Using Window Light: The Basics of Light Shaping

The use of window light for model photography provides many joys along with many frustrations. In this series I hope to give some suggestions to help maximize the joys while dealing with the headaches. This series will present techniques for using only un-augmented window light to create beautiful images. For the purposes of these articles, the term “window” is used to mean any opening of an interior space to the outdoors. This can be a window, door or even simply a missing bit of wall in an abandoned factory.

In this first part I will touch briefly on some contributing factors and then attempt to expand on them in later articles.

As with any light source, understanding and controlling the qualities of the light is the first consideration. Softness/hardness, directionality and color temperature all contribute to the final product. Since most photographers are familiar with studio lighting equipment and techniques I will use these as analogs in describing our ambient light techniques.

Let’s begin with the simplest scenario, a single light source.

A single window can provide anything from broad, flat light to very focused “art nude” shaping depending upon angle of light and the apparent size of the light source. Some examples with explanations:

Model: Natalie Beth

In this image the light source was a large door in a riding arena. Natalie and her horse were placed just inside the door and I was standing just outside that door. The effect is as if I had a very large soft box in a darkened studio and shot the photo while standing between the soft box and the subjects: relatively flat, omnidirectional light.

Something to remember is that as with any light source, the apparent size of the source determines the hardness or softness of the shadows. An apparently small source will produce very crisp shadow lines while an apparently large source will produce very soft shadows. In the image above, the very large source made quite soft and flattering shadows.

A very different approach would be to position the light source at roughly 90 degrees to the subject and placing the subject at a distance from the source (reducing its apparent size):

  • The light for this image was provided by a window approximately 30 feet away from Anne. It was further shaped but traveling through a confined stairway and so was quite directional.
  • In this situation care must be taken to retain shadow detail so that the deep shadows on the model’s “dark side” do not blend completely into the background. In the print version, the background is right around Zone I with Anne’s left arm and side approaching Zone II.

Model: Anne Schaar

A few more single source examples:

Model: Natalie Beth

The source for this image is between the very broad and very narrow examples above. The window was above and behind Natalie and covered most of the width of the wall at camera right. Contributing somewhat to the softness is the fill provided by the white stairwell walls.

Model: Natalie Beth

Once again very directional light but this time the apparent size of the source is larger (an 8′ X 3′ window just out of the frame at camera right). This softens the contrast and shadows while bringing the detail of the background wall up as well.

Model: Samantha Christian

Virtually the same arrangement can produce quite different results. The light source for this one was a glass 7′ X 7″ patio door approximately eight feet from Samantha at camera right.

Because the room is almost all white (the floor tile was even very light), the light becomes very diffuse. Crowding overexposure and using a wide aperture (f2.8) also causes a bit of lens flare, further softening the image.

Once again exposure control is important – this time keeping separation in the lighter values.

Model: Sweet Romance

This is technically a two source image – but the second source is simply illuminating the background and not providing rim light on the subject. Note that the shadow caused by window height was used to produce a dramatic diagonal line in the background.

The key light here is a window identical to the one partially visible in upper center but just out of frame to camera left.

Careful positioning of Jen against the background allowed a nice and subtle separation from the background, emphasizing her figure even in the dark garment.

Multiple sources: Using windows for rim lighting

In the studio we will often use two or more strobes with light modifiers to add depth. This can also be accomplished using window light if you are fortunate enough to have a corner room (those much sought after corner offices in business ladder climbing).

Model: Isabella V

Here the key light can be seen at camera left. An identical window in the far wall is just out of frame at camera right (you can see where the casing had been).

The second light creates very nice separation from the background and an excellent feeling of depth.

Model: Natalie Beth

Here Natalie is standing approximately 1/3 of the width of the building from the key lights (camera left). Once again the light hues of the room provided a lot of fill light.

Models: Susie B & Anne Schaar

Shot from a ladder in a very white room. The key light was from a wall of windows at camera top (is that a term?) plus fill from a wall of windows at camera right.

The light here is not particularly directional. This is due to the fact that the room is almost completely white. It suited the mood I was working toward: Morning light in a bedroom.

Model: Tiana Hunter

One more “straight on” shot. This was in a stairwell in an old factory. The only light was a large window directly behind and above the camera position.

Almost a “beauty dish” setup combining softness with crisp detail.

Part 2: Natural light special effects and dealing with the challenges presented by these techniques.

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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43 Responses to “Using Window Light: The Basics of Light Shaping”

  1. January 10, 2013 at 8:16 pm, TBone said:

    Looking through your pics, which are amazing, I notice there isn’t really a lot of depth of field. You mentioned on one of them you shot it at 2.8, what were some of the other apertures you were shooting them at and are you ever worried about ISO/noise?


  2. January 06, 2013 at 10:04 am, Muzna said:

    such a well written piece, beautiful images to support, clear and simple explanations! Thank you so much, its much appreciated by people like me.


  3. January 05, 2013 at 9:05 pm, Eflash said:

    Nicely done, I enjoyed the images and information.


  4. January 05, 2013 at 7:33 pm, MPT Photographics said:

    Very informative and inspirational! The embedded images provided some excellent examples of your lighting techniques. Thanks, Tom!



  5. January 04, 2013 at 3:33 am, Ian Cartwright said:

    Great article. Interesting that you are comparing the natural light effects to studio lighting. I am usually doing the opposite: trying to explain how natural lighting can be reproduced with artificial sources.


  6. April 10, 2012 at 2:24 pm, dale pierce said:

    I chose my studio because one wall was all paned windows.used a semi sheer off white curtin to diffuse the strong[faces south]early afternoon light.wanted to flatten the light even more,but the length of the windows.86″,meant custom[expensive]shades. then the handy man who runs the building,suggested “frosting” the and exactly what i wanted. now i have a gient soft box!these shot are beautiful.thanks for the tutorial.
    Dale Pierce


  7. February 22, 2012 at 7:42 pm, Robertlperson said:

    Keep the articles coming Tom. I’ve been an admirer of your work and want to improve. Thank you.


  8. February 12, 2012 at 6:31 pm, Anonymous said:

    This is a magnific natural light mini course. I learned a lot.


  9. February 11, 2012 at 2:49 am, Maui Wedding Photography said:

    Great examples of when to take advantage of what’s already there.
    Thanks for sharing.


  10. February 09, 2012 at 2:13 pm, Paul said:

    This article is well written and very informative. I have some large windows in my studio which I have used for natural light model sessions. I will use this article to improve on my natural lighting techniques. Thanks for sharing this infomation Tom.


  11. February 09, 2012 at 1:23 pm, Stan Foxworthy said:

    Tom, well done! I think what most will still miss, is that as “pro-active” photographers, we are working with light (natural, strobes, or hot lights) and not just placing a subject in a cool background and hoping for a great result. Once you become pro-active and not reactive to light, studio lighting becomes the easy way out as it is much more controllable, and making natural light work for you repeatably becomes an art. Looking forward to part 2!


    • February 10, 2012 at 3:36 am, Tom deL said:

      While I never thought of it in those terms (“pro-active”) you are right. Many times I have suggested to beginning photographers that the first thing is learning to “see the light”. And absolutely, using any light source without understanding or thought will make only average images.

      Thanks for your input!


  12. February 09, 2012 at 9:06 am, A Photography said:

    What about shooting with the model standing infront of the source e.g. window, i’ve been doing window light shoots for a year, i do get fustrated when i do not get enough lights at time, how can i maintain consistancy?


  13. February 09, 2012 at 8:11 am, Jash Manuel said:

    This is genius. Thanks Tom! Been a lover of natural light ever since I started and not stopping anytime soon! 🙂


  14. February 08, 2012 at 11:55 pm, Paul Goldston said:



  15. February 08, 2012 at 9:26 pm, SharBare said:

    I love natural light. It has been almost exclusively what I’ve chosen when doing my self shoots with varied results from “That’s exactly what I was seeking!” to “What a happy surprise!” to “What the heck happened here?!” I appreciate the information you presented especially the use of photo examples for the various natural light effects. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.


  16. February 08, 2012 at 9:01 pm, Dave travel photography said:

    Thanks for the nice Tips. great work!
    Greetings from Amsterdam



  17. February 08, 2012 at 8:54 pm, SharBare said:

    I love natural light! I have used it almost exclusively in my self shoots with varied results, ranging from exactly what I was seeking to “what a happy surprise” to “what the heck went wrong, here?!” I appreciated the information you give here expecially the photo examples of each natural light “effect”. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.


  18. February 08, 2012 at 8:21 pm, Albfor said:

    Very well written and informative I enjoyed it.


    Al B. For


  19. January 24, 2012 at 12:32 am, Chris G. said:

    Thanks for the refreshment,Great work.


  20. January 23, 2012 at 8:05 pm, Dbowie75 said:

    Weldone. Fantastic work in which you sculptured your models with intelligent natural ambient light. Thumbs up!


  21. January 23, 2012 at 2:41 am, Mark Salo said:

    Great examples!


  22. January 23, 2012 at 2:21 am, Matt said:

    Brilliant. i prefer natural light myself.


  23. January 23, 2012 at 12:01 am, Desrosphotographe said:

    Thanks for the info. Good advice.


  24. January 22, 2012 at 12:06 pm, Fabfoto said:

    Well explained and very informative


  25. January 20, 2012 at 4:21 pm, Nicklayton said:



  26. January 20, 2012 at 2:58 pm, Wilsanphoto said:

    Thanks I really use it a lot and is one of my favorites way to illuminate.


  27. January 20, 2012 at 2:33 am, ADGphoto said:

    Great article! You have some great shots!


  28. January 20, 2012 at 1:13 am, Martha said:

    Great article Tom. Where are you based? I see you run your own workshops. I coordinate workshops for my group in the SF Bay Area and am often seeking talent to lead programs.


    • January 24, 2012 at 7:21 pm, Tom deL said:

      Hi Martha, sorry that I am slow to respond here … I’m in Ohio and would love to collaborate if the logistics aren’t out of line.


  29. January 19, 2012 at 4:21 pm, Mjimages said:

    I have been a fan of existing light photography for more than 10 years. Very good article…


  30. January 19, 2012 at 1:32 pm, david said:

    WOW…this tutorial is amazing! Thank you so very much Tom, for the write up and practical examples. 🙂 Thank you M.M. for creating a forum for knowledge without having to drive to a school. 🙂


  31. January 19, 2012 at 4:50 am, semi234 said:

    Good job on the writeup.


  32. January 19, 2012 at 2:38 am, Andreas Schroeder said:

    Well done, but even if we take care of the light and follow the given advice, still your picture would not look even similar to the photos shown above. We should not forget that here massively PS came into the game.


    • January 19, 2012 at 6:19 am, Tomd said:

      Thank you. Take care of the light and you too can get by with little to no enhancement as the examples show. Several of the examples are ten years old … film shots.


  33. January 19, 2012 at 12:49 am, Keithdewey3 said:

    Thanks for taking the time and your willingness to share, Tom. A very well written and illustrated article.


  34. January 19, 2012 at 12:05 am, Greg said:

    I could really use some old factories to shoot in :):):)
    and the article is nicely done.
    Thanks Tom


    • January 19, 2012 at 4:49 am, semi234 said:

      It might be worthwhile to check your region. More & more old industrial factories are being converted into artist communities.


  35. January 18, 2012 at 7:21 pm, Glenn said:

    Great article and some good ideas! Thanks!


  36. January 18, 2012 at 6:49 pm, Dennis said:

    Very nicely done. Distance from the opening (light source) works exactly the same as it does with artificial light, a fact that I think may be often overlooked.


    • January 21, 2012 at 4:45 am, Steven Bagley said:

      As a natural light photographer, I really enjoyed the explanations of the shots.
      This is very good info for those wanting to shoot by windows, or just using daylight as the light source..


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