Photographers in nearly all genres have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, we featured the work of Dániel Horváth, who’s dealt with the sudden drop in work by photographing the empty streets of his home city, Budapest. This week, we’re highlighting the creativity of Caroline White, a portrait photographer in Los Angeles who has adapted her work to the crisis by photographing clients through their home windows.
Before the pandemic, Caroline had a thriving business focused on personal branding and lifestyle photography for women entrepreneurs. Her business involved a lot of traveling; many of her shoots required a plane flight either for her or her client. When California went into lockdown and traveling was no longer an option, her business began to struggle.
At first, she panicked. She worried about how she would pay for rent, now that her income had vanished. But then, she got creative. As she told Insider, “When I panic, I hustle. I eat a lot of potato chips, I eat a lot of chocolate, I freak out, and then I get to work.”
After all, she still had valuable skills and knowledge. She just needed to figure out how to use those skills under new circumstances.
While brainstorming different ideas, she recalled portraits she had taken through hotel and café windows before the pandemic. She loved how the window reflections gave the portraits a somewhat dreamy look.
Suzie Bartle, London-based publicist, Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn NYC
She decided to return to that idea, only with clients at home instead of hotels or cafés. But she needed practice first, so she asked her neighbors and friends if she could photograph them through their windows.
“It was a good lesson in approaching people and how to pitch them to give me permission,” she says. But then, once she had a portfolio of quarantine photos, she started getting hired to do it.
In addition to recovering some of her income, her pivot to window photo shoots has also reinvigorated her creativity and even changed her photography style. Before the pandemic, many of her portraits had a colorful, happy vibe. Now, they express more intimacy, introspection, and authenticity.
This shift may be partly due to the real connection Caroline has had with her clients during each window shoot. Despite the layer of glass separating them, she’s been able to build rapport and capture genuine moments and emotions every time.
Every shoot has been an opportunity not only to take interesting portraits, but also to get to know the people she’s photographing. For example, she asks her models to share three words to describe their quarantine experience, getting a glimpse of their emotions and experiences in this strange time.
Besides connecting with her clients, Caroline has learned a lot about creating lovely window portraits. Here are some tips she offers for getting wonderful portraits through windows, along with inspiring photos from her series, “Quarantine Through Glass.”
10 Tips for Taking Portraits Through Windows
George Whyne Cranford, Actor/carpenter
Three words: Stifling, Pensive, Productive
Find a comfortable way of communicating.
Good communication is always key during portrait shoots, and a window doesn’t change that. It only changes your method of communication. Instead of speaking normally to each other, you’ll need to find another way of communicating that both you and your model are comfortable with.
During window shoots, Caroline uses speakerphone to talk with her clients, or if the window is thin enough or cracked open, she shouts instructions. If the window is fully closed, she can also get physically close to her clients to show them where to stand or what to do.
Kandis Fay, filmmaker, and her daughter
Three words: Messy, Playful, Exhausting
Give instructions about clothes.
Focusing on subjects through a window can sometimes be difficult. For that reason, it’s important to keep clothes simple, so they’ll be easy to see and photograph. Caroline typically asks her clients to choose one light outfit and one dark outfit, avoiding busy patterns that can get confused with the background.
Prashanth Pandian and Jess Joswick, Business Coach and Founder, Backbone Business
Three words: Cats, Quiet, Stillness
Bring the right gear.
For window photo shoots, you’ll want to have gear that helps you control reflections, especially bright reflections. Caroline brings along step stools, C stands, a black umbrella, a black raincoat, and black cardboard (or a wide-brimmed hat) to block reflections.
She’s even used her drone for windows that are higher up. And for shoots at night, she’s brought a flood light with extension cords to light up the house.
“Sometimes I have to shoot with only one hand on the camera, while one arm stretches out to block reflections with a board or umbrella,” she says. Whatever it takes, you’ll want as much control over reflections as you can get!
Kate Marshall and A.D. Freese, filmmakers and co-founders of ShadowFax Films
Three words: Existential, Monotonous, Connected
Choose the time of day carefully.
Like any photo shoot, the time of day will drastically affect the lighting and situation you’re dealing with. Since you already have less control with a window shoot, you’ll want to be especially thoughtful about what time you hold your shoot, so you’ll have the best lighting.
“I do think that around sunset is often best, as well as civil twilight,” Caroline says. But nighttime is an option, too, if you have enough artificial lighting to make the shoot possible.
Dexter Randazo, Owner of The Department of Sales
It’s really hard to boil everything down to three words: Space Echo, Gymnastics, Zoom, Go Bananas, Organize, Be Grateful, Repeat
Scout the location.
Even if your subject’s home only has a few windows, it’s important to look at those windows and the surrounding area beforehand to evaluate the situation. You can start by visiting the location on Google Maps street view. Then, based on what you see, you can choose a time of day that you think will work best for the shoot and, if possible, visit the location in person during that time of day.
When Caroline scouts the location, she pays special attention to anything that’s directly across from the window. That’s what will be reflected in the portrait, unless you plan your shoot to minimize those reflections.
Jeremy Rosenberg, Communications executive and author
Three words: Coping, Growing, Connecting
Consider taking a virtual tour of the home.
Reflections aren’t the only thing to consider in a window shoot. You also have to think about the interior of the home – the furniture, the curtains, the decorations on the walls. These can all help or interfere with your shots.
That’s why it can be useful to get a virtual tour of the rooms you’ll be shooting beforehand through a video call. If you weren’t able to scout the location in person, you can potentially get an outdoor tour of the home in this way as well.
Of course, it’ll be your model’s decision whether to give that tour, but if they do, it can be a great opportunity to get to know both them and the location you’ll be shooting.
Jane Choi, DJ and sound healer/energy worker
Three words: Nourishing, Inspired, and Inward
Make each shoot unique.
During a “normal” portrait session, you can adjust the location or background to fit the personality and wishes of every model. But when you’re doing a window shoot, there’s only so much you can change. Still, with some creativity, you can find ways to make each shoot and portrait unique.
For example, you can work with different props in your model’s home. During her shoot with Colter Freeman, Caroline noticed a mirror sitting on his shelf and asked him to pick it up. Though simple, this single prop helped to create a portrait unlike any other she’d taken.
Colter Freeman, Filmmaker and writer, and his pug Winona
Three words: Grateful, Uncertain, Cherish
Think about the different layers of your portrait.
Let’s say you plan the shoot perfectly. You bring all the right equipment, and you know everything about the setting, the building, and the reflections you’ll be capturing. That knowledge alone won’t create fantastic photos, though. You’ll have to combine those different layers and elements in a harmonious way, so your portrait will be clear and beautiful.
“Photographing through windows forces you to think about a lot of different elements and layers all at once,” Caroline says. “Sometimes you’re working with architectural elements, sometimes you’re working with foliage or flowers in the foreground… All for better or for worse.”
Whatever the situation is, your goal is to find an angle that makes all the layers and elements come together beautifully. Every window has a “Wow” somewhere. You just need to discover it.
Nick, International flight attendant
Three words: Ambitious, Athletic, and Absence
Experiment with framing.
Windows are excellent for framing subjects. Besides the window frame itself, you can work with the curtains or blinds to bring attention to your model. If you’re lucky, you can even use the reflections as part of the frame.
At the same time, don’t feel like you have to frame your subject if it’s not working. “Sometimes you don’t get to decide how you frame them because you have to work with the reflections if you want to really see them clearly.” As wonderful as framing is as a technique, clarity is ultimately more important.
Danielle Marcelle Bond, Singer and actor
Three words: Connection, Explore, and “Face-plant into Couch”
Let go of perfectionism.
If you tend to be a perfectionist, a window photo shoot might drive you crazy at first. Unlike taking portraits in a studio, you can’t control everything. You have to work with the situation as it is, no matter how challenging.
To get the best shots, you have to let go of what’s “perfect” and instead focus on what’s possible. Sure, you may not get the composition, angle, or reflection you were hoping for, but you can still capture beautiful, genuine portraits. In the end, that authenticity can be worth more than perfection, anyway.
Natalie Venturi, executive coach, actor, and author of The Art of Powerful Presentations
Three words: Gratitude, Curiosity, Frustration