Photoshop tutorial: Vintage photo effects – create a 1940s and 1950s film noir photo

In this Photoshop tutorial, you'll learn how to make photo a look like it was shot in the 1940s or 1950s in a film noir style.

Known for its low-key lighting and shadow patterning – also known as chiaroscuro – film noir was a popular trend in cinematography during the 1940’s and 1950s. It's a genre associated with high-contrast black-and-white with shades pushed into the highlights and shadows – as well as strong or seductive performance styles, detectives, gangsters, double crosses and a good soaking of hard liquor. Classic film noir movies include Double Indemnity, Gilda, The Maltese Falcon.

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In this tutorial, photographer Tigz Rice talks us through how she styled, photographed and retouched this 1940’s inspired film noir image with model Coco Dubois – whose presence draws on the genre's femme fatales like Barbara Stanwyck and Mary Astor.

First off you'll learn how to style the shoot – including film noir lighting, hair, makeup and clothing. Then you'll learn how to get the final look you want by combining Photoshop's Black-and-White and Curves adjustments, plus the Properties panel's Modify tool and Raw Filter. And the end result will look an authentic homage rather than a cheesy parody (though if that's what you want, overdo Step 8).

See other vintage photo Photoshop tutorials: Colorize a photo in Photoshop, Make photos look vintage, Create better-than-Instagram vintage photos in Photoshop, Create a vintage design using stylish halftone effects.


First lets take a look at styling and shot set-up, which plays an important role in the overall feel of the image. If you've got your shot already, you can skip straight to Step 5 for how to create a film noir look in Photoshop.

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Coco is wearing a 1940’s vintage inspired corselette from What Katie Did with nude stockings and suspenders.

The bullet bra also made an appearance in fashion at this point, which could be another inspiration for your shoot.


Hair and make up are also an important part of the film noir style. Here, Coco has opted for 1940s waves and curls, although again you could opt for victory rolls instead.

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As for make up, the film noir look favoured the winged or cat style eyeliner and a red lip (as even though the final shot's in black-and-white, you just know her lips are red). Here’s a shot of Coco without the shadows for a better look at the hair and make up.

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Next, lets have a look at lighting set up. Film noir was known for its low-key, high-contrast imagery. Venetian blind shadow effects were common, which I’ve used here in this set up.

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We were lucky to have hard lighting on the day, but if you’re struggling with the weather or perhaps would prefer a more reliable source of lighting, you could set up a flash unit and create your own modifier using gaffer tape to block out strips of light. Ideally, you want as little light falling into the background as possible to create depth.


Once you’ve got your lighting sorted, its time to shoot. When taking your shot, looking for a good spread of information across the entire histogram (on your camera – though I've shown it on Photoshop here to show you how it should look), which will help you achieve better contrast in you editing later.

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Shoot in colour rather than black and white, which will allow you to fine tune your black and white levels more accurately later in Photoshop.


After the shoot, choose your favourite image and open it up in Photoshop. At this point, make minor adjustments including cropping and spot removal as necessary.

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Click on the Black and White adjustment layer icon in the Adjustments panel to convert the image into monochrome. This will currently be set to Default preset black and white mode, but we’ll come back and make changes here later for a more accurate result.

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Next, click on the Curves adjustment layer icon in the Adjustments panel. This is where we will start to bring in more of that film noir contrast we’re looking for.

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In the bottom left corner of the Curve grid, drag in the black Input arrow to increase the amount of black tones in the image.


Click on the Curves graph to add a couple of curve points to create a slight S shape to the rest of the graph. This increases the contrast throughout the rest of the tonal range. Keep it subtle unless you want to make the final result look like a parody of 'gangster flick' than something authentic.

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Now lets go back and fine to the Black and White adjustment layer and fine-tune that tonal range even further. Click on the Modify icon in the top left of the Properties panel.

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With this tool selected, click and drag on any parts of your image you want to modify and drag to darken or right to lighten. These changes are based on the original colours of your image, so be aware that other areas of your image may also change.


We have our 'noir', now we need to add some 'film'. To make it look like this was shot on film, lets add some grain.

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To do this, you’ll need to click on the original background layer and go to Filter > Camera Raw and on the right hand side of the dialog that appears.

Click on the Effects tab. You see the settings I've used here, but the amount, size and roughness of your Grain will depend completely on the size of your image. Play with the sliders until it feels right.


Whilst we’re in Camera Raw Filter, lets also go ahead and add a Radial Filter vignette effect to complete the vintage look.

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Click and drag outward from the centre of the image to apply the filter, then knock the exposure down to -3.00. Make sure the Feather slider is at 50 or higher for a subtle effect.

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Once you’re happy with the results of both Camera Raw techniques, press OK to come back into the main Photoshop window.

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For a final touch, I cleared up any last traces of light on that back wall behind Coco using the Spot Healing Brush tool.

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