Lighting 102: 4.2 -- Ultra-Hard Light / Film Noir

Results form last week's exercise, in which you were asked to experiment with restricted light.

Also this week, an easy way to create a unique light source and a new assignment, all after the jump.

Looking at the photos that came in from last lesson's exercise, we start off with none other than a self-portrait by Eke, who is also the guy in Yesterday's On Assignment post. (Apparently, it's Eke Week here at Strobist.)

This is a classic film noir look, shooting a strobe through a gobo to throw some patterned tones on the background wall of a hard-lit portrait. It is especially appropriate to this week's discussion, but we will get to that in a few minutes.

Swilton's chess shot is also a nice example of using restricted light to zone-light a small subject. Without the grid spot he would have had to deal with flash spill on the backdrop.

This way, he could leave it black, as he chose to do, or light it with a second flash knowing that the first flash would not have contaminated it. This multi-plane lighting technique can give you total control over various sections of the photo, and is one thing for which grids are especially well-suited.

Next, we have a nekkid self portrait by Jonathan Roberts, after seeing which I will never look at one of those tiny racing saddles the same way again.

He used three strobes, and explains the process in his caption. (Can't wait to see the comments on this one.)

Jonathan, if you are confident enough to stick that photo up in the Strobist Flickr Pool, the least we can do is Full Monte you right up to the main blog. May I be the first to stick a folded dollar bill into your brake cable.

Seriously Hard Light

Back to this week, Eke's photo got me to thinking about something I have yet to talk about in the 800+ posts on this site: Further restricting a bare speedlight to create an even harder light source.

You may think of a bare speedlight as being a pretty hard source already. But that depends entirely on what you are trying to do with it. A typical speedlight is actually a focused light source (via the fresnel on front) that is about 1"x2" in size, give or take.

This is, granted, a very hard light. But if you think about it, it is harder in one direction than the other, by a factor of 2x. In practical application, this does not matter very often. But it can come into play of you are trying to throw a hard shadow from something like, say, a set of Venetian blinds.

Assuming you are shooting through a horizontal set of blinds and will be throwing a horizontal pattern of light onto a wall, you would get a sharper pattern if you oriented your flash horizontally than if you shot it rotated 90 degrees to create a vertical light source. Reason being, the horizontally-oriented light is harder in the direction that matters when hitting the blinds.

If you experiment, you'll see that this does make a difference.

For an even sharper shadow, then, you might choose to use an even smaller light source than the horizontal dimension of your speedlight. Here's how you do it.

As you can see, we have just slipped a little box head with a slit cut out over a flash. But what we have made is a light source that has the same width, and about half the height, of the bare speedlight. If you are trying to create an edge on some sort of shadow, paying attention to the orientation of your light and further restricting its size in the chosen dimension can make a big difference -- especially when you are working in close.

Also, if you are trying to skim a light past a gobo in a very precise way, a restricted light size can give you the ability to better control what a light sees and what it doesn't.

Doesn't cost anything, money-wise. Just come cardboard and some tape. But this model, for instance, does cost you about one stop of light from the flash's output. That's because we are covering up about half the surface area of the flash head.

You can make a light source very tiny this way, but it will cost you more output. If you are working in close -- where even a speedlight can look more light a soft light source -- you can create a darn-near point source light.

If you are shooting past an object - blinds, ficus tree, whatever -- a tiny light source will give you control not possible with a bare flash.


We have Eke to thank for this week's photo assignment inspiration. It's a simple photo assignment, really, with a lot of potential.

I will leave you to decide how you interpret "film noir," and I am sure there will be a lively discussion in the Flickr thread with lots of linked examples. I would think most of you will be shooting in black and white, and I would suggest it if your camera and/or image editor gives you that capability.

We all have a lot of schedule to contend with in this holiday season, so I am going to be long on the deadline, too -- January 2nd. I hope you'll have some fun with this one. It certainly goes well with the restricted light theme.

Here are the specifics:

Tag your assignment as:

filmnoir (note -- one word)

You can view the completed exercises of others, here. There is a discussion thread set up for this post here.

NEXT: Film Noir Assignment Discussion


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