Creating the Film Noir Look in Lightroom

One of my favorite photographic styles is the so-called Noir look reminiscent of Hollywood’s post-war Film Noir period of the 1940s-1950s. I’m also intrigued by the device of the femme fatale in the films of that era. This “bad girl” is often depicted as a sophisticated manipulator capable of luring any man off the straight-and-narrow into a world where every action leads to his inevitable downfall, or at least much regret.

The proletarian version is often depicted as a crude and obvious she-devil who is brazen enough to throw up her own red flags for anyone to see. Her victims probably deserve every bit of grief they get as they are willing to ignore their better judgement, or in some cases, think they can turn the tables on her. In the former version, the male counterpart in the movie tends to be the “good guy” and his doom comes as a result of falling for the strong and independent temptress who has no regard for the social order of the day.

The underlying message is that men need to stay in control because smart, ambitious women are invariably devious; men coming home from war need to tend to the family and maintain the patriarchy.  The Noir period gives us a fascinating look into the male-dominated fears of post-war American society.

An Easy Way to Create The Film Noir Look

I often like to loosely recreate the feel of Film Noir.  For this image, I placed a single light source high and above the model.  The light produced was good for contrast but too broad and didn’t give me the tight circle of light one associates with old Hollywood glamour and Noir.  For that, I would have needed a grid attachment over my light, barn doors, a snoot, or some other way to narrow the beam to achieve the look I eventually created in post.  Just as post-process vignette can provide the visual effect of a tighter light, so can Lightroom’s Gradient filter.  The illustrations below will give you an idea of how this can be done.


Focused Light for Noir Effect

Final Noir look enhanced with Lightroom and Photoshop.

Original Light Pattern

Original light pattern.

Lightroom screenshot

Lightroom’s Gradient filter was used to darken the areas above and below the subject.

I could have created the same effect in Photoshop, but doing it in Lightroom allowed me to set the effect on one image and add it to several others in the the sequence as a batch (selecting all similar images and pressing “Sync”). After that, I was free to tweak the effect on any of the images that needed it.




Awesome tutorial. I find that nowadays I can do a huge part of my postprod easily in Lightroom. Adobe just added LR4 to their creative cloud, so it’s a nobrainer to get LR and put it into service. For my personal taste, I would add some film grain (a Lightroom preset) and some pretty closed blinds somewhere in the background. The film noir kinda characters liked to hide from the light, so they closed their blinds whenever possible :-)

Ed Verosky

Absolutely. The blinds were another constant, as was a “tilt” to help give the feeling of disorientation and anxiety. Blind shadows created an almost “prison bar” suggestion in the imagery. Very dramatic.

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