Shooting old Hollywood / film noir styles

Got to do something fun this past weekend - a photoshoot styled after classic Hollywood and film noir photos. Our fabulous organizer, Rose, wrangled five models, costumes, and props into Richmond's historic train station. Thank goodness we shot indoors - it was a torrid 90 degrees outside, too hot and humid for late April.

Lighting was, on the surface, dead simple: just one flash, half of the time with a snoot. But like all things in life, the devil is in the details. This kind of hard, direct light is unforgiving; half an inch either way made all the difference in how shadows fell over the models' faces. i would have loved to use the huge Fresnel spotlights found in the old film studios, but that requires equally huge applications of electricity and manpower!

Model, lens, and lighting test

For this shoot, I rented Fujifilm's 56 mm f/1.2 lens. This lens has gathered quite a reputation: it's supposedly endowed with an unbeatable combination of build quality, sharpness, and sublime creaminess in the out-of-focus areas. I just had to find out for myself.

Paired with my old but trusty Fujifilm X-Pro1 camera, I shot three models in a studio. I used a 3-light setup. The key light was set above the model and was either pointed directly at the model's face or bounced off a white umbrella. The hair light was set slightly behind the model, gelled blue, and flagged so as to not shine into the lens. The background was painted white, and I lit it with a red-gelled strobe. Finally, I set a silver bounce at the model's waist level to fill in the shadows under her chin. Exposure was around f/5.6 at ISO 200. I shot JPGs, and set white balance off my X-Rite ColorChecker Passport.

These are straight JPGs from the camera, with no more than a 1/3-stop adjustment to exposure. All i can say is "Wow!" The images from this camera/lens combo are simply divine, and I'm very tempted to make this lens a permanent part of my toolkit.

Testing models and equipment

Outdoors on a cold, wintry day with the fabulous Sarah Moore. It was windy and freezing in Old Town, Alexandria VA and Sarah was nursing a cold, but she wanted to try this outfit. What a pro - she gutted it out and never complained.

Old Town is overflowing with brick buildings and other interesting facades. There are some warehouses just around the corner from Chadwicks, and that is where we found this especially nice shade of green.

Equipment notes: Fujifilm X-Pro1 with 35 mm f/1.4 lens. Beautiful lens, beautiful colors, but focusing speed is a tad leisurely. But that's not necessarily a bad thing: it slows down the pace and makes the process much more deliberate.

Just press the shutter? Hardly ...

The human eye is remarkably forgiving. Walk into a typical building and your vision (1) automatically adjusts from the bright outdoors to a much dimmer interior and (2) compensates for the vastly different color and quality of light.

A camera isn't quite so smart, so we photographers have to work to make it mimic what we see.

In my assignment to photograph the Arlington Mill Residences for Washington Workplace, I knew that the lobby area would be especially challenging. Here's what my Nikon saw when I first walked into the lobby.


The overhead lights are warmer than daylight. Luckily they're reasonably consistent with each other. But their brightness is a problem. If I set the proper exposure for the furniture, the overheads are totally blown out and have no detail.

Turning 180 degrees, here's the view towards the entrance. As you can see, it's glass, and lets in daylight. Fortunately the daylight wasn't too strong, and even though it was a different color temperature than the room lights, it would be relatively weak.

I set up 2 strobes behind the camera, facing into the little corners formed by the foyer. I needed a broad swath of light, as diffuse as possible; ideally I would have liked to have an entire wall, instead of just the little corners, so I spent quite a bit of time varying the height, distance, and angle of the strobes. Here's a photo where I got it wrong:

Eventually, it all worked out. Nice, even light across the lobby. Balance camera exposure and strobe brightness so that the overhead lights look like they're on, and you can still see detail in the lighting fixtures. Here's the final photo:

Not bad. Given more time and budget, I would have cleaned up the reflections in the glass doors by shooting more images with the lights in different positions, then compositing in Photoshop. But the client was happy, and so was I.

Scouting locations

For these photos of Richard and his beloved Bianchi bicycle, I considered several locations: a forested path, a parking garage, and a brick-lined alley.  Luckily, we're both near the Dark Star Park - Arlington's first major commissioned art project - in Rosslyn. The strange, planet-like sculptures were perfect for this photoshoot.

Next was the question of when. There is a very tall building to the west of the park, so the only chance of direct sunlight was in the morning. A week before our shoot, I scouted the park from just before sunrise to an hour after. The quality of the light, especially around the spheres, changed rapidly. I would only have 10-15 minutes of suitable light. I also knew that I needed to pack reflectors, flashes, and umbrellas to fill-in the deep shadows.

The actual shoot went very quickly, and I have to admit to being stressed by the shifting light. However, it would have been much worse had I not been able to pre-visualize the lighting, determine the sequence of shots I needed to take, and prepare accordingly.