North light


Time for an update: I still use film, though. Not vast quantities, but I have a darkroom, and I'm not afraid to use it.

I enjoy every image I take: I hope you'll enjoy looking at them.
...Read More

North light

23 Jun 2020 10:56AM   Views : 531 Unique : 393


Just occasionally, you read about north light, or even a north light studio.

Thatís not where the once-ubiquitous BBC Northern Dance Orchestra recorded for the Light Programme, but itís all about making good portraits.

It started back in the Victorian era, when photography was a new and exciting technology. Unfortunately, it was also quite difficult, and not just in the way that some camera menus are. Making a portrait involved physical effort from the sitter, to keep still enough for the very long exposures needed.

As the science of emulsions developed (sorryÖ) exposures got shorter, but studio catalogues tended to include neck braces and other devices to aid stability. And if youíve ever wondered about those rather stiff, unnatural poses Ė well, itís because poses were chosen to make keeping still easier.

Just like today, portrait studios were set up so that it was easy just to load the camera and take the picture: time is money. And in the absence of useable bright artificial light, this meant that the ideal was a studio with plenty of daylight, and Ė crucially Ė good consistency of light.

That meant a studio with big windows facing north: imagine a large conservatory, but built onto the dark side of the house. My wife would recoil at the idea, but I rather like it!

Consistent light means that thereís no problem with having to kill shadows, or wildly differing tonal ranges (which would have needed different development times).

And that may have started the big differences between amateur and professional photographers, who can still make use of the same conditions. Amateurs, over a hundred years ago were given the instruction ĎTake pictures with your back to the suní Ė which has led to many images of people with their eyes screwed up, but fully lit.

I notice the absolute absence of north light in my front room when I shoot with muslin in the bay window, which faces south-east. On a cloudy day, itís not bright enough, really: on a sunny day with clouds passing, the light level varies.

In the back room, with a French window leading onto the garden, light levels are always low, but the quality of light is very consistent. I quite like the cooler colour rendition it gives (as in the shot of Rachelle Summers above), compared with the warmer look of sunshine through the net curtains (Alicia, below) - but that's easy to adjust anyway!


Recent blogs by dudler

Focus scales

If youíve been taking pictures since before autofocus arrived, youíll be very familiar with focus scales Ė they are one of the primary controls on an old-school camera, and just one more of the things that you really needed to get right. With autof...

Posted: 27 Dec 2022 7:01AM

Porcelain processing

People commented on the look in my last post and it seems like a good idea to share the secrets for Christmas. I learned the technique several years ago: a modelís boyfriend told me about it, and a website that described it in detail: I tried it, l...

Posted: 23 Dec 2022 10:47AM

You develop your own films donít you?

If you have your own darkroom, or if you use film cameras regularly, there are always a few people who mention the attic. As in ĎGrandpaís cameras are in the attic. I donít even know if they have film in them!í This leads me to ask if I can have a l...

Posted: 16 Aug 2022 11:17AM

Choose your pond

Thereís an old saying about being a big fish and a little pond. Do you want to be the most important person in a small organisation, or are you content being a relatively small cog in a big machine? Itís the same in photography. With relatively mo...

Posted: 3 Jun 2022 2:25PM

Graduated filters

This is for Hannah, and anyone else who has come across the casual way that a lot of togs talk about one or two types of filter that landscaper photographers use a lot: graduated filters and neutral density filters. A graduated filter is one that i...

Posted: 25 Apr 2022 12:18PM


PaulCox Avatar
23 Jun 2020 2:32PM
Many factories were build with a series of. North lights in there roof as this enabled the factory floor to have the best available light, if thatís of any interest.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
23 Jun 2020 3:55PM
Thanks, Paul - I imagine the idea was similar - to get a good and consistent light source, without making it much too hot in summer.

I wonder if that's why so many photographers (and models) go urbexing in disused factories?
chase Avatar
chase Plus
18 2.5k 682 England
26 Jun 2020 2:30PM
North light is my fave for still life stuff, the light is gentle ( most of the time) and rarely needs diffusing, depending on subject matter.

Computer/backdrop room...North facing
Kitchen...two windows 90 degrees to each other, one North facing, the other, West facing, both with window blindest control the light if I need to.

Urbexing ?...don't know what you mean Wink
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
27 Jun 2020 3:56PM
'Course you don't, Janet. 'Course you don't.

You must be a member to leave a comment.

ePHOTOzine, the web's friendliest photography community.

Join for free

Upload photos, chat with photographers, win prizes and much more.