Ever since I was a little kid in England, way back in the 60s, I remember getting up early at the weekends, and mum used to switch on our black and white tv (we weren’t allowed to touch anything “electric”!) so that we could watch the cartoons or morning kid’s matinees.
In those days, colour tv hadn’t arrived ( I seem to recall that it was around 1968 when colour tv’s first hit the shops in the UK), and b&w was all we had. But nevertheless, I enjoyed watching films enormously, especially cowboy westerns.
I guess all those things subconsciously moulded me into what I like today, black and white photography and film noir.
Although I’ve attempted dabbling in film making using a range of Super 8 movie cameras, I have never gone further than that; I prefer shooting stills. But that first love of film noir has always stuck with me, and I always try and replicate that effect in my shots. And it’s not difficult at all, as I show you how.
What does the word film noir mean though? I’ve heard various meanings of the term in my life, but I tend to go with the french version, as it adds a bit off Parisian spice to it….literally translated it means “black film”.
Most of the films that fall into this category are mainly American classics with an array of famous Hollywood starts like Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall etc, there is a strong contingent of material from Europe, in the main from France. And these still rate very highly in my list of favourites; no matter how many times I watch these films, I just never get tired of enjoying them.
The qualities that mark film noir out among the plethora of films churned out by movie makers the world over are unique. Low key lighting, dramatic contrasts between dark and light and sometimes deeply psychological screenplay with a moral at the end.
If we want to recreate these effects on still film, thankfully, the task is much easier, as we don’t need screenplays or actors moving around the stage!
What are the prerequisites for obtaining the film noir effect in your shots? Let’s list them:
1 Flash–I never use flash, although some of the famous photographers did use it during their day. I don’t use it because it advertises to all and sundry that you are taking photographs, and that in itself will change the classic situations that you are trying to capture.
2 Camera aperture–shoot wide open, meaning shooting at around f2, which gives you a shallow depth of field. This gives you shots that will have the main subject area in focus, but the background will be conveniently softly out of focus.
3 What to shoot–look for subjects and areas that contain dramatic contrasts between light and dark, like people sitting in shadows with their profiles only visible, shafts of light falling at angles on a person etc.
3 Film type–here you can really go to town as there is still a huge choice available. My favourites are Kodak T-Max 100 or 400, Ilford HP5 400, Kodak T-Max 1200, Ilford Delta 3200, but you can try virtually any film you have to hand. Every film is different and who knows you may get great results with the cheapest of films!
4 Take it easy–and by that I mean don’t get too involved with avoiding direct light shining into your lens, taking meter readings, or using tripods etc. The more complications you add to your shots, the more boring and hum-drum it becomes. Don’t forget you’re doing this to enjoy yourself, not to create another huge burden for you to carry in life, so just take it easy and shoot how you like using what you have.
I normally take it a little further by processing my own film (more about that in a later post), simply because I enjoy doing it and using different chemicals and techniques gives me a lot of pleasure, but you don’t have to do that.
That’s all there’s to it! Very simple indeed and using these rules I have come away with many shots that have been published, too, so I must be doing something right, eh?