A Window And A Curtain: A Stunning Lighting Solution

If you have a window with thick or dark curtains, then you have the recipe for stunning dramatic lighting. You don’t need any special equipment—just your camera, the window, and curtains. This light is great for men and women, and can emphasize the mood and the form of your subject.

Canon 5D, Canon 85mm lens at f/1.8. ISO 640 at 1/640 second. By facing the model away from the light, you are able to achieve a striking split-light effect. The window (to the left of the frame) gives directional lighting that emphasizes form and mood. While this lighting is appropriate for both male and female subjects, it is a very effective solution for lighting men in a flattering way.
All Photos © Lindsay Adler

Natural light is stunning and is a great way to get an intimate portrait of your subject. You do not have the distraction of bright flashing strobes of the studio or having to make large modifications to natural light using diffusers or reflectors. Instead, window light helps you keep it simple, and allows you to connect with your subject more easily and keep the mood relaxed.

The curtains allow you to control the direction and spread of the light. If your subject is standing beside a large window without curtains, then the light would be broad and wrap around the subject, particularly if the subject is standing close to the window. This is certainly an acceptable way to light someone, but it will not give the same dramatic and directional lighting that we achieve here. If you are familiar with studio lighting, curtains act like barn doors. Both the curtains and barn doors give you control over the spread and direction of the light. If you close the curtain so that the light only comes through a tiny slit, then the light will be extremely focused and directional. If you open the curtains wider, the light source becomes broader and softer.

You could get similar dramatic lighting with a very narrow window, but this would not give you the control that curtains allow. You can move the opening to change how the light illuminates the face of your subject and modify the size of the opening to adjust the concentration of light.

Canon 5D, Canon 85mm lens at f/2.8, ISO 100 at 1/20 second. This image was lit with nothing more than window light coming through an opening of a curtain just to the left of the frame.

Natural light is great because you can watch how the light molds and shapes a model’s face. You can actually turn them and watch as the light and shadows move in a distinct way.

If you pose the model facing toward the light, the light will give beautiful illumination to the face and eyes, and then fall off dramatically behind the subject.

If you pose the model facing perpendicular to the light, you can create stunning split lighting and move the model around slightly to adjust the exact angles the light rakes across the form. This is great for figure studies, as it defines muscles and curves.

Canon 5D, Canon 50mm lens at f/1.4. ISO 640 at 1/250 second. In this image you can see the set up for the lighting. You have a window covered in curtains, and a small slit of the curtains parted to allow window light through. As seen on the form of the model, the highly direction light helps carve out the form of the subject creating a very dramatic lighting effect.

Consider posing the model away from the light, with just the head/eyes turned back to give split light. This again is a creative approach for dramatic effect.