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Behind the Scenes: Film Noir

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Jan 24

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There are a few key factors in designing lighting for a single image or for a series. The first thing to keep in mind is what type of mood or feeling you want to convey in the images. Lighting can play a huge role in the mood of an image, so it is important to tie he two together in the conceptual stage. For this series we wanted to go for a bit of a somber mood, and the lighting reflects that.

We used gels on most lights to add interest and a fog machine to add atmosphere, making the lighting visible. We stayed away from “edgy” lighting which would have placed multiple rim lights on the subjects and went for something a bit more natural. The goal for the series was to make images that didn’t necessarily look they were lit with strobes, rather with lights that would exist in the environment. For example the photo of the two girls in the car has a red light coming from behind, and your brain assumes that it is coming from a tail light.

When the sun goes down you tend to see much warmer lighting, so it makes sense to gel your lights with CTO gels to match that mood. Strobe lighting set to 5600 degree white balance which is perfect for matching daylight. The problem is that at night you have a light that looks completely out of place. Gels are inexpensive and can make a huge impact on your images. A good rule of thumb when using gels is to go with colors that may be present in your environment. Using 3 bright blue rim lights would only work if this person was in a very high tech setting where this type of lighting may exist.


Production for a photo shoot like this can be huge, here are a few tips on how to keep costs down and make sure everything happens as it should. Be sure you plan out every detail in advance, as there are a lot of things that can go wrong. You don’t have to know exactly what each shot is going to look like beforehand, but it is a good idea to know who will be in each shot and what shots will be attempted at each location.

To save money on locations try using places that don’t have to lose business to accomodate you. Most bars and some restaurants are closed during the day so it is not a big deal to have a photo shoot off hours. They are more than happy to get some extra exposure as well. A graveyard caretaker will love to have you over, it can get boring hanging out with dead people all day.

Instead of renting vehicles drive a few cars or find someone you know who owns a large SUV and borrow it for the day. If you can find models who can do their own makeup or hair, you can go that route if those elements are not the most important part of the shoot.

Using Props

It sounds a bit weird to refer to a ’64 Thunderbird as a prop, but in this case that is exactly what it is. It is another element used to drive (pun) the story forward. Using props can make a huge difference in the production value of an image. Often these things are easier to get that you may think. Chances are if you ask all your friends someone would probably know someone with an old car. We source people we know for props and also check things like Facebook and craigslist. A lot of the time these people don’t even want to be paid, a cool photo of their prop is good enough.

Color Palette

Having a color palette in mind when shooting can make a big difference in your shots. For this series we knew that the darks were going to be blue and green for the most part, so that helped us choose wardrobe that would be appropriate for the shot. In this photo we color the elevator cyan to contrast with the red dress. You don’t have to use complimentary colors in all of your images, but it helps to get your subject to stand out of their environment and creates a nice balance.

Check out this awesome color scheme designer to get some inspiration for your next photo shoot.

Make sure to become part of the Phlearn Family on Facebook, conversate with us on Twitter, and #hashtag your Phlearn inspirations on Instagram. We want to know what the Phlearn community social chatter is about, and who is sharing it. You all keep us motivated to do our best.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=758930487 Jonas Brauer

    Awesome as usual!

  • Gerardine

    Fantastic series!

  • Pingback: Mastering a Photo’s Mood and Feeling with Film Noir | Fstoppers

  • Pingback: Mastering a Photo’s Mood and Feeling with Film Noir @ Spotofoto

  • balint.alovits


  • http://www.facebook.com/dale.a.richards Dale Antony Richards

    Very refreshing episode, love the styling!

  • http://twitter.com/Bazo125 Bazo

    Amazing! I love your “Behind the Scenes” videos :) I can’t wait for the next episode of ‘BS” :)
    Best Regards

  • WayDen

    Phenomenal work. I absolutely love the fire escape image! I’ve only bought one Phlearn pro before, but something tells me my second purchase isn’t far behind…

  • Alfonso Bonvini

    You’re definitely the biggest fish on the net~!

    Love your work everyday more~!

  • http://www.facebook.com/iamnicwarrington Nic Warrington

    See the inspiration from the Erik Almas series. Great work! Agree about the fire escape image – wow!

  • kefoster

    Thank you so much for sharing! I can’t wait to get to this level!

  • Nathan Peppin

    LOVE!!!! When is the Pro Tutorial coming???????????????

  • Pingback: Mastering a Photo’s Mood and Feeling with Film Noir | Photo Junkiez

  • Jay Stebbins

    Simply Stunning! Would love to see a “Phlearn Pro” on this entire shoot as well.

  • http://twitter.com/LeeLovePhoto Lee Love

    Nice job and everyone involved should be proud of this project. Great Results

  • Bryan

    This was a wonderful shoot, from the lighting to theme. The question I have is, how much did this shoot cost to produce? Could you break it down, from the lighting, hair stylist, make up, locations, wardrobe, extras like the car and fog machine?

  • http://twitter.com/danielmoroyoqui Daniel Moroyoqui

    I agree!

  • http://www.facebook.com/tristan.rhodes.58 Tristan Rhodes

    Terrific work! It’s crazy that you were able to shoot all of those locations in a 14 hours!

  • http://twitter.com/JHPhotoDesign Josh Hanna

    Would LOVE a pro tutorial on how to get these colors and tones!

  • Marius

    The soundtrack is amazing, can I purchase it somewhere?

    By the way, the production is amazing!

Episode Transcript

Aaron: Welcome behind the scenes of our recent photo shoot Film Noir. Hey guys, my name is Aaron Nace. You can find me on Twitter @aknacer. Today we’re going to take a look behind the scenes at Film Noir, our recent series, and we’re going to talk a little bit about lighting, some of the problems we overcame, the ideas about creating an entire series together and a little bit of a post-production.

Your job as the photographer for the most part is to create a way for your viewers to get into the photos you take, and including emotion is a great way to do it because your viewers will see emotion in the photograph and will feel it in themselves, and that creates that connection. Another great way to do it is with a series of images. It’s no coincidence that a lot of the photos you see picked up on the internet and blog are a part of a series, because they give multiple reference points for a person to see like, okay, this image relates to that image, relates to that image, relates to that image, and it makes everything come together and feel a little bit more comfortable to the viewers, who are looking at it as opposed to a standalone.

Now production on a series like this is huge. We shot for 14 hours, we had six different locations, we rented a van, a fog machine and a generator; all those from different places. We had three models. We had a hairstylist, a wardrobe stylist and a make-up artist. We had two behind-the-scenes shooters, a first assistant, me as the photographer, and all of this came together great and I couldn’t have done any of it alone.

The first location we shot at was a bar. This is a great location because bars, for the most part, are closed during the day so you could shoot during the day and they can still open up for business at night. One of the challenges was the lighting just really wasn’t that great during the day. They’re built to look good at night. We had to create our lighting from scratch. To do that we used a soft box coming in from the outside, which made it look like a little bit later in the day with that light coming through. We also used a couple of parabolic reflectors to bring up the overall ambience in the bar, and we used a spotlight on the back-left corner of the image with a CTO gel on it to give the image a little bit of a rim and a little bit more interest with that extra color in there.

The bar was great because it had a lounge downstairs and we used that for our second location, which we wanted to be the seduction shot. We worked with models for the most part, not necessarily actors, but we do ask our models to act things out. They don’t have to talk, they don’t have lines. In this case, for instance, we had them come through the door on the left, and actually pretend to be making out and things like that as they walked over and got on the couch. We were taking photographs of this whole process, and what happens is everything tends to be a lot more natural rather than just telling a person to pose in a certain way, we can capture that actual movement as it’s happening.

To replicate natural lighting in this lounge environment there was a lamp off from the camera right. We placed another light off to the side of that with a CTO gel and that was shining back into our subjects. It looks like the lamp is actually lighting all of our subjects when in reality, for the most part, it’s that other light. We also used a couple of pair parabolic back behind the models also gelled a little warm to fill in that light.

You can't have a Film Noir series without a graveyard. We found a great graveyard to shoot in. We got a couple of props that are really important for this series. One was the 1964 Thunderbird. We also rented a generator and a fog machine and this is off the camera left. We basically had the generator and the fog machine going for the entire shot which generated a ton of fog and drifted on through the set. It was completely clear day. All the fog was created by the fog machine.

The fog machine also helped to keep the light beams of the cars so you could see the light beams actually in the fog. We also used lights off the camera left which were gelled the same color as the car lights, to make it look like the car lights were lighting our subjects as well. The right side would’ve been completely dark for those subjects because, again, it’s getting a little bit late so we used a parabolic reflector off for the camera right, this one without a gel so it’s going to be a little bit cooler in temperature and that would imitate the light that’s actually going on in the ambient environment.

Since we got such an awesome car we had to do some photographs in the car and we photographed both of the girls and we photographed the guy as well. The story of the guy was photographed before the graveyard event happened and the girls were photographed after the graveyard happened. With the girls shot, again, we had the light coming in from the camera right, and that was gelled [inaudible 00:04:41] CTO, and that’s basically like looking as though it was bouncing up something what was going on with the headlights of the car. Then off to the left we have a red-gelled strobe and that’s looking like something going on with the taillights.

We also have another light in the back and that’s actually the rental van that we got for the shot. We thought it might be interesting if it looked like there was another car behind this car as well. Straight up rental van but you can't really tell. It’s a little bit out of focus and that’s one of cool parts of the shot. Shooting on a fire escape was probably logistically the hardest shot I’ve ever done. Our subject was three storeys up, outside, on a freezing cold windy Chicago night and we had to light the shot. All the light you see in this image is completely fake. None of it is real. The main light is coming from the top, and that’s a strobe that’s actually on a grate right above her and that’s still CTO as well.

We have another light that boomed 18 feet up, camera left, and that’s got a CTO gel as well. That’s what's carving some details there in her face. We have another light that’s behind the camera, camera right, that had no gel on it and that’s looking maybe a different street light with a different color temperature on it. We’re lighting a subject with these huge lights boomed up in the air and she’s three storeys up. To create a little bit more interest, we also used a fog machine. The fog machine was down on the ground and we generated fog right in this corner here and it spiraled up into the shot.
As you can imagine, I'm standing on the ground there with my camera pointing straight up and we've got fogs spiraling up and she was standing over there in the wind. Everyone on the shoot was afraid of heights, including me. We were all freaking out but the shot came out amazing and we’re so happy we did it. It all just came together for this one moment and sometimes you just have to take a chance. Even if you have a crazy idea like shooting outside in a fire escape at night, pull it off because you never know, that might be your favorite shot.

The same building with the fire escape had these amazing old elevators with the doors that pull up accordion style. We decided to use that as a makeshift cookaloris, which mostly I just wanted to say that word, but it’s when you put something between your light and your background, it creates some shadows and patterns with your light. All of the shadows in the background you see here are actually created by the door and having that light shine out in between those creates that really interesting pattern.

We also had a light inside of the elevator which is a little bit warmer, so the light combined with the warm light and the cool light from outside brought together these [inaudible 00:07:07] to make them super dramatic and very cool while adding that extra little bit of interest in with those shadows. Bringing it all together in post was really important and huge part of making the Film Noir series, because we wanted to make sure that they all tied in together to tell a story. In Film Noir you’re going to get a lot of blues and greens in the shadows, yellows and reds in the highlights. All these images after been editing had been color toned as well and all of them brought together to match each other in style.

Thanks for joining us on our journey through Film Noir. I hope you guys enjoyed the images and a behind-the-scenes look at how the images were actually made. We’ll look for a tutorial coming soon.

Thanks again guys and I’ll Phlearn you later. Bye everyone.

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