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.
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.
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.
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.
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!