Window light is constantly changing as the seasons shift, affording myriad creative ways to use it in your indoor photography. Here are some of the ways I like to play with window light, often with magical effects.
1. Pockets of light
I’m delighted by the pockets of light popping up around the house as the sun moves across the sky. I especially love the pronounced, defined pockets in the hour or so after sunrise and before sunset.
When I want to photograph my subject in a pocket of light hitting the floor, I usually place my subject on the very edge of the light pocket (closest to the window) with the light behind them. The light bounces up from the floor to illuminate her face. I expose for my subject, then bring down the highlights and exposure on the light pocket in post-processing.
When the light pocket falls on a wall, I position my subject to directly face the window light; sometimes my subjects will be facing me, with my back to the window. I expose for my subject — I don’t want the details to be blown out. Sometimes the window is to the side of the light pocket; for this I either turn my subject completely toward the window or have her face me and turn only her face toward the window. This allows enough light on her face, nothing lost in shadow.
Flares can lend a fun element to an image that already has beautiful light. I typically shoot for this about an hour before sunset or 30 to 60 minutes after sunrise. Very harsh, bright light is ideal. I block the light to varying degrees with household items, the corners of the windows, or even my subject. This allows me to control the amount of light hitting my lens, and to create the flare. If you shoot directly into the light without filtering, you’ll get a very bright, overexposed image.
Your aperture also affects the look of the flare. Shooting wide open usually produces a soft, large flare; closing down produces a defined, star-shaped flare. That’s what I love most about flares: No two are alike.
Shadows add interesting layers to your images. The kind of shadows you get depends on how the light is flowing into your home and the objects it’s filtered through. I notice shadows all day, but my favorite time to capture them is about 30 minutes before sunset or as the sun is rising. As the sun gradually gets lower (or higher), it casts a beautiful glow throughout the space. Pairing that beautiful light with shadow creates magic.
Often, I use my subjects to create the shadows. I position my subjects in the pocket and ask them to move their hands or body in certain ways to create a shadow of their profile or hand. Other times I notice a beautiful shadow being cast on the wall or floor and position my subject accordingly.
4. Fog, steam, bubbles & more
Water droplets and bubbles are my favorite elements to use to enhance the light. And bonus — kids love them, too! I use backlighting to make these elements stand out.
I also love incorporating fog, using a fog machine and some fairly harsh window light. You need a window where the rising or setting sun rays are streaming in, typically the hour or two before sunset or after sunrise. The fog almost always clings to the light to create magical beams. This works best in smaller rooms so you can keep the fog condensed in the shooting area. I close the door to let the fog settle before I start shooting to keep the fog looking authentic. I underexpose these shots just a little to make the light beams pop.
Steam is also fun to play with. Have your subject pour hot liquid into a sink or sit before a hot meal or steaming beverage. I’ve even captured the steam flowing out of my dishwasher while it’s running.
We can’t forget dust particles. Surprising, I know, but it can make an image so magical! The secret to capturing dust is to use backlighting and shoot the dust against a dark background so it’s quite visible. Look for harsher window light to make those dust specks turn into glitter.
3 Reasons to convert a window-lit image to black and white:
1. If there are unflattering color casts or I can’t get the white balance correct.
2. If there’s strong emotion in the image.
3. If the image lacks contrast or has been overexposed and fixing it in post-processing causes loss of detail.
5. Rim light
Rim light is a technique for outlining or framing your subject with light through the use of extreme backlight. I like to have a lot of light flowing through the window directly onto my subject and then underexpose a little to enhance the rim effect. I also love having my subject turn so I can capture his profile with a rim of light around it. Rim light is most dramatic on a dark background.
Push your ISO
Do not be afraid to push your ISO indoors. Especially as the sun is setting, you quickly lose the optimum light, so you’ll need it. I typically start shooting in my home about an hour or so before sunset. My ISO starts at 400 then moves to 800 and usually ends at 1600.
Many of my absolute favorite images are when the sun is just about to set and lends a golden glow to my rooms. My ISO will be at 1600 and my aperture at f/1.4 to have enough light to capture the moment.
Reflections can be tricky indoors. You need something glossy to create the reflection, such as shiny appliances or polished tile floors. With ample light shining in, place your subject with her back to the window so she’s backlit. I tend to expose for my subjects for this shot, then edit the reflection in post-processing to enhance it.
Photos by Nicole Houser