How to use window light 3 ways for very different looks

Photographing with window light indoors opens up so many interesting possibilities with natural light in your home. Unlike being outside, where light surrounds you (well, during the day anyway), indoors, light gets channelled through windows and doorways.

This creates so many wonderfully creative opportunities for photographing indoors with natural light!

What is window light photography?

It’s what it says on the tin – photographing with light that comes in through windows.

When working with flash in a studio, very often we’re trying to replicate the look of window light by manipulating light with softboxes, reflectors, umbrellas etc etc. 

How to use window light for backlighting portraits indoors

With window light it’s already made for you. How natural light filters through from outside into a room will impact the look of the photo. It’s affected by:

  • Size and position of the window
  • Curtains – bare window vs thin fabric, such as voile, vs heavier fabric or blinds
  • Light outside – sunny or cloudy day, time of day

How do you use a window light for portraits?

For me, photographing indoors with window light is all about the shadows, because the very fact that you’re indoors, out of the light, means that shadows are a big consideration. 

Indoor photography styles

You can choose to:

  • Emphasize shadows, with high contrast, moody images
  • Or mute shadows for low contrast, light and airy photos

The good news is that photographing with window light suits both styles of photography perfectly. You just need to learn how to use the shadows.

Distance from the window affects contrast

The closer your subject is to the window, the more of a contrast there will be between their lit side and their shadow side. So distance from the window is the first determining factor in whether you record a high contrast or low contrast scene. I’ll tell you how in a minute.

Download and print this handy window light cheat sheet – it contains the portrait lighting diagrams below in this tutorial.


Direct window light vs indirect window light

Just like photographing outside, you also have to decide between two distinctly different types of light indoors:

Direct light 

When the sun shines in through a window it will create pools of light and defined shadows. Expose for the bright areas so that you have dark shadows.

Indirect light

On overcast days or when the sun is on the other side of the house, the light is with very soft, and shadows are almost non-existent. 

Because of the reduced dynamic range of the scene, your light and shadow areas won’t be as far apart, so there will be much more detail in the shadow areas, even when you expose for the light areas.

Further reading: Soft light photography – 4 facts every photographer should know

Direction of light – 3 different looks from 1 window

Direction of light is the other huge factor in determining the look of a photo. With window light, obviously you can’t move the light to suit you, but there are two other things that can move: the subject or the photographer.

Changing the position of the subject in relation to the window will cause the light to fall on them differently.

But that’s not all. 

As you move around the subject, photographing from different angles, the photo will change. If you photograph from the shadow side of the subject, the image will look very different from a photo taken on the lit side of the subject.

So let’s have a look at how to use window light with three directions of light:

  • Front light
  • Side light
  • Back light

Front lighting with window light indoors

Diagram of front lighting portraits with window light

The photographer has their back to the window, with the subject in front of them, facing the window. In other words, you’re between the window and the subject.

If the light is indirect, the frontal light that floods across the subject is known as flat lighting – there are very few shadows, so features aren’t defined by shadow.

On the other hand, if it’s direct light, the sun falling on the subject will cause shadows. In which case the angle of the sun is important. If it’s:

  • Low in the sky and coming straight in the window, the light could be flat.
  • High in the sky, it could create a portrait lighting pattern known as butterfly light.

Front lighting portraits with window light indoors

The window was a few meters behind me, so the boy is evenly lit by front lighting. The light entering the room was diffused as the sun was on the other side of the house.

Further reading: Understanding direction of light: how to use front lighting

Side lighting with window light indoors

Diagram of side lighting portraits with window light

Of the three directions, side light produces the most shadow and therefore form. 

The subject is lit from the side, next to the window. The amount of shadow depends on where the subject is in relation to the window, as well as whether the light is direct or indirect. 

You can alter portrait lighting patterns by having the subject rotate slightly:

  • Loop lighting – they’re angled 45% towards the window 
  • Split lighting – they’re parallel to the window
  • Broad lighting – they’re angled 45 degrees away from the window

Further reading: 

5 portrait lighting patterns you need to know

Short lighting and broad lighting for portrait photography

Side lighting portraits with window light indoors

The only difference between this photo and the one above is that I changed position. The window is now to my side instead of behind me, so the boy is side lit instead of front lit and we can see are more shadows.

Example of how to use window light as side light and back light

In the photo on the left the boy is side lit from a window to my left. For the photo on the right, I changed position and the boy is now backlit. You can see the room layout in the backlit photo below.

How to use windows for backlighting portraits indoors

Further reading: Direction of light – how to use side light

Backlighting with window light indoors

Diagram of backlighting portraits with window light

With backlight, the subject is again between the photographer and the window. However, this time the window is behind the subject and the photographer is facing the window.

It’s essential to use spot metering with backlight to measure the exposure on the shadow side of the subject (the side closest to you). Just know that, if light is not reflected back into the subject using a reflector, the light behind will be blown out, as it will be much brighter than the subject.

How to use window light indoors for family photography

Because the family are backlit by the bay window this is a high contrast image with the bright background contrasting with the shadows on our side of the family. This is the same room and angle as for the main photo at the top of this tutorial.

3 ways to use window light indoors for natural light portraits

Taken in the same room, on the same sofa, but now the window is to camera right, making the photo side lit with natural light.

Further reading: Backlight photography tips for magical photos

White balance for window light photography

Because other factors affect the white balance setting, such as time of day and other lights in the room it’s hard to give a definite white balance setting.

For warmer images you can use shade or cloudy white balance presets. However, the best option would be to set a custom white balance, or use a gray card to set your white balance in post. 

I wouldn’t recommend using auto white balance when shooting a series of photos. It could result in inconsistent colors in your photos, because the white balance will change as you move around.

Further reading: What is white balance in photography and does it matter?

Metering mode for indoor photography

Spot metering is ideal for indoor photography. Meter off the light side of your subject’s face to ensure they are well exposed.

Just remember that the closer they are to the light the brighter it will be, therefore the darker the background will be. Unless the window light is behind them.

Plus the harder the light is, the more defined the shadows will be.

Further reading: How to avoid shadows in indoor photography (on walls and backdrops)

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