One of the things that defines classic film noir is the exaggerated lighting that shows up so vividly in black and white, making the scenery appear menacing and off-kilter, and the characters seem either exposed (as they’re bathed in light) or suspicious (as in, hidden in shadow). And without the element of movement, there is even more opportunity to capture the drama and dimension that only black and white film can produce. However, you can’t just aim and shoot as you would with vacation snapshots. You really need to understand how different lighting techniques can be used to achieve targeted effects. Of course, trial and error can get you where you want to go with your photography over time, but why stumble along when you can learn from those who have gone before? Black and white photography has been around since George Eastman promised that all users had to do was push the button back in 1888 (and even earlier). So there’s a lot of experience for you to learn from. Here are just a few ways that you can use light to influence your photographs.
The first tip for any new photographer interested in playing with light is to know your way around your camera. In truth, if you’re using a digital camera instead of a manual to shoot black and white, you should definitely switch it up and go for old-school in order to enjoy more control over the outcome. But if you’ve never held a manual camera, you’re going to need to learn how to use the light meter, the f-stop, and the aperture (and how manipulating these tools will change the light situation). There are books that cover this basic information, and a good starter is The Kodak Guide to 35mm Photography.
Now that you’ve got your camera situation sorted out, it’s time to learn a few techniques that the pros have been using for years. One that is great for portraiture is 3-point lighting. To accomplish this flattering and dramatic effect (which will make the subject appear to pop out from the darker background) you must place your lights in a certain way to create what was known in old Hollywood as a halo. To achieve this effect, you’ll need three lights, none of them directly facing the subject. Instead, arrange them so that one is hitting the front and one side of the face (at a 45-degree angle), a second hits directly on the other side of the face, and a third shines down from behind the subject. This will largely remove shadows from the face (creating a soft look) while bringing the subject forward from the background.
You might also want to try something altogether more dramatic by using harsh overhead lighting to create long shadows (giving your subject’s face a malicious, mask-like appearance). Or you might want to make the setting into the subject and place gobos (or stencil-like covers) over the lights to produce patterns on a background. There are literally hundreds of ways you can use light to create contrast (or reduce it), infuse drama, or convey emotion through your photography. Although a short post is not enough to cover them all, you should definitely read up on techniques and go out on your own to try the ones that interest you.