Tips + Techniques

Transition From Window Light to Flash with John Gress

April 7, 2021

By Jacqueline Tobin

John Gress Headshot

For over 20 years, John Gress has created stunning photography for some of America’s largest companies and international media outlets. His work has included national lifestyle, advertising, portrait and videos for the beauty, industry and action photography of pro athletes. Professional photographer magazine calls Gress one of the nation’s foremost experts on lighting, and we agree. For our most recent Rf+WPPI webinar, presented by Tamron, Gress demonstrates a series of simple steps photographers can use to transition from window light to flash, which he says is more versatile. Here are some of the highlights.

“As photographers build their skills and start shooting portraits, it’s only natural to start using window light, but everyone runs into the same hurdles,” says Gress in the recent RF + WPPI webinar, Transitioning From Window Light to Flash (part of our Reset series). “A dark and dreary day brings a sinking feeling as you begin to worry that your images will be blurry or noisy as you balance ISO, depth-of-field and your shutter speed on the edge of a knife—trying to eke out a professional image. Or maybe it’s just an average day, and your client asks you to capture them in midair as they leap across the set, causing you to cringe.”

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These challenges, adds Gress, are why you should be using flash. “The good news is, you don’t have to be afraid of it,” he reassures. “Using essential techniques coupled with basic equipment can help you to create and control artificial light, so that you don’t have to worry about the weather or the time of day.”

WATCH: John Gress on how to light a portrait with window light and a reflector.

[Read: 10 Portrait Photography Lighting Mistakes Easily Fixed]

WATCH: John Gress on how to mimic window light with an umbrella.

Gress advises that a good place to start the transition over to flash is when available light stops being feasible. In this tutorial, he covers the following in three different segments:

  • Using an umbrellas (and then possibly a reflector when needed) as window light no longer creates a technically pleasing image
  • Using flash for headshots
  • Stopping motion and using flash for full body shots

For his first demonstration with model Marcus (who is also Gress’ husband), he shot at one 1/25th of a second at f/2.

WATCH: John Gress on using a diffuser and umbrella to mimic window light.

“The reason for this is that most prosumer or entry-level prime lenses are going to have an f-stop of around f/2. The reason behind me using 1/25th of a second is that it is about the slowest shutter speed that I could use before my shaky coffee hands get the best of me,” Gress says with a laugh. “And we end up with motion blur. So that’s going to be the bare minimum.”

[Read: 2021 RF + WPPI Lighting Tips and Trends]

From window light to flash
For the first demonstration, Gress shot at 1/125th of a sec. at f/2 and 400 ISO, but the shadows, and the model’s black hair, don’t have a lot of detail in them. Time to add a reflector.

From there, Gress allows the light coming through the window to dictate what the ISO will be (in this case, 400). A quick look at the first few images ensures that he is on the right track, technically. The exposure on Marcus’ face looks good, says Gress during the webinar—it is sharp on his right eye and not his left—but the shadows don’t have a lot of detail.

[Read: Creative Lighting Techniques for Portrait Photographers]

“We probably need to even this out a little bit, especially the black in his hair. So the best thing we could do at this point would just be to add a reflector, which is exactly what my mentor told me to do 25 years ago—just use a window light and a reflector, possibly even an umbrella. They can solve a lot of technical issues with your shots.”

See the full demo and Gress’ other tips HERE.