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Finding the Best Light

The awareness of light and using it effectively is one of the most important things we can to do create a memorable photograph. By picking our location well, and placing the subject appropriately, we can control light outdoors, as effectively as we can in a studio shoot.

Ideally, the light should be brightest on the most important areas of a scene.  With portraits, that is usually the highlights on the face. Generally, we want a feeling of the light coming from one direction, from one side of the scene. This creates much more interest and impact within the image, as well as defining the shape of the face.  Ideally lighting will be chosen that gives the  most pleasing shape to the subject’s face.  

There is no single style of lighting that is best to light any subject.. Everyone is different, we must simply find the lighting situation that places our subject in the best light. That means scouting out many locations and keeping track of where that magical light is, at various times of the day, and seasonally as well. It is well worth putting in the time and effort to do this, to know I am getting the best lighting possible each time I go out and shoot.

Notice that the highlight on this girl’s left cheek is the brightest area of the scene. It is also the area of greatest contrast in the scene. As a result, our eye goes directly to her face with little else to distract . This is absolutely straight natural light. There were not even any reflectors used. We simply placed the subject according to the direction and quality of the light that we wanted to use.

 

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Taking Portraits by Window Light

By the time I moved into my last studio, I hadn’t even paid attention to those grand old North facing windows. But those windows proved to provide the finest light I  have ever had to work with in my portrait studio work. I ended up using those windows to take some of the finest studio portraits I have ever created. Once again I would find that it’s hard to beat natural light for creating great portraits. 

Within a very short period from when I moved, I was doing a newborn baby portrait in a bassinet, and discovered that the best way I could light this baby was with the light of one of those old windows. The sale from that baby portrait was my highest sale while at that location. Over the next six years that I was in that building,  I ended up shooting window light portraits of almost every portrait session I did, even if I was already doing some of the portraits with regular studio lighting. It seemed that those windows offered a quality of light that simply could not be reproduced with artificial lighting.

The large size of the old windows produced an amazing soft light that was simply incredible. I found many ways to use the light, whether with a reflector on the shadow side of the subject, as above, or with no reflector at all, simply letting the shadows go black, to add  to the emotion of the image. I particularly love shooting images with the main (key)  light almost behind the subject as above, and below, to get a dramatic “rim” light. simply adjust the fill for the lighting ratio to fit the mood  you  are capturing.

For you newer photographers who may still shoot in auto modes on your camera, your camera isn’t gonna want to expose this correctly. It will try to lighten up the entire image, over exposing the highlights on the subject’s face. You need to expose, preferrably with a grey card, for the light entering the window and reflecting off of the grey card. Or, expose for the subject’s faces, adjusting for brightness level of their faces.

 
 
The only draw back I have found to window light portraits is that I can’t move the window, so I’m limited to having the subject looking more or less toward the direction of the window.  Generally, we want the subject looking at least slightly into the direction the light is coming from.  In most of these images, I am 90 degrees from the window. The subject could be looking directly at the camera and we would have a “split” lighting that could be acceptable and that may work very well, depending on the style and feel of the image we are creating. However, anything where the subject is looking more away from the window will start looking like bad lighting because there will be deep shadows in the eyes, etc.
maternity portrait with Dad
I have found that everyone I ever photographed using this window light loved the images and were particularly drawn to them. I have tracked my sales and found significantly higher sales and more poses selected from these window light images than from portraits taken with traditional studio lighting.
 
I actually end up shooting more window light images without fill reflector for the shadows, because the more dramatic deep shadows with no detail adds to the intensity of the image. And, yes, I know, technically, a well exposed image will have detail in highlights and shadows. But I got bored with the rules a long time ago.
 
You don’t want to shoot with indoor lights on if you are shooting window light. If your tungsten household lights are on and you are white balanced for the outdoor light, you will have a red cast to the shadows in the image. But the highlights ( on the window side ) will be correctly white balanced. This can be a real problem when trying to color correct an image. So, best to have no interior lights on. Go for a silver or white reflector on the shadow side of the subject if you want to lighten up the shadows and add some detail. But remember to expose for the light coming in the window.
Something about leaning into these old window frames, and gazing out on the street below, helps people relax and forget about the camera, an essential step on the pathway to  creating amazing portraits.

Window light is best suited for a single subject, or perhaps two people.  It would be hard to get an even exposure for the highlights on a group of people because some would be further from the window than others. But window light is certainly a fantastic option for individuals, or poor photographers who can’t afford a lighting system.  The good news is, this is probably better than studio lights anyway!