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Archive 2012 · North Facing Window?
  
 
emilyrm
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p.1 #1 · North Facing Window?


This might be a REALLY stupid question... but can anyone explain to me WHY a North facing window gives you the best light as opposed to any other direction? I keep hearing and reading that North facing window is best... but I can't wrap my head around WHY.

Thanks!

-Emily



Apr 02, 2012 at 06:06 AM
jdben622
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p.1 #2 · North Facing Window?


In the Northern Hemisphere the north facing window will get the least amount of direct sunlight ie: it will provide the most diffused lighting for the longest period of time. In the lower hemisphere, you'd want a south facing window.


Apr 02, 2012 at 06:17 AM
rico
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p.1 #3 · North Facing Window?


emilyrm wrote:
... can anyone explain to me WHY a North facing window gives you the best light as opposed to any other direction? I keep hearing and reading that North facing window is best... but I can't wrap my head around WHY.

I'm similarly mystified by the attraction of a north window: you get a lovely blue cast in color pics, and zero options for direct light. My 1920 Chicago bungalow has classic window frames north and south both. To enjoy diffused light at a sane color temperature from the south, I can wait for a cloudy day or stick up a diffuser sheet between the wood frame and the storm window.



Apr 02, 2012 at 06:52 AM
cgardner
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p.1 #4 · North Facing Window?


Your question presumes there is a single "best" light for every photographic situation. That's not true and it's also not true northern light in the northern hemisphere is "best" for everything.

Northern light is only ideal for situations where you want softer diffused lighting modeling the object it hits, like a human face. For example if limited only to natural light would you shoot a human portrait subject in direct sun on the south side of a building or the open shade in the shadow of the building on the north side?

With a subject facing the sun the only way to get the "key" light past the brow and into the eye orbits would be to have them look up at the sun. If they do that they will squint and ruin the expression. On the north side in the shadow of the building their eye orbits will also be shaded at mid-day because the reflected light is bounced from high overhead, but because it isn't as bright you can get the subject looking up and get the "key" light, now coming from the overhead sky, past the brow and into the eyes without them being uncomfortable.

But if you are photographing your dog or cat it is a different lighting problem to solve because the texture of fur is different than human skin. With skin we try to avoid specular reflections (hot spots) in a conventional portrait, one of the reasons larger diffuse sources such as umbrellas and softboxes are typically used with artificial lights. But with white or black fur in particular most of the clues about it's 3D texture come from the millions of sharp diamond-like reflections off the individual hair shafts. So the more ideal source for a hairy critter is a collimated (parallel rays) source that will create specular reflections on their fur and wet noses.

The same is true in general for most objects. The "softer" the object and closer it is to white or black the "harder" (more collimated) you usually want the lighting. For example in a food shot of a cut slice of white cake with white frosting you'd ideally want to use a direct source placed to the side that will create both specular highlights and shadows to create realistic 3D texture. With a dark brown chocolate cake you'd also want specular reflections defining the higher points on the textured face of the slice and frosting, but wouldn't need or want the same sideways shadows you needed to define shape on the white cake. You might use the same collimated source for the darker cake, but move to to the center to illuminate the front side rather than placing it to the side for cross lighting.

Solving lighting problems how to make the content seem realistic, or not, compared to wath might be seen in person or expected by eye is best accomplished by having a clear understanding of the goals for the shot smooth soft looking skin, or texture in fur or cake then applying the lighting strategies which will best meet those goals. Knowing which strategies work the best is a process of tution, trial, analysis and understandting the cause and effect of how lighting character and direction define shape and texture. It's known as the "Learning Curve" and hopefully you are now one or two steps futher up it, or will be once you try shooting faces, dogs and cake in front of north and south windows in your house.



Apr 02, 2012 at 10:33 AM
eSchwab
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p.1 #5 · North Facing Window?


North light is also the dimmest, making it the most difficult to use. I think it is the best, however don't have any good north facing windows in my house. I use south facing and love it. When the sun is shining in I tilt the blinds so that no direct light comes through and the blinds shine light like a giant softbox.


Apr 02, 2012 at 01:17 PM
Jimsokay
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p.1 #6 · North Facing Window?


jdben622 wrote:
In the Northern Hemisphere the north facing window will get the least amount of direct sunlight ie: it will provide the most diffused lighting for the longest period of time. In the lower hemisphere, you'd want a south facing window.


+1

My studio has one wall of windows on the north side. For indoor, natural light it is very nice,very even.



Apr 02, 2012 at 01:31 PM
cgardner
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p.1 #7 · North Facing Window?


Clean your windows and you'll gain a stop of light. Back when I shot mostly by window light a bottle of Windex and roll of paper towels was always in the "lighting gear" bag


Apr 02, 2012 at 01:43 PM
RustyBug
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p.1 #8 · North Facing Window?


"WHY" is never a stupid question ...

North light (in the northern hemisphere) perpetually provides indirect lighting.

That is the crux of "north light".

Whether or not north light is best depends on whether or not you want indirect light.
Its origins as "best", likely go back to pre-photographic endeavors. While part of the issue is the quality of light that is illuminating the subject ... another part of the issue is how much easier the lower contrast of indirect lighting is for viewing / studying your subject.

A painter who is viewing his subject over long periods of time would likely have better viewing in the lower contrast indirect light than harsh direct light.

It is true that the color temp of the indirect sky light will be different from that of direct sun light or a combination of direct sun & indirect sky. For a painter, the human eye accomodates WB adjustment better than the camera does (which is no big deal, just know that it does exist).

North light is also "easy" light to shoot with because of its relatively large (size vs. distance) source (open sky) vs. the relatively small source of the direct sunlight. By shooting north light, you are removing all of the direct light of the sun from illuminating the subject ... and even as the sun travels east to west, the north light has less dramatic change throughout the course of the day ... think again @ painter working for hours with constant changing lighting angles, or relatively consistent lighting angles.

North light has distinct attributes to it that are different from the other directions (perpetual absence of direct light). Whether or not it is "better" simply depends on whether or not those attributes are what you want. As a painter, the attributes of north light's illumination, consistency and contrast (viewing & illumination) levels were well regarded, likely yielding its fame as "best". As a photographer, it is a perpetual 'umbrella' ... larger than you'll find in any photography store ... and likewise is well suited to provide even/diffuse/lower contrast lighting whenever that is desired.

Edited on Apr 02, 2012 at 04:55 PM · View previous versions



Apr 02, 2012 at 02:17 PM
Mark_L
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p.1 #9 · North Facing Window?


emilyrm wrote:
This might be a REALLY stupid question... but can anyone explain to me WHY a North facing window gives you the best light as opposed to any other direction? I keep hearing and reading that North facing window is best... but I can't wrap my head around WHY.

Thanks!

-Emily


Same reason ski slopes are usually north facing and why people like south facing gardens. North facing doesn't get as much direct sun and so works just like a softbox, direct sun through a window is like shooting with direct sun unless you stick something over it.



Apr 02, 2012 at 04:54 PM
BrianO
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p.1 #10 · North Facing Window?


emilyrm wrote:
...can anyone explain to me WHY a North facing window gives you the best light as opposed to any other direction? I keep hearing and reading that North facing window is best... but I can't wrap my head around WHY.


As others have said, north light is more even in coverage, and more constant in brightness and duration. It's very forgiving light to work with, and can be used as the main light with reflectors as fill, or as the fill light with artifical main light(s).

The difference in color between northlight and southlight is nothing to worry about. When I was shooting film we'd just pick the right emulsion for the color, and maybe add a color-correction filter based on experience with a particular film.

Nowadays it's even easier: If you're shooting JPEGs, just use a custom white balance made at the start of the shoot and periodically during a long shoot. If you're shooting raw format you can set a CWB to use during raw conversion, or include a standard color reference in the first shot to set the color by during post processing.

Once you've used a color-managed workflow for a while it only takes a few extra minutes to get good color every time.

By the way, here's a simple way to see for yourself why you might (or might not) want to use north light: get an object like a soccer ball, a bowl of fruit, or some other medium-sized object.

Set it on a table next to a south-facing window and take several shots of it an hour or two each apart. Then repeat the experiment with a north-facing window.

The pictures will tell you more than all the words we can provide.



Apr 03, 2012 at 06:05 AM
 

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BrianO
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p.1 #11 · North Facing Window?


I almost forget to add: when shooting a portrait indoors by natural light, you can change the character of the light simply by moving the subject closer to or further from the window.

Picture a person sitting very close to the window, with the window light coming from his or her side.

If the subject is very close to the window, light will be coming from directly to the side, slightly forward of that, considerably forward of that, slightly behind that, etc. It works just like a large soft box placed close to the subject, and gives a very soft, wrap-around light quality.

Now move the person all the way across the room from the window (and even close the curtains most of the way). Now the subject will be lit by a window that is smaller in relative size, and so the light will be harder in quality, creating more distinct shadows.



Apr 03, 2012 at 06:31 AM
emilyrm
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p.1 #12 · North Facing Window?


Gotchya! Thank you for all the great information, everyone!

I guess I must have just missed the part in Science class where Southern light and Northern light have different qualities to them.

I guess I was just thinking of the whole, "Sun rises in the east and sets in the west" thing, and assumed that East and West would give you direct harsh sunlight, but there shouldn't be a difference between South and North.

Obviously that isn't the case.

According to my iPhone (which I realize is just an iPhone and therefore MAY not be that accurate, haha), the huge sliding back door in my apartment is facing south. So for the most part the light is indirect, except for a small portion of the day when the sun gets low enough to peak into our living room.

Which means the windows in our bedroom are North facing... and now that I think I about it, I don't think I've EVER noticed any sun rays coming in through those windows... So everything you're saying makes sense.

I will definitely play with this, now that I know I have North and South facing sources in my apartment (I never bothered to check before, haha).

Thanks so much for your helpful responses!!!!



Apr 03, 2012 at 03:46 PM
BrianO
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p.1 #13 · North Facing Window?


emilyrm wrote:
...I guess I was just thinking of the whole, "Sun rises in the east and sets in the west" thing, and assumed that East and West would give you direct harsh sunlight, but there shouldn't be a difference between South and North.


If you lived directly on the Equator, there wouldn't be any difference; at noon, the sun would be virtually straight above you.

But the further from the Equator you are, the lower in the sky the Sun's path will be, and especially so during the winter. In Pennsylvania, for example, the Sun in winter rises in the southeast, travels across the southern sky, and sets in the southwest. Even in the summer, it will be somewhat south of straight up. (That's how you can use a stick stuck in the ground as a compass; the stick will cast a shadow, and at noon the shadow will run directly north from the stick. This year, the shadow will be shortest on June 20, and longest on December 21.)




Apr 03, 2012 at 05:37 PM
cgardner
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p.1 #14 · North Facing Window?


If you look at a globe or a world map you'll see three lines: Equator, Topic of Cancer, and Tropic of Capricorn. Due to the tilt of the earth relative to the sun the sun tracks between those three lines during the year. That's what causes the change of seasons and the difference in the amount of daylight in summer vs. winter. That movement of the earth relative to the sun is what changes the angle of the sun as indicated on Brian's diagram.

I've posted these before, but they illustrate how the sun changes lighting patterns of faces at different times of day. A few years ago just before the winter solstice, when the sun is the furthest south in the sky, we had a big snow storm. So I created this head, facing it due south and tilting it back slightly so at noon on the solstice it would be illuminated with a centered, symmetrical lighting pattern when the sun was due south:







But here's what the lighting looked like around 10AM when the sun was in the SE quadrant of the sky, viewed from the shadow side...







and here's what it looked like later in the afternoon at 2PM when the sun had tracked into the SW part of the sky...







At 10 and 2 the angle of the light winds up being about a 45 downward angle, which due to the shape of human faces is the ideal angle for getting the light past the brow and into the eyes. The reason I created the snow head tilted back is because at noon the angle of the sun is greater than 45 and the brow shades the eyes.

Here's a similar exercise the year earlier done for amusement and edification after shoveling the driveway. Here I faced the nose to the west because I wanted the light to hit it from 45 downward and 45 to the side relative to the nose in the afternoon sun at 2PM. Here's what that angle looked like from various directions walking around the face:

Sun over the shoulder (flat lighting):






Sun at 45 relative to nose, camera 0 relative to nose (i.e. 45/45 lighting viewed full face)





Light at this angle creates natural looking 3D modeling on a face, but because one side is highlighted and the other shaded the net effect of facial angle and light pattern isn't as symmetrical looking as with the centered pattern at noon on the other head above.

Moving around more to the shadow side the light is still hitting the face at 45/45 relative to the nose, but now the camera is 45 relative to the nose and 90 relative to the sun..







What is interesting about this combination, and why it works well for portraits, is because the combination of camera angle and light angle wind up highlighting only the front part of the face, similar to a mask over the face. That and the fact the side of the face is shaded works like a magnet to pull the viewer in to see the eyes and mouth which are well lit. The only problem with this in terms of body language is that we don't usually interact with people with faces cocked at 45. It's more typical of the angle we might observe someone from who we aren't having a conversation with. So while this is a more symmetrical combination than full face with 45/45 lighting, the full face pose will come across as more sincere if used for something like as business head shot. The oblique 45/45 lit view works well for things like glamour, fashion and character studies where its not critical that the subject be looking at the camera, which can look "shifty-eyed" in a the photo.

The trick when using this combination and needing the subject appearing to be looking at the camera is to first pose the face to the light, move the camera to find the most balanced oblique angle, then coach the subject to keep their head still and just move their eyes to a spot about half way between the direction their nose is pointing and at the camera until looking through the viewfinder at the face you see white on either side. It's a perceptual thing. Because we usually interact with people face-to-face we normally see centered eyes, so when then aren't centered they seem odd. Sometimes you need to fake it to make it look more real.

The final combination is the profile view. The face and sun haven't moved: the sun is still 45/45 from the spot between the eyes. But the camera is now looking at the pattern from a POV about 135 (90+45) from the sun...







Note the shadow on the side of the nose. A mistake I see many make when lighting a profile is to turn the face too much towards the "key" modeling light to the point the side of the nose facing the camera is highlighted. It's the shadow on the side if the nose that set's up the contrast that draws attention to single highlighted eye and the lips in the profile view. If the nose is lit up like a 60W light bulb it will become the center of attention instead.

As in the oblique view you need to cheat the eyes for a profile. With the person looking straight as the normally would you don't see the iris or pupil as you would expect to. So here you have the subject look at the camera out of the corner of their eye and it winds up looking more normal in the photo.

The point here is that lighting a face isn't rocket science, its more like basic geometry combined with basic situational awareness of the direction natural light comes from at various times of day and year. The snow head examples where done with direct sunlight, but the indirect light of open shade or a window will have the same direction. With a north facing window you'll get a similar pattern by angling the nose 45 to the window. Ideally you'd want to use a window higher than the face, or mask off the bottom, so the light also comes from more of a downward 45 angle like the sun in the snow head shots, vs. sideways.

Here's an illustration from my tutorial on window lighting: http://photo.nova.org/Window/ showing how the camera would move around the face turned 45 to the window similar to the second set of snow head shots:











Apr 03, 2012 at 09:09 PM
Jimsokay
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p.1 #15 · North Facing Window?


cgardner wrote:
Clean your windows and you'll gain a stop of light. Back when I shot mostly by window light a bottle of Windex and roll of paper towels was always in the "lighting gear" bag


"Diffused" lighting isn't good?

I noticed a couple weeks ago they were do for a cleaning but it's a two man job with these windows.



Apr 03, 2012 at 11:34 PM
RustyBug
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p.1 #16 · North Facing Window?


BrianO wrote:
get an object like a soccer ball, a bowl of fruit, or some other medium-sized object.


+1

They are a bit smaller, but golf balls can be VERY telling about light as well.

http://www.fredmiranda.com/forum/topic/1070288/0#10181882
(scroll down)



Apr 04, 2012 at 12:50 AM
dmacmillan
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p.1 #17 · North Facing Window?


The beauty of north light has been know for a while:


Early 20th Century photographers built their camera rooms to utilize north light, since electric lighting equipment was expensive. They came up with some lovely results. Here's my great-grandfather Robert Henry:



One of my instructors at Art Center was Tommy Mitchell. He had a great studio, with the north wall all windows wrapping up to atrium style. Notice the curtains to allow control:



This allowed for really nice, soft light:



(Yes, the highlights are blown in the sweater)



Apr 04, 2012 at 01:18 AM
BrianO
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p.1 #18 · North Facing Window?


dmacmillan wrote: The beauty of north light has been know for a while:



Ah, one of my all-time favorite portraits. When I think of Vermeer, this is the one I always imagine.

Edited on Apr 04, 2012 at 09:57 AM · View previous versions


Apr 04, 2012 at 06:34 AM
rico
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p.1 #19 · North Facing Window?


My lighting scheme is inspired by Vermeer. Weather in the Netherlands is pretty dismal for half the year, and even southern light is less than blinding. I would say a good amount of window-illuminated Vermeer is southern. Look for a warm palette and a strong (even specular) light source in these paintings on Wikipedia:

The Lacemaker
The Geographer
Girl with a Red Hat

The Lacemaker, in particular, is considered a result of camera obscura, and that requires a generous quantity of light. I think the encompassing glow in the room supports that notion:




Apr 04, 2012 at 07:00 AM
BrianO
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p.1 #20 · North Facing Window?




Yes; also note how hard the light is compared to that seen in The Girl With The Pearl Earring, and how that lends a different feel to the portrayals.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/03/Johannes_Vermeer_-_The_lacemaker_%28c.1669-1671%29.jpg/510px-Johannes_Vermeer_-_The_lacemaker_%28c.1669-1671%29.jpg

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/66/Johannes_Vermeer_%281632-1675%29_-_The_Girl_With_The_Pearl_Earring_%281665%29.jpg/419px-Johannes_Vermeer_%281632-1675%29_-_The_Girl_With_The_Pearl_Earring_%281665%29.jpg


As with all great artists, he knew that one way of lighting a subject wasn't always the right way for every subject.



Apr 04, 2012 at 09:55 AM
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