Photography, Filmmaking, and Design Explorations

Shooting Noir

Had the pleasure of shooting at a meetup Sunday with photographers and models at Yards Brewery in Philadelphia, courtesy of Joe Burke and Albert Heefner, event organizers. The theme was “film noir” and the 1940s. So, I brought the light kit, secured space, and shot.

(Psssst. See the full group of photos on Flickr in my Film Noir set.)

Let’s talk about noir for a moment. Well, let’s not. A lot has been written about the genre. I am primarily interested in the lighting—painting with shadows. You can have a look at these resources for the kind of look I’m interested in “getting” when I shoot noir: – First Two Minutes – Throughout


And this:

Speaking of shooting noir, when I shot the feature film Able I was interested in approaching a Chiaroscuro feel, but in color. This shooting style was successful—you can have a look at the trailer to get a visual feel for the film (NSFW)—and the results are wonderfully dark. Of note, there was a strong initial desire that Able would be shot in black-and-white. We killed this idea early in the pre-production process due to concerns about being able to market the film. No color = not marketable. Meh. Maybe another time.

Which delights some people but annoys others. You either like the look, or you don’t—no middle ground.

For this shoot, I wanted to play with really dark shots. Maybe it was too much, maybe not.

I knew in advance that I wanted to post-process the images using the TrueGrain software package and Panatomic-X grain to get a fine grain with smooth characteristics that would be reasonably faithful to the emulsion and look of much older film. But, of course, retaining an authenticity of look and not a “slapped on” simulated grain plus tinting effect designed to mimic (badly) the look of a “vintage” photograph. BTW, you can learn more about Panatomic-X and TrueGrain, if you like.

Another goal was to really work with the vintage clothing and likewise ensure the backgrounds worked with the clothes. The backgrounds were tough because the location, Yards Brewery, is essentially an industrial warehouse with backgrounds I didn’t want. I couldn’t “make” them vintage and they “out” the time period. Industrial coolers, steel beams, concrete block, graffiti, no brick, industrial stainless steel machinery clearly from the 1990s, etc. Not “time appropriate.”

So, I focused on working in an area of near darkness with loading pallets from ceiling to floor where I could craft light and “kill” the backgrounds, mostly.

Before I shot, I severely “overlit” subjects—all but blew them out with light. Then, working at higher speeds, I was able to match my exposure (along the lines of a compressed Zone System) to the brightest areas in the frame while dumping the background into darkness. There was some standard post-processing adjustment required to further dump backgrounds and spill light, but nothing that was a huge slow-down.

I could control, shot-by-shot, what was lit and what wasn’t by positioning the lights. And there was a lot of tinkering with the lights. I feel almost bad about the amount of attention I had to pay to the lights. But full attention had to be paid. If something was “overly” lit, it would show. If lit “normally,” it was on the borderline of making the cut into the image. When in doubt, I erred on the side of “show less” and positioned the light to “paint” what would be visible in the frame.

I was pleased to play with rim light, backlight, sidelight, top light, and other effects. In addition to direction, composition, the challenges of shooting at f/1.2 throughout. Etc.

The noir lighting and feel was better in some cases than others. Shots with an implied story worked more effectively, I think. A moment in time, frozen, as part of a story that the viewer can interpret.

Lessons learned:

  1. Seek backlighting opportunities.
  2. Ensure you have a story implicit in the image.
  3. Work more slowly to account for lighting setup time.
  4. Bring longer extension cords.
  5. Manage spill light more effectively.

Want to learn more about my post-processing technique? See my blog post titled “Post-Processing: Development Study 1”.

You can also see the full set of work on Flickr.


One response

  1. Interesting post with the defined work flow and plan. As always, the images have a strong and attractive usage of lights. Am glad to be lucky enough to have worked with in the same set, next time – i have to find time to talk to you.

    The blog definitely a great resource for photography. I am not good with words, so i leave it here :). But, do keep the posts coming!

    October 31, 2010 at 15:32

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