How to Create a Hollywood Film Noir Portrait

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I have always had a soft spot for 1940s and 50s Film Noir, where there is always a gorgeous Femme Fatale, whose charms are most likely going to get you killed. The light in those movies is the key to the ambience of mystery and danger, and I love the way the scenes are composed with smoke, shadows, and the black and white high drama with dim light aesthetic.

These movies were mostly low-budget productions shot on location in city streets, with an abundance of night scenes, where crime is the main plot. Low-key lighting is the common thread of Film Noir, with harsh light that create deep shadows, resulting in a high contrast black and white.

As a photographer the actresses’ portraits that were used by the studios for promotion really fascinate me, and I guess it influences a lot of my portraiture work.

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In this article I am going to follow the steps to create this image that is a recreation of a Hollywood Film Noir portrait, done with modern equipment, and digital post-production techniques.

Research

As for every photography work, it is always a good idea to do some research, and look for inspiration. Here I used references from one of my favorite movies of all time, Touch of Evil, directed by the great Orson Welles in 1958.

Camera and lens

The choice of equipment is an important starting point. In this particular case I used a Canon 5D III body with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens. This is my favorite lens when it comes to portrait work, it offers the perfect combination of good sharpness and awesome bokeh.

Lighting equipment

These images were originally lit, in most cases, with incandescent high-power bulbs, and the quality and direction of the light was mostly controlled with barn doors and Fresnel spotlights.

I decided to use two Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites, controlled by a Canon ST-E3-RT Speedlite transmitter. This created a simple setup with a gridded softbox working as a hard key light on the model’s face, and a 20º grid as a hair light to separate the model from the background.

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Exposure

Usually in studio portrait images, I try to decide the exposure based on the depth of field I want to create on the image. In this particular case, I chose to use f/8.0, as it gave me enough depth of field in the face area, with the 85mm focal length.

The shutter speed is the second important factor and I chose to use 1/125, as it blocked any possible ambient light, and only register the light from the flash.

The ISO 100 is enough for the flash power available, and offers me a clean and noiseless image.

Lighting diagram

Every time I have an idea for an image I try to put it on paper. Most of the time it is just doodles in my little black book, but it helps me to visualize the setup, and the light ambiance that I want to create. Here is the quick sketch I did for this image, which represents the lighting diagram and technical information for the photo shoot.

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Light metering

After setting the starting point values for the camera, it’s time to calculate the light position and power, to create the desired effect.

The background was white so a distance to subject of seven feet was enough to turn it black, which works much better with a blonde model.

The idea was to have light on half of the model’s face, and a quick fall-off to the other side, creating a mysterious mood in the image. The gridded softbox was ideal for this effect. The 20º grid created a rim light on the hair and a ratio of 2:1 to the main light, so metering was f/8.0 for the main light and f/11 for the hair light.

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The click time

Now that everything is set, it’s time to click. Even tough the final image was meant to be black and white, I captured it in color mode as it gives me better choices for conversion in post-production.

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Post-production

There are many tools and plugins for black and white image conversion. In this case I used the Photoshop’s black and white tool which is a simple but effective solution.

Image > Adjustments > Black & White

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A few adjustments to the red and yellow channel gave me the right contrast on the skin and overall image, creating the dramatic mood.

So, here is my approach to the Film Noir portrait. It sure was fun. If you give this technique a try, please share your results and images in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Ivo Guimaraes is a Portuguese photographer and college teacher. His passion for lighting and image editing has gotten him to the next level in studio photography and led him to work with leading brands in the Portuguese market. You can check some more of his work on his blog and Youtube channel.

  • xplorr

    Thank you Ivo, for your great contribution!
    Something that I felt was missing is the fact that film noir photographers often used extreme boukeh in their portraits. This resulted in only the eyes and face being sharp, the rest out of focus. Also I added a slight sepia tint and some glow, due to lens and substrate imperfections at that time. (Sorry, but I worked on a very low resolution version of your photo from this site. If I could lend a high-res version, I could create a high-res version of what I want to say). ps. I used FocalPoint2 to create the bookeh, NIK Color Efex Pro to create the glow and sepia tint.

  • xplorr

    Thank you Ivo, for your great contribution!
    Something that I felt was missing is the fact that film noir photographers often used extreme boukeh in their portraits. This resulted in only the eyes and face being sharp, the rest out of focus. Also I added a slight sepia tint and some glow, due to lens and substrate imperfections at that time. Also I added some local contrast (clarity) and a subtile vignette. (Sorry, but I worked on a very low resolution version of your photo from this site. If I could lend a high-res version, I could create a high-res version of what I want to say). ps. I used FocalPoint2 to create the bookeh, NIK Color Efex Pro to create the glow and sepia tint.

  • Debra Moore

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  • Johnny Craig

    Love Film Noir style portraiture. I did this for my FMP at Uni this year. This is the glamorous Helen.

  • Joan Rennie

    Superb! Very impressed!

  • Martha Daniels

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  • Thank you for your comments but in future please do not download and edit our author’s images. They are copyright and belong to them and no one else has the right to alter them without their express permission or unless you find them on a site under a creative commons license which allows that. If you want to demonstrate something please use your own images. Thanks.

  • xplorr

    Excuse me Darlene. I had no intention of spreading around any images from contributor and author Ivo Guimaraes, which I admire.
    My only purpose was to add some extra personal touches to this wonderful contribution of Ivo, only for educational purposes and sharing my thoughts to your audience. It will not happen again.

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  • Thanks for that. We’ve had issues in the past with writer’s images being used without permission so we are careful about this for their protection.

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  • Hector Quiteno

    Sorry, I directed my comments to Darlene Hildebrandt, about her message to Xplorr.

  • Tim Lowe

    Ooops. It’s called FILM noir for a reason. Desaturated digital images just don’t have the same look.

  • I prefer to use my Fresnels, it’s the only way to get the true hard edge with soft fall off and the look of the real thing. Strobes with softboxes don’t look right, too soft on the edge, in fact there’s no edge at all, because it’s so soft. I also shoot in B/W there is no converting.
    Good tutorial though, I just prefer to do it like the old guys did.
    if you want to check out more of my b/w stuff go here:
    http://www.darkmansdarkroom.com/galleries/blackwhite-hollywood-glamour/

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