Ellen, Photographed With Window Light

A lovely, delicate black and white portrait of a young woman by window light in Melbourne, Australia.

Here’s an image from a class I ran on low light portrait photography in Melbourne, Australia. The portrait, featuring participant Ellen, was made indoors with the aid of window light.

I love working in this way. Window light provides a lovely, soft light source that renders the subject in a very flattering manner. The compromise is that there is less light available indoors and, as a consequence, slow shutter speeds are the order of the day. To reduce the chance of camera and/or subject movement try the following:

Set your Lens to its Widest Aperture

If you have a cheaper zoom lens (i.e, kit lens), such as the type commonly sold with the camera, your maximum (i.e., widest) aperture is dependent upon the lens's focal length. While you might be able to achieve an aperture of f 3.5 when photographing at 18 mm, zooming in to 55 mm will reduce the maximum aperture to f 5.6, reducing the amount of light reaching your camera's sensor by 150%. Depending upon how your camera is set up a slower shutter speed and a greater chance of experiencing subject or camera movement will often result.

That's just the way it is and there are only three options available to you, which we can describe as follow:

  1. Accept the compromise that, while zooming in could provide an improved composition, it may result in an unsharp image. Increasing the ISO at which the photo is made can overcome this problem.
  2. Stay at 18 mm, or thereabouts, and zoom with your feet by moving closer to achieve a similar composition. However, perspective is exaggerated at very wide focal lengths (e.g., 18 mm) which will change, for better or worse, the way the subject is rendered in the frame.
  3. Buy a fixed lens or, alternatively, a significantly more expensive zoom lens that does not result in a reduced aperture when zooming in from that lens's widest focal length. 

Make Sure your Subject is Lit

A brighter subject will result in a faster shutter speed than if the subject wasn’t lit. That will minimize the chance of slight subject or camera movement adversely effecting the image.

In most cases you don't want particularly bright light hitting the subject's face. There simply needs to be enough light to reveal your subject, shape their face and allow them to stand out from their surroundings. How to find flattering lighting, even on a bright sunny day is one of the things I teach and implementing this kind of information will result in you making much better photos, more often.  

Except in the case of a sunrise, sunset or certain kinds of night photographs it’s extremely rare that you’d actually want to include the actual light source in your composition. Being much brighter than the subject the light source will draw the viewer’s attention away from the subject and often cause your camera’s light meter to produce an underexposure that will result in your subject photographing darker than you'd expect.

The trick is not to include the light source, in this case the window, in your composition. The exception, as evidenced in the above image, is to photograph at a fairly extreme angle to the window so as to shoot across it rather than directly into the brighter light outdoors.

In this case another window, to the right of Ellen, is acting as the main light source illuminating one side of her face and providing a gentle graduation from light to dark on the shadow side of her face.

Photography: Light and Dynamic Range

Forget about what you see, how things photograph is what matters. And shadows always photograph darker than what you see. What's more the brighter the light, the darker the shadows will photograph. This fact alone spells the death of many, many photographs made on bright sunny days.

Fortunately, in the above photo, the weather outside was overcast and the amount of light coming through the window was further reduced by leafy trees. As a result the relative level of illumination indoors was quite low. That required ISO 800 to achieve the moderately wide aperture and f 4 at a shutter speed of 1/80 second. 

Quality and Contrast of the Light

The fact that the window was dirty and the weather overcast was important. The dirty window softened the quality of the light, reducing contrast and providing a gentle graduation between the light and dark sides of the subject's face.

It’s always great to photograph an attractive subject. To my mind what makes one attractive is a positive attitude and flattering light. In this case I couldn’t miss.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru