Window light. Well, it’s just about the best doggone light there is for making pictures of people. The light that filters through your window (or door) is soft, diffuse, and flattering, gently illuminating the room and tapering off so what is near the window stands out from the dimming recesses. It casts gentle shadows that wrap your subject in subtle shades. Window light makes just about anybody look pretty darn good.
I’m talking about the light that comes in most of our windows most of the time—the light reflected off the sky. Some windows, at some times of day, have sunlight blasting straight through them. That’s a very different situation, with high contrast (hot highlights and deep shadows). Direct sunlight can work too, if that’s the look you are after. (A white sheet over the window will turn it into diffuse light if you’d rather.) But if you want to flatter your subject (and see other parts of the room), soft, diffuse window light is best. It’s no wonder that artists have long preferred north windows in their studios, as illustrated by Vermeer’s The Milkmaid.
Don’t be afraid to move in closer, as I did in the room in Zanzibar (above), where women were decorating each other with henna. But pay attention to how the light is falling. In the image below left, I could make the image using just window light because the woman doing the painting was facing the light and the other woman was turned enough towards it. But when the painter had her back to the window, I had to augment the light—in this case, because I did not have a reflector with me, I used fill flash. (For more on fill flash, please see the Phun with Phil Phlash Actual Info and TipsFlick.)
In one of the rooms he photographed at Colonial Williamsburg, Cary used a reflector to bounce light back onto the woman and the mannequin. To make the image in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (below), he used fill flash.
In the Window Light TipsFlick and in the images below, you can see how adding a bit of light to the away-from-the-window side of Cary’s face softens the shadow and reveals a bit more detail. It’s not that one image is right and the other wrong. It depends on the look and feel you want for that particular subject. For someone who is bright and cheery, you might want less contrast and more detail. A vampire would probably call for deeper shadows, though they usually don’t like sitting in the sunshine. For Cary? Well… I did the best I could.
You can add light either with fill flash, as mentioned above, or with a reflector, which can be anything white—a sheet, pillow case, construction paper, even just plain old paper. The closer the reflector is to the subject, the stronger the light. So move it back and forth until you get the effect you like. (There’s more about using reflectors in the Coursus Interruptus Actual Info and TipsFlick.) Keep in mind that it’s best to use something white to bounce the light—colored paper will reflect colored light onto your subject (which can be useful too, if that’s the look you want). Fill flash is a bit more difficult to master (when it’s done well, no one can tell). But it’s quicker and much easier to use if you’re runnin’ and gunnin’. Reflectors take longer to set up and adjust (an assistant is quite handy).
Most of the time, though, the light that nature provides is just fine, as you can see in the pictures below—all made with no fill. Notice how we can see enough of the rooms to get some context for our main subject—a workshop, a classroom, a corner of an English living room. The soft light bathes them just enough to give us some detail.
When the sunlight is direct, though, the contrast is too great to allow for background detail. Here we can’t see anything of the room where the woman is making coffee. An exposure revealing the background would have totally blown out our main subject (especially since she was wearing white).
And here’s a pretty good example of the different look and feel of indirect vs. direct widow light. Both are good. They’re just different.
There’s nothing wrong with asking someone to stand or sit next to a door or widow. You may find yourself with a great subject, but indoors somewhere and the light is terrible. Ask them to move—if you’ve established a bit of a relationship and ask in a friendly way, most people are happy to oblige. (For more on the importance of good relationships with your subjects, please see Shooting Strangers Actual Info and TipsFlick.) Take advantage of the natural light—the picture will look a lot better, and you will save yourself a lot of work.
Actual Info: Text © 2011 Robert Caputo
Photos © 2011 Cary Wolinsky, © 2011 Robert Caputo