If you want to create gorgeous images, then window light photography is a great option.
For one, windows are always available, no matter your location.
Plus, windows are completely free! There’s no need to spend hundreds (or thousands) on lighting equipment when you have a good window or two.
But how do you capture gorgeous shots with window light? How do you get truly stunning results?
That’s what this article is all about.
So, if you’re ready to discover everything you need to know for amazing window light photography, then let’s get started.
Table of contents
- 1. Use a North- or South-Facing Window for Beautiful Soft Light
- 2. Use the Biggest Window You Can Find
- 3. Try Adding Modifiers to the Window for Different Effects
- 4. Use a Wide Aperture, a Decent Shutter Speed, and the Lowest ISO You Can Afford
- 5. Remove All Other Light Sources for the Most Powerful Result
- 6. Use Blinds to Create Dramatic Shadows
- 7. Experiment With Angles for Creative Photos
- 8. Use a Reflector to Prevent Too-Strong Shadows
- Window Light Photography: Conclusion
1. Use a North- or South-Facing Window for Beautiful Soft Light
Windows let in the sun.
Which means that, depending on the direction of the window, you’ll get more or less sun–and you’ll get harsher or softer light.
Now, east and west windows will give you very direct light, with the sun shining through in the morning or the evening.
And while this can work for very contrast-heavy, dramatic images, I generally recommend avoiding it, for two reasons.
First, direct sunlight creates harsh shadows–shadows that just aren’t very flattering for portrait, still life, or product photography.
Instead, you want soft, even lighting, that offers very gradual transitions as it moves across your subject.
East- and west-facing windows only offer direct light for half the day.
The other half of the day, the sun is in the complete opposite direction, which limits the amount of light you have to work with, plus it just makes working out photoshoot times a lot harder; instead of having the whole day to shoot with consistent results, you have to figure out how the lighting changes (dramatically!) over the course of the day.
So instead of using windows facing east and west…
…find some windows that face north or south.
These windows are always offering soft, even, flattering light, because the sun doesn’t shine through directly.
And the light remains consistent across the course of the day, which is good for planning (plus it just makes mastering window light photography a lot easier!).
That way, you can get stunning results, time and time again.
2. Use the Biggest Window You Can Find
Windows are a lot like softboxes, which come with a very simple rule:
The bigger the softbox, the softer the light.
You see, as sources of light get larger and larger, you get much more even, gradual transitions. And, since this look is very flattering, especially for portrait subjects, bigger is the name of the game!
That’s why I recommend using the largest window available to you. It’ll give you the most gradual, flattering, soft, gorgeous light to work with.
Note, however, that you’re always free to experiment with other options for different effects.
And if you have nothing else to work with, a smaller window will give you a nice result, too–though you may want to modify it, as I discuss in the next section:
3. Try Adding Modifiers to the Window for Different Effects
If you use a large north- or south-facing window for your light, you’ll get a great, soft result.
But what if you want even softer photos?
Or what if you don’t have a big, north- or south-facing window to work with?
That’s where modifiers come in handy.
In standard flash photography, you’ll see shooters using umbrellas and softboxes to diffuse the light.
But you don’t need anything so fancy.
Instead, just get a nice white sheet…
…and drape it over the window.
It’ll soften the light, and make it much easier to capture gorgeous images.
Note that you don’t want to diffuse the light too much, because this will lower the light substantially. And the lower the light, the lower your shutter speed and the higher the ISO, which will result in blurry and/or noisy images.
So go ahead and diffuse the light with a custom modifier.
But don’t go overboard!
By the way, you’ll want to make sure that the sheet is a neutral color; if you use a sheet that offers a slight color tinge, it’ll tint your images and may require some color correction work in post-processing later on.
4. Use a Wide Aperture, a Decent Shutter Speed, and the Lowest ISO You Can Afford
Window light tends to be pretty weak, especially when compared to direct light you get from the outdoors.
So you have to be very careful with your camera settings–to make sure that you still get a detailed, well-exposed result.
Here’s what I recommend:
First, use a very wide aperture, such as f/2.8 or f/1.8.
This will let in as much light as possible, and it’ll also have a nice side effect:
It’ll give you very artistic, creative images, by blurring the background and only keeping a sliver of your subject in focus.
Second, set your shutter speed to between 1/100s and 1/250s, depending on the length of your lens and your comfort levels; that way, you know you’ll be able to capture sharp images, but you don’t have to worry about raising your ISO too much.
Third, make sure that your ISO is as low as possible. Because a high ISO contributes noise to the shot, which is not what you want.
So start with an ISO of around 100, then only raise it if you’re not getting the shutter speed window I suggested above (specifically, if your shutter speed is too slow; a too-fast shutter speed is fine and can be left alone).
That way, you’ll be able to get sharp, well-exposed images, but with as little noise as possible.
5. Remove All Other Light Sources for the Most Powerful Result
In general, you want to control the light completely.
This is what will allow you to capture intentional, flattering images.
Plus, if you use multiple light sources, you’re in danger of adding unpleasant color casts into your images.
So here’s what you do:
Before taking a single shot, walk around the room, and turn off every light.
Then pull down the blinds or drapes on every window in the room, save for your single source of light. If you don’t have effective blinds or drapes, go ahead and cover the windows with black sheets. That’ll ensure you don’t have to deal with any leaky lighting.
Once this is done, your subject will be lit by one window, and one window only. Which is perfect, because it means that you can create dramatic, three-dimensional lighting, without having to worry about other light interfering with your shots.
6. Use Blinds to Create Dramatic Shadows
Speaking of drama:
If you’re hoping to create unique, powerful images via window light, then here’s a creative window light photography tip for you:
Put blinds over your window.
But don’t close them; instead, leave them completely (or partially) open.
This will cast interesting, unique shadows, which is great for more experimental work.
I also recommend you try adjusting the opening and closing of the blinds, so that you get thinner and thicker shadows.
The results will speak for themselves!
7. Experiment With Angles for Creative Photos
Once you have your window light photography setup, then it’s time to really dig in and create a unique portfolio of shots.
So what should you do?
One of the most important aspects of gorgeous window light photography is the angle of the light.
So if your subject is facing the window directly and you’re standing with the window light coming over your shoulder…
…you’re going to get one type of shot, one with a bright subject and a darker background.
But if you position your subject facing 90 degrees away from the window, so the light is hitting their face from the side, you’ll get a completely different result (one that’s much more three-dimensional and dramatic).
Personally, I’m a fan of sidelight, which includes the previous example, as well as any light that partially lights your subject from off to their left or right.
But you’ll get different types of shots depending on the exact angle at which you position your subject, which is why it pays to experiment with a bunch of different options.
Try starting with your subject facing the window directly, then shift so that you get some 45-degree sidelight, then shift again so you get 90-degree sidelight, then again for very limited sidelight, then again…
Not only will this give you some beautiful photos, but it’ll also give you an opportunity to really understand how the light is affecting your images.
By the way, if you’re after more creative window-light shots, you can always go for a direct backlighting effect, where you position your subject in front of the window and shoot from behind.
(As in, you point your lens at the subject, behind which is the window.)
This will generally create a beautiful silhouette, and can work well with any subject–though if you have your subject wear a hat, you’ll get an even more interesting outline.
8. Use a Reflector to Prevent Too-Strong Shadows
Here’s your final tip for beautiful window-light photography:
If you ever find yourself taking photos but feel like the shadows are a bit strong…
…then don’t be afraid to use a reflector of some sort.
This will punch up the light on your subject, and will minimize the strength of the darker areas.
For instance, if you’re taking a backlit window portrait, but you don’t want a true silhouette, you can put a reflector under your subject’s chin (have them hold it!), which will bounce back light onto their face.
Or, if you’re doing a sidelit portrait, but the shadows on the unlit part of the face aren’t as soft as you’d like, then go ahead and add a reflector on the unlit side.
Let me emphasize something, though:
You don’t need a fancy reflector that photography professionals often use (though these are actually pretty cheap, and can be worth a look if you’re planning on doing a lot of window light photography, or portrait photography more generally).
Instead, you can just use something white, like a sheet of white paper or an open book.
Window light is easy, and it’s free. You don’t need to spend money, not even for a reflector!
Window Light Photography: Conclusion
Window light is a great way to capture stunning images.
And, once you get the hang of it, you’ll realize that it’s actually pretty easy to get amazing results.
So go ahead and start practicing.
I’m betting you’ll have some portfolio-worthy shots before long!
I recommend using a window that faces north or south. That way, you never get direct light from the sun, and the light stays more consistent throughout the day. However, you can always use an east or west facing window, but drape a white sheet over it to create a more diffused effect. Note that bigger windows tend to be better than smaller windows, because you get a softer effect, though any window is going to give you at least some nice light to work with!
That depends on the look you’d like to achieve. Reflectors can be useful, especially if you want to punch up the darker areas a bit (in other words, you can use a reflector to minimize shadows on the non-illuminated side of your subject’s face). It often makes sense to use a reflector if your subject is backlit by the window and you don’t want a silhouette; instead, place the reflector in front of your subject and bounce light directly back. You can also use a reflector if your subject is sidelit by placing it on the non-illuminated side to boost detail in the shadows.
I recommend using sidelight, where you position your subject so that the window light hits them from somewhere off to their right or left. You can experiment with different levels of sidelight, though; this will help give more or less depth/three-dimensionality, depending on the shadows. You’re also free to use backlight for an interesting silhouette, or frontlight for a bright subject and a dark background.
All kinds! Portraits are a very popular window light subject, but you can also do product photos and still life photos for a slightly more unique result. Really, as long as you can find a way to get it in front of a window, you can create a beautiful image!
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.