A Window-Lit Portrait in a Client’s Home

What to look for when shooting a windowlit portrait at a client’s home and why negative space provides a welcome visual pause in your portrait sets.

Creating a portrait at someone’s home is a challenge but also an opportunity, for two reasons. Firstly, you are capturing your subject in the environment where they feel most relaxed and comfortable, which means the whole experience is less intimidating for your subject than attending a studio. Secondly, a shot like this counts as an environmental portrait, which is an image that tells us more than just what the subject looks like. The location provides added context and narrative.

The challenges include finding a suitable space to shoot in, with an appropriate, clutter-free background and sufficient light available (if you’re relying on natural light).

Working with directional windowlight

This image is made up of two distinct halves. Samantha, lit by the window light on the right, and the open door and hallway on the left hand side. The far side of the door is painted white, so I’ve left it open to act as a fill light. I’ve angled it so that it’s bouncing some daylight into the shadow areas on Samantha and throwing a puddle of light across the parquet flooring, too.

The room is painted a dark colour, which minimises the amount of light that’s reflected off the interior surfaces. This means the light is very directional, and could be unflattering if I’m not very careful about how I position Samantha.

I angled the chair so that the windowlight fell across half the curve of the chair’s headrest, and asked Samantha to sit in the lit part. She is facing slightly towards the light, which means the side of her face nearest the camera is mostly in shadow. This is called narrow lighting, and is flattering for most people (apart from those with narrow faces!).

My approach is to think about how I would light my subject if we were in the studio, then replicate that using natural light sources. This forces me to look for and think in terms of lighting patterns, rather than being distracted by the current set-up of the location.

I asked Samantha to sit as she would normally do, then tidied up the pose from there: getting her to relax back into the headrest, crossing her legs and relaxing her hands into her lap.

Be more negative

I could’ve cropped into this shot a lot more – and if the final image was going to be used at a small scale then it would’ve made sense to do so. Instead, I’ve allowed plenty of space around Samantha, known in photography as ‘negative space’.

While filling the frame with your subject does create a high impact portrait, using this technique all the time quickly becomes repetitive. Your portrait images will often be viewed as a set, especially when you are selling them to your client, so variety is key. Including negative space around your subject is one of the best ways to vary your shots.

Negative space is also the visual equivalent of a pause. An image which isn’t crammed with focus areas or a busy composition allows the eye to rest. This gives the shot a calmer mood than a tightly cropped portrait, which might be the atmosphere you want to create.

Lastly, negative space allows room for context and narrative. Environmental portraits like this one invite the viewer to layer on their own interpretations of the subject and his or her surroundings. Elements within the negative space provide cues to do this.

Location Diagram

Camera Settings

  • Focal length: 70mm
  • Aperture: f/4
  • Shutter speed: 1/125 sec
  • ISO: 800
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