Shimmering Windowlight w/ a Single Strobe Fill

Shimmering Windowlight w/ a Single Strobe Fill

The Winter sunset on Studio A’s walls are larger-than-life projections of the building’s window panes, imperfections and all.

When the conditions are right, these translucent rectangles are highlighted by shimmers, caused by heat diffusion, that seem to dance, and sparkle, the few brief moments before sunset. The description is confusing, I know. Here is the visual aid:


The late afternoon light comes directly into the studio through the large wall of windows, which face west. IF the radiators below each set of three windows are active, and hot enough, they will heat the air above them (the same air that is directly in front of the windows) and cause heat distortion. This is the same visual effect that you see above the asphalt road on a hot summer day, or directly above the hot coals on a grill. When the time, and conditions are right in the studio, the heat distortion effect is also projected onto the wall!

To demo one creative way to use this light, I shot some sample images with model Mandi Ree.


The challenge was to create something interesting rather than shooting the obvious.

We had simple, white wardrobe on a fair-skinned model with blonde hair, photographed against a white wall. Lets throw in a white chair for good measure.

I really loved that the window shapes on the wall are irregular, so I basically created my shoot around them.


When photographed along the inside wall the light shapes create a much more interesting background of different shades and brightness, but once they reach this point, they move quick, then fade out… so you’ve got to be ready for them.

The truth behind Mandi sitting is that the light had not yet reached the wall entirely. Had she stood up, her head and shoulders would not have been illuminated. This lesson works if she is standing or sitting.

The other challenge is that I did not want to have her looking directly at the camera because it would mean that the sunlight was shining directly into her eyes. That is not a great look, and it is not very nice for a photographer to ask anyone to do that. So I positioned her in between the window-panes, in their shadow, so to speak.


This also solved the next problem, which would have been a strong shadow on the wall, our shimmering background.

While the image above is OK in some ways, the subject's shadow on the wall is an odd, non-human-like shape... thats not flattering.

With our model in place, I shot a test frame to set my exposure. I already knew a few things about the photograph that I was going to take:


1) I need to stay under 1/200 of a second shutter speed for the eventual flash sync.

True, I’m not using a light yet, but I will be using one eventually. The fewer changes I need to make once I really start shooting, the better. Staying under 1/200 means that when I want light, the only adjustment I need to make is turning on the pocket wizard trigger.


2) I need a fairly deep depth of field, to allow the model room to work.

Shooting at f5.6 just doesn’t cut it in these situations, not when you are in a studio and you have complete control of the lights like we do in this situation. I am choosing to shoot at f13 because I do not need to blur the background, nor do I want to limit the area in which the model can position herself. I plan to keep the model in sharp focus, head to toe.


3) I want the light on the wall to be exposed properly.

Seeing the different shapes and shades is the whole point. If you overexpose the image you will just get a white wash.

We are “locked-in” at 1/200 of a second shutter speed and an aperture of f13, so basically all I have to do is dial in an ISO that exposes the window light properly. In this case, it was ISO 100. That’s simple, right?


In this shot (its edited for color) everything is described as above. She is only partially lit. Her face is completely in shadow.

To provide fill, I chose a strip box because I wanted light to reach the subject, while avoiding washing out the wall. It only took a small amount of light from these powerful, daylight balanced strobes because the sun is already low in the sky and the subject is very close to the light. The strip box is about 4 feet away and was set to -4 stops.

The strip box gave just enough fill to illuminate Mandi’s beautiful blonde hair, and get light into her eyes. The settings above matched the strobe to the power of the daylight and brought our model up to the same level of exposure. The result is a magical image that has contrast-y, imperfect, real world light.


Creating flat, even light in a studio is easy, and boring. Learning how to preserve natural light, and compliment it with strobes is one of the most useful tricks for creating natural looking images.

The photo above is the final selection and the one edit that I kept from this set.

Read more tips and get more inspiration on the blog.

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Post by Atomic Joshua

Photographer + Filmmaker turned studio owner.