20 Gritty Examples of Noir Photography

Noir photography is a spin-off of film noir, a genre of Hollywood thriller or crime movies that were popular in the 1940s and 1950s. The genre is marked by its cynicism and dark atmosphere, reflecting the anxiety of American society after World War II. The style is so distinctive that a single photo can capture its atmosphere, making it an easy genre to imitate in photography.

Film noir is rife with clichés that are immediately recognizable and fun to parody. If you want to hold a noir-style photo shoot, here are some noir clichés that work great with photography.

5 Film Noir Clichés for Noir Photography

Low-Key Lighting

A lot of classic film noirs have dramatic shadows and a stark contrast between light and dark, much like chiaroscuro photography. You can get this look with low-key lighting. In other words, you’ll limit the lighting to one source, which will illuminate the scene or subject while casting everything else into shadow. This type of lighting heightens the drama and brings an air of mystery to your subjects.

benoit coppin – Pau

benoit coppin - Pau, Aquitaine

James Drury – …foot of our stairs

James Drury - creepy stairs

Dani Vázquez – El piso de arriba

Dani Vázquez - low key lighting

Steve Garner – Who’s out there?

Steve Garner - film noir

A Hardboiled Detective

The protagonist in film noir is typically a detective figure who’s bitter and cynical of the legal system, which is portrayed as corrupt and/or incompetent. This protagonist is likely a heavy smoker who views life as pointless and unforgiving. Ultimately, this pessimism is exactly what makes the detective an effective crime-solver and the hero of the film.

ro_nya – In need of a way out

ro_nya - Shaftesbury Avenue

Matthew_Tostevin – Lost Memories

Matthew_Tostevin - man drinking

ro_nya – He who chooses the beginning of the road…

ro_nya - man smoking

Amine Fassi – Black Time

Amine Fassi - low key portrait

A Femme Fatale

No film noir is complete without a femme fatale, a clever, seductive woman who’s also lethal. She and the detective invariably get into a relationship of some sort, which doesn’t end well. Perhaps she went to the detective for help solving her husband’s murder, when in fact, she’s the murderer. Whatever the plot is, she’ll be there with her lipstick and high heels.

Pascal Rey – “Parisienne High Heels” The streetwalkers.

Pascal Rey - high heels black and white

Dasha Mari – Private Dinner

Dasha Mari - model black and white

DrPortraiture – waiting

DrPortraiture - film noir

Amine Fassi – Lola

Amine Fassi - black and white portrait


Some of the most classic film noir shots have silhouettes, often in an urban environment. These silhouettes increase the tension because you can’t see who the people are or read their facial expressions. They might even be carrying a weapon like a gun, and you wouldn’t know. They add to the feeling of mystery, danger, and anxiety underlying the genre.

benoit alluin – Au diable toi et tes apôtres, je m’en vais

benoit alluin - silhouette

James Drury – wet

James Drury - silhouette tunnel

Victoria Pickering – Metro escalator

Victoria Pickering - Metro escalator

Matthew Johnson – Ascending

Matthew Johnson - Hardwick Old Hall

Shadows from Window Blinds

One way to make a portrait look instantly like a scene from film noir is to cast shadows across your subject’s face using window blinds. Though this cliché doesn’t appear in every film noir, it’s become a visual icon of the genre. Pair it with a couple of the previous clichés, and you’ve got a perfect film noir photo shoot.

Jack Nobre – Looking Out

Jack Nobre - window blind shadows portrait

Scott Lewis – Film Noir P.I.

Scott Lewis - Film Noir window blinds

Federica Giordano – n o i r

Federica Giordano - self portrait

Steve Garner – Window Blind Portrait

Steve Garner - Window Blind Portrait