April 17 – Week 9 – Window Light Portrait Photography

A window is a fantastic source of light for photographing portraits.

Light Quality
The light coming in the window is either direct ie sunlight that casts hard shadows or diffused which casts softer shadows.

Direct sun and its high contrast light can be very dramatic as it is in these two low key portraits.

man looking out a window

Gordon Parks: Red Jackson, Harlem, New York, 1948

Stan, Imogen Cunningham, 1959.










If the light coming in the window is indirect, the light is diffused, casting softer shadows. You can use this diffused light as if it was a light in the studio to create a variety of portrait lighting styles.

Bruce Davidson. USA. New York City. 1966. East 100th Street

Self Portrait. Francesca Woodman. 1977










Portrait Lighting Styles

There are a 5 basic lighting styles for portrait photography. Each style is defined by how light falls on the face. The examples below were all shot with lights in a studio but you can replicate these patterns with window light.

  1. Rembrandt Light – the model is face forward, main light is at 45 degrees and casts a light on the opposite side of the face to form a triangle on the cheek.

Michael B. Jordan. Photographer: Peggy Sirota

















2. Broad Light-model’s face in 3/4 view-light falls on the side of the face with the visible ear. Good for controlling the reflections on glasses.

Danny Devito. Photographer: Gregory Heisler.

3. Short Light-model’s face is in 3/4 view, the light falls on the side of the face with the features. (Not on the side with the visible ear.)

Both of these are examples of short light.

Aretha Franklin. Photographer: Matthew Jordan Smith

Chadwick Boseman. Photographer: Caitlin Cronenburg










4. Butterfly Light, Clamshell or beauty or glamour light-model is face forward, front light.

Tyra Banks. Photographer: Matthew Jordan Smith

Colin Kaepernick. Photographer: Martin Schoeller. 2017.









5. Split Light-model is face forward, the main light is at 90 degrees to the camera and falls on one side of the face.Β 

President Emmanuel Macron. Photographer: Nadava Kander. 2017

Child laborer

Lewis Wickes Hine (U.S.A., 1874–1940), One of the spinners in Whitnel Cotton Mfg. Co. N.C. December 1908, 1908.



When we shoot portraits in the studio, we can move the lights around the model. When shooting a portrait with a window, we have to ask the model to move their position in relation to the window.

This video shows how to use a window to create Rembrandt, split, broad and short light.



And while not exactly a portrait, window light is terrific for creating silhouettes.

To create a silhouette, have the subject stand close to the window and aim the camera towards the window. Set the exposure for what is outside the window so the subject is very underexposed.

Eleanor and Barbara. Chicago. 1954. Photographer: Harry Callahan.