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Twinkle, Twinkle Little Noir: Working with Ambient Light and Flash in Digital Photography

Derek Pell discusses how to work with flash and ambient light in digital photography.
This chapter is from the book
  • "A moon half gone from the full glowed through a ring of mist among the branches of the eucalyptus trees..."
  • —The Big Sleep

Shadow and light. What else is there in this crazy game called life? It's the Big Mystery, best as I can tell. Solve it and the game's over; you win. As for photography, crack the riddle of light and you've got it made in the shade, no pun intended.

What first attracted me to San Diego was the quality of the light. Sometimes alien and surreal, other times biblical, as garish as a Hollywood epic. I'm transfixed by the contrast between harsh desert sun and murky pools of shadow. Stalactite shapes, stark and edgy, or painterly, lantern-like, ambient light.

Lawrence Durrell's book Spirit of Place is about capturing the essence of a location. I'm trying to capture visuals that define a city's core. It's hard to get a handle on, and difficult to explain in textbook fashion. A poem would get you closer to what I mean. It's a subjective enigma, an "eye of the beholder" thing. It's what drives me to keep squeezing the shutter.

I'm not always successful in my quest. Sometimes the light is perfect but there's no subject in sight. Or that perfect light fades before I've even taken out the camera. Light can be as elusive as a pickpocket on the 4th of July.

Ambient Light

While walking around my neighborhood one overcast day—perfect weather for making pictures—a Mediterranean archway presented itself. The soft light accentuated the texture of the facade, and a bird of paradise intruded like a blood-stained talisman (Fig. 1). Taking the photo felt like writing the first chapter of a novel without words. The digital frame I added gives the effect of a doorway into the picture. The viewer enters and follows the thread.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1 Omen (2009). Photo by Derek Pell.

Be careful when applying a digital frame. Make sure it complements the photo instead of hogging all the attention. I discuss both virtual and real frames in Chapter 9, "I've Been Framed!"

Fig. 1 is more interesting to me than the pretty sunset in Fig. 2 because it tells a story, or at least prods the viewer to imagine one. There's no story in the sunset photo. It's a cliché that can't match the majesty of the scene when you're standing there.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2 La Jolla (2009). Photo by Derek Pell.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying you shouldn't shoot sunsets. What I'm getting at is this: Nice ambient light, in and of itself, doesn't make an interesting photo. The right light on the right subject does. So when you think about light, keep that in mind.

When I'm out to score some noir, shadows rise to the surface like shark fins. The fire escape in Fig. 3 is a case in point. The shadows are sharp as knives and convey a sense of drama with their Dutch angularity. (AUTHOR'S NOTE: A "Dutch angle" is a film noir technique where the camera is tilted to the side so that the shot is composed with the horizon at an angle to the bottom of the frame. It makes the audience uneasy.) Stare at the photo for a minute, and it's easy to imagine the shadow of some shapely gams rushing down the stairs pursued by a figure with a gun.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3 Dramatic natural light provides texture and knife-like noir shadows.

When taking a shot like this, exercise caution. It's easy to overexpose and blow out the highlights. Try underexposing 1/2 stop or so to preserve texture and retain detail in the shadow areas (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4

Fig. 4 Cropped detail showing the texture of the wall and detail in the shadows.

The photo was taken at high noon, with a brazen sun making trouble: mondo contrast. The exposure was 1/640 at f/10, ISO 200, zoomed to 27mm.

I converted the original from color to black and white in Photoshop to emphasize the noir feeling. But, usually, my brand of neonoir likes a little color to bleed through.

In general, noir lighting is kick-in-the-pants high contrast and black shadows. It's the opposite of the soft, diffused light found in portraits. For fashion, well, the rules are always being broken by talented photographers and—right now—hard, flat lighting is hot. (I discuss ring flash later in this chapter.)

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