Shooting Portraits with Window Light :: Digital Photo Secrets

Shooting Portraits with Window Light

by David Peterson 1 comment

All indoor photographs are low light photographs. But not all indoor photographs are break-out-the-super-fast-lens-and-tripod low light photographs. In fact, during the brighter parts of the day, you may actually be able to get better photographs indoors then you can outdoors. That's because the type of natural light you get in the middle part of the day is direct and comes from directly overhead. When you take photos in these conditions you get subjects with black shadows over their eyes and under their noses and burned out highlights or super-black shadows in other areas of the photo. When you move indoors, however, the natural light that comes in through the window is indirect and easy to control. Think of it as your own personal photography studio that you didn't half to invest any money in. How do you get the best out of this beautiful, free light source? Read on to find out.

[ Top image waiting... by Flickr user WolfmanBlacque]

What you need

Well first of all, obviously, you need a window. But not just any window—you need a window that is well-placed and has a good light for extended periods of time throughout the day. A window next to a large shade tree, for example, isn't going to be as good as one next to a sunny open yard.

Another thing you will need to have is the some way to diffuse the light. Now, this may not always be necessary, because it if the sun isn't shining directly through the window, the light is already defused. But if you have a strong beams of sunlight coming through that window during the time that you want to take photographs, you'll need some way to make it a little softer. This could be as simple as a sheer curtain, or, you could use the diffuser that came in your set of photographer’s reflectors. Whatever you decide to use, just make sure that you place it between the light source and your subject. Your goal should be to soften those bright beams of light before they reach the subject.

| Potential Energy | by Flickr user TintedLens-Photo (on&off)

You may also need a tripod, depending on how bright the light is coming through the window, and how much ambient light there is in the room. Most of the time the tripod isn't going to be necessary, but you will want to have one on hand just in case you need it. Along with that tripod, of course, you will need to have the ubiquitous cable or remote release. That will allow you to get shake-free images regardless of how slow you need to go with your shutter speed.


One of the great things about window light is that it is a lot easier to control than the direct overhead light you get when you're shooting outdoors at mid day. To change the direction of the light that's coming from a window, all you need to do is change the position of your subject.

[negative space] by Flickr user Mai An Hoa


The most flattering way to photograph a person is generally going to be with the light on one side of his face. You can create different moods depending on how strong your light source is and how much ambient light is in the room. For a dramatic photo, turn out all the lights in the room, and place your subject closer to the window. With this arrangement, one half of your subject’s face will be well exposed, while the other half will fall into shadow. This is often referred to as Hollywood-style lighting, and it creates an image that is moody and dramatic (not unlike most Hollywood films). The further away you get from the window, the less dramatic the effect will be.

If you still feel like you’re getting too much shadow on your subject’s face, you can try turning on the lights in the room. The ambient light will help fill in those shadows that otherwise would have appeared on the opposite side of your subject’s face. If you do this, though, be aware that you may have some white balance issues—specifically, the incandescent lights in the room may add a yellow cast to your photograph. It's not so easy to adjust for this kind of mixed lighting situation with your camera’s white balance setting, so it is generally a good idea to use this technique only with images you plan to convert to black-and-white.

Another technique for filling in the shadows is to use a reflector. Place the reflector on the opposite side of your subject’s face, facing the window, and use it to bounce light from the window into the shadows. Often, this technique alone will be enough to soften up that dramatic Hollywood look. Alternately, you can also add some light with a lamp fitted with a daylight-balanced bulb. To avoid that yellow cast, it does need to be specifically daylight balanced. You can get regular bulbs that have this designation for any lamp—just make sure you read the packaging. Or, if you already have a studio lighting kit, a simple solution is to simply use one of those lights as a secondary light source.

You can also try turning your subject towards the window, and positioning yourself and your camera between the window and your subject (but off-center so you don’t block any of the light). This will give you a front-lit subject—the lighting will be even and a lot less dramatic, though be aware that front light does tend to make your subject look a little more flat and dimensionless.

You can also backlight your subject by placing him directly in front of the window. This is not generally an easy way to get to a portrait of somebody, though, because you're going to end up with an image that either has a bright, distracting, burned out background, or a silhouetted subject. Again, a reflector will help you fill in those unwanted shadows, so you can get a better exposure on the window itself.

  • Sony DSLR-A100
  • 100
  • f/1.6
  • 0.002 sec (1/640)
  • 50 mm

At the Window by Flickr user emil.zakhariev

If you don’t mind a completely burned-out window, make sure that you switch to spot metering so you’ll get a good exposure on your subject’s face. Most Caucasian faces are about one stop above middle gray in tone, so take a reading off of your subject’s face and then add exposure compensation of +1 to get the right exposure (with subjects that have darker skin, you may not need to use exposure compensation, or you may need to use negative exposure compensation. If you’re not sure, use a gray card instead of metering off your subject’s face).

Don’t forget that you can add light to a room by opening up doors, too. A door is generally a much larger area than a window is, and all you need to do is open up one on the opposite side of the room and you’re going to have a lot of extra light to work with.

Incorporating the window into your composition

A window isn’t necessarily just a light source, it can also be an important part of the composition. You can use a window as a frame for your subject, for example, especially if it’s a window that has some interesting architectural details. Again, if you’re doing this in such a way that your subject is going to be back lit, you’ll need to take care to fill in the shadows with a reflector or to expose for your subject’s face using your camera’s spot meter.

Another creative technique you might want to try is shooting your subject from outside the window. The fun of this technique is that you can use the reflections from elements outside as a way to add some interest to your portrait. You could also try spraying the window with water in order to create some texture between your subject and the camera. Just beware of a couple of things—make sure you’re standing at an angle so you don’t end up with yourself and your camera reflected in the shot, and make sure that your window is clean. It’s easy to miss those fingerprints and other smudges when you’re looking through the same window every day, but they’re going to be glaringly obvious in a photograph. So if you don’t do windows, I guess you’re going to need to change your ways, if only for this one photo.


The beauty of window light is that it is abundant and free. You don’t have to move it around, buy replacement bulbs or set it up at the beginning of a shoot and tear it down afterwards. It’s naturally diffused and it’s always the right color. And it’s easy to master, even for flash-loving beginners, because it’s bright enough that your camera isn’t going to try telling you that you need to compensate with a flash. So the next time you’re indoors at a family function or just during an every day moment, have your subject move next to the window. Capture a few shots of him there and then ask yourself which one is better—window light or pop up flash. I can already tell you what your answer will be.

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  1. Leslie Harris says:

    Your tips are always good and easy to understand, I am going to practice on my husband using all your above tips. Thank you!!

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.