame to your photos will enhance the composition and draw your viewer's eyes to the focal point of the photograph. Simply place your subject inside of the window's natural frame, compose, and shoot. To get the full framing effect from a window, you need to include all sides of the frame and roughly equal space around it. Be sure you can see the entire window perimeter plus additional space around it in your viewfinder. (This is not the case for natural frames that don't need to cover all 4 sides.) If the window can be opened, allowing you to utilize the frame without having to shoot through glass, that is ideal.
From the Outside In
Taking a picture through the glass of a window can be tricky, but it also offers a unique perspective that can really make the shot. The obvious concern when taking a photo through glass is reflections and glare. This can be greatly reduced with the use of a polarizing filter. Similar to polarizing lenses on sunglasses, this filter attaches to your lens and blocks out extra light. It is not the cheapest filter out there, but it is a great tool for taking pictures in bright sunlight near any reflective surface.
Another technique is to simply shoot at a larger, lower aperture. Switch your camera to aperture priority mode and choose a large aperture, which is indicated by a low f-stop number. By opening up your aperture you are creating a shallower depth of field. This will allow you to blur out some of the problematic glare areas, so they do not detract from your photos.
Photographing people through windows creates a certain kind of mood. The presence of the glass can create the feeling of peeking in on a tender moment. A couple enjoying a romantic dinner or a bride showing up for the big day are just a few examples of occasions you may have to try this technique. Even a rainy day can add to the look and artistry of the photo. The overcast conditions on a rainy day will eliminate some of the glare issues, and the rain on the glass actually has a nice effect.
Use That Reflection
Reflective surfaces can cause photography mayhem, but they can also create photography magic. Whether you are hoping to capture the essence of a wistful teenager or a curious toddler, try photographing them as they look out through a window. Position yourself so that you can also photograph their reflection in the window.
Before trying this technique (and for any window picture), be sure the window is clean and free of smudges and streaks. Dirty windows do not a pretty picture make. Soft light coming through a clean window will beautifully light up your subject's face. You do not want to do this when harsh, direct light is striking your subject through the glass. Your subject will squint and hash, hard light through a window is just as unflattering to your subject as it is in the great outdoors.
When the light is right, position your subject and take some shots. Be sure to check the photo's exposure. Your camera will likely expose for the brighter area outside of the window leaving your subject dark and lost in shadow. Take a look at your first few shots on your camera's screen and view the accompanying histogram to check yourself. Your goal is to properly expose the photograph for your subject's skin. If you shoot in manual, choose your aperture and then adjust your shutter speed for proper exposure on your subject's face. If you are using aperture priority, take a photo and then use your exposure compensation button to make adjustments.
You can obviously utilize the reflective power of the window from other perspectives as well. Try some shots with your subject facing you and side lit by the window for a different look. Have your subject tip their head back towards the window to light up their face and avoid shadows. You can still capture their reflection in the window, it will simply be from a different angle.
Window as Backlight
Backlit photos are simply photos where the subject is illuminated from behind. This is one of my favorite lighting setups, and windows provide a great background and backlight for photographing people. As mentioned in the section above, you will need to take care to properly expose your subjects. It is very easy to end up with a dark subject and blown out background. Just be aware of this and make exposure adjustments on the fly as necessary. (If the window just creates too great of a light source, you can always place your subject further from the window and not include it in your composition. It can still provide light without being featured. You can also try diffusing the light with shades or curtains to soften it.)
The traditional backlit window photo would feature the happy subjects, facing the camera, with lovely light behind them streaming in through windows. It sounds great and it is, but you can be more creative in your compositions. Experiment with photographing the backsides (no need to focus in on that particular area) of your subjects as they face the window. If you are headed on vacation, give this type of shot a try. I have seen some great photos with children looking out airport windows featuring planes in the background. I have also seen similar shots from the outside in with children staring longingly through windows at lighted holiday displays. Think outside the box!
You may have tried a silhouette shot at the beach at sunset, but this technique is not just useful in the twilight hours outside. Windows as a source of light allow you the opportunity to create a dramatic silhouette. If you are having trouble properly exposing a backlit shot, you can try this for a different effect. Place your subject in front of the window with the bright light behind them. Pose them in a strong way so they do not simply look like a black blob.
In this lighting scenario, take advantage of your camera's natural tendency to expose for the bright areas and purposely underexpose your subject. You can do this in auto mode by pointing your camera at the bright sky, pushing the shutter halfway, repositioning your camera on the subject (without letting go), and then taking the shot. You may end up with a partially lit silhouette, which can be a great look as well.
Another method is to choose your own aperture and use the exposure compensation button, or even better shoot in manual and choose your initial exposure settings yourself. Remember, the key is to expose for the bright area which as a consequence leaves your subject dark. With a little trial and error, you should be able to create a dramatic silhouette. You may want an entirely darkened subject in front of a bright window, or you may want only a touch of light to remain for more of a three-dimensional appearance. Either way this technique adds drama and punch to your photo, and it is fun to experiment with.
Don't Focus on the Window
A quick note about focusing - the light from the window may confuse your camera's auto focus system. If that is the case, try shielding your lens with a cupped hand over it while you allow your camera to focus. If you are comfortable with manual focus, this is a great time to use it. The window silhouette is a great setup for any strong subject, human or otherwise, including just about any object you can place in front of a window.
Sidelight for Shadows
When photographing people, you typically want to avoid harsh shadows. Using a window as your light source is no exception, unless you want the drama that a shadowy, high contrast look offers. If you position your subject with a window as a strong sidelight, you will end up with partial shadows on their face. You will need to experiment with this to make a statement rather than just a visual distraction.
This type of photography is often used with subjects looking plaintively out the window in a dismal sort of way - think antidepressant commercial. It can be used though in any setting where extra drama or edge is wanted. Women in formal wear or bridal wear, artists or musicians, and even kids can be photographed with this sort of lighting to great effect. This type of photo creates a definite mood, so be sure to match the mood to your subject. It is not necessary, but photos like this often lend themselves to black and white. If you have post processing capabilities, this is a great type of shot to edit sans color.
Hopefully by now your creative juices are flowing. During the winter months when it may be more difficult to photograph your subject outdoors, take advantage of the beauty of windows. Whether you are shooting from the outside in or inside out, taking a powerful silhouette, utilizing reflection, or shooting a moody side lit shot take advantage of a window in your composition. Keep an eye out to your surroundings and get that window shot. It takes some thought and effort but great lighting is worth it!
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