Seeing & Thinking: Using natural window light to photograph a Bhutanese woman

final image

original scene

This lady was churning yak butter in the kitchen of her nephew’s home, who happened to be the lama of Ura village in Bumthang, Bhtuan. The room was rather dim, lit by daylight coming from one window across the room.

To photograph her where she was in the kitchen at 800 ISO and opening it up to f/2.8 meant that the shutter speed would have to be 1/10 sec for a proper exposure—too long to hand hold for a sharp image. Time to supplement the light, right? Out came the flash and my dome diffuser.


Despite using the flash off camera, and holding it to my left, the flash still caused an ugly shadow on the wall. I asked her to step away from the wall, but there wasn’t much room to move.  The resulting image looked flashed—flat even light and a telltale shadow. Reduced the flash power, but then couldn’t illuminate her sufficiently. (And I didn’t want to increase my ISO to 1600 and add noise—I don’t have a Nikon 3D like David does!)

moved subject

So I asked if Auntie would mind moving her operation to the middle of the room, closer to the natural light coming in through the window. I also asked her to turn her body toward the window, so she would face the light. A simple rule of thumb that I like to use is to aim the subject’s nose toward the light. That instantly brightened the ambient light on her, and allowed me to change the ISO to 400 and the shutter to 1/15 sec. It also changed the background, decreasing the character of the wall but introducing a bit of clutter.

moved photographer…final image

Looking around and analyzing the background, I noticed a narrow niche behind Auntie to the right. A tiny window was casting warm light on a few objects in the otherwise dark background, creating drama and depth. Moving a couple steps to my left to include that niche in my frame created a much more pleasing scene. I positioned my lens to balance her body in the frame with the window light in the background and zoomed in a bit to eliminate unwanted clutter in the composition. I darkened the ambient light by bumping up the f/stop slightly to 3.2, keeping the other settings the same. Now the only thing I wanted to do was bounce some of the window light back unto Auntie’s right side, which was still in the shadows. But I didn’t have my 5-in-1 reflector on me. So I asked my guide to hold a metal lid from a pot near Auntie’s right cheek just outside the frame… and viola!


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