Light is everything for a photographer.
Light tells the story. And it’s up to us to make sure that story is communicated through our images.
When I first started out with my photography business, I feared any variations in light when I was shooting. So I’d take my daughter over to the bed, have her face the window and have that natural light bathe her face evenly, like this:
But it wasn’t until a few years later, after taking a course on the intersection of dark + light that my eyes truly popped open to how much we can do with window light outside of the even, beautiful light it can provide.
Let’s explore some creative ways to use window light.
BACKLIT + SILHOUETTE
There are two things that can happen when you place a subject in front of a window- they can be backlit or they can be a silhouette. Let’s start with backlighting.
When backlighting, you are going to meter for the subject. A lot of times you will get blow outs but EMBRACE the blow out. It often lends an ethereal quality and glow overall to the image.
Like in these images:
Now, if you want to go for a more dramatic silhouette shot, you will meter for the window so your subject is shroud in darkness. This is a very powerful image and quite the opposite than backlighting. It’s amazing how you can achieve both results with the subject standing in the same spot. You just need to ‘tell’ your camera what story you want to tell.
I love encased windows. They truly provide a frame around your subject.
Don’t have one that type of window to play with?
Have the subject outside while you are inside and use the window pane to create a cool frame as in the second image.
Remember when you were little and were obsessed with hand shadows? Well, who says the fun has to end? I love capturing shadows. They add a really cool, almost storybook quality to images. Focus just on the shadow, or include a portion of a cild/your subject in it. These are best done when you have streaming light coming through the window and obviously when the sun is blasting outside.
One of my most favorite images to capture for every client is a child in side light. It can truly reflect the mood of the child. TIP: When working in Lightroom, I will often darken the ‘dark’ side of the image even more to give the overall image even greater impact. To do this, simply ‘paint’ on the darker exposure with the brush tool and 5 seconds later? Done.
Dramatic light is everywhere and at all different times of the day (and usually in the places least expected!). Basements, stairwells, doorframe of a dark hall where the window light pours into the hallway. All provide patches and slivers you can manipulate.
A fun project I tell my students to do is to look at how the light falls in the different rooms of their house at different times of the day – and notebook it.
One of my favorite slivers of gorgeous light comes in early morning as my daughter wakes up and always greets her ‘brother’ our shelter dog Skippy.
Don’t be scared of the intersections between light and dark! Embrace this very off the ‘norm’ light, find an interesting composition, and watch your work grow.
OUTSIDE LIGHT AT NIGHT
Just because it’s night time doesn’t mean you cannot utilize window light. Flood lights, street lamps outside your home, etc. all send off some very faint light. So throw on those outdoors lights and watch how your subject is slightly illuminated, just enough to outline their face and you have a beautiful story.
THROUGH THE WINDOW
Finally, don’t forget to film subjects through windows. I especially love doing this during holiday times, ‘peeking’ in on a family around the Christmas tree.
I also tend to do this with my little subjects who go to windows and glass doors to ‘wave goodbye.’ The image tells an amazing story.
All variations of quality and color of light are everywhere. The possibilities to tell your own stories with light are endless.
Break out of the ‘even’ light cycle and give a few a whirl- I guarantee it will open your mind and free your creativity.
About the Author
Jennifer Tonetti Spellman is a New York–based children’s photographer, blogger, and mommy of two girls. She’s a contributor at Womeninstreet.com and teaches photography courses at Illuminate Classes, “a photography education community focused on bringing meaningful insight to your art and your business.”