“Film noir” refers to a period in motion picture history after World War II and is characterized by dark and moody lighting and morally ambiguous actors—a visual riff on detective and pulp fiction that was popular at the time.
It is a style that has spun off into still photography, perhaps as a reaction to the overly lit, high key lighting that we see in most fashion photography. Film noir has proven to be a durable style, but not easy to pull off successfully. Here are six tips to help you shoot film noir-style photos.
Note: The above image was an exercise in styling combined with five light sources. The key light was a spot projector equipped with a pattern that cast on the model. I had to be careful that her face was lit evenly. Separate fixtures lit up the movie poster, the cigarette smoke, her hat, and the objects on the table. Photo copyright 2022, Michael Chiusano. (Model courtesy of Maggie, Inc., Boston, MA)
#1 Low Key Lighting
Film noir is all about nighttime; the action takes place at night, and from artificial light sources. So, the first lesson is to keep your images dark, or low key. This does not mean underexposure because that would look like a mistake or error. Low key means lots of dark tones in the picture, combined with focused light on faces. It is also common to see subjects in backlighting, or light from behind and the subject silhouetted. What you want to avoid is a “halfway effort”, a dark and muddy front light on faces.
#2 Hard Drop Shadows
In general, you will want to put away your soft boxes and other diffuse light sources. Film noir movies used Fresnel spotlights extensively. These would cast controlled pools of light, thus creating the low-key lighting discussed above. You don’t find Fresnel spotlights very often in the realm of flash photography; however, you get roughly the same effect using grids placed over standard reflectors. Another tip is to make a point of showing the cast shadows in the picture.
#3 Multiple Light Sources
Since lighting at night is from artificial sources, it is perfectly appropriate to use multiple light sources. Put another way, there is no need to follow the usual advice about avoiding crossed shadows, an image artifact never seen when the sun is the only light source.
#4 Odd Color Balance
Because noir lighting is nighttime lighting, the usual rules about color balance no longer come into play. Up to a point, you can shift color balance in almost any direction, usually in the green or blue direction to evoke neon or mercury vapor lighting fixtures. You do not want to overdo this on facial lighting, however, which should stay roughly neutral to give normal skin tone.
#5 Window Shade Projection Patterns
A common effect in old noir movies is the protagonist lit from outside lights coming through blinds. This casts a “slatted” key light on the subject and is a signature “look” of noir movie scenes. You can duplicate this effect by firing a flash into a slat pattern cut into a large piece of cardboard, or even better, shooting through a junk venetian blind.
#6 Output to Black and White
Most noir movies from the past were not in color. This paired well with the low-key, nighttime lighting style. It is worth experimenting with a black-and-white output and such pictures are easier to style because you can concentrate on tonal effects and not have to worry about color conflicts.