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4 Secrets to Recreating Window Light in the Studio - Video

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So when it comes to re-creating window light the first thing we have to ask ourselves is what exactly is window light. On the surface, it’s just some photons coming through a glass opening and hitting our subject. But what we really have to ask ourselves is are we trying to re-create direct sunlight coming through a window or are we trying to re-create subtle light on a cloudy day. 

The former is going to feel more edgy. It’s going to be the type of lighting we would probably use for a fashion shoot or when we want a little bit of grit. The latter will feel more pleasing and perhaps be something that we would refer to as more beautiful. It’s a type of lighting that you might want to use for a subject that wants to appear or younger or maybe it’s just a vibe you’re going for that day. It is the vibe I go for most days. There’s no hard and fast rule that says that a fashion image has to feel edgy or an older person needs to be photographed in soft light you really can choose which approach works for you based on your personality or the side of the bed you woke up on. 

So in order to re-create that direct sunlight look, the first thing we should think about is how is that light is created in the real world, basically what are the general characteristics of that light quality. I’ve always heard is that if the sun were a light source it would be the size of a dime (1cm across), 60 feet (20m) away from your subject. Therefore direct sunlight is a very very small light source, far away. When that direct light passes through a window it scatters just a little bit, plus it bounced off of your subject, possibly the background and then it bounces around the room, which causes light to fall into the shadows ever so slightly. When it comes to re-creating this type of light we don’t have to be so literal and place single flash on the other side of the room. We could just take a light with a reflector or a small soft box and have it not be so close to our subject. 

Keep in mind that lighting a portrait is about conveying a feeling and not building a rocket to put a man on the moon.

To further sell the idea that we are shooting hard window light, you might choose to place a Gobo between your light and your subject. A Gobo is simply an object that “goes between” two things. You could use a cucoloris as your Gobo, palm branches, or any object you find around the house. There are infinite creative possibilities. Or instead of placing a large object between your subject and your light you could place a very small Gobo, in this case a metal stencil, into an optical snoot , like my Nicefoto SN-29, and then you could projected that pattern onto your subject.

On the other hand, if you wanted to create window light on a cloudy day, you would use a very large light source. There’s a general principle in lighting that states that the larger the light source is relative to your subject, the softer the light will be. So you could use a large softbox or an umbrella close in to your model. 

The next thing you’re probably wondering is where should the light be placed.  Dutch master painter Rembrandt often post his subjects next to a window but at an angle. If we think about the hours on the face of an analog clock with the photographer at 6 o’clock and the subject in the middle the light would be placed at about 4 or 8pm. In these positions you’ll end up with a triangle of light under the subjects eye opposite the window. Or to look at it a different way, you’ll create shadow of their nose that falls across their face and intersects the cheekbone shadow on the side of their head opposite the window light. It’s same exact thing, but its just two ways to express it.

So our first secret was the light source and location was out second secret. The third secret is fill.  What I mean by fill is light bouncing off of something and then falling into the shadows.  One way to do this would be to place a V flat on the side opposite of your window in order to reflect that light directly back into your shadows. Not only will be use of a Vflat in this position increase dynamic range it will decrease contrast and in many cases create a more pleasing light, which will have the side effect of making your subjects look less wrinkled.

And the fourth and final trick is to use flags to block where the light from the window is going, essentially taking on the function of the window frame. This will help you to keep the light from spilling on to the background or floor.


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