How to Use Window Light for Portraits: A Step by Step Guide

Want smooth, even skin and eyes that are full of life in your portraits? I bet you do!  This simple tutorial will guide you through the first steps of using natural window or doorway light to create beautiful portraits.

Want smooth, even skin and eyes that are full of life in your portraits? I bet you do!  This simple tutorial will guide you through the first steps of using natural window or doorway light to create beautiful portraits. Click through to read!

1) Turn off Your Pop-Up Flash

I can't think of many situations where the image is improved with on-camera pop-up flash! Of course, you may need to use this to capture a moment (and even then I would recommend a diffuser of some kind) but if you are looking to improve your images, turn off your camera flash which leaves you with harsh shadows, washed out faces, and the dreaded red-eye! 

2) Turn out the Lights

Mixing natural light with artificial light generally gives you quite wonky colours in your images - it's best to stick to just one type of light source, and during the day, your best bet is to stick with wonderful natural light, so turn of all unnatural light sources such as table lamps etc. 

3) Find a Large Window or Open Doorway

I would suggest starting with indoor light - it's a little bit easier to control and work with when starting out. Large windows will provide you with a lovely soft light, so find a good sized window that does not currently have the sun shining directly through it (North or South facing windows are ideal) If your ideal window is East facing, avoid it in the morning, if it is West facing, avoid it in the afternoon - that way you won't get direct sunlight.  Alternatively, an open door will also work wonderfully - just keep the same tips in mind about avoiding times when sunlight is coming directly in.  

3) Have the Window behind you

 Have your subject sit facing the window, and you - the photographer - will have the window at your back as in the diagram below.  This type of light (known as front or flat light) is really by far the easiest to work with, as because the whole scene is evenly lit, you don’t need to deal with shadows or watch the highlights, so it perfect for starting out with.  It also tends to give creamy skin and gorgeous catchlights, and is used a lot in beauty photography.  

If you are using a doorway, have the subject stand just inside the doorway, and you will probably need to be outside taking the photograph, but this also gives gorgeous light on your subject. 

4b) Or Place Your Subject at 45 Degree Angle to Window

The only problem with lighting your subject directly to the front is that it can lead to a lack of shadows - and shadows can be a good thing as it helps give the face shape and dimension. Just a slight tweak to how your subject is facing the window is enough to introduce it though - instead of having them face the window directly - they should sit at a 45 degree angle to the window instead.  

 5) Check for Catchlights

By lighting your subject in either of these ways, you should get glorious catchlights - where the eyes pick up the light and reflect it back at you. If you don't see catchlights (this may happen if your windows are higher than your subject) have them look up at you so that their eyes will fill with light.

That's all there is to it! Of course there are many more ways to light your subject, but this should give you an excellent starting point and give you a solid grounding in the basics - I love lighting subjects in both these ways so it is something you will always continue to use too!