Take Better Pictures - Lesson #7

Light Basics Part 2

People struggle with portrait lighting, especially indoors. Using flash is cumbersome and unless you have a fancy off-camera flash set up, it can look harsh.

This lesson will compare different types of indoor window lighting that can be used in creative ways.

Available light for indoor portraits

Windows provide great opportunities for indoor portrait lighting. The same rules you learned in the last lesson still apply though. Look for the direction the light is coming from as well as the quality of the light. Is your light hard or soft?

In general, portraits look best with softer light. Hard light can make people look old by deepening wrinkles, or cause distracting highlights and shadow areas on their face. Hard light can also add drama, so it's not all bad. Soft light creates shallower softer shadows, or sometimes even no shadows.

Different lighting will also change how the person in your portrait is portrayed. To make someone look tough, try some hard light. To make them look gentle, use soft light.

Window light falls off quickly, meaning that it doesn't reach too far inside. So if you want to take advantage of window light, you'll have to place your subject fairly close to the window.

Compare the following photos, all taken indoors, using only window light

Direct sun

The photo of Shawn above is taken with direct sunlight coming in through the window. You can tell by the direction of the shadow that the sun was quite high. Notice the overexposed highlights on his cheek and nose. His one eye is totally obscured by shadow. The shadows coming across his face are uneven and distracting.

The light on his hair looks good though. It shows nice shiny detail. In the studio we put a spot light on people's heads, to get this effect. It's aptly called a hair light! Look at some good studio portraits and you'll notice that most of them use a hair light. It helps to separate the subject from the background.

This is my niece with her grandpa. It's Christmas and outside the window there is snow on the ground. Snow makes an excellent bounce light. It's also a cloudy day, but not a gray day, so the light is bright.

Notice how much softer the shadows are compared to the top photo of Shawn. Also notice the direction of this light. It's coming from the left side and there isn't really much light on the right side or the background. So we still have shadows, but no hard edges on them.

Indirect Window light

I placed Keegan facing the window for this shot, and I'm right in front of him, but I'm not blocking very much of the light. That's me in the middle of the catch light in his eyes. Again, the light is indirect and soft. This time though it is coming from the front, so no side shadows like the Christmas photo above.

Window light doesn't usually go very deep or far into the room, unless it's sunset and the light is coming in horizontally. It falls off really quickly so the backgrounds tend to be dark, unless you have another window or door in the background, like the photo below, which has two windows. Can you tell where the windows are by looking at the shadows and highlights?

window light

Tips for indoor window lighting

Make indoor light look like the studio

light demo

This photo was taken using totally natural indoor window light and a white bounce card which reflected the light from the window onto the left side of my face. There was also a window behind me to provide some separation from the background. The background was white, but I close cut myself out of the background in Photoshop afterward so that it would be pure white.

Another trick I used for this set up was to put a silver reflector under my chin. I'm sitting at a table in this shot and the reflector is on the table right up against me, and I'm leaning on it a bit with my leading shoulder. That helps to bounce some more light under me and eliminate even more shadows. Still got those wrinkles though!

With these examples you can see that with minimal lighting equipment, you can still get a lot of variations in portrait lighting just from using window light.


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