Monday, April 5, 2010

Light Noir

Though it may seem that Britton Black’s exciting portfolio of finely crafted, atmospheric images are the result of meticulous postprocessing, his unique “film-noir” style is performed almost entirely in the real world.
By Dave Willis, Photography By Britton Black Published in Shooting
Light Noir

Black enjoys using shadows to their fullest, which gives his work the characteristic “noir” look. Another favorite trick is rim lighting. By hitting the subject with light from behind, Black is able to give his subjects better definition against the shadows. He points out that when using rim lighting with such long exposures, it’s important to avoid lens flares by not pointing light directly into the lens, which can be hard to do when working with so many different light sources.

Black performs selective image enhancements to fine-tune his images once the exposures have been made. His favorite tools in Photoshop are Lasso and Curves for performing changes as needed to color, exposure and contrast. He selects a high amount of feathering so that these changes are extremely gradual transitions. Using so many different types of lights presents a lot of white-balance challenges, as well. He solves many of them by using filters and gels over his lights. He fixes the rest by using localized white-balance adjustments to select areas of the photo.


Black shoots primarily with a Hasselblad H3D-39, which he says is a great system for keeping noise minimal during such long exposures. He has found that tonal transitions are much better with a medium-format camera, too, which is especially important when dealing with a large dynamic range. Black primarily uses a wide-angle Hasselblad HCD 4/28 lens and an HC 4/120 macro lens, and he also has an HTS 1.5 tilt/shift adapter for adding a distinctive wide-angle feel to the perspective. He prefers to leave his Hasselblad at his studio, though, so he’ll work with a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III in the field. He also keeps a Canon EOS 5D with him at all times.

When Black was shooting film, it was a system of learning from his mistakes, but he notes that for digital photographers, it’s a much easier process, thanks to instant review. After shooting this way for so long, it has become an intuitive process for him, but for beginners, Black recommends starting at a shorter exposure of about 15 seconds or so and then experimenting with longer exposures as you go.

Portraiture is a little tougher because it’s hard for people to hold still for a few seconds, let alone for 20-minute and up exposures. Black solves this problem by strobing the subject with a flash to make sure he or she stays sharp in the image. He’ll gel his flash with an 85A or 85B filter to warm the light output to match the scene, and since he’s painting in most of the image gradually, it’s not even necessary for subjects to be in the frame until they’re needed. Then they can walk in when Black wants them to, and he can even paint them in instead of using flash if that’s the desired effect he’s going for.


To Black, his unique low-key, dark style is all about showing the viewer a world where light has a life of its own. His long exposures enhance the color palette of his images, and for him, photography is all about lighting.

“In my images,” Black concludes, “I’m trying to make people see that the light is coming from within the image and out towards the camera. I try to make it seem like my subjects are emitting the light.”

Britton Black is a third-generation photographer based out of Chicago. See more of his work at

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