Thursday, 26 May 2016

Noir Photography In The Street

Noir literally translates to black and in photography (moving and still) usually refers to the genre with harsh high contrast lighting with lots of shadows, moody, dramatic, bleak sleazy scenes. The genre first came to light in early moving picture film making but wasn't named as a genre until the 1940s when film critiques Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier did so. Still a very popular method of lighting both moving and still images especially when high drama is involved or at least perceived.

Why is Noir important for Street photography (the photography of people in streets)?
When you're capturing images of people in public you might be wanting to capture a moment or you might wanting to tell a story. Noir lends itself to telling stories but isn't everything you need. You also need to set a scene. Your image will combine the street scene with the person to best create a story in the viewers imagination.

The key aspects in my mind that make a Noir style photograph are

  • Dimension - a person lit from the front is flat, noir lighting because it comes from one side and or above more strongly than any other source gives varying shadow across your character making them more three dimensional
  • Contrast - the character needs to be the focus of the scene but not necesarily stand out from it - keeping them in the shadows with their boundaries highlighted does this
  • Drama - perceived or real the drama needs to be in the image - what are they doing - where are they going - is that a gun?
  • Shadows - the shadows in a noir image are as much characters as the characters themselves - capturing shadows or reflections adds to the feel of dimensionality we discussed earlier

How to light it your Noir photography

First up, forget about everything you've learned in how to light people. Dump those ideas of soft even light. Bring on the harsh contrast.

The important characteristics for me are

  • Light from the side (above is a side!) - doesn't have to be from left or right - diagonal lighting works well
  • Accentuate the borders of your character / model with light
  • Use diffuse dim lighting to bring out the character's face along with the harsh lighting giving shapes and shadows

This is pretty easy to do in studio with a dark background, harsh light with a grid and a modelling lamp through a diffusing white screen or blind but how do you do it in the street?

Fortunately after dark street scape lighting really lends itself to the Noir style. Brightly lit shop windows highlight passers by in the generally darker street scene. Harsh overhead street lighting and neon signs provide an uplift and dimensionality to the characters by casting strong light from above contrasting with the darkness of the street itself. Rain is your friend in Noir as it yields interesting reflections that add to the scene and can cast some soft lighting upwards to better show your character.

The best news about this style is that you can deliberately expose for the highlights which means you can use low ISO and you'll still get quick shutter times eliminating blur (unless you want to add it deliberately of course). Manual exposure is a good bet for Noir although using aperture priority with a stopped down exposure compensation can also work.

As a general tip, shoot with the light at an angle to you, this provides for highlighting the character without creating a silhouette. You can certainly have silhouette in Noir (there is one in my examples below) but generally I try to avoid them.

Body language between a couple - about to go in for the first kiss

someone under a light waiting alone checking their phone - stood up or waiting - intrigue

Walking on the beach - solitude

One area of experimentation is using tilt to achieve your story telling - traditionally photography is dead level in either landscape or portrait, using a tilted image and give more story telling - as an example if your subject is about to head up a short flight of stairs, you can give the idea that there are more stairs and they're on a real journey by getting down low and tilting the scene to avoid showing that the stairs end or in the case below the tilt is accentuating the dancer's movements making sure to convey that she is moving.

Capturing motion - feeling of frenzy

The crowd - you see they're all watching along with their shadows - you can imagine it might be a performance, it might be invading aliens about to come out of their ship

Situation - cold, solitude, engrossed in reading

It's not always about shadows - sometimes its about feeling and location

If you would like to see more Noir Street images then visit my collection on Google Plus. You don't need to sign in to view.

Does Noir have to be black and white? No, it doesn't you can still achieve the same effects with colour. I personally prefer black and white and most people expect Noir to be black and white but using colour effectively is quite valid. One thing to watch for if you're using colour is that black and white is very forgiving of sensor noise, you can drag your blacks down to even them out, this can help get rid of a lot of noise. If you're shooting with colour, depending on the sensor and ISO used to achieve the shot you might have a lot of noise to deal with.

Why would you add colour? Colours mean things to people, blue is cold, red is angry, yellow is warm and friendly. If you simply shoot a colour scene then you're not likely to achieve that Noir feel, but if you add single colours into the scene as your side lighting then amazing things can happen. This is most likely to work in studio or by adding light in the field but then we're stepping away from Street photography. In the street you might have some well placed neon. Generally there is plenty of red in Chinatown, plenty of blue in Greek areas, plenty of warm yellows in modern shops. Use your surroundings.

An advanced technique is adding shadows to tell more of the story, this wouldn't appear much in Street Noir, but from time to time you see it. A shadow of vertical bars cast through a stair railing could fall onto a character to imply a gaol, a shadow of a roaring lion statue could imply courage.