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Photo Ops: Window Light

Nothing like window light!

Nothing like window light!

When I was  starting my career almost forty-six years ago, there wasn’t a lot of money for equipment, especially lighting equipment. That is, if I even knew what to do with said equipment if I had the money to buy it. I relied on my training in Art to get me through any lighting scenarios. What I mean is that I used available light to paint and that often meant using window light. As a result, when I grew up I was confident enough to use the same available window light for just about any kind of job that walked in the door of my first photo studio.

In fact, in the early days, I had a small space that was the bottom floor in an old house. My lighting set-up was a large window in the front of the house the faced North. I lit everything there from portraits to a still life. At the time, I didn’t realize that it was the best possible way to light people and by the way, during the last few years it has made a huge comeback.

In my online class with the PPSOP, and in my “Stretching Your Frame of Mind” workshop I conduct around the planet, I always suggest available window light and at the same time stressing to avoid fill flash like it was the plague. Even on a gloomy day, there’s going to be enough light  coming in from the outside to create a quality portrait. In the winter months, I tell the students that don’t think there’s anything to shoot until the thaw, to shoot indoors using the light from a window. Even when I could afford to take lighting with me on assignments, I would still look for available light from a window first since I was always tried to create it with my strobes and softboxes.

As is the nature of window light, side lighting is going to be the easiest way to light people. I prefer this light since it adds depth to the subject’s face. What I mean by “adding depth” is to make one side lighter than the other, and use a small white reflector to bounce la little light back on the dark side. This falls under one of the basic elements of visual design I teach in my classes called Form. Form refers to the three dimensional quality of an object, and has but two dimensions: height and width. To create the third dimension, namely Depth, you have to side light the object; otherwise it will appear flat with no sense of shape and volume.

Look for rooms with multiple windows that will offer different kinds of lighting. one of my favorite ways to light a person ( as in the above photo) is to have them side lit with a window just out of the frame, and have windows in the background you can blow out. Ok, here’s a good time to tell you that whenever someone tells you that “clipping the highlights”  is not recommended, don’t walk away from them…RUN LIKE THE WIND because that person is going to have you take average, predictable photos; who wants that?

Take a look at this slideshow where the only source of light is a window somewhere usually out of the frame…but not always.

Visit my website at: www.joebaraban.com and check out my 2013 workshop schedule at the top of this Blog Come shoot available light with me sometime.

Don’t forget to send me a photo and question to: AskjoeB@gmail.com.


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    { 8 comments… add one }
    • Gary Thursby March 11, 2013, 11:24 pm

      Hello Joe!
      Window light is a great way to light just about anything, especially people! I really like a lot of your shots and some of them even look unposed! You know how I feel about posing because of what Cartier Bresson said about posing. The greatest thing to fear is the artificially contrived. By the way he also avoided the use of flash like the plague. Hey great photographic thinking alike, how cool is that! There is just something nice about natural light. Although some other photographers tell me if you can tell flash was used you used it wrong.
      The other great thing about window light is how constant it stays throughout the day! I should say north and south facing windows have a nice steady light all day. When I use window light I set my exposure for the shade just to the side of the window. Since I will usually use a traditional black and white film, I am not to concerned about totally bowing out the highlights. Even if they were to totally blow out its a great effect and totally worth it.
      I have noticed that you do like to use a lot of strong side lighting for your portraits Joe. I wonder if you were influenced by Gene Smith’s portrait of Tennessee Williams. I am pretty sure you have seen it, Smith uses extreme high contrast side light on Williams face. Naturally it’s a brilliant shot Gene created. Your right that side light creates depth on a face, but darn it Joe it just looks so cool! Great article and talk to you later.

      • Joe March 15, 2013, 9:59 am

        Thanks for the comments Gary!!!

        I was influenced by all of Smith’s photos!!!!! Since my background is in studying art not photography (art history as well), I studied and loved the way the Renaissance painters lit their subjects…which is why we refer to a certain type of light as Renaissance lighting.


    • Gary Thursby March 15, 2013, 9:31 pm

      One more thing Joe, I am going to the Julia Dean spring open house tommorrow! Please let me know if you give anymore workshops there!

      • Joe March 16, 2013, 9:38 am


        I’m not sure when I’ll be back there. It depends when they call me. Ask them when I’m coming back!!!


    • Gary Thursby March 18, 2013, 9:05 pm


    • Joe March 18, 2013, 10:25 am



    • Joe December 23, 2013, 3:08 pm

      It’s been a very long time since I’ve heard from you. just wondering what happe3ned?


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