How to take film noir shots with your camera!


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?



About filmcamera999

ME & MY PASSION! ok, you probably looked at the length of this "about me" page and thought, god, what's wrong with this guy!....does he have to start telling us his life story or something!!? well, youve come here now anyways, so why not hear what im like as a person, eh? ive been using film cameras for well over 30 first one being the family yashicamat twin lens! over the years, ive both bought sold and collected film cameras...too many to tell the truth! in fact, ive been buying and selling cameras well before the internet came on the scene, so anything you purchase from me is backed by my self-styled moneyback promise.....if you dont like what youve bought, send it back within 14 days and you get all your money arguments!! WHERE I STAND ON THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION! yes, i do use digital as well, but only as a ready-reckoner...i try and take most shots with my simple 2megapixel digicam....if the shot looks good, i pull out my film camera and shoot! i most defintely do not believe in digital manipulation of photographs....that in my eyes is not photography...its cheating! WHERE I USED TO LIVE, WHERE I AM NOW & WHAT I WOULD LIKE TO DO! i used to live in Ontario, Canada, but moved back to the UK a little while ago (its a long story..!)...but now i'm living in the one place i always wanted to be...Vancouver, BC..the next best thing to paradise on earth! as i work as a freelance writer as well as other things, i often find hat my work takes me to europe for short spells, so i get to travel a lot...not a blessing, as i just hate long flights! im a qualified Quality Assurance guy (you know...ISO 9000, auditing, documentation etc) ....99% of my skill-set is transferable so i can handle any admin or documentation-related roles....see you in BC! otherwise, i specialise in ISO 9000 auditing and documentation. my dream? to have my own thriving camera shop in Vancouver BC, whilst living in the mountains somewhere.....the best of both worlds!
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