Shooting portraits by windows with natural light

3 generations at a window
The above image was taken by a lovely lady called Heather (a previous student of mine).  It was captured at my wedding and shows Linda (my wife) in the foreground with her granddaughter and daughter behind her.

The only illumination is sunlight coming in through the window.

If the light is right, shooting portraits by windows can produce wonderful images.


Getting the exposure right can be a bit tricky.  Too bright and you will see detail in the back of the room, but the face will be overexposed.  Not bright enough and you risk underexposing the face and losing the most important element of the image.

The trick is to expose for the face and let everything else go either bright or dark in comparison.

I like to take a light reading from the face, which you can either do with a dedicated light meter (who uses those these days!!).  You could use your camera’s built-in spot meter (if it has one) or you get use your camera’s normal metering and measure the light bouncing off the face by getting in really close to measure it.

When I say ‘really close’ you need to get so close that the subject’s face completely fills the frame.

You want to avoid huge swathes of bright light creeping into view in the corners of the frame.  I tend to the turn the camera vertical (see opposite) to follow the vertical orientation of the face.

Once you have filled the frame, press the camera’s exposure lock button (AE-L).

Some cameras have dedicated AE-L buttons, others have a button which also locks the focus (AF-L).  If yours has a dual-function button, go into your camera’s menu and change it, so the button only locks the exposure.

Other options you may find in your menu are that the button can be pressed and held… or pressed just the once to lock.

Pressing the button once, locks the AE-L until you press it again, to switch it off.  I prefer the other alternative, the ‘press and hold’ option.  I keep my finger on the AE-L button and so long as it remains held down, I can take as many shots as I like, from different angles, different distances.  Because I’m holding the button the exposure is locked.  As soon as I let go of it, the camera goes back to normal operation.

I prefer it, because I don’t want to leave the exposure locked once I move to shooting the next shot, which may require a different exposure.


Using a longer focal length

The image below was taken against a full length window.

Using a longer lens I was able to meter the face without getting too close to the model.  This is a real advantage, getting too close can make the model feel uncomfortable.

Typically I prefer focal lengths around 90mm on a 1.5 crop-frame camera or 135mm on a full-frame when shooting portraits.

My 85mm f1.2 used to be my weapon of choice on my full-frame Canons, but when I discovered the 135mm f/2.0, I rarely picked the 85mm up (unless I’m shooting in very low light of course).  The f/2.0 aperture and the extra compression of perspective from the longer focal length are a winning combo for me.

The photo below was taken on a Fujifilm X-Pro2.

You may, of course, decide to go for a semi-silhouetted look (below) and this will work in some circumstances.   In this shot I pulled the curtains, so that there was only a small shaft of light coming into the room.

Sometimes, limiting the about of detail visible can make the shot more interesting.  I find rich, dark shadows, really appealing.  These blacks got an extra crushing in Lightroom.

Silhouetted girl adding make-up

I recently set an assignment in our online Academy to take a window portrait, to test the skills of the members in controlling their exposure.  It may be something you’re interested in trying yourself, in which case read on, this might be useful to you.

The aim is to only use natural light, no flash.  You obviously can use flash, but for the purposes of this exercise we won’t be using flash or any other form of artificial light.  However, you may use a reflector if you have one.

If you do decide to use a reflector, you might want to experiment with the white side and if it has one, the silver side.  The white reflective material bounces back light that tends to be softer and more flattering, it scatters light more. On the other hand, the silver reflector will bounce back more light but it’s often quite harsh and not always so attractive. It depends of course, on the type of shot and lighting effect you’re after.

What if the light coming in the window is too bright?

What do you do when the sun is streaming through the window and the light & shadows it produces are just too contrasty. High contrast shadows on the face are mostly to be avoided.

If you want to soften the light on someone’s face use a diffusion screen over the window.  Let the light from the sun be filtered (or diffused) by the thin material in the diffusion screen. It will eliminate all the harsh shadows and cast a gentle, virtually shadow-free light over your subject.

If you don’t have a diffusion screen, hang a lightweight sheet over the window. The light coming through will be wonderfully soft (although you will lose some of the light, perhaps a few stops, in the process).

Here’s an image taken at the Weald & Downland Living Museum near Chichester.  The couple in the shot hired the venue for their wedding and we shot this inside an old chapel which had wooden floors, wooden walls and wooden benches.  Loads of character.

It was towards the end of the day and the sun was getting low.  The light outside was very warm and it affected the whole image.

Taking this kind of shot, late in the day, meant that the light coming in through the windows wasn’t overly bright, you can see some detail outside.  It certainly hasn’t blown-out the pixels (as in the shot of the Asian model high up).  Shooting late in the day is a good technique.

Photographing portraits using only window light can be extremely rewarding, give it a shot – and if you’ve got any questions, post them below

Enjoy and have fun

Kevin Ahronson

Kevin is a full-time professional photographer and has been teaching photography since 2009. He founded the Hampshire School of Photography where he runs photography workshops and gives one to one mentoring to photographers at all levels, from complete beginners through to those who want to turn professional

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