Tips + Techniques

Creative Indoor Portraits Using Only Window Light

April 28, 2020

By Jyo Bhamidipati

© Making Beautiful Memories

2020 has been a very unusual year for everyone. Many of us have never witnessed anything like this global pandemic in our generation, and many of our parents haven’t either. Staying in the home for extended periods of time probably isn’t something that you are used to, and you might be struggling to find the motivation to shoot or even to find something interesting to shoot. You might not have space for big studio lights, but working with what you have—indoor window light—doesn’t have to be complicated or stressful either. You can learn to use natural light in different creative ways, even with only one window, by simply changing your perspective.

1. Front Window Light

portrait shot in isolation using front window light
Photographed on a Canon 5D Mark IV and Sigma 12-24mm wide-angle lens at 12mm, f/4.5, 1/80 sec. and ISO 1000.

Perspective plays a huge role in my work in order to get the story to come through for the viewer. This image was taken in a room that I have set up separately just for photos inside my house (my bonus room). The furniture setup keeps changing to match the story I want to convey.

Here, I decided to move the couch near the window to get some light fall-off on my subjects (my kids). I used a wide-angle lens and climbed onto a stool to get a high-angle perspective. This change in perspective elevated the story of being isolated but still together as a family. 

front window light in creative portrait shot in isolation
Shot on a Canon 5D Mark IV and Lensbaby Sol 45 45mm f/3.5 lens at 1/320 sec. and ISO 100.

In the image above, I used front light from the window in the same room as before. However this time, I used a mirror on a wall that faces opposite the window to frame the portrait in a more interesting way. I also used a fog machine to create some magic with the light and emphasize the rays coming through the window.  

By using front light with a few simple props added in, I was able to create more meaningful images during this period of quarantine.  

Front Light Tip:

Using front light can feel flat or boring if there isn’t anything else that is interesting to make up for it. To make your images stand out with some contrast and depth, think of how you can elevate the image compositionally instead. You can also consider adding a few intentional props in the scene that help complete the story.  

2. Side Window Light 

side window light in black and white double exposure
Photographed with a Canon 5D Mark IV and Lensbaby Edge 35 Optic lens at 1/160 sec. and ISO 200.

Working with side light is one of my favorite ways to use light indoors. This image was taken in my living room. I didn’t have any fancy setup; just a couch next to a window. I decided to change things up a bit and use my Lensbaby here to get some dreamy light indoors with some haze and flare. My intention was to create two images that I wanted to use together (after merging them in Photoshop) for a double exposure concept. Here’s the other image I incorporated:

black and white portrait using side window light

With this double exposure, I wanted to convey the story of isolation and being quarantined at home while longing for human touch from the outside.  

side window light creates depth and natural contrast in a portrait
Shot using a Canon 5D Mark IV and a wide-angle 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens at f/2.5, 1/200 sec. and ISO 1250.

Here, I used side light in a more dramatic fashion to showcase my daughter’s personality and expression. Having your subject close to the window with some white curtains to help diffuse the light can be very beneficial, particularly if it’s sunny out.  

Side Light Tip:

Using side light is one of the most common ways to add some depth in your photos and bring an image to life right away. The shadows on the non-illuminated side of the image help create dimension while also adding some natural contrast in the image. Challenge yourself further by using vibrant colors—they help enhance the mood of the image further to create a fine-art storytelling piece.  

3. Back Window Light  

back window light for dreamy feel creative portrait in quarantine
Photographed with a Canon 5D Mark IV and Lensbaby Sol 45 lens at 1/250 sec. and ISO 100.

Using back light indoors can get a little tricky, depending on the space you are shooting in. Study your spaces in your home carefully by experimenting with each to find which room gets the most beautiful backlight.

This is my daughter’s room. She has this clerestory in her room that brings in beautiful light into the space. I used a Lensbaby to focus on the light itself and accentuate the light flare within the space.  

Back Light Tip: 

When used indoors, back light can help elevate an otherwise ordinary space into something dreamier. Consider changing up the look of it by using a manual lens if possible to create ethereal flares. You could even push yourself by experimenting with apertures to get creative with the softness of the back light.  

4. Front + Side Window Light

combining front and side window light with textures creative portrait
Shot on a Canon 5D Mark IV and Lensbaby Edge 35 Optic lens at 1/200 sec. and ISO 400.

This is a self-portrait created by combining front light and side light. I simply held a glass prop in front of me, after spraying some water droplets on it to focus on the texture. A combination of edits using textures and light overlays, along with my Lensbaby, brought about a romantic feeling to this portrait while still conveying the story of isolation—and hope—through the use of color.  

Editing Tip: 

It is important to remember that light has color, too, and that combining light and color can help elevate your image to a fine-art feel. Consider using textures subtly in the image to give it a dreamier, ethereal feel while also playing with color during post-processing.  

Jyo Bhamidipati is an award-winning fine-art lifestyle photographer, a mentor/educator and electrical engineer based in Sacramento, California, who has been published in numerous magazines.