A common theme I hear is that you need a lot of gear to create great photos.  That, of course, is untrue and I want to show you a simple example of how to create awesome dramatic photos with only window lighting from a single window in a dark room.  All these images were shot on my trusty Sony A7 mirrorless camera with a Sony/Zeiss 35mm lens.

The Subject of The Shoot

I am currently in St. Louis and was visiting my friend Nick Najjar who runs a business providing closing gifts to realtors.

He belongs to a club called ‘The Backroom’ which is a private cigar-club that you can go to meet with clients, or enjoy a great cigar, grab a classic cocktail or meal, and sit in big plush leather chairs.  He uses it as a workspace during the day rather than rent office space and wanted to show it to me when I came to visit.

I wanted to get a few photos of him that weren’t typical ‘business photos’ just for fun.  The room was pretty dark with all the dark wood floors and dark wood walls/ceilings but I noticed a plush leather chair sitting next to a small window – perfect!

The window itself was partially diffused – the glass material was semi-opaque so it softened the light.  The light was also indirect, meaning it wasn’t shining straight through the window.  

This caused the light to soften so it had the same effect as using a softbox.  If you are using windows at home or elsewhere that aren’t diffused, you can either add a white sheet over them to soften up the light or close the blinds (if you have material blinds vs. venetian blinds).  

Lighting Setup #1 – Using Window Lighting For Side/Back Lighting

I had Nick sit in the leather chair with the window camera left and angle himself diagonally facing away from the window.  The room was really dark so I dialed in my camera settings at ISO 3200, f/2.8, and 1/250 second.  Here is what this looked like:


The red arrows show the light falling over Nicks side, shoulder, and back.  This creates a sculpting effect as the light rakes across him and also back-lights the cigar smoke which makes it really come to life.  Here is the photo using this setup:

Cigar Shoot Nick Najjar

Take note of how the light falls off really quickly halfway across his face.  This is because the light didn’t have anything on the opposite side to bounce off of which would have opened up some of the shadows.  I like this stark transition from light to dark.

Lighting Setup #2 – Using Window Lighting for Side Lighting.

For the next shot I was looking for a more casual, relaxed feel.  I just started talking with Nick and joking about few things.  This created a relaxed atmosphere so he could forget about the camera and just be himself.  This is a really important part of photographing people – doing whatever is necessary to help them forget the camera is there.

Nick leaned back in his chair pretty far and started smiling at something I said when he blew out some smoke – this was the perfect timing for what I had in mind.  I took the shot immediately.

Nick was now directly facing me so he was side-lit by the window, but because he was leaning back so far in his seat the light was now able to reach the other side of his face.  This is because light tends to ‘wrap’ around subjects – the bigger the light source the more it wraps around them.

See the diagram below to see how the light from the front of the window flowed out and reached the other side of Nicks face:


Here is the photo with the lighting above:Cigar Shoot-side-lighting

See how much less ‘drastic’ it is because you can see the other side of his face?  You could also accomplish this by putting some form of a reflector on the opposite side of the window, like a white reflector, white posterboard or foamboard, or even a white wall if there happened to be one on that side.

Lighting Setup #3 – Using Window Lighting for ‘Godfather’ Lighting 🙂

For the last image, I wanted to create a very striking shot using similar lighting to the classic “Godfather” movie style lighting.

I decided to shoot across the chair to create an interesting angle and positioning of how Nick was sitting.  This would create some cool light if shot from  a diagonal angle from Nick.


I positioned myself diagonal to him and shot this:


Awesome!  This is by far my favorite shot of the impromptu photo session.  The light coming through the window also backlit the cigar smoke which made it look great.

I took it into post processing and applied the “Gravel” Lightroom preset from the Hacking Photography Black and White Lightroom presets to edit the shot in one click!  I love using presets to speed up the editing workflow 🙂

hacking photography black and white lightroom presets,


If you notice – there isn’t much noise in these images even thought I was shooting at ISO 3200.  I fixed this in Lightroom by sliding the ‘noise’ slider up to about ’40’ which smoothed out the noise without sacrificing detail.  The Sony A7 I use also does pretty well at high ISO as well which helps.

Takeaway – You Don’t Need Lots of Gear – A Window Can Do The Trick

If you learn how to use the light around you, you can often create excellent images that are striking and unique.  In this example we simply used a single window in a dark room and by changing how Nick was positioned in his chair in relation to the back window.

Try it for yourself!  Just find a good window and have some fun.