Using Window Light: Natural Light Special Effects

Part II will attempt to cover some of the unique problems encountered when using window light, as well as explaining some techniques for artistic expression.

Two difficulties are presented by window lighting:

  • uneven light levels
  • color temperature shift

These are somewhat related, but both need to be understood to create evenly lit images.

The first problem, uneven light levels, can be dealt with in two basic ways:

  • using reflectors
  • in post production

Typically this unevenness is caused by the fact that light generally enters through a window from above (from the sky), so quite often the subject’s lower body receives more light (as well as more direct light). The end result is that the subject’s face tends to be darker, but also will have less contrast, than their arms and midriff (in a 3/4 shot).

Dealing with it by using reflectors

Reflectors and/or fill light can be used during the session to bring light levels higher in the upper portion of the subject. Care should be taken that this does not create a difference in apparent light direction from that which exists in the rest of the frame. Shadows falling in different directions may not even be noticed consciously by many, but they leave a feeling that “something is wrong.”

Dealing with it by fixing in post production

Another approach is to fix this in post production. This is one of the advantages of modern digital photography.

While details are beyond the scope of this article, this fix can basically be done by:

  1. selecting an area of the image along the diagonal line suggested by the darker part of the frame
  2. feathering with a wide range
  3. using adjustment controls to bring brightness, contrast and color balance in line with the rest of the image

Photographer: Tom deL; Model: Sweet Romance

In the above example, a line has been drawn showing where the selection was drawn for this purpose. On this 12mpx original, a feather value of 250px was used to feather the effect.

The important part is learning to recognize this condition and working from that knowledge.

To discuss the color shift phenomena I will use an image in which the color shift was so dramatic that I decided to use it “as is.”

Photographer: Tom deL; Model: Melissa Trout

This image really demonstrates the typical shift caused by the difference in color temperature between the sky (very cold) and the surrounding earth and buildings (usually much warmer).

With this diagram I hope to show that windows act like lenses: they invert the image projected through them. Anyone who has used a view camera will remember that the image on the ground glass is inverted.

What this means is that the cold blue light from the sky is projected toward the bottom of the frame while the warmer light reflected from the building across the street is projected up, toward the top of the frame.

Normally I would have drawn a selection from approx 2/3 of the way to the top on the right margin diagonally down roughly through Melissa’s left breast then almost to the bottom of the frame on the left. After feathering this selection with a setting of around 150px, the “Variations,” “Brightness and Contrast,” “Hue and Saturation” and perhaps other PS controls would have been used to “even up” the colors and contrasts. As mentioned, I found the shift so striking that I decided to use this image just as it came from the camera.

The term “Special Effects” might be overstating things a bit, but in this last section I would like to suggest some methods of modifying the feel of an image by using available light and exposure to control contrast.

Photographer: Tom deL; Model: Raven Le Faye

Backlighting can be very effective in creating a dreamy feel.

Two factors can be used to enhance this:

  • exposure
  • aperture

A wide aperture setting allows more opportunity for light to “bounce around” in the lens. This softens the image by creating diffusion.

A relatively high EV setting will also contribute to this high key effect. Once again, digital cameras provide some advantages. These scenes are quite difficult to meter accurately when using film. The image preview feature of modern cameras allows us to effectively do clip tests while shooting: I set the preview to show highlight clipping and allow the background to become blown out while maintaining detail in the important bits (model’s face and skin tones).

Another backlit shot. The one above was in a rather light colored room and the source was a large patio door. This gave us an “awash with light” situation.

Photographer: Tom deL; Model: Samantha Christian

This one of Samantha was shot in a relatively dark and very large room, so there isn’t nearly as much light being reflected back from the room itself. Also, by carefully positioning Samantha between the windows, a nice rim lighting was achieved.

The next two photos give an idea of how strong an effect lens flare can have on contrast.

Photographer: Tom deL; Model: Tiana Hunter

We were shooting in an old factory. I was seated across the room from Tiana. The sun had gone a bit to the West, and so I was actually sitting in the sunlight coming through the high bank of windows camera left.

I asked Tiana to hold each pose for two clicks. I used my hand as a lens shade for one, and let the sun fall into the lens on the next. In some shots the lens flare was nothing short of spectacular.

Photographer: Tom deL; Model: Tiana Hunter

This image was shot in exactly the same light conditions as the one above (eleven frames later) but this is one of the ones in which I protected the lens from direct sunlight.

Awash With Light

Photographer: Tom deL; Model: Tiana Hunter

As mentioned above, a light colored room with lots of windows can provide relatively high levels of softness by diffusing the light.

This is basically a two source image as described in part one. The room is white and small, with lots of windows, so deep shadows exist almost nowhere, giving an angelic appearance.

A similar shot in the same room:

Photographer: Tom deL; Model: Tiana Hunter

A slightly different approach to “awash with light”: This room has windows on three of the four walls. It combines backlight with fill from both sides, as well as some reflected off the fourth wall behind the camera position.

Photographer: Tom deL; Model: Samantha Christian


Footnote for Model Mayhem: My current shooting preferences call for as little equipment as possible—usually one camera body and one lens. This is not for any reasons of purism, or even a need to avoid artificial light. This preference has evolved for me mainly for one reason: The fewer distractions, the better. Over the years I have realized that (for me at least) there is an inverse relationship between the amount of equipment involved and the level of communication with models.

Sometimes we see photographers in the forums here on Model Mayhem asking about and striving for “style.” Often the tools one uses combines with the artistic outlook of the photographer to become that person’s style. For me this is analogous to what constitutes a model’s style: The way their body moves; the ways in which they choose to emote and use body language. If we let these things happen they will IMHO be much more organic than attempting to forcibly produce a style.

Part 1: The basics of light shaping

Tom deL

Tom deL

I've been (ab)using cameras since around 1957 when my mother showed me how to build and use a simple pinhole camera. The intervening time has involved both professional and artistic attempts to continue that magic.

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31 Responses to “Using Window Light: Natural Light Special Effects”

  1. June 12, 2013 at 7:35 am, mike giovinazzo said:

    I shoot in studio so often I adjust ratios and move light as needed. This seems like a who different world. wonderful discussion, learned a lot


  2. June 11, 2013 at 12:29 pm, Tinker's Realm! said:

    Appreciated your Expertise/Examples & Voice in part 1 & part 2-Thank you for taking the time to write htis!


  3. May 13, 2013 at 3:59 am, terrie burton said:

    tom, you have just made my day! i am just starting out as a photographer and don’t have any equipment apart from a lovely old camera, a 50mm lens, some reflectors that i’m making myself and an eye for the way light falls – i read a couple of other articles on ‘simple lighting’ and felt a little overwhelmed – like i was a fraud for not having thousands of euros/pounds/dollars worth of equipment. you have reconnected me with what i believe is important – my relationship with the subject! thank you so much!


  4. March 13, 2013 at 7:03 pm, Geoffrey Altrocchi said:

    I feel like guys, to show their abs, need light from the top, can anyone comment on that?


  5. January 11, 2013 at 10:30 am, Jon B Barry said:

    So Tom, why aren’t you putting out instructional e books on Amazon…have not heard from you in a while. I am going to New Zealand and the Indonesian island mid March for 8 weeks..really looking forward to it. Jon Barry


  6. January 10, 2013 at 9:45 pm, Norman said:

    Great Article! Just what I need to learn.


  7. January 10, 2013 at 9:29 am, msgellar said:

    Great article. Another way to shoot backlit subjects indoors is to use fill flash so you have more flexibility where you shoot them.


  8. January 08, 2013 at 3:53 pm, ike said:

    Windows do not act like lenses, they act like windows. Light travels in a straight line. In the example you have drawn, the light bouncing off the surrounding ground and building is traveling horizontal or upward toward the winfdow and eventually on your subject and background, so it favors the center and top of your frame. The light bouncing off our atmosphere (sky) is approaching your window from above and thus favors the bottom of your subject and background.

    To say the window is inverting the world outside is misleading. What affects your light are the strongest and closest sources. So a red brick building in direct sunlight which bounces a warm glow will read much heavier than say a green building which may be closer but which sits in the shade.


    • January 08, 2013 at 7:15 pm, Tommy said:

      Please futther illuminate us and try a little experiment:

      Set your 8X10 camera up on a tripod. Unscrew the lens elements from your 210mm Super Symmar (take care to place them in a safe place). The shutter/aperture assembly now acts as a window (no lens elements). Start at f64 and note the inverted image on the focusing screen. Slowly open the aperture one full stop at a time until you reach f5.6.

      Let us know at which aperture setting the image on the ground glass flips to become upright as opposed to inverted.


  9. January 08, 2013 at 2:29 pm, Tim said:

    Thanks for the article Tom… great information, well written and wonderful examples! I’m grateful for finding this creative community where collaboration truly exists.


  10. January 08, 2013 at 1:00 pm, Eli said:

    Thanks, very interesting. Do you prefer use white reflector or silver reflector?


    • January 08, 2013 at 7:21 pm, Tommy said:

      Thanks! Although I rarely use reflectors these days, the white/silver choice for me always seemed to be that of a more focused (silver) or diffused (white) source.

      In keeping with the spirit of these articles (simplicity; using your environment) think about potentially large stationary objects as reflectors and gobos. Subject placement in relation to bright or dark walls or areas can accomplish the same results.


  11. January 04, 2013 at 3:52 am, Ian Cartwright said:

    Very perceptive and very practical advice.


  12. September 13, 2012 at 5:18 am, Paul Lara said:

    For me, it’s ALL about The Light, and I really enjoyed learning some new things while gazing on some phenomenal art. I’m inspired to shoot something NEW! Thanks.


  13. September 12, 2012 at 2:29 am, Lesia said:

    absolutely amazing and very useful. Thank you!


  14. September 11, 2012 at 11:34 pm, Naveen Sharma said:

    I also like window light. great work dear. Thank you


  15. September 11, 2012 at 1:29 pm, Finger Lakes Imagery said:

    “By the Window” portraits. My very favorite. Love the article…it’s awesome! Thank you so much for taking the time to put this together. I love it!

    Trying to access Part 1 and can’t get to it on IE or Firefox. Please Help.


  16. September 11, 2012 at 11:34 am, Sam David Photography said:

    This article brings an added dimension to being an MM photographer. Thanks for bring it to us.


  17. February 02, 2012 at 8:39 pm, Michael Fowler said:

    “windows act like lenses: they invert the image projected ” Did I know…yes… Have I ever once thought about in terms of photography? no. Great Great points, thank you!


  18. February 02, 2012 at 3:13 pm, Boxhallrules said:

    Wow…this is why I am here! That is another INCREDIBLE article and teaching tool. I’ll read and reread this over and over, I’ve taken notes already. Then once I think I have a grasp, I’ll begin practical experimentaion…till I “get it.” Thank you so much, Tom. 🙂


  19. February 02, 2012 at 12:45 am, Tom deL said:

    Thanks everyone for your comments! I really hope these help folks … I will try to answer questions here or in PM’s. Quite busy ATM so patience is appreciated 😉


  20. February 01, 2012 at 2:03 am, Ajscalzitti said:

    Well done article, it is so nice to read one that actually covers the topic in the title, isn’t filled with misinformation, poor grammar, and questionable advice that I had to say something. More of the “education” section needs to be like this!


  21. January 31, 2012 at 3:55 am, Ross Clark said:

    Good article and instruction, Tom…


  22. January 31, 2012 at 2:08 am, Shiva said:

    Well written, most of my pictures are with window light


  23. January 30, 2012 at 9:45 pm, Hungry Eye said:

    Good article, Tom.
    Never met a window that was not improved by having Tiana in it…


  24. January 30, 2012 at 9:00 pm, Troy_4_hire said:

    I’ve admired your work on Photosig. Reading these articles from you gives very valuable insight. Thank you!


  25. January 30, 2012 at 7:41 pm, Michael C said:

    Fantastic article, thanks! I totally agree with your “as little gear as possible” methodology.


  26. January 30, 2012 at 7:27 pm, walter jedyk said:

    love the poses


  27. January 30, 2012 at 7:21 pm, Bambang Arianto said:

    good grils


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