The Creative Mama » inspiring art, encouraging women

Winter Window Light: A Tutorial

Unless you live in a subtropical climate, you probably are a bit chilly right now reading this article in mid-January.  If you’re a professional photographer, you’re probably cringing at the thought of having to go outside for your next shoot.

Well, I’d like to give you a little tutorial on utilizing window light indoors today! Depending on your climate, you might have the advantage of bare trees (no leaves to block the windows, yay) and possibly a blanket of snow (read: reflector) outside the window as well.

If you are a studio photographer, you’ll simply think of your window as your main light with a rectangular-shaped softbox attached.  You’ll need to move your subject, rather than your light, to get the type of lighting you’re after.

If you’re an outdoor photographer transitioning indoors for the winter, then you’ll want to be mindful that window light is, by nature, directional, and that you must change the position of your subject to see the change in light patterns.  The facing direction of the window has a great deal to do with the quality of light, also.  I prefer North- and South-facing windows, when available, to allow the softest, most even light on your subjects.

Okay, let’s get started!

This Direction: In the above image, I positioned Mom and baby in a chair about 3 feet from a double window, and had Mom hold her little one very naturally, to soothe her to sleep.  I had her turn until the light fell just the way I wanted it to show the lines and texture of her arms, fingers, and the baby’s skin as well.  Shooting at a shallow dof (f/2.5, 1/125, ISO 1250 with a D700 and 50mm 1.4 lens), I let Mom’s face to fall into the shadows, yet the light still fall across her hair, which gave this photo even more dimension.

Change Your Mood: For this image, it was a cold day and we were about 3 feet from a triple sliding glass door.  Beyond that door was a covered lanai, and plenty of mature trees hiding the light from us that cloudy morning.  Yep, it was dark inside.  My solution was to crank my ISO and embrace a moody black and white (which happens to be my favorite style anyway!).  They were sitting on a trunk, snuggled under a blanket, and looked just beautiful as could be.  I again grabbed my 50mm 1.4 lens, and used f/2.2, 1/250, and (ahem) ISO 5000 on my D700.  ๐Ÿ˜‰

Get In Front: This sweet baby boy was snuggled up warmly about 2-1/2 feet from a sliding glass door.  The walls of the room were painted a dark color, and the furniture was dark as well (no built-in reflectors this time), so I gently turned his cheek to the side, so that the light would spill directly onto his face (front light/flat light), and not be quite as moody or shadowy.  (This situation, although with more distance between the door and your subjects, would work well for a family too.)  I pressed back against the glass door, and shot this image with the 60mm 2.8 macro on my D700, set at f/3.5, 1/200 and ISO 2500.

Fall Back: For this image, I chose dramatic backlight to highlight her arms and keep her skirt a bit shadowed.  The blinds were permanent, so we simply opened the slats to allow in as much light as we could.  My settings were f/3.5, 1/320 and ISO 400, using the 50mm 1.4 lens on my D700.  I don’t think the image would have had the same impact on me though, if the room were light-filled instead.  I just loved the shadowy blur of her skirt!

I also love to utilize backlight for my family work as well:

This image was created with the same D700/50mm combo, set at f/2.2, 1/160 and ISO 2500.  This is now a large canvas on their wall.

Hopefully these tips can help to keep you warm on your next session. Now, go have yourself a cup of hot cocoa!

In what ways do you maximize light in the winter?  Do you have any more window-light tips to share with our readers?  We’d love to have you add them in the comments below!

Stacey Woods

Co-editor, Stacey Woods is an on-location, natural light lifestyle photographer for the Tampa Bay, FL area. Her favorite subjects are expecting mamas, the tiniest of babies, and children of all ages. Her online photo journal can be found at Stacey Woods Photography. Stacey’s own husband and children (a 6-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter) are her greatest source of inspiration… and laughter!

About Stacey Woods

Stacey Woods is an on-location, natural light lifestyle photographer for the Tampa Bay, FL area. Her favorite subjects are expecting mamas, the tiniest of babies, and children of all ages. She believes that the small moments are really the biggest ones, that photographs are legacies that we leave to our children, and that authentic love is beautiful. Her online photo journal can be found here.

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  • Kara @ Just1Step

    The second picture is just gorgeous. I love it.

  • krista

    Saw your link on Bloom. I so needed to read this! THANK YOU!

  • Olivia Grey Pritchard

    Hi Stacey, thanks for the info. I’ll be in Clearwater soon to visit my family, if you like we can meet up and play with developing film. (Can’t do any printing without a darkroom, but developing just requires a totally dark room!) I’m in Paris now shopping for fabrics, props, antuqie toys, etc. for my new business–I’ve been working as a UN photographer in Africa for 5 years but I’m moving back to the US (New Orleans) in a week to re-open my children’s photography business. My website will be up in March. Hope to meet you, you seem like a warm and lovely person with great talent for capturing real, genuine moments!

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  • Mindy

    You are amazing! I adore these photos and learned a lot. Thank you.

  • Cortney Smith


    Quick question and probably a dumb one, but…. when I spot meter and expose for skin if I am on manual and my in camera metering says I am dead even, does that mean I have perfect exposure??? How do you personally determine perfect exposure when spot metering? Also sometimes it jumps around a lot, this gets confusing to me? Ugh… lots to learn!

  • tamara

    WOnderful post and so helpful. Lovely

  • Stacey Woods

    Ahh, Olivia, yes. Noise, you’re right. Pardon me. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I still shoot film too a little, although I’ve not yet developed it myself (I’m aching to learn!).

    I actually don’t use an actual reflector. I tried to use one when I first started shooting, but found it more of a nuisance than an advantage. I just try and make use of natural reflectors in the environment if I can (light-colored walls, white bedding, mirrors, etc.). I’d love to meet your brother and his family when that amazing day comes! :) Thanks for all the kind words!

  • Olivia Pritchard

    Just another brief note…I work with both digital AND film, spending hours mixing chemicals and developing/printing by hand in my darkroom (one of my favorite places to be!), so I have to mention that grain and noise are NOT the same thing…those of us who still use film get a little testy about that! :)

  • Olivia Pritchard

    Thanks Stacey, I’ve been admiring your work for awhile. I’m curious if you ever use reflectors of your own–I was specifically impressed with the family photo on your blog of the 3 kids, backlit, over the holidays. How did you get so much light on their faces? On another note, my brother lives in Clearwater with his girlfriend, and I’m just waiting for them to get hitched and have kids so I can hire you to photograph them as a baby gift!
    Best, Olivia Pritchard

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  • shannon

    love this post Stacey. thankyou for reminding us that the indoors can be just as friendly. beautiful BWs.

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  • Stacey Woods

    Amy, yep I learned that lesson the hard way, a very long time ago. Doesn’t matter if you’re shooting at ISO 100, you’re going to get grain if you underexpose!

    And like you, I also shoot RAW 100% of the time.

  • Stacey Woods

    Thanks so much, everyone! Happy this is helping.

    Bree, yes, raise that ISO, it can totally handle it if you expose well!

    Cortney, I simply exposed for the subjects and let the window behind them blow out. I didn’t care what was out the window, just what was on the couch! :) Use the spot meter setting on your camera if it has one!

  • Life in Eden

    This is great Stacey! Oh what I wouldn’t give to have a D700! But I have learned that what you said is VERY true — you MUST get a proper exposure to minimize grain. I shoot with the D90, and always have much better results at high ISO if it is properly, or slightly overexposed. I also shoot RAW which helps a bit when tweeking.

  • Ginger

    Thank you for this. Very enjoyable and informative. I am just starting to share my photography with others and am looking to make the switch to nikon later this year..specifically to the D 700. Just love the high iso capabilities. Thanks for sharing your amazing work.

  • Cortney Smith

    I love this tutorial! Just did my first indoor session with someone other than a newborn. I was wondering how you got the family lit so well with backlighting in the last picture? Any tips there would be so helpful! Thanks!

  • pamela

    I LOVE that last image…wish we had one like that of our family!! Great tips and beautiful images. Thanks!

  • Mindy Newton

    Thank you for these fantastic tips! I mostly shoot outdoors and am always struggling to find the right light indoors during these winter months.

  • Bree

    That is so good to know about the high ISO. I shoot with a D700 too and I have never cranked it up that high before. Now I will not be afraid too.

  • Lea

    Thanks for the tips! Living in WA state I have definitely had to make due with window light many times and actually find that I love it!

  • Stacey Woods

    You’re so welcome, Cindy and Meg. I’m glad you found this helpful!

    Danielle, occasionally I will use Noise Ninja after editing, but actually, I didn’t do a thing to this particular image. Knowing my ISO was super high, I metered for her skin and overexposed it just a bit (not enough to block the highlights). If I had underexposed instead, this shot would have been a mess and I would have deleted it, simple as that. And I’d hate to have missed this one. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Danielle Pecoraro Photography

    Using ISO 5000 how do you get the grain out of it so nicely? The one with mom hovering over is beautiful. My high ISO’s are always so grainy and blah. Do you have a noise reduction program or plug-in?

    Great article. I have a newborn shoot tomorrow and will be using window lighting so this was a great reminder.

  • Meg :)

    My first time here, Great tips!! Thank you! :)

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  • Cindy Morrison

    Thank you for this tutorial! Beautiful images and beautifully written. I especially loved that your shared your camera settings and discussed lighting from all sides.