How To Find Your Best Natural Light Source

You probably know by now that natural light from a window will create beautiful images. This free and readily available light source is my first go-to when shooting food and portraits. It yields beautiful results, but has a downside. It can change on you throughout a shoot. In order to achieve the look you are after, it is best to understand your options and find the best natural light source for you!

What are my window options?


Have you heard someone say, "The best natural light sources are large windows on the North or South side of a building."? Yes, these windows will produce great light, but they aren't the only option. You can create beautiful images with any opening. I have used doorways, garage doors, the opening to loading docks, and sliding glass doors as the light sources for photo shoots. Any opening of a building will work as long as the light coming in has a singular direction to it. To test if your opening will work, stand in front of the opening and you see if you cast a shadow into the room. If there is a shadow you know that your opening will provide for shadows on your subject. Controlling and modifying the shadows of your subjects will help add interest and complexity to your images.

This Light Will Change

If you like the light in front of your window, keep in mind that it won't always be like that. As the sun moves across the sky, it will affect what the light coming through your window looks like. This means that not every hour of the day will provide you with great light for shooting. To know when the best time to shoot at your window is, check in at different times throughout the day and see how the light has changed.

To test how this light change impacted my shooting, I set up a table in front of a sliding glass door outside my kitchen. Using a cupcake as my model, I set up a time lapse to run from 9 am until 4pm. I used daylight white balance and took a picture every 30 seconds for the 7 hour duration. Here is the result. When watching this video, notice how the color of the images changes, the quality of light on the cupcake changes, and how the shadows on the set change.

Here are a few set shots showing you what the window looks like at various times. Notice how the color and quality of the light change throughout the day.

Modifying Your Light

There is a reason why a North or South facing window is ideal. With those windows, you never have sun shining directly through your window. If your window faces east or west, you will have direct sunlight coming through the window in the beginning or end of the day. The window featured above faces South East. There is also a building behind it and a roof line that affects how the sun comes through the window. Keep in mind that certain obstructions like buildings and trees can effect how the light comes through your opening. If your light is too harsh and the shadow lines are too prominent for your liking, you can add a diffusion source in front of the window. You can use a large panel like the Westcott Illuminator 48x72" Diffuser or the inner diffusion section of a 5 in 1 like the Impact 5 in 1 42"

In the time lapse above, you can see that the light's color changes throughout the day. It starts out with a cool almost blue tint to it. As the morning progresses the light's color warms up. At the end of the day, it goes back to the cooler blue look. If you are shooting for a long period, the light will change color temperature as you are shooting. Remember to adjust your white balance to account for this change.

If you have multiple windows or shooting areas at your location, keep in mind that you don't have to stay in one place all day. If you know  the light at one window is great in the morning then shoot morning shots there. If it is better at a different window in the afternoon, then shoot your afternoon shots at that window. With a little planning, you can ensure that you will always be at the best natural light source for your location.

If your location has no viable options or you are shooting at night, then an artificial light source will be your best bet. However, if you are working in daylight hours and have natural light available to you, I suggest giving it a try. It is free and will yield beautiful results!

If you want to learn more about how to use your natural light source to take beautiful pictures of your food, check out the Window Lighting issue of photographing FOOD.

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Peter Tellone's picture

Actually, With south Facing windows, Except for the summer when the sun arcs directly overhead, you will get direct sunlight in a south facing window especially in winter because the sun makes it's most southernly arc across the sky. So a Southern facing window will create more contrast because of this. with the most direct light in morning and evening and less and shorter shadows at midday (Peak of the arc).
The reason you use a North facing window is if you want less contrast and a more constant similar light and you won't get direct sunlight and instead get more skylight then sunlight

Christina's picture

I do notice I have to shoot at different areas of my house, depending on what time of day it is! I've ended up in the bathroom chasing light and yet I still can't get that perfect lighting. Thanks for all the tips!