Window Light: The Biggest, Bestest Softbox You Already Own

Window Light: The Biggest, Bestest Softbox You Already Own

This article will probably seem like a giant “duh” to a lot of you out there. Hell, even most avid selfie-shooters have figured this out. This is geared more towards the photographers who lust after huge, expensive light modifiers and overlook the amazing light source that is probably staring them in face. I suggest you start staring back!

Unless you’re locked in a basement, chances are you have at least one window. Maybe it’s not a huge window, but if you think of it as a light source it’s probably pretty large and ample. If you live in the Northern hemisphere and it’s a north facing window, you have diffused light all day, every day. Arrange it behind you with your subject facing the window and you’re in business. If your window is set high on the wall, maybe keep your subject standing with a white or silver board somewhere near the underside of their face.

Let’s say your windows are west-facing and you want to shoot in the afternoon. And you’re really terrified of hard light. Keep thinking of your window as a softbox. You just need what they refer to in film production as a “silk”. The same material (ripstop nylon) that is found on the front of most softboxes can be placed in front of your window to turn hard, late day light into a glowing, golden, majestic light bath for your subject’s face.  

Maybe you’re fortunate enough to have another problem… Your window is humongous. Good for some stuff, but maybe you want to shape that light a little bit. Black foamcore will do the trick. Arranged on either side of your subject’s face (or both sides) you’ll get some fall-off and keep things from getting too “flat.”

Black foamcore camera left gives a little falloff and contrast. In this case, it also helps the color in that gorgeous red hair saturate a bit.

Obviously there are limits to window light. Namely, if you need to shoot at f/16 ISO100… It’s not going to happen. But modern cameras can easily do highers ISOs without hurting image quality. And who shoots portraits at f/16 anyways?

Model is approx 5-6 feet from my window. Silver reflector just out of frame below us lifts the under chin shadows.

 

Same model, same room, same window. But she's been soaked and pushed back about 10-12 feet. As this makes the light source "smaller", highlights become more specular, contrast increases, and you lose about 1.5 stops of light (inverse square law). Note the smaller catchlights as well.

 

A lot of factors will affect the final outcome of your shot when you’re using window light. Is the room you’re in light or dark? Are there other light sources, like another window? Is the room spartan or cluttered? Rather than think of these things as liabilities, think of them as the things that make your shot unique. Give the same model, same seamless, same Briese to 10 different photographers and you’re likely to get pretty similar portraits. But only you can get the shots created by you, in your room, with your magic window.

 

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6 Comments

Dan Howell's picture

That is a strong difference between our respective locations. In NYC, any real estate (including studios) with substantial light is going to cost you. On top of that the number of sunny days in NYC vs LA is also substantially different. Don't get me wrong I love window light, but it is just not as 'available' to me as it might be to you. My current studio has only one window that I would give a B- in terms of its shoot ability and a D- in terms of being a light source. I can do the same or better w/ my Plume Wafer 200 (4'x6') which is roughly the same size as the window but available any day I need it.

In the past I have been quite fortunate to have a larger studio w/ a wall of large windows facing west, however it was not in Manhattan and not nearly convenient enough for my clients.

Dan Howell's picture

also looking at the distances you note in your captions, it appears that you have a working distance of 5-10 ft between the model and the window surface. For the flat, surrounding light, you also have to be within that 5-10 ft. On the near side, that would limit the lens length I would be comfortable with, especially if you need full length. Again, my point is not that window light is bad, but the idea that it is the most 'available' light comes at other sacrifices.

Tony Clark's picture

Reminds me of my last loft, when in doubt use natural light.

Matthew Hoffart's picture

Recommendations on where to get ripstop nylon or another material to defuse light to cover these windows? Looking for a curtain style so the material can be moved in and out.

Khatleen Minerve's picture

Agreed! Window light when available is my go-to-light. It can give some really soft light or dramatic light depending on what you want.