Jay P. Morgan: Window Light Portraits for Stills and Video



In this tutorial, we'll look at how to use window light as an effective light source to create portraits.

Window light is a natural light source that can create beautiful light for portraits for both video and stills.  It's a constant and immediately available light source that is defined by the size of the window and the proximity of the subject to the window.  Large windows give softer light with brighter backgrounds and smaller windows give harder light with darker backgrounds.  The same principle applies to soft boxes.  Large boxes create soft light and small boxes create more directional light. 

Here, we'll look at window light as a backlight, key light, and flat frontal light.  In the process, we'll explore how skin tone and hair color affect the way we light.  Combining someone with dark hair and olive skin and someone with fair skin and red hair creates a challenge.  You'll see how to overcome that challenge.  Lets look at window light as a light source for portraits.



Our first camera setup was a strong backlight or silhouette.  We were using the light source as a background.   I wanted the sky outside to be bright enough to give me the silhouette without becoming so bright that it started to wrap around the talent.

The room was very white and the light bounced off the walls causing an overall fill light in the room. In post we could have opened up the contrast to remove the fill light and create a stronger silhouette if desired.  I liked the subtle bleed on her body and chose to leave it.


By adding a fill card on camera right, we bounced light back into Brooke's face.  I had my assistant hold the card up high so that the fill card gave us a Rembrandt light on her face.

If the card is placed on the ground and reflected upward, it's not very flattering on her face. Reflectors need to be placed in the same areas as lights to be effective.  Many times we let the floor be the resting place for the reflector, and we end up with "horror light" coming from underneath!

Shooting Brooke and Adelaide together was a challenge because of the skin tone and hair color difference between the two of them. Brooke's dark hair and olive skin combined with Adelaide's red hair and fair skin made it tough. Care needed to be taken to make sure both their faces were exposed correctly.

Placing the reflector on Brooke's side and letting the strength of the reflector hit her first and then fall off on Adelaide’s face accommodated both of their skin tones.  We feathered the reflector away from Adelaide to keep her fair skin from becoming overexposed.


The reflector was almost turned away from them.  This kept the light strong on Brooke and lighter on Adelaide.

Moving alongside of the window turned the window light into a direct key source rather than a backlight.  This is a very popular way to shoot with a window light source.  The light coming through the window was soft and wrapped around the face very nicely.  The window itself cut the light off the wall behind the talent, allowing it to go darker and cause separation of our talent from the background.  It's hard to go wrong with this setup.

Brooke had a nice highlight on her face, and the background fell slightly darker, so she was separated nicely.

As the sun set, we were able to capitalize on the hard light coming into the room. The window cast a wonderful shape on the wall for us to play with.

Using the hard light coming through the window, we were able to take some more dramatic portraits. Don't be afraid of allowing the highlight to blow out. Hard light can be dramatic, interesting, and a change of pace from what people are used to seeing.

In this setup, we moved the subject around and used the window as a large light source on the same axis as the camera.

The window was high and wide, giving us a very soft source of light. It bounced all over the room and created a soft, yet slightly directional light.  You can see how it created a wonderful butterfly light with the shadows under her nose and cheekbones.

Moving out onto the fire escape, we did some shots using the window light in a grittier environment. I wanted to give this image on the fire escape a more interesting look, so I did some work in Nik Color Efex Pro 4.  I used a recipe called Black Gold.  I changed the color palette in Black Gold and made it less gold and more green.  I then pulled back the TC just a bit and added a vignette. There are so many possibilities in post!

To see more of Jay P. Morgan's work, visit http://www.jaypmorgan.com




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