How Noir Zy Does Very Unique Boudoir Photography

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Hi Chris & Phoblographites,

Is that the right way to say it? It’s taken a fair bit of time for me to work up the courage to submit this to you, but I think I might have just what you want! I’m Noir Zy, no affiliation to Noiz, a photographic alter ego to an Australian photographer based in Melbourne. The anonymity is intentional and a part of who I am. I’ll do my best to write as Noir Zy, but for a moment, let’s hear from the creator. 

Noir Zy came into existence a little over two years ago on the encouragement of my best friend, who wanted me to show my work, but having suffered a lot of depression, burnout, and incredible anxiety around photography at the time, I couldn’t bring myself to do it anymore. A combination of very high standards, frustration with the business, and just exhaustion from all the editing meant that even though I was doing my best work, I hated all of it. There was one thing I really enjoyed, though; the process of shooting. So I started to come up with a concept whose pieces I’d been playing with for years. (Officially, I’ve been a photographer at a professional level for about six years, counting Noir Zy.)

It needed to be repeatable, simple to set up and control, involves a deep understanding of light, but unique and crucially, involve no need for photoshop or conventional editing techniques. I always keep the raws, but they shouldn’t be needed. I did some research on some of my ideas and hit on smoke as a medium.

Smoke was something I’d played with before, even in my earliest studio work, as far as I could tell, and even now, nobody uses it except for the odd atmospheric. It’s an alluring substance, but you do need a proper smoke machine, something that can fill a warehouse, or it doesn’t work very well. 120 AU bucks later, and I had a machine that’s never stopped giving. It has been both the most frustrating and most magical part of the experience. 
The rest of the style came together naturally. I needed something I hadn’t done a lot before but still involved people, that landed Boudoir as a genre; I didn’t want to deal with color, just light, so I chose black and white, and I didn’t have a studio, so people’s houses would become the studio. The name, Noisy Noir, shortened and spiced up a little, became Noir Zy. The point was the imperfections, back to Noir Zy.

I shoot smokey black and white noir boudoir. All of my work is explicitly shot in-camera. I work digital, but the Canon black and white processing have a real charm to it, and so those are my base prints! Kind of; I keep the raws, of course, just in case ;). And the settings on the camera are tweaked to jack up the contrast and apply some filters to improve skin impression. People who work with me get the entire collection shot on the day, warts and all. Yeah, I know, it’s breaking a cardinal rule of pro photography; I do a lot of that. It’s kind of my thing.

I used a Canon 5DMKII for the majority of my older work until it died; a veritable gramps at 350k images. I use the 5D MKIII at the moment. I’ve tried the Sony cameras, but they just don’t handle my needs that well and are hard to use. Plus, more importantly, Canon has the Nifty Fifty, which is my go-to lens. I have an 85mm f1.4 lens from Samyang that’s utterly gorgeous, but full manual shooting in smoke is nearly impossible, or at least is a craft I’m still getting good at, particularly with how small the canon viewfinder is.  I shoot dual images; full-resolution raw and half resolution jpeg. Given that Noir Zy is more about web consumption, this is an acceptable compromise, and in-camera downscaling adds some sharpness. For lighting, I use an off-camera 480EXII on some cheap Chinese hardware. I have some wooden blinds from Bunnings taped to a cheap boom from eBay and a Chauvet Hurricane smoke machine. It’s the 800-watt model. Those alone can handle 90% of my needs. 

My vision is egalitarian. I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, or what you do; when we’re all stripped down to the bare essentials, we’re all equal. Stylistically, it’s about isolation and contrast, revelation and suppression. Every shoot is an exploration of the person I’m shooting with and how much they’re willing to open up. It’s a lot of rapport building, conversation, and building connection. Sometimes it’s therapy, sometimes they’re quiet, sometimes they’re alive with possibility. I give everyone space to be where they want to be. The style and genre are established well before the shoot, so everyone knows exactly what they’re walking into. I make it a point to be surprised; I want to discover things in the moment and capture some of that purity of time. I used to articulate and force things to get the perfect shot, but now it’s about finding some special mood and moment and capturing that. As a result, every shoot is different, but the style is the same. It acts as the framework to let my subjects communicate. The conversation isn’t about me: it’s about them.

Why did you get into photography?

It’s a very mundane reason; I wanted to expand my graphic design toolset, so I picked up a cheap camera (Canon 350D), switched it to manual, and started learning.

Which photographers are your biggest influences? How did they affect who you are and how you create?

Vincent Versace is my biggest influence. His workshops taught me the most about photography, and his principle of Shibumi is something I hold close to this day. His approach to perfection and light and the expression of everything matters is something foundational to my work. 

Peter Hurley is my biggest inspiration for headshots by far. I learned a lot from his courses and seeing him work. His approach to building rapport and engaging with people really taught me a lot about connecting with clients of incredibly diverse backgrounds. I still use [his method] every shoot, though in my own way now.

Sue Bryce is another huge inspiration in her work on natural light and understanding how to manipulate it and build ethereal portraits. I work with natural light in almost every shoot, and you can definitely see her influences there. 

Frank Doorhof is the photographer who taught me the most about photography, having fun, and breaking the rules after learning them. His dynamism and use of light are very similar to mine, he might work in fashion, but our techniques overlap all the time. 

How long have you been shooting? How do you feel you’ve evolved since you started?

I think I first picked up the camera about eight years ago. The funny thing is, my fundamental style hasn’t changed much; I’ve always naturally preferred moody, high contrast, emotionally charged images. Light is my paintbrush, colour is my muse, shadows are my story. 

As a photographer, though, if you saw images from the beginning and what I take now, they’re almost by different people. I’ve learned so much and developed and experimented with so many different styles, as well as developing my technical abilities so far. That’s allowed me to come full circle and really understand what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and being, as Versace likes to put it, intentional about the relationship between the print and the audience. 

One of the biggest things for me has been learning to take my ego out of it. I have a lot of pride, so I used to find people’s impressions quite hurtful, especially at events! Now I understand how the relationship works and that we are ultimately serving them and that a person’s reflection on an image is a commentary on their own space of mind, not on the image itself. It’s really about being moved by the scene, trying to capture how that moves me, and then putting that feeling into the image in such a way as to have the audience feel the same emotion at the end. That’s really hard, but it’s a great goal to never achieve!

In terms of my work as Noir Zy, you can see the whole progression on my Instagram, it has been refined a lot, and that story has played out there. I’ve learned a lot in working with my medium and have so much more to learn.

Tell us about your photographic identity. You as a person have an identity that fundamentally makes you who you are. Tell us about that person as a photographer.

I’m reflective, egalitarian, and very much a technical photographer who crafts mood with as much precision as I can. I’m very curious about the world and those around me and often want to befriend everyone I meet, haha, which is a problem because I’m also an introvert, and dealing with people can be a big challenge. I like working outside of my comfort zone, though, and get bored very easily if things aren’t kept interesting. It’s part of the reason my work is so minimalistic in terms of what’s needed to execute it. It brings a big challenge, and I’m always walking into spaces where I have no idea how I’m going to work with it. Sometimes it works, sometimes I have more to learn, and it doesn’t. 

One really important thing to me is that my work isn’t just for one group of people. I’m very satisfied that my work is a 50/50 split in terms of audience gender, if that is even relevant in this day and age, and I think it’s important to shoot more than just very pretty faces and jacked physiques, as easy as they are to shoot. My work is stylized, but the people don’t need to be. If the last 40 or so shoots were about really understanding my space and how I work in this environment, future ones would be a lot more varied, I think. I’ll bring in a lot more diversity and try to get a lot smarter with my light control. I really want my work to encapsulate a broad swathe of society and let them speak for themselves.

I try to be transgressive while also knowing what I’m doing. It’s not about being offensive so much as gently pushing boundaries. I’m intentional about breaking rules and trying different things while also working at the highest level I can. I want to be as comfortable in Vogue as I am in a random apartment, if that makes sense. 

Tell us what gear you’re using. 

I’ve already answered this question, but I’ll delve into more detail. I can work with most things but they do need to be able to keep up. And be cheap.

I use the 480EXII from Canon mostly because it was available, I got it cheap off of eBay, and it’s really taken a beating over the years. I have a Yongnuo flash, but I always put it away because the recycle time is terrible, and it just can’t keep up when I really need it to. I will use it sometimes, though, as it can go to 1/128, which the Canon can’t, and sometimes when you just need a touch of extra light, that’s really important.

My work is very much centered around the use of shadow, and my go-to has been to use some Venetian blinds from Bunnings, our local hardware store, strapped to a boom from eBay. They allow me to precisely control where my shadows are. I tried a few different types, and the wooden ones ultimately were the ones that worked. Most other blind types tend to diffuse the light rather than produce the hard shadows that I need. 

The blinds and the off-camera flash alone are really powerful tools when combined with natural light or even on their own. Because I’m shooting in-camera, I can’t fake it. If I want a high contrast image, it has to be high contrast in real life, which is why my kit is almost all lighting and gear for controlling that. 

The smoke machine really only has one important thing, that is that it produces a lot of smoke, and for a long period of time and the recycle times aren’t too long. The fog fluid does matter. I try to pick stuff that is thicker and more likely to drift rather than billow as it has to retain its cohesion to produce those beautiful wafts. It’s also really important to have a wireless remote as otherwise, it can be impossible to fire the smoke and shoot at the same time, especially if you get specific angles. 

Pro Tip – if you want light shafts, shoot across the light, so the direction you’re facing is about 90 degrees from your light source. Being close to the light source is also important in terms of the vertical plane you’re on. 

I can get away with a lot thanks to that smoke and shooting in black and white. For instance, Canon’s noise profile is actually really dreamy in black and white and adds a lovely layer to the image. I can push the iso up much, much further than I could in color because of that. In addition, black and white allows you to use a lot more light sources than you would normally, as the color hue doesn’t affect the end result nearly as much as in color, and you can really isolate the subject from the background.

I use a 5D MKIII because of a number of reasons, actually. For one, I’ve tried other cameras, and the emotional quality I get out of Canon I just can’t replicate. Sony, in particular, until you calibrate the colour properly, has this horrible green/blue tinge to everything that is super distasteful. All my lenses are Canon, and I really like the images that come out of them; they have a certain J’en sais quois that I love. My compact flash has a really fast load and buffer time, which is incredibly important for me. Smoke is very, very hard to control. There are times where it’s just working, and you really have to just hammer the images out, or if a model is moving through a lot of motions, or dancing, or doing other things, I need to be able to fire fast sustained bursts. It’s really hard to do that without storage that can keep up with that much data. 

I also quite like the ergonomics, I’m always changing my aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and Autofocus type during a shoot to match the settings. On Canon those settings are really accessible, and I can change them without taking my face off the viewfinder. 

The MKIII was also selling for about $1,500 when I bought it, which was my budget at the time, and most of the next competitors were over 3k, which made them deeply impractical. 

Natural light or artificial light? Why?

Both. Natural light is more beautiful, but it’s not always available depending on the time of day, cloud cover, and location. So I primarily shoot both natural and artificial light. The artificial light is used for high contrast shadows and highlights, often as an accent to the softer, more voluminous natural light. 

If I get lucky, though, sometimes the stars align, and I get natural hard sunlight shooting at the right angle and through the right shadow producer (like trees). The results are spectacular when they do. When that happens, one must move fast as it’s usually short-lived, only a few minutes at a time. 
I use the available light in a scene, regardless of source, to try to create an interesting combination of highlights and shadows that create deep, evocative results. I’m usually looking to create high contrast, which is a bit trickier as it’s all about angles.

Ultimately what we decide to use should always be based on what we’re trying to achieve, not based on how fancy or how popular it is at the moment. 

Why is photography and shooting so important to you?

Photography is about capturing a frame of the truth and preserving it for eternity. It’s a beautiful way to convey something timeless to the audience forever. We can capture and create moments that generations from now, people can still enjoy, and to me, that’s valuable. 

In more immediate ways, though, nobody ever expects what comes out of their shoot, and it’s the greatest of moments when someone can’t believe what they see, introducing someone to who they can be without any photoshop or tricks has made some people break into tears. With how much we struggle with our self-esteem and how we see ourselves, I want my work to convey to the subject just how much they glow. The cameras are very truthful, so this is all about how light is used. 

I’ve had everyone from first-timers to experienced models, from artists to dancers to lawyers to CEOs. From tourists to natives, portraiture is a grand equalizer.

Do you feel you’re more of a creator or a documenter? Why? How does the gear help you do this?

I’m a creator. I don’t have it in me to document. There’s a real craft to that, and for me, just showing reality is too honest. It’s not how we see the world, and if I took a portrait of you straight, you would find it confronting to see so many details you’re not used to noticing. A lot of my work is about controlling how you view the image so you pay attention to the important stuff and don’t notice or can’t see the rough stuff. That’s all a creative process. 

How my gear helps me do that is all about how it lets me control light. I make all my choices based on what it lets me do with the light in the scene or how it makes the user look. For example, one of the things I love about the Canon’s Nifty fifty is that it shoots at 1.8, which I actually use pretty regularly. Having that breadth to see light is amazing and so helpful when you’re pushing the boundaries of available light in the scene, and the blur helps so much to hide elements in the background of the scene or create particularly magical elements out of smoke and forms. All of my lenses are fast; it hurts if I can’t drop down to 2.8 or 1.8 sometimes. 

What’s typically going through your mind when you create images? Tell us about your processes both mentally and mechanically? 

It’s pretty funny, actually. I’m usually only thinking about the light, the image frame, and composition, what the subject’s arms and legs are doing, and what the light is doing to their figure. I’ll constantly be dynamically calculating what shutter speed, aperture, and ISO on the camera, getting the focal point right, and trying to balance the highlights against the shadows in the image, so there isn’t any clipping.  At the same time, I’m calculating when to fire smoke bursts and timing the smoke motion against the subject’s motion. 

I’ll also be engaging with getting to know the person, what their hopes and dreams are, coaching them, and helping them work through their poses. 
Some basic principles:

  • Always focus on the eyes.
  • Contrast is about differences. Silhouettes count too, sometimes a bright region around a dark region will draw the eye just as much as a highlight surrounded by a dark region.
  • Smoke is more diffused the longer it travels, for interesting whorls, smoke machine closer to photo frame. (If the subject is standing, for instance, the smoke machine should be about waist height to get interesting flow.)
  • Smoke doesn’t show once diffused in-camera (I’m not sure why); it actually has to be incredibly thick to really show, but it will still diffuse the light. If you’re working with strobes, a heavily diffused room will create a very natural glow). If you’re on a cloudy day, it will double diffuse the light (not a good thing).
  • Never create high contrast on the face unless you know what you’re doing. We filter out things like pores, pockmarks, and irregularities in the skin mentally. Generally, for people’s faces, light that is softened or flat on is ideal to reduce contrast and create pleasing forms.
  • I use a lot of Rembrandt lighting in my work.
  • The best lighting is always at 90 degrees to the camera. I try other angles all the time but consistently shooting across the subject always works. 
  • Shadows and light rays are all about the angle to the light source and the subject. You have to be almost exactly at right angles and very close.
  • This applies doubly for smoke, never shoot with the light behind you unless you know what you’re doing, or shoot into the light as balancing the flattening effect of smoke diffusing is extremely challenging and will usually just wash out the subject. High Key is possible but much, much harder to do.
  • Posing is all about triangles, c curves, and oppositional movements (contraposto)
  • Do the squinch (credit Peter Hurley)
  • Real smiles are about timing and connection. Learn some jokes. Jokes are all about benign violations, so take something, violate it, then make it nicer (a little boy joke won’t work in a catholic church but will in an atheist convention). What’s on a person’s mind will show on their face, so get them talking and talk, put some nice music on.
  • Capturing a real smile is about timing. You have to prefocus and wait  for it to arrive. There’s a microsecond difference and millimeters of movement before you missed your shot. It’s one of those things that just takes practice, but you can get the muscle memory down.
  • Good posing is about relaxation, so relax; your tension will carry across the room. Stay relaxed, let your nerves out, take deep breaths, get to know the subject, let them know they’re safe, and don’t rush things. Strong images aren’t accidental; they’re purposeful and you must wait for the moment to arrive. When it does you must be ready. I’ve missed a lot of amazing shots because I wasn’t ready and missed by a hair or the camera was still focusing.
  • Never underestimate newbies. Let them show you what they’re capable of.

I hope that gives you an idea of the things I’m thinking about and processing. I’m very methodical about how I go about things. I’m constantly testing and refining new ideas and adjusting to fit the circumstances, but there are a lot of things I’ve learned that don’t change a lot. 

Please walk us through your processing techniques.

My processing is actually very easy! Because I do 98% of the legwork on the day with how I use light and work with subjects and in framing the image, there is very little that’s needed after that. I mean, yes, of course, there is always more that can be done. The pursuit of perfection never ends, and I’m actually very, very accomplished with photoshop and digital tools. I’ve been using them for about 18 years. However, in this context, what you see is what you get. 

That said, when posting to Instagram, I definitely do run the images through Instagram’s little editor. My main targets are to dramatize the image further. I’ll add a little structure, sharpness, and balance the highlights and shadows, usually to increase contrast. I’ll also pick a filter that compliments the image as best I can. One benefit of Instagram filters is that they flatten the smoke, which isolates the subject better and creates more drama. 

I do keep the raws, so from time to time, very rarely, I will do a full edit. In which case, my main port of call is lightroom and Nik Colour Effects to do the base colorwork and scene/spot local adjustments and then run them through Alien Skin to take advantage of their much more powerful black and white processing and beautiful noise and grain controls. This is the kind of thing I’ll do if I need a final print so I can properly nail everything. 

But there really is nothing special I’m doing in post-production to get my look. That’s all the Canon magic.

The exact settings for my monochrome are as follows:

  • Sharpness 3/7
  • Contrast +3
  • Filter effect R: Red
  • Toning Effect N: None

The rest is about what is done on the day.

What made you want to get into your genre? 

It was out of my comfort zone, and that’s where I tend to be the most creative. 

What motivates you to shoot?

It started with just being able to shoot. I enjoy the process, it’s fun and relaxing, and I get to meet new people, hear different perspectives, and make art. But, now I’ve realized I can do more and take it further, spread a positive message, and help people see themselves in a different light (pun intended). I love surprising people with themselves. 

Explain why readers want to see your work, or why your project is really cool.

If you want to see the only smokey noir black and white boudoir portrait photography on the planet, be sure to stop by. I promise to have a lot more faces and cool people in the coming years! Hopefully even their stories! I’m planning to do a lot more with the project, especially as I was completely unable to shoot this year, so there will be a lot of new concepts and expansions in the future. 

All images by Noir Zy. Used with permission. Be sure to follow his Instagram, Facebook page, and Tumblr. Want to submit your own project to our No Photoshop series? Here’s how you can show us!

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.