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Window Light; Classic Illumination, Proper Exposure:
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The Background
Window light photography doesn’t imply that the window itself is included in the picture. It can be included, but usually it isn’t part of the composition. I only consider including a window if it adds to the artistry of the image. For example, in photo (#5) I included the window because it was from a 16th century palace and it worked beautifully with the period costume of the model. Backgrounds that are lighter than the subject are often distracting because they compete for attention (our eye is naturally drawn to the lightest areas of picture first and it returns again and again instead of completely focusing on the subject), but in this context the medieval design is part of the subject so, at least to me, it makes sense. If this had been a simple modern window, I never would have shown it in the composition. In a similar fashion, I made the distant window part of the composition in photo (#6). The model is illuminated by the light from a window out of sight on the left, and I thought the lacy curtains and the medieval ambiance added to the intrigue of the portrait.


An example of light areas behind a subject that are distracting can be seen in photo (#7). The daylight entering the old shed in the background draws the eye away from the subject. In this case, there was nothing I could do but rely on Photoshop in post-processing to clone those areas out. Notice the lighting on the man’s face, though. The diffused side light is complementary and flattering.


When photographing people, you can never go wrong with using black as a background. The little girl dressed for Halloween (#8), was photographed next to a sliding glass door leading to a patio outside. I hung a piece of black velvet behind her, and the only light source was the diffused daylight. I use velvet because the fabric absorbs light better than other material. Black paper made to be used in photo studios isn’t good because it will reflect a certain amount of light, and instead of getting a nice, rich black the background will be dark gray.


Backgrounds are virtually as important as subjects in making a picture work. If they are messy and there is a lot going on, the elements behind the subject pull at our attention and cause a distraction. That’s why I like black backgrounds. However, other muted and monochromatic colors can work as well. For example, the woman in photo (#9) was photographed in a breezeway in India. Notice the complementary background color; the earth tones are unobtrusive and give us nothing else to look at but the subject. The soft and flattering lighting on her face was coming from an opening to the outside on her right. This picture was taken at midday and the sky was clear. The lighting outside was hopelessly contrasty and harsh, but shaded by the architecture the woman’s face was lit by subtle side lighting. The effect was just like window lighting because, in essence, the large opening to the outside was an archway.


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