Window light is an excellent, and free light source, that can achieve the same effects as much bigger, and more expensive lighting equipment. A large window is essentially a large softbox that diffuses the light into the room and around the subject that you place infront of it. The earliest photography studios didn’t use fancy electric lighting, they just used big windows.
How it Works
If you see the window as a softbox, then everything that you know about a softbox will also be relevant to this lighting. First of all, the larger the window, the softer the light, as the light has a wider angle at which to light your face, meaning that there’s less shadows. This is very important to remember if you’re trying to take photos with hard shadows. There are many ways in which a window is better than a softbox, because it comes in all different sizes, they’re everywhere, free to use, and easy to experiment with. The downsides are that the light is dependant on the weather and time of day, and you have to move the model or subject, rather than the window.
Because window light can be particularly soft, it’s flattering as the shadows that appear on the face are very natural and dont accentuate any features. If there were any features that you would want to hide, you’d want to make the light harder by standing further from the window, or using a smaller window. A window is a great way to get an expensive look, for free, but how you use the window is up to you.
Firstly, the light is very directional as it’s side light, unless of course if the window is above you. The closer you stand to the window, the bigger and brighter it is. If you’re going to be shooting with the purpose of using window light, then it’s important to find a large room that you can move around in, and play with the light. Also, choose a time of day where the sun in the sky is going to be acting the way you want it to be. When the sun is out, the light is a lot harder, even through a window, but when it’s overcast, the whole sky is acting as a light source. Think of the difference between shadows on a sunny day and an overcast day.
When you place the subject in the middle of a window, with the window to the left of them, you’re always going to light up the left side of the face a lot more than the right. Because the center of the light source is reaching the left side of the face, there are less angles to reach the right side of the face. The creates a pretty cool effect with more shadows on the right side, but you need to remember to expose for the left and not the right side of the face, otherwise the photo will be underexposed.
Move the subject closer to you, with the majority of the window light behind them ,and the lighting on the face will become softer as the left side of the face starts to even out with the right. Go the other way and the right side of the face will even out with the light making for a more evenly lit subject. It’s important to experiment and see which you like the most and whether it suits whatever you’re shooting. Obviously there are more uses for window lighting than just models, there’s still life, animals, etc. too.
When the subject is facing a window, you will end up with a very soft, but rather flat image, with fewer shadows. Yes, this will light the subject, but it won’t look all that interesting compared to some of the other effects that you can produce. It’s also important to note the other light available in the room that you’re shooting. You don’t want any light to be on, otherwise you’ll end up not being able to set the right white balance as there will be more than one source.
When the window is behind the subject, then you’re effectively going to have the same sort of results as when you shoot into the sun. The camera will probably try to expose for the window, unless you’re using spot metering, and that will produce a silhouette. When you have the camera set to spot metering, you can overexpose the background to blow out the light, while exposing for the subject in the foreground. This can produce a very cool effect, and it’s about the only interesting white/light background that I like to use.
When you want harder light than you usually get from a large window, you have two choices, you either stand further back from the window, or you use a smaller window. Standing further back will mean that the light is still quite soft, just not as soft, as the light is further away, and can’t reach the same angles. When you use a smaller window, you’re doing something very similar, only instead of smaller from being farther away, it’s just a smaller light source. This will produce a harder light as, again, the light can’t reach the same angles as a large window. I personally like using smaller windows for photos of a person upper torso and head, and larger window for full body shot.