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?

Window light is 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 in photos by manipulating light with light modifiers. These include softboxes, reflectors and umbrellas.

With window light your light is already made for you. How natural light filters through from outside into a room impacts the look of a photo, so you can achieve several different looks with just one window

Window light quality and quantity is affected by:

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

How to use window light for backlighting portraits indoors

How do you use a window light for portraits?

For me, photographing indoors with window light is all about the shadows. Being 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.

If you don’t like shadows in photos, you can very easily reduce and even avoid them, depending on how you position your subject. More on this in a moment.

Distance from the window affects contrast

The closer your subject is to the window, the more tonal contrast there’ll 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.

Direct vs indirect window light

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

Direct light 

Sunlight shining directly in through a window it’s direct natural light. The sun’s rays create pools of light indoors and defined shadows.

To use this direct light for high contrast photos, expose for the bright areas. This’ll create dark shadows, which affects the mood of the image.

Indirect light

When the sun is on the other side of the building, the natural light coming in through a window is indirect light. Indirect light creates very soft light, so 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 you’ll be able to capture much more detail in the shadow areas, even when you expose for the light areas.

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


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 changes how the light falls on them.

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

Use front light for minimal shadows in an image.

For window light from the front the photographer stands with their back to the window and the subject in front of them, facing the window. In other words, you’re between the window and the subject.

Indirect front window light

With indirect front lighting, the light that floods across the subject creates a flat lighting pattern – there are very few shadows, so features aren’t defined by shadow.

Direct front window light

With direct natural light, because the sun falls on the subject, it creates shadows. In which case the angle of the sun is important. If it’s:

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 indirect as the sun was on the other side of the house

Side lighting with window light indoors

Diagram of side lighting portraits with window light

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

With side lighting the subject is next to the window and lit from the side. You can be much more creative with side lighting than with the other two light directions.

  • Subject placement: Positioning your subject in the middle of the window or further back towards the side of the window creates different effects.
  • Photographer position: As you move around the subject, photographing from different angles, the look of the photo will change, particularly with short vs broad lighting

If you photograph from the shadow side of the subject (short light), the image will look very different from a photo taken on the lit side of the subject (broad light).

Portrait lighting patterns with side window light

Side window lighting allows you to use different portrait lighting patterns for different faces and different looks. You can alter portrait lighting patterns by having the subject rotate their head slightly:

  • Loop lighting – most used lighting pattern. Angle your subject’s face 45% towards the window. Loop lighting can be used with broad lighting or short lighting
  • Split lighting – most dramatic lighting pattern. Your subject’s face is parallel to the window and therefor lit on one side only
  • Broad lighting most flattering lighting style for narrow faces. Angle your subject’s face 45 degrees away from the window so that the lit side of their face is towards camera
  • Short lighting – most flattering lighting style for most faces, particularly wide faces. Angle your subject’s face 45 degrees towards the window so that the shadow side of their face is towards camera

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 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 with light on the camera side of his face, making it broad lighting. For the photo on the right, I changed position and the shadow side of the boy’s face is now to camera, making it short lighting. 

How to use windows for backlighting portraits indoors

This family photo shows how the position of the subject in relation to the window affects the way light falls on their face. The mother’s backlit, there’s split lighting on the boy and loop lighting on the father.

Backlighting with window light indoors

Diagram of backlighting portraits with window light

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

Tips for backlit portraits

You need to use spot metering with backlight to measure the exposure on the shadow side of the subject (the side closest to you).

You’ll need to reflect light back into the subject using a reflector, otherwise the light behind will be blown out, as it’s 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

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

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 to use with window light.

For warmer images use the 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.

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’re well exposed.

Just remember…

The closer your subject is to the light the brighter it’ll be, therefore the darker the background will be. Unless the window light is behind them.

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

If you photograph indoors, you’ve probably come across the problem of your subject’s shadow on the background. You’ll find this article helpful for avoiding shadows on walls.

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