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Hollywood portraits

Duncan Evans turns back the clock to the golden age of Hollywood star portraiture.

| Portraits and People
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After the emergence of sound with movies, film production shifted from New York to Hollywood, and ushered in the era of stars signed to studios and what became known as the golden age of Hollywood star portraits. There's a case to be made for including the 1920s and the 1950s, but I've excluded these from this article as the 20s had far more limited cameras, lenses and film stock, while in the 50s, technological advancements meant that far more dynamic and active photos were being taken.

The model being prepared
The model Sadie having period-style makeup applied by stylist Diane.
What should first be appreciated is that the photos of the 30s and 40s were taken with very large format cameras using high powered tungsten-based lighting. It meant that exposures were longer – sometimes up to a second – so that the star had to pose in a position that could comfortably held for a while. Also, the use of direct lighting enabled the photographers to precisely create areas of light and shadow. Now, you can use tungsten lamps yourself, as they are a cheaper alternative to electronic flash, but it may be that you have flash gear already. The trick then is to remove your softboxes and all forms of diffusion and hunt out barn doors to control light spill and snoots for a hair light. Point the flash directly at the subject to create strong shadows. A light meter is recommended to try to get the setup as accurate as possible in the first place, and to avoid endless repositioning of the lights. That said, in order to get the shadows on the face right in the first place, you will have to check and adjust the lighting.

The 1930s
While there's some overlap at the end of the era, there is a key lighting style that is a signature of the 30s Hollywood portraits, and that is called loop lighting. In this the key light is placed to the left or right of the camera, at a 45 degree angle, and then also above the subject, at 45 degree pointing down. This creates a loop shadow to one side of the nose. For styling, your ladies should have largely straight hair, with some curls or waves, and it can either be parted from the centre, or right over the side and pulled back over the head. Eyebrows should be as thin as possible but note you can do this in Photoshop. Furs and evening dresses are expected, and if you can find long gloves, all the better. For the chaps, smart-casual dress is expected, throw in a jacket and a polo neck. Hair was usually gelled down and either shaped back, or allowed to have a bit of a curl, but shouldn't be over the ear at all.

The lighting plan for the 30s shots
The lighting setup for the 1930s photos.
Lighting it
This then is the lighting setup for both 1930s style photos. The key light is to the right of the camera, 45 degrees up, pointing down at the subject. That creates the loop lighting effect under the nose.

There is a fill-flash to the left to soften shadows and provide light on the other side of the main lighting, while a snoot-fitted flash fires at the hair to provide highlights.

Note that on blond subjects, the hair light would often burn out detail - this is evident in a lot of classic shots.

The shot
The 1930s shot with loop lighting
The 1930s shot with loop lighting, a moody look and a genuine fur stole.
Here the subject looks moody and pensive while looking off to one side. There's certainly a sub-style to the 30s that a lot of the photos – if not predominantly – had the subject looking somewhere other than at the camera, particularly if looking glum. A genuine fur stole from the era added to the atmosphere (and it smelt as well).

Photo editing
Of course, all these shots were taken digitally, with a Nikon D200, not on an old large format film camera, so Photoshop was required for the rest of the effect.

Using the Channel Mixer to convert to mono
1. The first stage is to convert to mono from colour and here the Channel Mixer is used. Note that in the 30s, anything red was rendered quite darkly, so the subject were prepared to look quite pale to avoid looking too ruddy-faced. The side effect was that red lipstick was rendered quite darkly. So, in the Channel Mixer, minimise the red component to make complexions and lippy darker.

Adding the blurred layer
2. Next, create a duplicate layer and apply a 6-pixel strength Gaussian Blur to it. Close ups usually had very limited depth of field, while using electronic flash will invariably generate more depth of field than is required.
Now paint on the layer
3. Select the Paintbrush, set the Opacity to 20% and the colour as a black. Add a layer mask and paint over it to reveal the detail, making the face and front part of the arm the sharper parts.

Clean up any imperfections with the Clone tool
4. You thought retouching was symptomatic of the digital age but not so. Everything was retouched in those days because the film plates were so large, so select the Clone stamp tool, set it to Lighten at 100% to remove spots and at 20% in Normal blend mode to smooth out wrinkles and imperfections.
Use Variations to add a colour tint
5. Finally, very few images were actually pure black and white, they had some kind of tint, even if it wasn't ye old sepia tone. Create a duplicate layer, use Variations to add red and yellow, and then reduce the layer opacity to create the right level of effect.

The loop lighting is clearly visible in this shot
Here's another 30s style shot, showing clearly, the loop lighting effect under the nose. Note the side-hair parting and the use of a feather boa to wrap around the model's neck.

The 1940s
The lighting setup for the 1940s
The lighting setup for the 1940s style shots.
While there is, as has been noted, some overlap with the 30s style, there is also a signature effect for the 40s that will instantly identify it as coming from that era. This is called butterfly lighting and is created by having the key light at 45 degrees above the subject as before, but directly in front of the subject, pointing down.

Styling wise, the ladies were still looking glamorous of course, but now introduce pearls, hats, and, perhaps surprisingly, plunging necklines and bigger shoulder pads. Yes, those 80s fashions actually originated in the 40s. Expressions were fare less demure and more into the camera. Hair had more curls and eyebrows were thicker than the decade before. For the chaps, very little changed and if anything hair was even more slicked back and styled and smoking was often seen in the photos.

Lighting it
Examine the lighting setup and you can see that the difference is that the key light is now dead centre above the subject to provide the butterfly effect. It should also be point out that because the photographers could see where the shadows and light were falling, they would often use four, five, six or more lights, particularly if the shot was taking place on a film set so that elements of the background could be highlighted.

The shots

The 40s shot with accessories aplenty
Here's our model featuring hat and gloves. Note the lighting effect under the nose and the limited depth of field. Lenses were sharper than the 30s and the film stock improved so that complexions were rendered lighter .
A plunging neckline and pouting pose
An alternative image here shows much more curly, centre parted hair and a more suggestive pose with the plunging neckline. Don't forget to accessorise with pearls if you haven't got any gloves etc.

Thanks to
Our thanks go to the lovely Sadie, the model, and make-up artist Diane Dakin for their splendid efforts on this shoot. Sadie can be contacted at [email protected] and seen here while more of Diane's work can be seen at
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this is good and you have captured the 50 holliwood glamer feel very well and come out with some striking shot.

nice artical ian
jimPat 18 8 1 Scotland
Great work Duncan, this is an area of portrait work which i am very interested in - I plan to use your lightiing set up at my next studio session and post a few noir images - Thank you Jim Paterson
Duncan_E 16 201 3 United Kingdom
Cheers guys, I'll follow this up with a genuine film-noir style feature, and then at some point, i'd like to do the 50s as well.
aviaandy 15 41 4
Useful article and great shots. This is where want to get to with my work. Andy

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