Film Noir Photography – 6 Images Analysed

In this article, I’m going to analyse 6 film noir images. But before I do that, let me just clarify what is unique about this particular style of photography…

What is Film Noir Photography?

Film Noir describes a genre or style of movies that enjoyed their heyday during from the 1940s and 1950s. They were often suspense films that required the directors to convey tension and drama which was achieved through the characteristics of film noir.

To my mind Film Noir is characterised by its use of shapes, shadows, chiaroscuro lighting and for being black and white.

The illustration below is taken from a wonderful infographic on the BFI’s website that details the common elements of film noir.

Film Noir Photography info graphic

Although Film Noir is famous for the American films produced in the 1940s and 50s, the visual style used was influenced by earlier French and German films. And also photographers.

Two early Film Noir photographers

Brassai was a Hungarian-French photographer who took to the streets of Paris at night during the early 1930s. Brassai created wonderful images of shadowy figures against the harsh street lighting that brought shapes into sharp relief separating them from the backgrounds that they usually blended into during the day.

Morris column in the fog in Paris during the 1930s
Brassai – Paris in the fog, 1934

Weegee, whose real name was Arthur Fellig became a freelance photographer and photojournalist in 1935. By 1938 he had developed a relationship with New York Police Headquarters who allowed him to install a police radio in his car. This meant that Weegee was often first to the scene of a crime and could therefore take photos before the police arrived. He focused mainly on murders, many of which took place at night, and he developed a style, described in The New Yorker magazine, as including ‘angles and shadow play’.

Film Noir Photography and Storytelling

The main reason I’m drawn to film noir style photography is because it is a test of my ability to tell visual stories and therefore, it’s a great way to practice your visual storytelling skills.

Creating film noir style photographs is about controlling light, placing shapes within the frame and the mise-en-scene.

Mise-en-scene is a phrase used in theatre and film to describe the placement of actors in relation to the elements of set design. For this reason story and locations are important to me when thinking about film noir photography. When I think of traditional film noir movies the recurring visual themes include tunnels, ironwork, staircases, exposed brick, in fact what today we might call an ‘industrial’ look and feel.

The image below is from a sequence shot in a warehouse studio. I could have used a modern office but the story would be different if the walls were plain rather than brick.

Man holding glass while sitting down in warehouse environment. Film Noir Photography
Copyright Andrew Cameron

I’ve picked six shots that I have recently made in the film noir style and I’ll explain the set-up and thinking for each one.

My kit and set-up

Whilst everything needs to come together to make the perfect picture, it is lighting that creates the mood and triggers an emotional response for the audience. Brightly lit scenes usually convey happiness, contentment and safety. Low lighting with dark corners and long shadows will visually translate as threatening, dramatic, and anticipation of something bad. It is the latter that film noir is associated with and as photographers we have to be comfortable working in these low light conditions which means we have to know how to control our camera settings.

The first thing to say is that I prefer continuous lights rather than flash. As soon as I turn the light on I can see what I’m working with, I can change the angle, height, power and flagging without needing to look through the viewfinder. I know that if I used flash lighting it would slow me down but it’s obviously a personal preference, there are no rules and many people get great results from flash.

It’s also worth noting how few lights you actually need. You can create really effective images with just one well placed light. My go-to light is a small Ledzilla Dedolight with barn doors. I also have bigger, more powerful LED lights but I rarely use more than three in any set-up.

My cameras work reasonably well in low light and aren’t too noisy when I need to push the ISO. I work with fast, prime lenses and usually favour a 40mm or 50mm lens. I work hand held rather than using a tripod, which means I set the minimum shutter speed at around 125 to avoid camera shake.

Six Film Noir Shots Explained

Silhouette of man wearing a fedora hat. Film Noir Photography
Copyright Andrew Cameron

The silhouette. This is achieved with one directional light positioned the other side of the model and controlled to avoid too much spillage. In this case the light was about level with the model’s shoulder which lit the underside of his fedora.

Man wearing hat lighting cigarette in the dark. Film Noir Photography
Copyright Andrew Cameron

Strike a match. Incandescent light from a match or candle is a popular motif in film noir. In this instance I used one LED on a lighting stand and positioned it about 20 feet behind the model. I masked the light to reduce its size in the frame but create some visual interest. I also used a second LED at about 15% that was also a stand behind the first light but aimed at the wall. This created just enough light to frame and separate the model’s head from the background. Finally, I asked the model to strike the match and shield the flame with his hands to avoid a hot spot.

Woman reflected in mirror holding glass of champagne. Film Noir Photography
Copyright Andrew Cameron

Reflections. For this shot I used one light, which was positioned next to the dressing table aimed across the model. We used the barn doors to ensure the throw of light only hit the front of her face and didn’t spill beyond her shoulder, the meant her face was framed against a dark background. I knelt on the floor just behind her right shoulder and focused on the reflection in the mirror.

Copyright Andrew Cameron

Using shadows. Film noir is shadows and in this shot we only wanted to focus on the shadows. Again, this was one light, a more powerful LED. I wanted to ensure the gun was clearly visible, so first I positioned the actors and then moved the light nearer and further from them to cast the right shadow.

Hand holding gun in foreground with shadow of a figure bent over in the background. Film Noir Photography
Copyright Andrew Cameron

Depth of field. The infographic above states that deep focus is a characteristic of film noir and I agree. However, in this instance I want to emphasise the gun and draw attention to it. Here the models are positioned about 20 feet apart. The black walls highlight the hand holding the gun, which was lit with one light, while the gap in the wall and lighter walls, highlight the dishevelled figure in the background, which was achieved using a more powerful LED aimed at the white wall.

Man wearing hat is smoking a cigarette with old phone in hand. Film Noir Photography
Copyright Andrew Cameron

Portrait. This high angle looking down, with the outline of the face casting a shadow on the wall behind. In this instance there was some natural light from a window which the model is facing. This was lifted by using one small LED throwing the shadow.

All of the above were shot at either Empire Studios or the Belt Buckle Factory Studio in London using amateur models and minimal props.

If you are interested in film noir photography and would like to know more then please get in touch.