WINDOW LIGHT PORTRAITS
One of the most common subjects and one of the most challenging for in-experienced photographers is portraits. Photographing people requires communication skills and photographic techniques that can be intricate and hard to manage. Lighting for portrait photography can be infinitely complex but I want to suggest a simpler method that can produce fantastic results and make your portraits look great.
Window light is an exceptionally useful lighting source for your portrait photography. By using available light (the window) you avoid the complexity of using flash – artificial light-and the exposure control issues that it presents. We often over complicate the photographic creation process to the detriment of the results we get. The mantra “keep it simple stupid” (the KISS rule) should come to mind for your next portrait session. By simplifying the lighting you will be less stressed and can concentrate on developing a positive connection with your subject.
Ambient window light provides a large, even light source that provides a gradual transition from highlight to shadow. That quality of the lighting is soft and natural and can be very flattering for your portrait subjects. Electronic flash tends to be direct, contrasty and destroys the subtle transition between that highlight and shadow which is unflattering for portraiture.
When I refer to “window lighting” I have some particular features and qualities in mind. Direct noon time sun glaring through your window is equally harsh and unflattering as direct flash. What I am describing is the soft, diffuse lighting that you get from a cloudy day. North facing windows on an overcast day provide the best representation for this light source. This lighting has been used effectively in traditional painting for portraits and still life studies for centuries and should be a standard in your photographic inventory.
How does this old school (some would say original source of lighting) help in the digital camera era? The ability for film or digital sensors to record a range of lighting intensities in your photographic scene is limited. The dynamic range of the scene is the ratio between the minimum (shadow) and maximum (highlight) recordable light intensities. The human eye has an amazing ability to distinguish luminance difference, something in the order of 20 stops (20 EV) of exposure range. Your digital camera sensor has a recording range of somewhere between 6 to 10 stops of exposure depending on size and quality).
The diffused light from a window is lower in contrast and easily falls in the dynamic range and recording capability of your camera. Having a dynamic range of 5 to 7 stops of exposure means that camera is readily able to record detail in all the tones from shadow to highlight. Your results more closely match the natural range of tone we perceive with our eyes and creating a favorable response from the viewer of your photograph. Simply said the portraits that you can achieve with window lighting closely match what we can see with the natural eye.
By using window light illumination we reduce contrast, the severity of the tonal transition from highlight to shadow. Having a gradual transition in brightness adds dimension to portraits that is favorable to your subject’s appearance. How we position the transition zone, the arrangement of our subject to the direction of light, is how we control this effect. Learning how to “read” light and using it to improve your images is a fundamental skill. Using this source with your people photography is great way to build those abilities.
Another advantage of window lighting is that is a constant light source. Studio flash heads have a “modeling” light to provide an approximation of the changes in illumination and position make. You can observe those changes directly with window light. As you move your subject closer or further from the light or rotate them you will observe the changes in exposure levels and shadows. You can have side lighting, backlighting or full frontal lighting depending on the position of the subject and the camera location. Widow light is a very versatile light source that can be adapted for multiple lighting effects.
The ironic thing about all of the studio lighting equipment and modifiers that I have purchased for my inventory of photographic tools is that they are primarily used to replicate the qualities of window light. Granted the inventory gives me absolute control and the ability for creating predictable photographic results on demand. For a photographer building their skills as a portrait photographer I would recommend mastering using this available light source and learning about the qualities of light it produces, before I would recommend investing a dime in any advance lighting equipment.
I often extol my students in my photography workshops and tours about the importance of practice in becoming a better photographer. Giving yourself regular photo assignments to be accomplished is great way to help your performance with your digital camera. Window light is readily available so why not include it in your next practice session. Go makes some images!