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Training Your Eye - Light

Lesson 10 from: Portrait Photography Bootcamp

Lindsay Adler

Training Your Eye - Light

Lesson 10 from: Portrait Photography Bootcamp

Lindsay Adler

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Lesson Info

10. Training Your Eye - Light

Summary (Generated from Transcript)

The lesson is about using window light for portrait photography and how to manipulate it to achieve different lighting effects.


  1. What are some ways to use window light for portrait photography?

    You can use window light to create soft and sculpted light on the face, and there are various techniques to manipulate the light such as changing the direction of the subject, using reflectors, and adjusting the position of the photographer.

  2. What should you look for when selecting a window for portrait photography?

    You should select a window that has indirect sunlight, meaning no direct sunlight streaming through it. Direct sunlight can create harsh shadows and unflattering highlights on the face.

  3. Can you achieve studio-like results with just window light?

    Yes, you can achieve studio-like results with just a window and no additional lighting equipment. The instructor shares her experience of shooting in a living room studio with only window light for many years.

  4. How can you modify the lighting by moving your subject and yourself?

    By moving your subject and yourself, you can change the direction of the light and create different lighting patterns on the face, such as Rembrandt light or loop light. This allows you to create different moods and effects in your portraits.

  5. What are some common lighting setups that can be achieved with window light?

    Some common lighting setups include split light, flat light, clamshell light, and backlit with a reflector. Each setup creates a different look and mood in the portrait.

Lesson Info

Training Your Eye - Light

You can do a ton in the studio with one soft box. You can sculpt the face, you have a beautiful soft light. When you shoot with window light it's basically like having a big soft box and there's so many different ways to use it. You have to understand that if you use window light you don't just put your subject there and take a photo. There are so many different ways that I can use a single window. I wanted to show you as part of this portrait bootcamp that you don't need to shoot outside, you don't need to shoot with speed lights, you don't need to shoot with studio lights. You just need a window and everybody has a window. The key though for the window you select is you don't want to have direct sunlight. Direct sunlight hitting your subject, that's not going to work. It needs to be indirect sunlight meaning just no light streaming through the window. I looked around this entire space and the window light is all fine but I picked this particular window because it has gorgeous light c...

oming from it. As you look out the window right now you see there's actually a house there. It's neutral, it's kind of a grayish color and the sun is hitting that house. What have I said about the sun hitting a large neutral surface? It becomes a large reflector. The light coming through that window is just glowing. It's basically a huge reflector out there. It is great window light. Really just any large window is going to do a good job for you. I had a portrait studio for many years that I shot in my parents living room like for six or seven years and I had two setups. One end of the living room I had a little studio setup with two studio strobes and the other end I shot with the window light. The window that did not get the direct sunlight. I shot children and babies and couples and I still shot recently fashion campaigns with window light. Let me take you through just a couple ways that I would be using window light and then what I'm looking at on her face as I'm posing her as I'm shooting. Where you place your subject makes a difference. In the studio typically you wouldn't put a light source just to the side of your subject because you would get split light and that's what we have right now. Let me take a shot of that. The lens that I'm using is a lens that I recommended in the focus lens depth of field segment. This is the 85mm 1.8. I love it because it's inexpensive but it still gives me a fast aperture and sharp images. This is a really good place to get started if you want to have a fast beautiful portrait lens that doesn't break the bank. Let me take a quick shot of you here. (camera shutter) As I look at that, the light's soft but it's not the right direction. The quality's good but the direction's wrong. It's split light on her face. Complete shadow on the right and then just uneven on the left but I can fix this in a couple ways. One way I could fix this would be to turn towards the window so we're both rotating. Now I'm watching just like I would in the studio. I'm watching the shadows on her face. Right here is Rembrandt light. Patterns of light that I have talked about. You can see the Rembrandt light on her face. Turn just a little bit more. Right there. I have that triangle of light underneath her eyes. I can turn a little bit more and I can get loop light with just a little shadow of light next to her nose. (camera shutter) I can go all the way this way for completely flat light or paramount light. (camera shutter) Just by where I moved my body I completely change the mood and the drama. I can go from split light on the side all the way around to flat light, minimal shadows and for women this looks really beautiful. I will shoot this a lot for a beauty setup. The light is flat, it's glowing in her eyes. I could also do a very common studio beauty lighting setup called clamshell light. With the window light, the window's behind me, the light is streaming in. It's big it's soft it's beautiful. May you bring that in. I'm just gonna have you hold that underneath her chin. I'm going to catch some of that window light and I'm going to bounce it back into her eyes just for a little bit more fill, a little bit more sparkle. (camera shutter) Beautiful so it's very high key and glowing. If I take it away, and do take it away. Now I see a little bit more (camera shutter) of her jaw line. There's not really a right or wrong answer. It depends on what you're going for but I can modify this even more. I moved around to the side, I also added a reflector underneath. I can also have her sit on the ground. So I'll have you sit on the ground. When she sits on the ground, now the light source is coming from above. This acts like in the studio as if I were raising my light up on the light stand. It's going to have more direction. It's going to sculpt and carve out her cheek bones and jaw line a little bit more and it will put a little bit more shadow underneath her jaw. Let me take a shot and I'm gonna have you scoot back just a little bit. Right there. Now there'll be just a little bit more shadow underneath but the light's still flat and glowing, just a little bit more definition. (camera shutter) I've done all that and basically treated my window just like a soft box and I've gotten a lot of different variety. Can I keep going? I'm gonna show you a few more things I can do. I'm gonna stand you up again. Let's just zoom back one more time to where we started. I wanna show you another thing. I'm gonna hop back over here to when she's back in split light. We're envisioning that this is a soft box, and our window is a soft box to the side of her face. I've got that split light but it's even worse than that when you learn to see the light. There's a distinctive problem here, not even just in the split, but she has this chasm of darkness in her eye. There's no sparkle there's just a deep dark spot. That's not flattering. Where I see the highlights are the side of her jaw and her nose. There's no sparkle, there's no connection. Something else that will change besides facing her more towards the light is actually, I'm gonna have you back up. As she backs up the light is starting to wrap around more. All she did is back up two feet or so and now it's not split light anymore there's a little bit of Rembrandt light. There's a little highlight of light underneath her eyes. Keep going a couple more steps. Keep going another one. The light wraps around even more. In other words where you place your subject with the window beside them, that'll make a difference. Are they allowing more of the light to wrap around or is it more split and it's coming from the side? Now I could also just turn her a little bit to the side. Each and every one of these moves changes the light. This comes with practice. It's the same ways in the studio. I can move the light around to sculpt the face. I can move my subject around and treat that as a way to sculpt her face. Let me just take another shot so everyone can see. (camera shutter) Looks great. (camera shutter) So far I did add a reflector in briefly. Most of this was moving around changing direction but you can get a little fancier and a little bit more complicated than this and this is something I recommend if you have a living room studio. A natural light studio. There are many classes on CreativeLive that talk about using natural light for a studio. You can watch classes for example that Sue Bryce has done. This is one of her go to setups. What I do in a studio, and I'm pretty sure she does something similar to this, is I can go from a little bit more dramatic to completely glowing and soft and backlit by adding V-flats. V-flats typically you think of them using in the studio. They're four by six pieces of foamcore. They're white on one side black on the other. Basically just get a large surface that's black on one side white on the other. It could be a reflector. If you had a big reflector or it could be a board that you could paint at Home Depot. It doesn't matter. If there's a theater supply company near you this is one way you could source them. I am actually going to do something that makes no initial sense as I am going to put her back to the window and she's going to be completely backlit. If I take a picture like this it's just her hair glowing. (camera shutter) Nothing more. No light on her face. What I'm going to do is, I'm looking at the background there. The trees and the house behind her are really distracting but I still want the backlight, that glow around her hair. I'm gonna have her sit. Take a quick seat. What that now does, and I'll scoot you forward just a little bit. What this now does is the window light is actually lighting her hair. She has this nice glow around her and she'll stand out from the background because the background is now dark. If you have a floor to ceiling window obviously this exact approach wouldn't work but you could always put up a piece of black board there if you wanted to have a darker background before behind her or a piece of cloth. Let me show you what this looks like. She's got just a nice hair light but not really much light on her face (camera shutter) and it is going to be dark so I'm gonna bump up my ISO. (camera shutter) She's got this glowing light around her but really most of the light I see on her face is bouncing around from this room. It's kind of yellow and you're getting a little bit off the floor. I'm going to bring in my V-flat. This V-flat it's a large white reflector. If you have a large white reflector that would work great. I'm gonna bring it in right behind me. If you have two of them you can put them in a V so that you are just in this big corner of light because that window light that's streaming through behind her is going to bounce off this reflector and now it's going to light her face. (camera shutter) That is beautiful light. There's this glowing halo, it's very angelic and the light is very flat and very soft but there's a nice catch light in her eyes. Let me just take a couple more of those. (camera shutter) You can see that very quickly a window light is an awesome tool that you think of like a soft box but instead of moving the soft box around you move your subject around the soft box. I'm able to get drama if I turn her away so that there's a lot more shadows. I can shoot her flat onto that window. I can add a reflector for more sparkle to her eyes. I can shoot backlit and then add a reflector to catch that light for really soft and glowing light. There are many different things I can do. I can add negative fill. Black V-flats on either side of her face to eat up the light and to carve out more of her cheek bones. If you are just starting in portrait photography do not feel compelled to go ahead and buy studio lights, to buy speed lights. All you need is a window and you can get beautiful portraits. One of the hardest parts of shooting in natural light is learning to see the light. I can't tell you but for the longest time I just could not see the light on the face. I could not tell the difference between good and bad light. If you're struggling with that it's not just you. I would say for six seven years I didn't really see good versus bad light. What I knew is I knew lighting setups that worked and I stuck with those. What I'm going to encourage you to do is to train your eye to see good light. Find the good light and seek it out. The example is the large natural reflectors, you see that, place your subject opposite it. Boom we've got a good lighting setup. Window light for example, it's not always good. You can't just go and shoot your subject by the window. There's certain things you're looking for. There's some things I wanna show you that are bad that you wanna watch out for. Right now, if I were shooting her and this as window light, this light is not good on her face and I wanna show you why. Sorry I'm gonna be like this sucks and this sucks. The highlight is on her jaw and on her nose and there aren't any catch lights in her eyes and there is a bright highlight from her hair. That's really not good and not flattering window light. If I turn her a little bit to the side that didn't fix it yet. What I'm looking at very specifically is there's still a shadow in her eye and by the way the shadow cast by her hair is not ideas as well so just watch out for that but there's still this dark spot in her eye. I'm gonna turn her a little bit more to the side and not until I get about here does this actually start to be okay light. There's not these deep dark shadows in her eyes and I have a catch light from the window. You wanna watch out for things like that, that it's not all window light is good. There's specific directions. Another thing as well, this window is big but if I back her up really far from the window, and I don't need to do it here, but if I back her up 10 feet. The key to soft light is the larger the light source is relative to the subject the softer the light. If I back her up four five or six or how about 10 15 feet? It's not really big light source anymore. It's a source of light but it loses its soft and glowing quality. If I'm shooting her, I'm gonna take a picture of you just a few feet back. Take two more. I'm just gonna have you face me. I just wanna show the differences between the light. Here's the light (camera shutter) at (mumbles) Let's maybe say (camera shutter) 12 to 15 feet. I'm gonna bring her just a little closer. Right there good. Our light source is now going to be softer (camera shutter) because she's gotten closer to the window so relative to my subject the window is now larger. If you have a really small window you're not going to be able to shoot 15 feet away. You're going to have to bring your subject in so that light source appears larger. What you're really looking for on the face is when she backs up it ends up being little specular highlights on the face and the catch lights are really small. The shadow's a little bit more crisp and it just isn't quite as flattering. This is one situation for window light you wanna watch out for. How is that window light working and is it large enough compared to my subject? Let's take another look at how window light can actually not work out if you're not careful. We're gonna go to a different part of this building. It's important to train your eye also to notice things that are messing up your photo and we've actually got a lot going on here. One of the things that I want you to notice is that right now there is sunlight coming through a window. It's window light on her face but unfortunately that is direct sunlight not indirect. It's actually the beams of the sun hitting her face and what that is going to do, it's going to make the highlights brighter and the shadows darker. Basically her forehead will look a little bit shiny and the shadows from her nose are going to be more crisp. I hate to tell you that light is not good so we're gonna have to do something to fix that. Here's another problem. Another problem is that on the shadow side of her face it's actually nicely filled in by this red wall. This red wall is getting some of that window light and it's bouncing back and an entire one side of her face is completely red. What you want to do is you want to be careful. Say you're doing a natural lit portrait with a bride and you're in a church and the wall that you have her posing next to is this green wall. She's going to have green shadows, green fill light. Be aware when you're in a room or in a situation where there's lots of colored walls that this is going to effect your portrait. There's a couple things you can do. Make sure for example where you have your subject the light's not hitting that wall or you could bring them closer to a window so that the window light overpowers a lot of the fill light from the reflective wall or you could add a speed light and overpower some of that ambient light. Those are all things you can do. I'm gonna take a look at how horrendous this light... I'm sorry. Horrendous light and then we're gonna modify it and try to improve my situation a bit. (camera shutter) Also where I have her facing, the direction of light is also terrible. What I see if you look at this photo is I see a highlight on her nose, deep shadows in her eyes, no catch lights, and bright highlights in her forehead. (camera shutter) Probably not good selfie lighting. (camera shutter) Let's see. We're gonna have to fix this. Let me start by changing the direction of light. I'm gonna just turn her just a little bit to the side. By the way the bright red wall, obviously you can see that. I'm going to turn her just a little bit more to the side good. I could give myself, a little bit more, a little bit of Rembrandt light but it's still somewhat direct sunlight and this is actually not even direct sunlight. The window that we have here has stained glass in it, kind of a neutral, so it's cutting down some of the brightness but it is still sunlight streaming through. That's why it's so contrasty. A tool that I can use is I can use a diffuser. If this is the only window we have and it's a dimly lit church or this is the only part of the house that they wanted to have their portrait in you can take a diffuser and put it in between the light source and your subject. If you have a studio in your house or a room that you have called your studio, it's a natural light studio, and you have a big window. Unfortunately for a big part of the day there's direct sunlight and it's not working. What you can do is you can put diffusion material in that window. You could use a shower curtain. You could also buy, there's specific tools made for this. Westcott has something called a Scrim Jim or you can just buy the diffusion material out of it. May I see that real quick? I just wanna show you what it is. It's just white semitranslucent or semitransparent material. What happens is that direct sunlight hits this diffusion material and it softens it and it spreads out. The highlights won't be as bright and the shadows won't be as dark. The light will wrap around more. In your own space you could go ahead and setup thin diffusion material right in your window but if you're on the go you can setup something like this with a five in one reflector or a three in one reflector where the center is diffusion and just put it between your subject and that harsher window light. The closer I can bring it in to my subject the better it's going to be because the larger the light source is relative to the subject the softer the light. Right now the light source actually is this diffuser. If it's really far away from her the light source gets smaller. If it's really close the light wraps around and gets much much softer because relative to her it's larger. Let me take a picture now that we've added this big soft light source. I'm gonna move just a little bit this way good. (camera shutter) Something I don't like in general, I try not to shoot with my subject right up against the background so I might just step you up a tiny bit perfect. Now this is the light source, I'm gonna turn your chin up to the light. Now she'll have catch lights in her eyes because that's the light source, she'll have sparkle in her eyes and the light will give me a little bit of a wrap around her face. Now I pulled her away from this red wall so there's no more red cast. By pulling her just a foot and 1/2 away from the wall, adding a diffuser turning her towards the light, the picture's going to be completely different. I'm gonna move around and take just a few shots of that. Chin down a little. And eyes down just a tiny bit. (camera shutter) Turn your chin towards me a little. Good and eyes at me. (camera shutter) Good let me come around this way. A little shorter. (mumbles) Lift your chin this way. Chin down. Good and over just a little more. (camera shutter) You're pretty I'm thinking. It's true though. (camera shutter) (mumbles) can you bring that down just a little bit? Lift your chin up and out. Great beautiful and watch your forehead. (camera shutter) Very good beautiful. Vastly improved. Let's go look at a couple more examples of how to train your eye seeing good light or bad light and how to take that bad light and make it better. When I go on location I try to see if I can shoot with the light that's there. No reflectors, no diffusers, no speed light no nothing. I just wanna see if the light that already exists is beautiful, it's going to be flattering. You have to train yourself to look for this light. What I do is I look at the face and I say where are the highlights and where are the shadows? What I'm looking for is I want to see catch lights in the eyes. I wanna see some sparkle. I don't wanna see bright highlights in the forehead, the nose, or on the sides of the face. I don't want my eye pulled away from the center of the face and I don't wanna see dark shadows in the eyes. I'm basically looking for a little bit of sparkle, maybe gradual light. I'm gonna look around and what I do to find good light is I actually do a circle around my subject. I physically will walk and move them around with me and I'm analyzing the light to try to find good light. Let's just start and I'll tell you what I'm seeing in each scene. Right here, as I look at her face I wanna discuss quality of light as well as direction of light. Quality is hard or soft and direction is where is the light coming from. As I look here, and also intensity by the way are three main things we're looking at. Right now looking at her face I see that the light is really flat and kinda dim. There's no sparkle to it and there's really no direction. I would rather there be a little more direction to her face. I actually see two highlights. One highlight is on her jaw and one highlight is on her nose. I see it they're a little bit brighter and that's actually from the light that's bouncing off the ground over here. That's not going to be flattering. Those aren't anything that I'm looking for. Let me take a shot so you can see what I'm seeing. (camera shutter) Again it's not terrible it's okay. Let's see if there's a better light source though. Maybe if I move around I'll see better light. Let's turn this way. When I turn this way what I'm seeing, I have dappled light on her face. Some of the light is coming through the trees and so I've got highlights on her nose and that's not going to work. (camera shutter) It's not too bad. The direction of light is fine except for those bright highlights. Maybe what I could do, a possibility would be to put a diffuser over top. Even it out. Let's just see if there's anything more. Running into the same dappled light issue here. (camera shutter) Dappled light just means light coming through the leaves on the trees so it's uneven on her face. As I look at the shot there, there's dark shadow on the bottom of her face. Deep shadows in her eyes. None of it works for me. No still see those highlights. So really the closest that I get is somewhere around here where it's relatively even with just a little fill on the ground or maybe a step this way. As long as I can watch out for dappled light. Turn your chin to me. Let me just take a shot right here. Turn your chin a little bit further in that direction. (camera shutter) If I do that it's okay. The light's soft, it's got a little bit of bounce but I don't think there's enough sparkle or direction of light on the face. What I could do is I could add a reflector or a speed light. I can do either one. If I had a reflector what I have to worry about is can I catch the light? Is there any sunlight around to bounce into her face? That's the benefit of a speed light. You don't have that question. You have a portable soft box with you where ever you go. I'm going to add in a speed light just so I don't have to worry about finding that reflector, finding that light. The modifier that I brought in here is actually the Rapid Box Duo which is a little octobox but it holds two speed lights so I get extra power out of it which is great on a bright and sunny day. I'm using a Phottix Mitros+, two of those as well as an Odin trigger. That's the gear that I'm using. Let me show you the before. Before I turn on my speed light what am I working with here? (camera shutter) The light's soft, there's a little bit of fill from behind. It's not too bad but I want to improve it. I want a little bit more direction. I want to get rid of the weird color cast from the bounce on the floor. I'm going to turn on my trigger and I'm shooting manual but I could shoot TTL to have the flash help me out. Let's take a look. (camera shutter) Let's take a look. It is so much better. I have soft light on the face. I've improved the quality. I've improved the direction. I have a little bit of sculpting. I got rid of the color cast. I improved the intensity, it's brighter there's more pop to it. I'm keeping those three main elements of light in mind as I move around and try to figure out, what would give me a better portrait? We've come to a different scene. What I need to do is I need to analyze the scene. See what kind of opportunities exist here. Where she's standing right now there's direct sunlight on her face, that doesn't work and then I tried to put her in the shade of the tree but there's sparse leaves and so she has dappled light because the light comes through some of those leaves. That doesn't really work. I can move around and I wanted to check and see maybe if I put her backlit, maybe that would work but because she has blonde hair I know it's going to be really difficult to balance out that exposure but when she does this I notice something. When I turned her around I'm actually paying attention to the light on her face and what I see is there's a lot of light on the right-hand side. Let me take a shot so you can see what I'm talking about. (camera shutter) There's some light on the right-hand side and what I realize is that it's actually from this car. This car is going to be my natural reflector. I can use that to my advantage. With her backlit like this it's kind of a split light but I could just rotate her face a little bit towards the light or get her out of the sun. I'm gonna have you take one step back. Now all of a sudden there's not split light on her face, she's in the shade so I don't have to worry about over exposed highlights in her hair, and I have nice beautiful catch lights in her eyes because the side of this vehicle is catching the sun. I can angle her to play with that. Let me just try right here. (camera shutter) Looking there I have soft even light on her face and because I have this large bounce surface. I don't need to grab a reflector. I don't need to grab the diffuser or a speed light or anything. I just looked around and actually used the car as a reflector. Looks great so let's take a couple more of those. (camera shutter)

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Lighting on Location
Gear Guide

Ratings and Reviews


One of my favorite courses thus far on Creative Live, and definitely well worth the purchase price. Lindsay effectively demystifies many of the critical stumbling blocks to achieving a practical understanding of many critical elements of portrait photography. I would rate this course as being perfect for the advanced photographer - a couple of the concepts might be beyond that of a casual/intermediate photographer, but even they would probably gain a great deal from this course. Her discussion on equipment, in particular was superbly done, and allows one to move forward in beginning to make the right choices to achieve whatever effect one is after in terms of capturing the subject. Finally, the great thing about this course, and the thing which makes it such a great value, is the overall scope of what is being taught. Lindsay covers almost everything imaginable, and does it all in a manner which is enjoyable, and makes the time fly by. There were many, many times during the various days of this course during which Lindsay would share some particularly great tip or technique, and I would think "Insert bookmark here." I don't dole out praise easily (actually left a fairly scathing review on another course here recently) but this course has won me over. Highly, HIGHLY recommended. I'm definitely going to check out her other courses as well.

a Creativelive Student

This is Lindsay's best course to date and believe me, she has given us some good ones already on Creative Live. She hit this one out of the park! She was very well prepared and organized. I could tell that Lindsay put a lot of work into preparation for the class because she just kept giving us great information non stop. There was no down time or wasted moments. All future instructors on Creative Live should be encouraged to watch this course just to see what good instruction looks like. Lindsay has evolved over the past few years and just keeps getting better as time passes. Thank you Lindsay and thank you Creative Live for a job well done! Craig Banton


This class is one of the best investments I have made in my photography business. Lindsay is an excellent teacher. She is a seasoned, yet humble, professional. Unlike some other instructors I have seen on creative live, there isn’t a lot of fluff in her teaching. She sticks to the topics, gets all the information in, but still manages to engage and relate to the audience with real life examples of her own experiences in photography. I have been a professional photographer for several years, but have mostly stuck to natural light. This course gave me the confidence to tackle more advanced lighting setups and expand my capabilities as a photographer. I really appreciate that she doesn’t bash flat lighting, like other lighting videos I have tried to watch. Most portrait clients do not want photographs with dramatic lighting, they want to look their best, and I’m glad that she acknowledges this. This class gives you the information you need to create whatever photos you want to create.

Student Work