Lighting 102: 4.2 -- Film Noir Discussion

It was only 8:00 in the evening, but it was already dark outside. Real dark. As in too-underexposed-to-be-saved-in-Photoshop dark -- even if you were shooting raw.

But I was well-lit, thanks to the off-camera flask in my hip pocket. Not that the victim I was presently staring at cared.

She had apparently been hit from two different directions with a well-aimed '25. An Nikon SB-25, to be exact. And it was up to me to figure out exactly how it had been pulled off.

(See the Film Noir Assignment results after the jump.)

If you haven't already guessed, today we are looking at photos from the post of December 4th in which you were asked to use hard, restricted light to create a "film noir"-type of shot. Film noir lighting is about a subtle as a ball peen hammer, and it's a good way to experiment with restricted light.

Subtlety and nuance took the week off in favor of edgy and contrasty light, window blinds as gobos, and lots of knives, guns and liquor.

As always, click the pic to get to the Flickr page. This gets you to a bigger version of the photo, along with lighting info (hopefully...) and an easy way to comment on individual photos.

Leading off is this study in subtle symbolism from TheBauerGallery. Check me if I am wrong here, but I think the shadow you can just make out on the back wall represents the person who may be causing the tense expression in the subject.

I could be way off base, as I never was one for picking up obscure hidden messages in art. But that's my guess. Can you find the photog in the photo? Click through to learn about his setup.

Next up is a shot by Richard Melanson. He uses a very tight snoot, balanced several stops over the ambient, to draw attention to the the subject's eyes and away from the gun in his hand. Let alone the bottle of courage the subject has apparently loaded himself with.

Snoots and flash/ambient balance are a match made in heaven, and that's what we'll be playing with in our next exercise.

The whole effect is governed by two variables: Where the snoot is allowing the light to fall, and how far the exposure falls off in the area which is not being lit by the tight beam of light.

There is no right and wrong in the lighting ratio, either. You figure out the look you want and adjust the balance to create it.

Quick: Where is the snooted light coming from? Try your hand at reverse engineering before clicking on the pic to find out.

Liquor is again the scene setter in the third photo, by John Leonard. I like the way John is using snoots to highlight the two areas of interest in the photo. But let's look at the balance thing again.

Assuming John is on a plain background (or could shift the setup of the shot to where he was against a wall a few feet away) I would love to see him tweak it for just a tad bit of separation between the shadow side of his head and the background. Be nice to hold that shoulder, too.

He is shooting at 1/200th at f/11. I would open the shutter up (1/125, 1/60, 1/30, etc.) until I brought the wall to a very dark grey, barely separating the black elements on camera right.

I just noticed that he appears to be wearing a white shirt, which could be a problem. (Shirt comes up as the wall does.) But you could solve that by bring the wall up to a higher ambient level than the shirt.

How? Just stick a lamp between the subject and the wall.

You can't have a selection of film noir photos without a set of blinds, and itsjustanalias doesn't disappoint. And here is a great example of the "no correct exposure concept, in which being able to place various areas of your photo at different tonal levels gives you total control.

The inside is "too dark" according to just about any continuous light camera meter. The outside light is "too bright" by the same measure.

But the whole bowl of porridge is just right, connoting a dark room at night lit by streetlights below. That's what I am talkin' 'bout. All that's missing is the flashing "HOTEL" sign, with the last two letters burned out.

Last but certainly not least is one of those gratuitous female shots that tends to pop up in our 95% male-dominated site. (We gotta balance that out a little.) I send you guys out for film noir and you use the assignment to do a chicks-and-stockings-and-knives shot.

I say all that because this one is by ambienteye, AKA Katherine Gaines. Katy is busting some really cool stuff lately and one of her other photos will be featured in the next L102 installment, which is coming next week.

This is just pure, elegant light on an extreme budget. The grid is made with straws. The cookie is made of foam, as is the "ND filter" on the third speedlight to knock it down to a usable range.

Katy gives you the strobe placement info on the photo's Flickr page, but think it through before you go and look.

Without giving away the light positions, I would say that the SB-600 sets the whole tone of the photo, with the first 383 calling attention to the knife and filling the face. The second 383 pulls the whole thing into range (tonally) and provides light for the first 383 to push against.


You guys obviously had some fun with this one. To look at the whole take as a slideshow, click here. Or join in on the discussion thread, here.

And if you think about it, leave a comment or two on the stuff you really like.

NEXT: Assignment: Cross-Balance and Sculpt


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