The soft, flat light produced when the sky is overcast and cloudy may be frustrating when shooting outdoors, but it’s perfect for shooting still lifes at home. The trick to window light photography is to control where this light falls and, just as importantly, where it doesn’t.
In this tutorial we’ll show you how to take control of your window light photography using reflectors, diffusers and shade, and at the end we have another free photography cheat sheet illustrating the different types of effects you can get on a budget using window light and some simple tools. These skills will stand you in good stead whatever lighting you use – even a full studio flash set-up is based on the same principles.
Think about where your main light is coming from. Obviously you can’t move the window, so you’ll need to move your subject to control this. With the window directly in front of the subject you’ll get flat, even light, but you can run into problems when shadows from you or your camera fall on the subject. A better option is to position your subject so that the window is just to one side of it.
This set-up will create a soft side light, which is perfect for enhancing texture and form. Side lighting is also ideal when using light modifiers such as reflectors and diffusers. Reflectors are usually positioned on the opposite side to the light source to help lighten shadows and reduce contrast. Diffusers have a similar effect, but are placed between the light and the subject.
Reflectors and diffusers are used to reduce contrast, but a black ‘reflector’ can increase it. Although it doesn’t strictly reflect light, this is the easiest way to describe it, as the positioning and basic use is similar to that of white or silver reflectors. Positioning a black board opposite your light source will help to darken shadows by reducing the light reflected into them.
So find yourself a suitable window and a simple subject, and experiment with different light modifiers to see how each affects your shots.
What you’ll need for this tutorial: a suitable window; some white and black card; silver foil; tripod
How to shoot still lifes using window light
Step 1: Choose a background
For a brighter, more eye-catching image you can use a piece of coloured card as a basic background. For maximum impact, we used a blue background to contrast with the red of the flower. Try experimenting with colour.
Step 2: Camera settings
With your camera on a tripod, use manual focus to focus on the stamen in the middle of the flower (for more on this, see Manual Focus: what you need to know to get sharp images).
Then in Manual exposure mode, set an aperture of f/8 to give enough depth of field to keep the closest petals in focus (learn more about shooting flowers with our 25 flower photography tips for beginners).
Step 3: Add a reflector
To bounce light back into the centre of our Alstroemeria flower, we used a white reflector placed slightly to the left of the flower. A silver reflector proved to be too intense, making the inside of the flower look too bright.
Top Tip: Budget ’reflectors’
You don’t need to spend lots of money on reflectors to get great shots. You can also get impressive results with a couple of sheets of A4 card (one black and one white), and another covered in silver foil.
Free Photography Cheat Sheet
The infographic below illustrates 6 simple ways you can diffuse the light from a window to get different effects in your still lifes. None of these options is expensive, and they are great for creating different moods in your pictures.
Feel free to drag and drop this cheat sheet on to your desktop to save as a reference for the next time you need inspiration for your still lifes!