Tips + Techniques

3 Ways to Mimic Natural Light in a Windowless Photo Studio

October 29, 2020

By Angela Marklew

© Angela Marklew

The skylight setup is one of the ways photographers can mimic natural light indoors when windows might not be accessible for portraits like these.

As much as I enjoy shooting in a studio and lighting my subject in a really beautiful or interesting way, I love the simplicity and ease of shooting natural light (specifically, the quality of light you can get from a natural light studio).

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Sometimes, we simply don’t have access to the kind of natural light we want to use. That could be due to weather (even in Los Angeles, the weather doesn’t always cooperate), or the inability to gain access to a natural light studio (this has especially been true this year, with a lot of the studios closing due to the pandemic).

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For the majority of 2020, all I’ve had access to was a windowless garage, so I decided to figure out how mimic the look of a natural light studio using strobes. Here, we’ll explore how to mimic two different types of available light—the “wall of windows” and “the skylight setup”—and one technique to amp up the drama in your setups.

1. The Wall of Windows Setup

When talking about imitating a natural light studio that has a bank of windows, generally speaking, the most desirable windows to mimic are either north- or south-facing. The light tends to stay more consistent and is softer than light coming through east- or west-facing windows.

[Read: Perfect Your Lighting Skills with These Portrait Basics]

You want to create the biggest, softest source of light possible. It should be big enough to wrap around your subject and soft enough to prevent any unsightly cast shadows on the background.

Diagram of a wall of windows photography lighting setup
The “wall of windows” is the simpler of the two setups to figure out. 

I’m a big fan of the translucent panel, especially for this application. To create my “window,” I hung a 42 x 78-inch translucent panel horizontally. I then placed two lights behind it, both set to the same power. I bounce these lights into white 36-inch umbrellas. And there you have it—a window indoors!

Beauty photos by Angela Marklew made using a wall of windows lighting setup
The image on the left was shot with both lights outputting the same power, but you can add some natural shadow gradation by setting one light to a slightly lower power. In the image on the right, the lights had a one-stop difference in power, which provided a very soft and gradual shadow on the model’s camera-left side.

2. The Skylight Setup

To mimic natural light from a skylight, you need a slightly more involved setup. A key feature in a skylight studio is that you are usually in a bright white box. The skylight provides the key light, which bounces around the white walls and floor to give you a fairly even exposure. Note: I generally use a reflector in this type of studio, simply so the light doesn’t have to bounce as far.

[Read: Master Your Photography with the Right Lighting Tools]

The way I approached this was first deciding on my main light. I knew it had to come from above and that it should be able to cover the width of my subject. I’d advise using a c-stand with an arm to get the light in the right position.

Diagram of a skylight photography lighting setup using strobes
The power settings to achieve this effect may not be equal on both strobes—it will depend on the distance you can get your lights from the subject.

I chose a 36-inch shoot-through umbrella. I placed this as high above my subject as possible. Since I’m not in a white room (my garage floors are actually black), I needed to add a second light to help the main “skylight.” I used the same translucent panel, only this time I placed it vertically, set at approximately 45 degrees to the subject. I then bounced a single light into a white 36-inch umbrella. This creates a large source that, ideally, will meld with the overhead light. 

The last piece of this puzzle is using a reflector to bounce light into the shadow side. My go-to for this is a silver/gold striped round reflector.

Beauty photos of three women made using a skylight setup
The skylight setup gives a highlight on the hair and lets light spill down onto the shoulders.  

3. A Single-Light Setup for a Little More Drama

Seeing as I’m talking about essentially mimicking window light, I couldn’t go without mentioning one of the simplest methods. In contrast to the lighting scenarios outlined above, the goal here is not to create a huge source. Here, we want to mimic the feeling of a single north-facing window and embrace the shadows.

Diagram of a single-light photography lighting setup meant to imitate a north-facing window

All I use for this is a small softbox (or occasionally a medium-sized strip softbox) placed at an angle to my subject. I always tend to direct my subjects to face the light, as I think the shadows this produces are the most aesthetically pleasing.

Portraits made using a single-light setup designed to look like light from one window

Angela Marklew is a beauty, fashion and portrait photographer based in Venice, California. Before she was a photographer, she worked as a chemist testing explosives for the Canadian government.