Use Window Light to Add Character to Your Portraits

One of the first things a new photographer learns after getting away from the harsh on-camera flash is lighting models with off camera flashes and strobes. While incomparably better than the pop-up flash, this lighting frequently results in flat non-directional lighting. If this is the goal, that’s fine. If done well, it can produce great images. The covers of Vogue and Glamour are almost always lit that way.

But for portrait work, you want to have directionality in your light. What does that mean? It means that the direction is coming from one side or the other. How far to the side depends on the look you want to end up with. Regardless of how far to the side your light source is, this type of lighting gives a pleasing look, pitting shadow against light and adds character and dimension to your portrait work.

Go online or to an art gallery and look at the portraits of the Old Masters of painting. The lighting was always somewhat to the side, giving a pleasing shadow to one side of the face. As a matter of fact, this lighting is so prevalent that the type of lighting we will discuss today is known as Rembrandt lighting.

Natural window-light in portraiture
Image © Teon Harasymiv

You can get Rembrandt lighting from a flash or strobe, but there is no more pleasing light for portraits than soft and warm window light. The window should provide you with a soft, diffuse light. This means either a north facing window, shooting on a cloudy day, or covering the window with sheers or some other diffuse material. You want a soft light.

There are many different angles you can place your subject and camera in depending on the desired result. For this exercise we will be using the easiest angle to achieve our Rembrandt lighting. Once you master that, it will be easy to modify it to your taste.

Place a chair a couple of feet from the window. In this example, when the subject sits in the chair, the window will be to their left. Place your camera on a tripod so you are shooting straight toward the subject’s face. Adjust your distance so you are almost filling the frame with the face.

Rembrandt Lighting in Portraits
Image © Grace Adams

At this point, you should be looking at a shot that is lit with what is called split lighting. Half the face is in light and half is in shadow. This isn’t very flattering light, but can work well on some men. Set your camera to f8 and adjust your shutter speed and take some test shots until you are pleased with the results. The lit side of the face should be perfectly exposed, while the shadow side should be dark. You should still be able to see detail in the shadow side, but we will deal with that soon.

Rembrandt, Self Portrait (fragment)
Rembrandt, Self Portrait (fragment), oil on canvas, 1652.

Now have the subject slowly rotate their head toward the window. They should keep their head level and their eyes on the camera. Watch as they slowly turn their head. You are looking for just a little bit of the light to hit the shadow side of the cheek. When you have a small, upside triangle lit on the shadow side, have them stop. The shadow of the nose now extends down toward the corner of their mouth, with the small triangle of light just under their eye. This is classic Rembrandt lighting. If the shadow portion is too dark, just prop or have someone hold something white close to them on the shadow side to bounce a bit of the window light back into the shadows.