Noir Photography Tips
Moody, dark and dramatic. The term film noir may instantly conjure cinematic scenarios in your mind of hard-boiled detectives and brassy dames that drag trouble behind them like tattered coats. But film noir is also a still photography style, largely informed by the movies of the same classification.
Film noir is a term introduced in the 1940s by French critics Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier. The French word “noir” translates to “black” or “dark,” and film noir describes a style of film making rather than an actual film genre. At the heart of film noir is a dramatic story, often filled with crime and sexual exploits. Film noir’s defining characteristics, though, are its storytelling style and the cinematography used to capture it.
Today, film noir is still a highly recognized and well-respected form of storytelling on film. If you admire this style, you may choose to shoot film noir movies or still shots. For the photography, you’ll want to create the lighting and camera effects that imitate the best of film noir.
In this article, we cover five tips you can use to shoot your own film noir photography, whether it’s still shots or motion pictures. We’ll start with the most basic tip needed to create film noir: selecting and placing lights in the scene.
Create dimensions by lighting from the side
Lighting a film noir scene involves more than just adding light to the subject. In film noir, lighting is used to create shadows and give the viewer a sense that danger lurks just around the corner. As such, lighting a scene is arguably the most important task in film noir photography. So it’s no surprise that three of our five tips cover lighting.
The first tip is to add dimension to your shots by lighting them from the side instead of the front. Subjects lit from the front are bright and easy to see. However, they’re also flat, lacking a sense of true size or depth in relation to the setting. These bright, flat images aren’t consistent with film noir style.
Film noir lighting should come in from the sides. That way, it varies intensity across the person or object. This variation adds dimension to the subject, creating the depth that’s missing from front-lit shots. Consider other indirect light sources to enhance the depth of the background and props, too. In addition, note that side lighting doesn’t mean exactly left or right of the frame; it could also mean at some diagonal to the camera and pointing upward or downward into the shot.
Still shots in film noir style don’t have to avoid using a flash. However, photographers should adjust and position the flash to create the same effect as other lights. This may mean mounting the flash on a tripod away from the camera. Professional cameras can connect to and use remote flash devices, attached wireless or by a cable back to the camera.
On occasion, the scene itself dictates an exception to the side-lighting rule. For example, if you’re capturing a crime suspect during an interrogation, you might use a bright light directly on the suspect’s face or straight down onto the suspect, leaving the rest of the room in black. That interrogation room cliché is a crime drama standard that can trace its roots to early film noir.
Besides choosing where to place lights, the type of lights you choose can make a big difference. We’ll touch on that in our next tip.
Sharpen the shadow lines
In film noir, the shadows are like characters in the story. It’s important for those shadows to be sharp and distinct. This helps the viewer create a clear mental image of the object casting the shadow, like a gloved hand holding a knife or gun from somewhere outside the frame.
To create sharp, clean shadows, use a single point of light. Some commercial lights have reflective surfaces that break up the light and cast it in multiple directions. This can cause multiple, overlapping shadows at different levels of contrast. A single point of light casts a single shadow that’s easier to position and bring in focus.
A cheap way to get a single point of light is to use a single uncovered incandescent bulb. You could put this on a typical household lamp and remove the lampshade. For something brighter, you could purchase an inexpensive floodlight or shop light that uses the same type of incandescent bulbs you’d use in lamps, just with a higher wattage (like 150 watts). If the floodlight’s reflective fixture breaks up the light too much, you can remove it so all you have left is the socket and cord for the light.
When a single light isn’t enough for the entire scene, you can add more lights without sacrificing the sharp shadow lines. To do this, just make sure the light rays are all going in the same direction. If the rays go in different directions, shadows will appear in different places, and no one shadow will have the nice sharp contrast you need. Take time to study the light of your shot as you determine where to put each additional light, and remember that you might have to reposition all the lights after adding each one.
After you place the lights, you’ll need to set your camera to capture the scene in true film noir style. Our next tip is all about using the camera settings to enhance the mood of the shot.
Frame and Focus the Scene to match the mood.
Whether capturing still shots or video, film noir requires a distinct approach to camera settings. Even though film noir scenes qualify as low lighting conditions, the style relies on a high contrast between the darker and lighter parts of the scene. Thus, your goal should be to use the light and camera lens so that the shadows and dark corners enhance the dark mood of each shot.
To create this contrast, you’ll want to capture as much detail as possible in the faces and objects on which your primary lighting falls. In both digital video and digital still photography, keep the ISO low for a higher film speed. This reduces noise, which can ruin the details in high contrast shots.
From there, select the aperture appropriate to the subject. High apertures (low f-stops) like f/2.8 and f/5.6 work best to capture subjects close to the camera. That leaves the background shadowy and out of focus. Lower apertures (higher f-stops) like f/11 and f/15 work best when you want to see details in the distance, as when shooting down a long hallway or city street.
Besides focusing your shot, you can frame your shot to reflect film noir style. This means upward and downward angles and tilting or moving the camera in ways that enhance the dark mood. The sidebar on this page describes one popular technique you might consider: the Dutch tilt.
Next, let’s check out a tip that can add some color to your film noir experience.
Don’t restrict your color option
The original films that earned the film noir label were black and white movies from the 1940s and 1950s. Some modern film noir pays tribute to these early inspirations by producing film in black and white.
As film noir developed stylistically, though, filmmakers learned to use color to create the same moods. Noir historian Lee Horsley describes color films like Taxi Driver (1976) and Reservoir Dogs (1992) as neo-noir, films heavily influenced by film noir. You can even see neo noir in graphic novels, such as Frank Miller’s “Sin City,” which uses bright red to emphasize certain objects within its black and white images.
For your own film noir creations, don’t restrict yourself in terms of color. Get ideas on how to use light and color from productions similar to your own. Black and white films offer a high contrast between dark and light, and they pay tribute to classic film noir. Color adds depth to the mood you’re creating, such as blue hues to add a chill or a red glow to convey a sense of danger.
Fortunately, you can also use video editing software to adjust the color in your photography during post-production. Don’t think of it as cheating; think of it as creating the perfect shot without relying solely on the camera and lights. In video editing software, you could simply remove all color saturation to leave a black and white image. You can also adjust specific hues within the shot as if painting a mood into the picture.
So far we’ve covered tips on lighting, camera settings and color adjustment. Our final tip adds the final touch to that film noir effect.
Use Gobos to enhance the setting and mood
In the film industry, the term “gobo” is used to refer to a “go-between,” or an object that falls between the lighting source and the object to be filmed. Gobos create special effects with the light, including specific colors and shapes. Gobos aren’t just used in the film industry, either. You may have seen people using spotlights with commercially produced gobos to cast light effects on the outside of their homes and businesses during holidays or special events.
In film noir, the shape of the shadows, both on the subject and across the background, help set up the scene. For example, shadows of prison bars can evoke the mental image a dark jail cell. Those shadows are an important part of the setting, and they can add to the artistry of each scene.
The great thing about gobos is that they never actually appear in frame. They don’t need to. Our minds combine the dialog and body language from the actors with what we can see on the set to create an assumption about what’s behind the camera. Thus, you don’t need prison bars to create that effect of being behind bars. Instead, you just need a gobo that can create shadows that look like prison bars.
Since gobos never appear in frame, you could create your own instead of purchasing an expensive gobo device. Cardboard and poster board make good gobo templates. Just cut out the shape of the light you want to cast, then position the gobo between the light and the framed shot as needed to create the desired effect. Also, consider using objects around your house as gobos, like an oscillating fan or window blinds.