Digital Photography Techniques

Film Noir Photography

shots in the nightMark Holmes describes a digital photography method for shooting black-and-white digital photos in the streets and bars of San Diego at night.
See the gallery of images.

Recently, I have been doing Film Noir scenes using two Alien Bees 800 strobes. Some examples are shown in this second gallery:
See a new gallery here.

Check out a film noir or night photography workshop in San Diego.

Why Film Noir Photography?

In the early 1940s, a style of movie making developed called “Film Noir,” a French phrase literally meaning “black film.” The name refers to a genre of mostly black-and-white American films with bleak subject matter, downbeat tone, and low-key lighting.

These movies made quite an impression on me as a young boy, mostly because in England in the 1960s TV stations showed a lot of movies from this period. It wasn’t that they wanted to, but something to do with copyright laws prevented the broadcast of newer movies. On Sunday afternoons, my family ritually watched one of these old movies. Although usually bored to tears by the plot, the dark scenes and action left a lasting impression.

Black-and-white photography has a special quality that I enjoy very much and recently I have been trying to bring some of the elements of Film Noir into some of the photos I take.

What does Film Noir mean to me?

Bringing a certain look to the photos that I find pleasing involves a completely different approach to the technical precision I try to use in my normal portrait photography:

  • I like city subjects indoors or at night, often involving people.
  • All shots are black and white, high contrast.
  • I use available light only, no flash.
  • I use a shallow depth of field with selective focus.
  • I make no effort to avoid lens reflections.
  • I do virtually no post-processing, not even cropping, on nearly all pictures and accept digital noise when I have to.


Taking the Pictures

The subjects I take are usually bar scenes in San Diego. The photographs (or more precisely digital images) are taken candidly, but not secretively. If anyone wants to look into the camera while I am taking the shot it doesn’t worry me, because they will often be out of focus.

I use a Nikon D300 with a 50mm 1.4 lens exclusively. I remove the battery grip so that the camera is less obtrusive. I shoot all photos with an aperture of F/1.4 and adjust the ISO until I can get a shutter speed for a relatively steady shot. Using the camera wide open like this creates a shallow depth of field that has a dreamy effect in sympathy with late night bar scene subject. It also catches a lot of reflections from bright lights that can either enhance the photo or ruin the shot completely.

Noise isn’t a big issue and adds to the gritty feel of the pictures. Modern DSLRs are getting so good at high ISO settings that you can get usable pictures in very low light. I think it won’t be long until you will have to add digital grain into pictures to stop them looking too perfect.

I sometimes use the live view function so that I can frame a shot without looking through the viewfinder while I steady the camera on a piece of furniture or the bar.

Film Noir Photography

I particularly look for scenes with high contrast and lots of reflections, which is pretty much the opposite of what I try to do in color photography. My camera histogram therefore often displays a lack of midtones, with a spike towards the dark end and a spike towards the light end.

Camera Settings for Black-and-White

There are many ways to create black-and-white photographs with a digital camera. The first method involves simply setting the camera to black-and-white mode. Some cameras do a better job of it than others, even giving you different scene options for the type of black-and-white images you wish to shoot. Most digital cameras, however, do a pretty poor job of black-and-white unless you intervene to set up the camera manually.

Another way to get black-and-white images is to post-process the color files from the camera. You could simply de-saturate them in Photoshop, a look I do not recommend, play around with the channels settings (better) or use a specialist plug-in. Two plug-ins that work well are Silver Efex Pro from Nik Software priced at $199.95 and Virtual Photographer, a free Photoshop plug-in from OptikVerve labs. I have had success with both these products, which allow for a lot of creativity. However, for my Film Noir images I use only the settings that I can get from my camera.

I have two extra shooting banks defined in my camera menus. They are set up for in-camera black-and-white, with RAW and JPEG capture, high contrast, a white balance setting I like, and a red or green digital filter. I can swap quickly between the shooting banks depending on whether I want to use the red or green filter. I save the files with the prefix RED or GRN so I can see which one I used for a shot. My settings are here.

You may wonder why I set white balance. I do this because it affects the contrast in the black-and-white picture, emphasizing certain colors. I suggest you experiment with the settings until you find a look you like.

Although I capture RAW, I never use the RAW image. I have it just in case I need something in color for another project.

Recently, I set up a shoot using models. I used the same in-camera settings I have used previously and did no post-processing other than occasional cropping. My aim was to copy the style of Film Noir without trying to mimic the quality of a vintage camera, as I was not trying to fake 1940s photos. I used two bare bulb strobes for the shoot.

Film Noir photo


Post-processing is easy, I do virtually none. I use the JPEGS I shoot using the in-camera settings and try to frame the shot I want in the camera, so most times I don’t even crop. There’s nothing wrong with post-processing. I just find it takes away from the immediacy of the “found image” and gives me too many choices. If I don’t like what comes out of the camera I don’t use it.

If you look at my pictures, you’ll see that they are all shot using a portrait aspect ratio. This is because I have one wall at home where I display my pictures and an 18”x24” portrait frame looks best there. I frame the images with a white border so that I don’t have to matt them and print them 18”x24” including the border.

Gallery of images