Photo School with Bergette Photography: Window Light
In today's lesson we are going to do one of my favorite projects: Window Light Photography. This is the first class I offer each of my students because regardless of skill level, you're going to nail this one.
I love the simplicity of this setup. It's extremely versatile, and can be scaled up or down to include subjects of all sizes. To get started, we're going to practice on small objects that you already have around your home.
Have you ever been to a museum and seen those gorgeous still life paintings of fruit and stuff? That's what we're making. We'll be starting small with just a single subject, but once you get this skill down, you can create beautiful still life scenes just like in the paintings! The more you practice this skill, the more things you can do with it. To keep things simple, pick one object to focus on. My default is always a flower because they're easy to find and beautiful to look at.
To get ready for our lesson, you will need to gather a few basic materials.
Three Foam Core Boards
Small Subject Items
Tape (Any kind will do)
Foam Core Boards
I purchased my boards at Hobby Lobby for about $5 each (Then I used a coupon! GET A COUPON! Google that thing.) I chose the boards that are black on one side and white on the other so I can flip them for completely different looks. The thickness doesn't matter, but the thicker the foam, the more durable the boards will be. The finish on the boards isn't the most durable thing in the world, but worry not! You will be able to use these for loads of purposes later on in your education. If you scratch your boards up, set them aside for use as a reflector in future lessons.
Small Subject Items
Get creative with this part. I love using flowers and plants because they're easy to find and all the detail is a lot of fun to capture. Things like jewelry, figurines, kitchen tools, and clothing accessories also make for great choices. Think about your finished image- if everything goes great, would you be interested in your subject? Pick something you'd like to actually look at.
You don't need the fanciest tripod ever- anything that holds your camera still securely will work. You can find tripods online or in stores for as little as $15. A good, cheap starter tripod can be found here. (I am not sponsored by anyone, and your purchases do not affect me in any way.) (But if someone wanted to start sponsoring me that'd be really awesome!)
The model of your camera really does not matter here. You can create gorgeous artwork with a starter camera! You just have to know how to use it. This class is intended for DSLR type cameras, but if you do not have one, the skills discussed in this lesson will apply to ANY type of camera, even your phone! Congratulations- your Instagram just got 1000x cooler!
Pick a window in your space that you can set a table or side table next to. This will be where you do all of your photography. Ideally you will want to give yourself enough space to work, so if the area is crowded, consider relocating some of your furniture. Open the curtains and raise the blinds.
Let's just take a moment to admire this piece of quintessential 1980s furniture from a recent Airbnb stay.
Start by taping your boards together into the shape above. I use as little tape as possible so that when I finish I can easily break these boards down for flat storage. Notice how the price tags are still on and the finish has been scratched. These boards do not have to be perfect! It obviously helps if they are, but don't worry too much about this part.
When I travel, one of the things I like to do is photograph the local wildflowers. The simplicity and portability of this setup allows me to take it anywhere! The Airbnb where I was staying in Palacios, TX only had this one window, and that chair weighed about ten thousand pounds, so instead of moving it I just set up on it. Ideally you'll want a place to set up that doesn't move!
In this crummy cell phone shot you'll see that I am about two feet away from the window. If your window is REALLY bright, consider waiting until there's a time where it isn't receiving direct sunlight. If this isn't an option, move your setup away from the window until it is just inside of where the sun falls into shade. You do not want your subjects to be in direct light. The key to success in this lesson is soft light. (Fret not, this is a rule you can break after you nail this lesson.)
Mount your camera to your tripod and place it level with your subject.
There are a few ways to tackle this part. Instead of just throwing numbers and ratios at you, let's make this super simple. The first thing you should do once you have your setup ready and your camera mounted on the tripod is to make sure your camera is in Manual mode and just take a picture. Your settings do not matter at this point, just push the button. We'll get there.
What does it look like? Is it too bright? Too dark?
There are three factors that will affect how bright or dark your image is: ISO, F/stop, and Shutter Speed.
ISO: In Digital Photography ISO measures the sensitivity of the image sensor. The lower the number, the less sensitive your camera is to light. Higher numbers mean your sensor becomes more sensitive to light which allows you to use your camera in darker situations. There is a trade-off, though. When you shoot with a lower ISO, your images will have almost no grain. Grain is that noisy texture you sometimes see in images. (It can be beautiful and really add to a shot, but for the purposes of this lesson we are going for nice, smooth photos.) When you shoot at a higher ISO, you will see grain. The higher the ISO, the more the grain.
F/Stop: (Focal-STOP) The f-stop is the "aperture" opening of a camera lens, which allows light to come in. It also determines how much is in focus in front of and behind the subject. The choice of f-stop you make will dramatically affect the look of the photo by allowing you to choose how much of the photo you want to be in focus. For some shots, you may want just a razor thin area in focus, while the other parts of the subject fall softly off into blurriness so that you can really draw attention to a certain area. In other shots, you may want to show the entire subject clearly. A good rule of thumb is: The bigger the number, the bigger the focus. F/22 will have just about everything in focus, while f/2 will have a very small focus range and a lot of background bokeh (blur).
In addition to allowing your to choose how much of your subject you want to be in focus, your f-stop setting also controls how much light is hitting your camera sensor. Remember our rule of thumb from two sentences ago? Flip it to remember how much light is coming in. The smaller the number, the bigger the opening and more light passes into the camera. The bigger the number, the smaller the opening, and less light is able to make it into the camera.
Shutter Speed: Shutter speed is how fast or slow the camera opens itself up to light and closes again. Shutter speed allows you to do a number of things to affect an image, such as allowing more or less light, showing motion, or stopping motion completely.
To create a perfect photo, you have to balance these three settings. It sounds like a lot, but once you nail down the understanding of these three settings you'll have a base line education that will allow you to really solidly grow and expand your skills. These settings are your alphabet. An alphabet is needed to write a children's book, as well as a novel, and the more you understand your alphabet, the more you can do with it.
This infographic from The Digital Process summarizes our three settings REALLY well. Thanks guys!
So, let's get back to our Hobby Lobby setup.
When creating these images, I like to keep my ISO as low as possible to reduce the grain in my final images. I want these shots to be as clear and smooth as possible!
(Reminder: put your camera into manual mode. You will not be able to adjust these settings in any of the other modes)
I always start my window light shoots at 100 ISO. Consult your camera's manual (or the handy Google) to find out how to make this adjustment on your camera model. Set your camera to the lowest ISO number you can. Some cameras do not go all the way down to 100 and that's FINE! Pick the lowest number you have.
Next, let's pick an f/stop. I choose from a variety of f-stops when I do these photos. Sometimes I really want the image to be in focus completely to show of my entire subject......but sometimes I don't!
Different lenses have different ranges of f-stops, so to make sure that we include everyone, we are going to be basing this lesson off of using f/5.6 because no matter what level of fancy you're working with, you should all have this aperture setting. Consult your manual or Google to learn how to change your aperture, and set it to f/5.6.
Let's take another picture!
How did this one come out? Is it too bright? Too dark? Just right?
This is where shutter speed comes into play. (Take a moment to consult your manual or the Google and learn how to adjust the shutter speed on your camera model.)
The faster the shutter speed, the less time the light has to get into your camera. The slower the shutter speed, the more time light has to get inside your camera. So, if your image is too bright, raise your shutter speed. If it is too dark, lower your shutter speed. This is where your tripod comes into play!
Sometimes when I do this setup the room is a little bit dark, but since I am trying to avoid grain, I don't want to attack this problem with ISO. I could attack this problem by adjusting my aperture, but then I change how much of the image is in focus, and I don't want to do that. So, what's left is my shutter speed.
Humans can hand-hold a camera to some degree of success with shutter speeds as low as 1/60th of a second. (Some photographers can go as low as 1/30th, but they're obviously made of magic. I can hand hold to 1/40th, and even then it's still probably going to end up blurry. Thanks caffeine. *sips coffee*) When you use a tripod, you can shoot any speed you want as long as the camera is still. While the shutter is open, if the camera moves at all, you'll see it in the finished image. (It'll be blurry, and not in the cute Bokeh way) Our goal is to steady the camera so that you can use shutter speeds as low as necessary to get the shot you want. If you do not have a tripod, rig up a stack of books or a table or something, get creative with your problem solving. Get the camera somewhere it will be still. I could rant for days on how people get hung up on neeeeeeeeeeeeeding "just the right gear" instead of just solving the problem, but I'll spare you. For now.
Things to keep in mind: use a gentle touch when you take the photo. If you SMASH your finger down on the shutter release on a shot with a slow shutter speed, you're shaking the camera around. You can solve this issue with a remote shutter release, but you don't really need one. (for this) Just push the button nice y'all.
If the floor is moving, so is the camera. I know, that sounds like crazy people stuff, but this is a real thing. If you can feel when someone is walking by you in the room, the floor is moving.
Back to our picture: If your image is too bright or too dark, move your shutter speed by one setting and try again. Is it better, or worse? If it's better, keep going in that direction, one speed setting at a time until you get where you want to be. If it gets worse, go the other direction when picking your speed.
If your camera has Live View mode, it's super duper helpful to turn this on. It will allow you to see pretty close to exactly how your shot will look as you make your settings adjustments.
YOU DID IT
Wasn't that way easier to understand than if I'd just chucked a bunch of numbers in your face? I want you to learn HOW the settings affect your work. If you understand HOW they work, you'll understand how to change them to get the perfect shot every time. Every room, every window, every day is different, so the light will be different. Now that you understand how to fix the issues you're encountering, you'll be able to set yourself up for success.
So let's say that you nailed your f/5.6 shot. Try to use what you've learned to achieve the same exposure with different f-stops. Set your camera to the lowest number f-stop you have, adjust your shutter, and see how it looks. Try it at the highest one! As you practice shifting these settings around, you'll find that you can manipulate your subject to look exactly how you're imagining your finished shot.
Shoot images with the black background, then flip the setup and do some on white. You can get really creative with just three pieces of poster board. Mix and match!
Your background board can be any color you want, no just black or white. White boards will reflect light, making a part of your image brighter. Black boards absorb light, making a part of your image darker. Try switching out your side board between black and white and note the differences. You can also use colored boards for your side board, but keep in mind some of that color will reflect onto your subject. This opens up a whole range of fun options! Play with your colors. Colors are liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiife!
You can use different color boards to create limitless styles. Once you have the mechanics of this setup down, break all the rules and have fun with it.
I'd love to see what you make!
Comment below with a link to your best shots or tag @bergettephoto on Instagram so I can see all your hard work.
I'm a sucker for feedback, so if this lesson helped you, give me some warm fuzzies by telling me about it in the comments below. Triple gold star bonus points for also mentioning how you found me.
Love you bye