Light Noir

I try to make it seem like my subjects are emitting the light.

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. Black employs a variety of lights and long exposures in a process called “light painting.” He often spends up to half an hour slowly illuminating a single shot with one long exposure. Black has spent many years honing his craft through trial and error, so he has learned over time the importance of perfecting an exposure long before it ends up on a computer. It’s a work ethic and an attention to detail that have given him a distinctive look and uncommon imagery.


Black is highly selective with his lighting during the exposure. He says that on average there are 10 separate light sources for lighting up key parts of an image, and one of the hardest parts of shooting is hiding all of the lights, power packs and cables from the camera. Most of the actual light painting is done by hand with, surprisingly, a common handheld rechargeable spotlight, the Brinkmann Q-Beam Max Million III. To soften the hard light from the spotlight, he adds hand-cut Plexiglas® that has been covered with privacy window film over the light.

He also has an array of tools to shape his light as needed. Snoots, grids, flags and cinefoil all provide Black with distinctive light characteristics that help him to paint in his scenes. For tight areas that are hard for him to get into, he adds 12-inch Rololights with incandescent tubes.

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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