Monday, January 18, 2016

How to Create the Weegee Look

Weegee? You might ask... well, this would refer to Arthur Fellig. Not sure who I am talking about? Have a look at wikipedia to find out.

Old days

Weegee's was best known for nighttime photography of crime scenes. His technique involved the use of flash bulbs, giving a very harsh look to the pictures. There is usually a hard shadow cast on the left side of the subject, which is a "dead" give-away that the flash used was on the right side of the camera; very common to large format press cameras.

Over the years, off-camera flash moved to the left side of the camera, in particular when flash brackets are used. Many point & shoot cameras of today have their flash mounted on the left side, the reasons of which is totally unclear to me. Anyway, the on-camera flash is too close to cast any meaningful shadow at regular photographing distance.

Modern age

So, here is what we need to do to create the typical look of the illumination typically used in Fellig's crime scene photograph:
  • mount a speedlight on a flash bracket
    • 1 foot to the right of the camera lens
    • 1 foot above the camera lens
    For the flash bracket, I got myself one that looks essentially like this one. Everything is adjustable with the bracket...
    Having the bracket on the right of the camera is a bit awkward, since cameras are designed for right hand use, with the shutter button on the right, which is, where the bracket is now. That of course means, that the camera now will be operated by the left hand.
    What the shutter release is concerned, there might be an option: a shutter release cable, with the button fixed to the flash bracket (I guess, I will build something alike in the near future).

    Digital solution

    Obviously, the above is all nice in theory, but, what about putting this into digital reality?
    Here is my setup:
    • Fujifilm X-M1
    • Fujifilm XC 16-50mm f/3.5-f/5.6
    • Fujifilm EF-20
    • flash bracket as mentioned above
    • flashgun cable for Canon by PIXEL Inc.

    Now to the technical settings, which are different from my usual way of configuring a camera:
    • AF illuminator ON
    • flash exposure compensation -1
    • exposure compensation -1
    • red eye removal off
    Here is why. With flash, there is not stealth photography, so, there is no reason to not use the AF illuminator. Flash bulbs were not that strong and weaker flash allows for a wider open aperture (see below). Further, lower flash power shortens cycle time of the speedlight. Also, we are still talking nighttime photography, despite the use of flash.

    And the "artistic" settings:
    • RAW+JPEG
    • film simulation B&W (obviously)
    • highlight tone +1
    • shadow tone +2
    • sharpness +1
    • noise reduction -1
    • auto ISO limit 6400
    • f=30mm
    • f/4.7 (i.e. as wide open as possible)
    This will need some more detailed explanation, I figure.
    Highlight tone +1 gives medium hard highlight details, resulting in slightly more contrast in the highlights.
    Shadow tone +2  results in very hard shadow details, enhancing the black feel of the JPEG image.
    Sharpness +1 in combination with N.R. -1 obviously adds some noise, similar to film grain. This effect could be further enhanced by forcing the ISO up.
    My present setup employs a kit zoom lens. 4x5 press cameras are usually equipped with a 135mm, slightly wider than normal primes. On an APS-C system, 30mm comes pretty close to the angle of view that a 135mm would produce in 4x5 LF. Using the XF 27mm f/2.8 (considered on of the best lenses in the Fujifilm system) could the solution.
    Finally, the aperture. Due to the long focal length of a large format "normal", the depth of field is pretty shallow. 

    In absence of any corpses in front of my house (thanks God!), I took two photographs of a bollard on my front yard. Both pictures are JPEG straight out of the camera. 

    Despite using the AF illuminator, the camera struggled to auto-focus. Anyway, I hope that the images prove that a Weegee-look is possible with the equipment listed above.

    When using an X100, X100S or X100T, obviously, one might want to use the TCL-X100 for the normal perspective, which would allow for f/2. The 23mm (35mm equivalent) would not be too far off, so any of the series would still be OK w/o the conversion lens.


    Weegee used a flash with a relatively large reflector. Although I feel that the initial results look pretty decent, I will experiment to add a soft component to the flash, as to mimic the large reflector.


    Shooting with flash requires re-thinking of your exposure parameters, I am aware of that. Exposure for the flash is usually done by the aperture. Distances of 2m to 4m would suggest relatively closed lens, even with lower ISO sensitivities. The creative choice of shooting wide open therefore seems counter-intuitive. Since this look is not affected by ambient light, shutter speed is entirely irrelevant, so the faster syncs speed found on the X100 models won't help. However, the X100 models have a built-in 3 stops N.D.-filter, which could help expose correctly with the lens wide open.

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