Window Light Rules!

by Valerie Johnston | September 10, 2012

Look at this painting by Vermeer...

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It was painted around 1660 and is known as "The Milkmaid". What do you notice immediately about it? The light of course, and Vermeer was famous for his ambient light.

Would you like to become well known for the window light in your digital photography? If you said yes then we're here to explain it.

You Gotta Love Window Light

Millions of artists and photographers over the years have tried to explain the subtle beauty of natural light as if falls through a large window. Some call it a wall of light (both because it seems as if an entire wall of light is shining into the scene and because it often floods a rear wall with good "fill" light too), and have used it in their work to create all kinds of effects. Studio photographers attempt to copy it by using targeted lighting and reflectors that fill the subject rather than flood it with light.

Painters seek studios with northern facing windows in order to get free daily supplies of this sort of gentle and flattering light as well.

You are getting the point here, right? Window light "rules" because it is the only kind of relatively direct light that fills, accentuates, and flatters the subject. Just try to visualize the difference...you have a person in a studio with a light shining directly on them. Not flattering. You have that light angled downward onto a reflector that bounces the light back into the space, and things are changed dramatically. This is a type of light that will fall across the subject, and that is exactly what those painters and other photographers are after too.

Take a look at that Vermeer again to remind yourself of what we are going for...

The Idea of Open Shade

In digital photography a lot of people will refer to the benefits of "open shade" when any discussion of window light is started. This is because the two are very similar. The great thing about open shade and digital photography is usually that the photographer can actually "turn" or spin the camera or subject to get the best light possible.

What do we mean? Here is something you can try for yourself. On a sunny day, find a traditional porch. This is a porch without a lot of growth closing it in and which the sun can be easily seen from any angle. Now, take your subject and point them towards the house. Take a shot. Turn them 45 degrees and take another shot. Keep doing this until they are back in their original position. You will see that every single exposure looks entirely different. THAT is the power of open shade or window light! It is quite likely that you will find that two images show a lot of gorgeous and soft light reflecting in the eyes of your subject and gently lighting their face...flattering and effective.

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Making It Up

Naturally, not everyone can have natural window light, and it may be necessary to find ways of copying it for your digital photography experiments. This is best done as already described, and you don't need to invest in tons of gear to make it happen, but you may need someone to lend you hand with the reflector.

Here's how it would work: head to the local business supply store and get yourself a piece of white poster board. This is going to have to be attached to a piece of rigid cardboard of the same size. You have now made a reflector to use to bounce and direct the light. You simply choose a setting where light is falling into a room and striking a large area of the wall. You then position your subject in the setting, and then hold that reflector beneath them and out of sight.

You just pivot the reflector until you see that it is illuminating your subject's face or the part of the image you want to be noticed. Make some experimental shots and turn the panel a bit to see the differences. You will have a great time, learn a lot, and master the wall of light in no time! Look out Vermeer!

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Tips-n-Tricks #68

If your lens comes with a lens shade, use it...even when you are inside. Not only does it protect from sun glare, but it also protects your lens if it is dropped...trust me, I know from experience.


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