The Most Valuable and Powerful Light You Can Get for Free

The Most Valuable and Powerful Light You Can Get for Free

Don't have thousands to spend on lighting gear? One of the most valuable lighting methods you could find out there also happens to be the cheapest: a window. The best part about it, is that it is free!

For many photographers who are just starting out, they may not have thousands of dollars laying around to invest into expensive strobes. In today's consumer age, there is a constant notion that we need the latest and greatest gear to make beautiful pictures. For me, I find when I have limited resources, I create my best work because it pushes me to solve these problems in a creative way. Strobes is definitely one of those things I constantly feel I have to have, but my bank account does not agree with my desires. When this problem arises, I have to appreciate and focus on what I do have and not what I don't. Everybody has a window in their house, but often times it gets overlooked. The fact is, you could create beautiful and engaging portraits by just turning around and using your window as your main light. The best thing about it is that it's free! Who doesn't like free stuff? 

Before we start to dive into what makes window light my favorite light out there, let's break down the scope of opportunities you could accomplish, by just using your window. 

Two Types of Light: Hard and Soft

Before setting up your camera in front of a window, it is important to know its character traits and functions. I like to categorize the output of my window light into two main categories. The light could be either hard and directional or soft and even.

Soft Light

As a portrait photographer, I am always on the hunt to find the softest light I can. In my style, I prefer soft and even light because of the way it sculpts out the subject's features. Soft light is characterized by illuminating the face without having shadows, much like a massive six foot softbox does. The window in some cases produces better and softer light than an expensive strobe or modifier could. It serves as an eight foot softbox (or however big your window is.) When I first started out and was just learning about lighting, the only tools I had at my disposal were a camera, a window, and a black mattress.

I would photograph at all times during the day, and saw which times generated the most appealing light. Though, through practice, I found that I was able to create soft light at any time of the day. I would place the model just slightly behind the window frame, thus letting the light come in and spread evenly around my subject's face. This way of shooting was the catalyst to many personal projects where I just used a black or white background and the sun. 

Hard Light

There is a time and place for everything; hard light is one of those things. Typically the light being projected by direct sun is classified as hard light and casts harsh shadows. Have you ever shot a portrait in midday and noticed that the light was high up in the sky, and was making your subject look like a raccoon due to the shadows under their eyes? To be able to work with hard light and make it look pleasing, one technique you could use is: place your hand out toward the sun and turn it 360 degrees. Then, see how the shadows are cast on your hand. Using this technique, turn your subject right or left and a triangle pocket of light will appear in the side of the face giving you Rembrandt style lighting.  Hard light can be beautiful if you know how to use it.

How to Work with Window Light 

When I go to setup my shot, I think about the ways the light can be used to create the desired outcome. Let’s breakdown my favorite ways I sculpt window light.

Using Flags  

Depending on your scene or setup, it is tempting to use the window as your main light in the scene. When you use window light as your main light, the spread of light will be spilled around over the entire scene. In some cases, this might be the look you’re going for, but in other cases, you want to have more control over where the light is hitting. This is where the use of flags come in. Flags are any type of device that can block light. This could be a piece of black foam core, closing your blinds half way, or a black bed sheet. Flags are used to maintain the density of the shadows, but also serve as a map of where the light should go. 

Using Reflectors

Reflectors come in all shapes and sizes. My favorite to use, is the 60 inch 5-in-1 reflector because of its versatility. When shooting with natural light, it is sporadic and always fluctuating. Reflectors have an abundance of functions that they could be used for. Reflectors can practically be anything that ­reflects light: a white wall, a white sheet of paper, a white background, and so on. My two favorite ways to use a reflector is to use it as a fill light to brighten the shadows. For this setup, I place my reflector on the shadow side of my subject's face, and let the sun do the rest of the work. The sunlight shines off the reflector, and creates the effect of a second light. The other way I like to use a reflector, is to use the sun as a backlight, and use the reflector as my main front light. For this technique, place the subject directly in front of the sun, causing them to be back lit, then bring a reflector in front, and the light will fill in the face.  

So the next time you don't have money lying around to invest in lighting, just be resourceful. The most powerful light the world has to offer will always be there. Share some of your photos you have done using just your window in the comments below!

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22 Comments

Tim Ericsson's picture

Wow amazing portraits and great tutorial. I’ve always been intimidated by lighting, and this is a very helpful description for me. Appreciate it!

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Wow thanks so much for the kind words! So glad you got something out of it!

Michael Jin's picture

Can I just point out that a window is not necessarily "free"? I know I'm being pedantic...

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Thanks for your input.

Michael Jin's picture

LOL! I'm just full of valuable information like that. :D

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Sure! all critiques and comments are welcome :)

I think it is also very important to note that where is no window without a wall. Better 3 or 4 walls, 1 wall has tendence to fall. May be add some ceiling to the taste. And all this stuff is not free at all.

I have a south facing window where the sun shines in most of the day. I have found it advantageous to hang a frosted shower liner in the window to soften the light. Might add that if I plan on placing the model off to the side of the window, I have to bias the diffused curtain to that side of the window first.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

That's great advice and input. Thanks! I use that technique all he time with diffusing the light via a shower curtain!

Geoff Thompson's picture

When I was photographing weddings(now retired) I always carried a portable polystyrene foam board with me. I used it for window light shots, mainly of the bride in the before shots,and also to double as a portable ceiling for bounce flash. I used to combine window light and bounce flash for the bridal portraits. It was also handy outside when I wanted to shade my subjects(1 or 2) from harsh sunlight.In the 1980's,in Australia, there was a very good video series called profoto techniques featuring Ian Hawthorn on weddings(about 10 hours of instruction), and Joy Henry on window light. Joy showed how to meter using the foam board and the window light.Those 3 videos formed the nucleus of how I got started. I still have my second generation white foam board at home.I still have the videos also but very hard to get now.Joy was from New Zealand and Ian from Geelong in Australia.Thanks for posting. I recommend that those who haven't tried these techniques to have a go.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Absolutely! M favorite way to go! I started my whole portrait career in front of my window and black mattress!

Actually, not only window. You need freckled model as well.

Michael Jin's picture

Freckled models in black and white creep me out... #orangefilterplease

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Noted. I'll think about the next time I'm taking portraits

Michael Jin's picture

You know, you can always tell me to shut up and go die in a car fire or something...

Tim Ericsson's picture

Jesus Christ this escalated quickly

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

All you have to do is ask. Have you shot any natural light portraits? Would love to see.

Probably... Need to browse my archives :)

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Cool! If they are of models with freckles that's a bonus! :) looking forward to seeing

Gorgeous portraits! And yes, necessity is a mother. ;-)

There is indeed too much insistence on purchasing expensive equipment (by the manufacturers of expensive equipment) and not enough on creativity, simplicity, intent and vision. It's less about the subject than one thinks and more about the light, maybe even all about the light. Your tutorial I think will be very liberating to budding photographers and is a great reminder to even the most experienced. It certainly has made me impatient to grab my camera and my 50mm and sit a friend or two by the window, and thank you for that!

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Thanks for the kind words! That was truly the Main goal of this article! To inspire everyone to go out and just make beautiful portraits with the tools they have.! Especially as a beginner who a lot of times dosent have that much gear. So glad you got something out of it