Window Light, An Amazingly Elegant Photography Light Source

Photography and Text by Chuck Place

Have you ever wished you could invent the perfect lighting system, one that generally gave you diffused light but could be adjusted to be more specular? A lighting system that provided directional, horizontal lighting that avoided the raccoon eyes of overcast days. A continuous source so you can see the results before you shoot and powerful enough to light an entire room and its contents. Oh, and let’s throw in cheap to buy and very light to carry. Perfect, right?

Alebrije in window light

A gold reflector bounces window light into the near side of a carved Mexican alebrije to control contrast and create a warm highlight.

We all have that lighting system available, of course. I use window lighting for a wide range of photographic subjects, but I have noticed in my classes that many students seem to ignore it. It’s a seemingly easy light source to use, but as in so many things in photography, mastering window light is quite another matter.

Cafe lit with window light

If windows are part of your composition, break them up as much as possible and don’t allow your camera to underexpose the interior, even though the light source is in the frame.

First, let’s define exactly what we are talking about here. Window light is any source of daylight that is horizontally directional and mostly diffused. This diffused daylight is often cool in temperature and does not have to pass through a real window. It would certainly be awkward carrying a window around all day. A large overhang of some sort outdoors will produce the same quality and direction of light as long as there is no direct sunlight intruding into our scene.

Window light also requires that we actually see how the light is impacting our subject, not how we expect it to look. This is one of the big hurdles in learning to be a photographer—actually seeing what is right in front of us.

pizza lit with window light

Pizza was photographed twenty feet from the window light source to emphasize the pizza texture with edgier light and balance the food exposure with the interior exposure.

This will lead to the realization that window light will change depending on where in a lit room we place our subject. Is there more than one window? Are there also artificial lights involved or will the paint color on the walls bias our color balance through bounce light. Do we want flat, even lighting or side lighting that creates dimension and brings up texture. Close to a window, the light is very soft and diffused. It becomes harsher, or more specular, as we move our subject farther from the light source. Do we have reflectors to modify contrast and shape the light? It’s getting a bit more complicated, isn’t it?

restaurant interior photographed with window light

A restaurant interior was photographed at a point where window light and the warm, incandescent light over the table and painting balanced perfectly.

When I first enter a window-lit room or an outdoor arcade with arches open to the ambient light, I sit for a few minutes and study people as they walk through the space. There is always a “sweet spot”, a location within the environment that gives me the perfect direction, the right amount of softness and perfect balance of light on my subject and my background.

Try it, but keep your eyes open. This is a subtle light source but a very powerful one as well. And you have got to love a light source that you don’t have to carry! I know I do.