Recreating Window Light In-Studio

Window Light Thumb


One of the most flattering light sources for portraits is the most simple to come by, especially in the spring and summer. Window light inside your home or studio can be excellent for portraits and offer a variety of looks based on how you position yourself and your subject.

Window light is very flattering as the glass acts as a diffuser, and you can vary contrast by moving your subject closer and further from the window. Shadows can be controlled by how much you angle your subject towards and away from the light. The more they face the light, the less shadows you will have.

In the example below, the subject was placed opposite a glass window. The window is large and she is directly facing it so shadows are soft and minimal.

In the example below, the subject was next to a window with the light coming primarily from the right side of the frame. The left side of the face was in too much shadow so a reflector was added to fill it in. Softening the shadows improves skin texture and creates a softer look overall.

The problem with window light is that it is most effective with bright sunlight during spring and summer months. During the fall and winter, overcast weather and a lower angle of orbit can make working with window light a lot more difficult. What we are going to do in this lighting lesson is recreate the look of a large window in-studio using soft boxes.

Part One – Classic Window Portraits

For the first shot I wanted to go for a classic window portrait so I picked up some semi-sheer curtains and used a backdrop stand to hang them up on-set. I used a white paper backdrop in the background to mimic a flat interior wall. Next I placed a LiteDome: Extra Large soft box on one side of the curtains facing them squarely.

The most important element to mimic window light is the angle of the soft box. I like to place it vertically with a very slight downward angle. Normally when I work with soft boxes I place them at more of a 45-degree angle but to sell the window light look, a more direct angle better mimics sunlight filtering though a large pane of glass.

To get started I asked the subject, Emiliya to stand on the opposite side of the curtains. For posing, I asked her to pretend the soft box really was a window and that she was standing by it, looking out.

In the examples below, you can see that the paper backdrop really does look like a wall and the filtered light of the soft box mimics a sunny afternoon. I shot these images at f5.6 with a 1/125th shutter speed using ISO 100.

I didn’t mind the shadows on the face but I wanted to soften them a bit to even out the exposure. I added a SunLite LiteDisc: Oval reflector on the other side of Emiliya from the soft box.

Below you can see the same pose with no reflector on the left and with it added on the right. Whether you add a reflector comes down to what you prefer and the overall look you are going for.

Part Two – Backlit Drama

For the next window light look I wanted to try something trickier. Window light can be excellent for backlighting a subject but it’s a lot more difficult to control the light. If you place your subject in front of a bright window, with their back to the glass, you can expose for the subject’s skin tone and the background will blow out completely if the sunlight is bright enough.

To accomplish this look, I placed the extra large soft box behind the subject and moved the curtains so that Emiliya would be standing behind them, looking through.

With this technique it’s difficult to expose for skin tones without getting extra light spilling into the frame. I wanted Emiliya to have the freedom to move around so I embraced the light spill and let it wrap around her body from behind. This creates a darker, shadowed area in the center of the face but I personally like the effect.

To soften these shadows and make sure there is enough detail in the face I added a 42″ 9-in-1 MultiDisc Reflector, specifically using the white surface. I placed the MultiDisc at about a 40-degree angle in front of and below Emiliya to bounce light up into her face. The first example below accomplishes this backlit effect with the curtains added to sell the window look. These images were also taken at f5.6 with a 1/125 shutter speed using ISO 100.

After this shot I ditched the curtains and went for a tighter crop as shown in the example below. The reflector in front of Emiliya insured that enough light would bounce up into the eyes and soften the cross-shadow in the center of her face.

With this lighting effect I like to have the subject turn slightly into the light spill for a soft and ethereal look such as in the two examples below.

If you can get your hands on a large soft box like the LiteDome: Extra Large, you can start mimicking window light in your own studio. Have fun with it!

Written and photographed by Laura Tillinghast.

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