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Use Window Lighting for Dramatic and Easy Portraits

written by: digitaldan1•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 10/27/2010

What light through yonder window breaks? It is the light for my portraiture, and it is good. Learn more about this portrait photography lighting technique here.

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    Window Light

    Let's face it. The average amateur photographer using a point-and-shoot camera deals with equipment limitations the average pro doesn't think twice about. High quality portraiture is done in the studio with carefully controlled artificial lighting and backgrounds are carefully chosen and arraigned.

    Fortunately, creating dramatic portraits doesn't require a fancy photo studio or even sophisticated off-camera flash unit. Instead, a convenient source of dramatic lighting is as close as your nearest window. Sunlight streaming through a window is easy to use and produces beautiful lighting. The trick is to pose your subject effectively and meter the light properly.

    Generally, you're looking for strong sunlight streaming through the window. This means you may need to observe your windows at various times of day to find the best time and location for your shoot. What you want is a strong light source. You can either use this light unfiltered, or, if you want a softer effect, use a sheer curtain to filter the light a bit.

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    Using Natural Lighting from Windows - Examples

    Here is some information about the two photos shown below:

    The first is my wife Lisa during a visit to New Hope, PA. We were having lunch in a restaurant in an old church and were seated at a window. Pulling out my Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 I metered off her right cheek, directed her to position her nose so it split the light and shadow areas and fired away. There's enough contrast to throw the background into shadow making the image cleaner than it would have been if fully lit. Also, notice the little triangle of light on her left cheek. This is a characteristic of "Rembrandt" lighting, a 3:1 lighting ratio.

    In the second photo, model Lindsey Miller poses in the stairwell of my photo studio. Here the light source was a large window to the left side of the model. Light reflecting off the light colored walls served to fill in shadow areas and helped create a more even lighting.

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    Lisa window lit.Lindsey Miller window lit.
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    Posing and Exposure

    Posing -- How you pose your subject is particularly important in this portrait lighting technique since you really can't do anything about changing the direction of the light. This means you need to change your subject's position based on his or her relationship to the light source. Generally, I like to position my subject so the light splits her face right down the center.

    Exposure -- Judging how to expose this type of image is reasonably simple. Either set your camera's light metering pattern to "spot" or zoom in tight to meter off your subject's cheek in the lit area of their face. Depending on how bright the sunlight streaming through the window is, the part of your subject's face in shadow may be either significantly darker than the lit area or hidden completely in shadow. If you're not happy with this, you can bounce some light into the shadows with the use of a reflector. There's no need to go out and buy a photographic reflector though. You can just use a mirror or piece of foam or white board to kick some light into the shadow areas.

    Contrast -- Another important concern for this type of shot lies in managing the contrast ratio of the scene. If you want a very dramatic lighting effect, then combine a very dark room with a bright window. Meter off the sun-lit cheek and expose to hold detail. The result will be a solid black shadow side giving an air of mystery as your subject seems to emerge from the shadows. If the contrast level is too high for your liking, turn room lights on, or use a reflector or use an off-camera flash or continuous light source to fill in the shadows a bit.