If you’re a beginner portrait photographer, one of the best environments to shoot in is natural light. This past weekend we got hit with some more rain here in Arizona, so I figured I would use the soft light coming through my window to take some nice portraits.
As usual, I used my Sony a5100 with my Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8 lens. (Please note these are affiliate links, meaning that I may make a small commission, at no extra cost to you, should you choose to purchase through these links .)
Using natural window light requires very little set-up and is super easy to get right. Once you understand the tips I’m about to tell you, it’s really all about experimenting and editing. So, before you start shooting, here’s some advice that I learned from my shoot.
Have your camera facing parallel to the window.
For my photos, I had my camera on the tripod alongside the wall. That way I achieved a beautiful side-light instead of having the light hit me straight on.
I sat (or more like balanced) on my small window sill. However, if you have an actual window seat, that’s even better! You can sit with your shoulder against the window, which is what I did. You can also sit with your back almost touching the window, while still making sure that you’re turning your face back towards the light. It’s important that part of your face is towards the window, as I’ll explain in the next tip.
Make sure the light is hitting (at least) one of your cheeks.
Light is ultimately what makes a photo. I mean, without light we wouldn’t even have photography! A great way to add depth and dimension is to achieve side-lighting, as I mentioned earlier. To help with this concept, I like to think of light as a liquid. So for example, if the light was like a rain shower coming down and you want the light to highlight your cheekbones, you have to angle them towards the light. When I started thinking of light this way, I began to catch myself moving to more flattering angles that really highlight my facial structure.
With this in mind, play around angling your face towards the camera, away from the camera and up or down. Try to avoid looking straight out the window or you’ll lose a lot of detail in the shadows and darkness that you’ll create. This doesn’t apply if you’re purposefully trying to catch your reflection in the window, but that’s for another tutorial ;).
Check out my photo below and you’ll see what I mean about the side-lighting.
You can see that I’m not angled completely towards the window, but I’m giving just enough to light up a good portion of my face. See how this adds dimension to my nose and cheeks? The light also softens my skin naturally and gives this nice warmth without harsh shadows.
Use a wider aperture for a more intimate feeling
You’d probably take this type of photo on a rainy or cloudy day like I did. Therefore, you most likely want to convey a cozy feel to it. I loved using my f/1.8 lens here because it was such a shallow depth of field that made this photo feel very intimate. I also draped my white curtain slightly over the left side of the lens, which gave it that nice stylized blur along the outer edge.
So any aperture from f/1.4 to f/4 would probably work well for this. That way you can capture the soft light, have a sharp focus on your subject’s eyes, and achieve a beautiful blur in the background and edges for a dreamy look.
Edit in Black and White
Making these rainy day photos into black and white while editing is a great option! Black and white is perfect for putting emphasis on lighting if you lack rich colors in your shot. Since it’s a grey day, you won’t have warm sunlight filling up your frame, which could result in dull looking portraits. Of course, you could warm them up in editing, but I found that black and white made my photos really pop. It gave them a super moody feel and focused on how gorgeous the natural light looked.
Here’s an example of a photo I edited in black and white.
I seriously love how this photo looks in black and white. It adds more impact and emotion to the photo, and brings attention to the buttery soft lighting. The other great thing about the wide aperture was catching those little raindrops on the window. It really added to the effect along with the smooth bokeh from the tree in the background.
So there you have it! If you want to start working on portrait photography, I highly recommend starting with natural window light. Start experimenting with a large window in your house that creates a nice diffused light. Obviously, the closer you are to the window, the brighter the light will be. If the light is blasting through, you can always diffuse it with a thin curtain as well and sit further away on a couch or chair.
Finally, let’s recap the key points for natural window light photography:
- Be conscious of how the light hits your face (once you get this down, you can basically master all of photography)
- A wider aperture is best! (Keep it around f/4 or under)
- Don’t turn away from the window unless you want a silhouette shot
- If your color is bad or blah, make the photo black and white!
If you want to learn how I take my own self portraits, you can check out my previous post all about that here! It includes a simple 5-step method to taking your own portraits as well as an instructional YouTube video.
You can check out my YouTube channel here. I post videos about self portrait ideas, how to take better Instagram pics, and how to take photos that look professional without fancy equipment.
If you like the photos you see here, come take a peek at my photography Instagram @sheajordanphoto!
Let me know what other types of portrait photography you want me to write tips about in the comments below.
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