The concept of lighting for film noir is deep and complicated topic but a great subject for modern filmmakers. The common thread of film noir lighting is low key lighting – a style called Chiaroscuro in the art world. Chiaroscuro emphasized shadows and harsh lighting to create a sense of depth and volume in paintings. Let’s turn to the traditional three point lighting setup that is the fundamental system all filmmakers learning how to light will start with.
The first and most important light is the key light – this is usually the brightest and most dominant light of a setup. Film Noir generally uses “hard lights” – the hardness or softness of a light is the type of shadows it creates.
Hard shadows almost define the film noir look: be it the alternating patterns of dark and light slashes from venetian blinds to a silhouette of a man running down an alleyway. To determine where to put your lights, here’s a tip from John Alton, the director of photography on “The Big Combo”. Since shadows are so essential to film noir – let’s talk about a few of the tools often used to shape light and shadow.

Moving beyond the basic three point lighting setup, there’s one light in film noir that gets a lot of play – and that’s the eye light. You can do this in a couple of different ways, you can use flags, which are like solid cookies that don’t let any light through and place them so that they block all but your intended eye light, or you can barn doors – which are leaves that attach to your light fixture which act as mini flags.
Look for source of the light – how much contrast between key and fill and the position of back lights. Cinematographers working in the classical film noir era sought to do the same thing – trying to overcome the bland flatness that bright black and white film could have if there’s not much contrast.
We’ll talk about the three point lighting system in regards to lighting a face mainly for terminology as noir setups could use fewer or considerably more more than three lights.
Complementing the key is the Fill light, which is place opposite of the key light to fill in some of the shadows left by the key. Fill light is not as dominant as we want to exaggerate the contrast and get that low key look.
Hard lights leave sharp edged shadows – this is created by a single point source of light where the light rays are running more or less from a single point in space. He suggests using a test lamp which I have created simply by attaching a simple worklamp and light bulb to the end of a boom pole.

These are cutouts of wood, metal, plastic, or anything that cast a patterned shadow – say like a venetian blind pattern.
These are cutouts made of metal or glass that go inside the light fixture between a light source and a lens.
But they weren’t limited in their talents – that makes this an excellent starting point for studying lighting. The final light of the three point setup is the back light – this light adds an outline to separate the subject from the background. With this test lamp you can walk around the set can test different lighting positions and how they look before moving light fixtures into place. These can cast a perfectly crisp shadow but require specialized lights that have projection lenses.
Soft lights leave fuzzy shadows and are created by a larger area of light where the light rays is being scattered in different directions the illumination is coming from many points.

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