Natural light photography - Window Light portrait tips

For many portraits, nothing beats the natural beauty of window light. The larger the light source in relation to the subject, the softer the light, so directional window light can can create beautifully lit, soft portraits that bring out great looking skin tones and display a seemingly perfect balance between shadows and highlights.

There are several ways to use window light for portraits, providing varying lighting pattern for different 'looks', in this tip I'm going to be covering shooting parallel to the window. This type of light provides directional light for a slightly more dramatic look.

    About the window
  • Avoid sunshine streaming in through the window, as it will ruin the portrait. Choose a north facing window (or south if you live in the southern hemisphere!), or a cloudy day.
  • If it's a large window, sometimes there can be too much light, that might be fine, but you'd have to experiment. You can also draw the curtains or close blinds to get a more dramatic portrait.
    Subject positioning
  • The closer your subject is to the window, the stronger the contrast between light and shadow on their face, generally speaking about 4 feet (just over a metre) is fine. As your subject moves further into the room, the light will be flatter and less dramatic.
  • The angle of the light should be from above, so if the window isn't very high, or you have a tall subject, sit them down.
  • Your subject should either look slightly off-camera towards the window, or look at the camera but with their face turned slightly towards the window (this will provide 'short-lighting')
  • If your subject is wearing bright clothing (as in a bride's very expensive wedding dress!), the fabric may 'blow out' if their body is facing the window and not show any of the detail. In that case turn their body into the room (this ensures light and shadow on the fabric), but with their face turned towards the window. This also gives the body a nice shape.
  • Position yourself parallel to the window, but not too close to your subject, preferable at least a couple of metres away to avoid any facial distortions (theirs, not yours!).
    Camera settings
  • Turn the flash off (compare the images below), and raise the ISO, (could be anywhere between 400 and 1600 depending on light levels, aperture and shutter speed)
  • Use Aperture priority (A or A/V) and a wide aperture to blur the background and to allow in more light, preferable f2.8 or f4.0
  • First try a shot without any exposure compensation, but if the lit side of your subject's face is overexposed, dial down the exposure compensation to about -1.0 EV
  • Avoid getting too much of the window in the frame (if any), as this will affect the exposure and the window may well blow out with no detail.
Compact camera at ISO 800