Have a taste for the dramatic? Create your own hard-boiled images with these four simple tips for shooting noir photography.

Noir photography is characterized by moody, dark, and dramatic images that look straight out of a crime scene filmed in the 60s. The images are emotive, and have a highly specific look to them in both lighting, contrast, and composition. By attaching the term “noir” to your images or film, you’re providing viewers with the expectation that the images will be cinematic and bold.

There are two different types of noir photography that are most common. Film noir photography and neo-noir photography.

What is neo-noir photography?

Neo-noir photography is a revival of the genre of film noir. However, the images are created in the 1960s or later. Neo-noir often has a dark, sinister, and shadowy look to it and expresses a bold cinematography style. Examples of neo-noir TV shows can include modern shows such as Euphoria, True Detective, or Mindhunter. These shows often feature a dark and slightly twisted wit, paired with bold lighting and cinematography techniques specific to this genre.

Creating Stylish and Cinematic Images with Noir Photography — Neon Colors
Image by Kristina Kokhanova

What is film noir photography?

Film noir photography, as an era, was popularized by thriller or detective films made in the period of the 1940s and 1950s. The film noir photographic style is similar to neo-noir, often evoking a sense of fatality and menace. Often, these images are in black and white and are grittier than the neo-noir style.

Creating Stylish and Cinematic Images with Noir Photography — Detective in Corner Black and White
Image by Stokkete

Creating neo-noir and film noir photographs

Neo-noir and film noir photographs are an amazing way to make impactful images that are both emotive and distinctive of a specific time and place. They also provide a very unique style to your images. By creating stylized noir photographs for stock, you create cinematic images that can be the perfect fit for a customers marketing campaign. An image that’s entirely different than what they’ve seen before. We’re reimagining stock, and turning to the past to provide modern images in this style for our customers.

In the following article, we’re sharing tips and tricks on how you can create neo-noir and film noir photographs. Use these tips to style your own noir photography shoot, and start creating moody and emotive images that stop people in their tracks.

5 Tips to Create Noir Photography Images

Tip #1: Create Dramatic Scene Lighting with Contrasting Light and Shadows

The first step to create a dark and emotive image starts by creating a scene with the perfect lighting set-up. In noir photography, this means starting with bold backlights. Once you’ve set your backlights, use a light fill light on your subject. This technique creates a high contrast on the subject you are photographing. The fill light on the subject evokes a feeling of a true crime thriller.

Creating Stylish and Cinematic Images with Noir Photography — Asian Model Looking at Camera Red Lights
Image by Dmytro Buianskyi

Picture a detective slightly slumped against a street wall, with an eerie red backlight behind him from the late-night club as he waits for his suspect to arrive. That’s the look you’re trying to achieve in these images.

For more tips on lighting night shots, check out this great video tutorial from the Shutterstock Tutorials team.

Don’t have professional lighting? Try this DIY trick

If you don’t have a professional lighting kit, don’t worry. The same effect can be made with household lights. One tip that we have is to use a car to create that spotlight effect behind your subject with the headlights. Have an assistant or friend spray special effect fog or smoke near the lights to create that dark and dreary effect.

Tip #2: Create Dimension in Noir Portraiture by Lighting from the Side

Side lighting can be another incredible technique to create dramatic shadows, and is a perfect way to light your subject. Rather than lighting from the front, which creates bright and easy-to-see subjects, lighting from the side shows the true depth of the subject and creates intensity. Find more tips in this video tutorial on lighting portraits.

Creating Stylish and Cinematic Images with Noir Photography — Shadow Portrait with Hat
Image by threerocksimages

Where you place lights changes the photograph you take dramatically in noir photography. Shooting from the side doesn’t necessarily mean the light needs to be right on the left or right of the subject. Sometimes, it’s about placing it further back and diagonal to the subject. Experiment with where the light hits your subject’s face, and adjust accordingly to get the right amount of shadow and highlight that you’re looking for.

Tip #3: Have your models emulate a character

The best way to create authentic-looking neo-noir and film noir images is to have your models imagine being a character in a movie. These characters are often the underdogs, or the slightly mysterious, underbelly characters of films. The characters whose story you don’t fully know, and have a hidden past that defines who they are. The audience wants them to succeed, but they have a characteristic that makes you question whether or not you can trust their intentions.

Creating Stylish and Cinematic Images with Noir Photography — Contrasted Image of Woman Portrait Black and White
Image by mazur serhiy

An example of one of these characters is Joaquin Phoenix’s upcoming Joker. In this latest, albeit controversial, version of the Joker- we see Joaquin’s character’s plunge into darkness. With relatable flaws and a character the audience seeks to understand, he grips you into the complexities of what drew him to ultimately become the Joker. Set in the 80s, this is a fantastic example of neo-noir portrayed in modern film.

Tip #4: Compose your scene to create mood

Capturing great noir photographs isn’t only about camera settings and lighting. The style also relies on a high contrast between the subject and the scene or location you are shooting in. By combining the lighting techniques we outlined earlier in this blog post, you should compose your scene to enhance the dark mood you’ve created.

Creating Stylish and Cinematic Images with Noir Photography — Night Garage Neon Sign
Image by Paolo Bona

Create a scene that has a lot of dark corners and elements that will help your subject stand out. Then place your subject accordingly so the scene plays a part in the final photograph you produce. For example, let’s say you have a femme fatale heroine smoking a cigarette in her car. Behind her, your scene should continue to tell that story. You should have a dimly lit street, with no one around, to continue setting that tone of moodiness. The story you tell in noir photography should continue from the subject to the location that you shoot in.

Tip #5: Editing neo-noir and film noir photographs

The beautiful thing about noir photography is that your lighting, subject, and scene do most of the work for you. However, there are a few general tips on editing noir photography to master. The first, adjust your color balance according to the mood you want to evoke. Unless you’re shooting in black and white, you’ll want to amp up saturation on key colors you want to highlight in that image.

Creating Stylish and Cinematic Images with Noir Photography — Girl Looking at Wall Contrast Black and White
Image by Ekaterina Jurkova

One of the most pivotal parts of noir photography editing is the contrast. Often, noir images are heavily contrasted due to the shadows you want to accentuate. However, you can also opt to a more muted contrast if you’re looking for a more 60s film feel.

Vignetting is another technique used often with noir photography which will further help you highlight the subject in your image. If you’ve noticed your subject isn’t popping as much as you’d like, try a light vignette to bring them back in focus.

Noir photography has evolved over the years, whether you love film noir or the neo-noir style. It’s a beautiful, cinematic approach to photography that evokes a wide variety of emotions. This incredible genre of photography is one that every photographer should try at least once, even for a personal project or solely to experiment with light. On your next shoot, create work that inspires you in a new direction you may never considered trying.

Featured Image by Stokkete

For more tips on taking moody photographs, check out these articles: