December 2020 // The How-to Edition

CAN I GET A WINDOW?

Everybody says that they love window light, especially people who are new to photography and don’t have much experience using flash. As a young photographer, I heard from the older photojournalists I knew that you really can’t beat window light, so just pose your portrait subject next to a window and that’s all you need to do. In general they were right, but they were forgetting that there would be mixed lighting problems due to interior incandescent lights and an overall lack of brightness on overcast days. If you started out as a “natural light photographer” and your images are noisy, lack sharpness and/or have strange colors, now is the time to transition over into the world of flash. The Dutch Masters would pose their subjects at a slight angle towards an open window to produce “Rembrandt” lighting. You can simulate this window light by using a softbox or an umbrella off to one side at anywhere between a 30–60-degree angle—the placement of which will depend on your desire to see shadows in your images. But no matter where you place it, you want to make sure that there is a light on both of the subject’s upper eyelids. If you place your light too high, their brow will cast a shadow on their eyes and you’re going to lose the catchlights as well. If you place your light too low, beams of light will illuminate the underside of their nose and cast a shadow from their nose going upwards, both of which can be seen as mistakes and can be regarded as unflattering or “spooky.” I’ve heard other photographers say that the bottom of your softbox should be equal to the height of the subject’s jaw, but I have always tried to have my flashtube higher than the subject’s eyes. Regardless of your visual marker, you need to look out for catchlights and avoid uplighting. By pitching your softbox downwards, you will direct your shadow downward and add more light to the lower part of your photo, slightly evening out your exposure from the top to the bottom, simulating a transom or high window. If you change the tilt of your softbox so it is perpendicular to the floor, the light will be more focused on your subject’s face, simulating a low window. You might also wish to use a boom arm and place your softbox or umbrella so that the light comes from the top. This will simulate light coming from a skylight. This light will often be very pleasing, especially if you’re trying to accentuate a model’s physique. When you place the light in this position, you want to make sure it’s not too close to the subject, or their forehead will be too bright. Make sure that it’s more in front of the subject instead of over the subject. This will allow for there to be light on the top of each eyelid. The further you move the light away from your subject, the less defined your shadows will be, but it will likely produce more pleasing light on their face.

Pro Tip: Tilting the softbox slightly toward your subject and not completely perpendicular to the floor will result in more defined catchlights.

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