If I look back at how I learned to take pictures, the path isn’t straight at all. But this isn’t necessarily just because I took wrong turns (yes including selective colour, and cheap tripod). It’s also down to my goals changing. Constantly. One of the things that has changed significantly over the years are my goals for light.
I remember when I first saw someone take pictures of a model, he was using a big soft-box and was really impressed by the technical quality of the result – pin sharp due to a very small aperture, which in turn was made possible by tonnes of light. The light was also big so the result was perfectly even but directional light with soft shadow transitions.
So as I started to learn photographic lighting for portraits, this was my goal – soft light. I added hair lights, fill lights, edge lights etc. but the overall goal was photographic portrait lighting. I also used these concepts for 3/4 and full-length shots. Here’s the same model, Sarah, shot for her acting portfolio using “regular” photographic lighting (the “Hurley triangle” in this case).
Now, this produces perfectly good light for practical everyday portraits – pictures of your family, corporate headshots, and so on – shots where the content – i.e. the subject is the main feature, and of course I still shoot this light Today when I shoot corp. headshots, actors’ portfolios and family portraits. The novelty wore off though and for my personal projects, I started to find myself attracted to more dramatic work.
Eventually, I realised what these more dramatic photos all had in common and it is the contrast and shadow qualities, together with more extreme angles and direction. I became drawn to more cinematic lighting: especially film noir, and the old glamour portraits of Hollywood movie stars of the 30’s and 40’s. People like Hedy Lamarr, Eva Gardner, Marlene Dietrich, and Jean Harlow and later to Harcourt studios in Paris – who are still shooting amazing portraits in this style Today. Movie lighting was much more varied, and I remain fascinated by the ingenuity, and methods for creating it.
So – how to achieve this look
Back in the day, Hurrell and his contemporaries used the same lights the movie production crews were using to shoot the features. These were big incandescent lights, often with a focusing system. The key quality of these lights though is that they are small sources. The lighting units themselves are large, however, the actual element producing the light is small. This means the lights produce crisp shadows – i.e. hard light.
First, I tried to emulate this using my existing studio heads. You need a small source so moving the light further away will make it smaller (from the subject’s position). This creates other problems with spill, power and of course the space to do it, and so distance alone is not going to be sufficient. I used grids to mask the source and this also helps. Snoots also work and even though the light pattern they produce is much the same as a grid, the source looks smaller and so they produce crisper shadows.
Ultimately though, you are limited by the physical size of the flash tube in a studio head: they are way too big, and this means things get complicated when you want to, for example, flag the light off: you can’t use barn doors – as they are too close to the source to provide even a soft edge – it’s more of a graduation. So you end up with a forest of flags on stands, and an escalation of issues caused by the size of the tube.
So smaller tubes then. Speedlights. These actually work really well for this style, and the only modification I use to the light from a Speedlight is a snoot. Now, yes you can buy stupendously expensive attachments for your Speedlights with magnets and velcro or clamps, but then, WH Smiths sell snoots in packs of 25 for £3.95. They call them “A4 black card”. Roll it into a tube, stick it together with some black gaffer tape and put it on the flash. Robert Harrington gave an excellent demo of this at B&H a few years back that I highly recommend watching.
I used Speedlights to do this for a while and gave demos to camera clubs which always went down well. There’s a “ta-daa !” moment when you take the picture and the light is completely different to the light in the room (just like any 100% flash-lit image). Plus, most people watching these demos had one or two Speedlights. Above is an example – with a background projected using a LightBlaster.
However, this feature of flash photography – that you only see the light in the resulting image, is also a major disadvantage when using very specific and contained light, where moving the light or the subject just a little, makes or ruins the effect. It makes it difficult to tweak and experiment with the light – as each adjustment has to be shot to see if it worked. It slows down the shoot, and whilst this works with experienced models, it can be very frustrating for regular subjects.
I decided to try the same equipment they used in the 1940’s: big incandescent lights. I bought 3 650 Watt Fresnel spots with dimmers – quite small in power in the grand scheme of tungsten lighting, but just enough for a portrait. I bought cheap ones with the idea of upgrading if it worked, but tbh, these lights are basically bulb holders and a focusing rack.
There isn’t a lot to go wrong, but do be aware that they produce a lot of heat, and represent a fire risk. Don’t leave them on and unattended! I added a CO2 extinguisher and a fire blanket to my kit at the same time… I’ve since added an LED equivalent with a FalconEyes 1600TDX bi-colour Fresnel spot. Its 160W LED lamp is about the same output as the 650Watt Tungstens (they say it’s a 1600 Watt equivalent, however, my light meter says “no” :P). It’s a great light though and has the advantage of matching tungsten or daylight.
The main advantage though, is that it won’t melt the skin off your fingers when you touch it, and it doesn’t melt the makeup off the model. I use this one as the key light for this reason. All of these lights have a very small source and so barn doors do work! I can create very small strips of light just with the barn doors, and the occasional piece of Cinefoil to extend them. Plus I can now see exactly what I’m doing as I adjust the position and angle of each light. I can put the live view on, using Control My Nikon when tethered to the laptop and see the image on the monitor as I adjust the lights. It now becomes very intuitive to build the look you want.
I found a plain black or grey background produced images that just looked a bit unfinished, and the addition of a simple graphical element on the background worked well. In the Speedlight setup, I used a Light Blaster to project things onto the background and this is very effective. However, if you want an all continuous, what-you-see-is-what-you-shoot setup, then there’s an old-school solution: a “cucoloris” or “cookie” is anything placed in front of a light to cast shadows into the scene. People sometimes call these “Gobos” but a GoBO is something that goes in the light: it literally “GOes Before the Optics” in the light. Lightblasters have Gobos inside. Cardboard templates in front of your light are cookies.
You can use anything as a cookie – in the past, I’ve used plants, colanders, lace, bamboo screens, Venetian blinds (I’m partial to a Venetian blind btw – I have two set up on booms, and they are essential for gumshoe style, film noir pictures). For these images though, I want abstract graphical shapes and I mainly use big pieces of cardboard with shapes cut out of them. There’s no real mystery to making them: you draw the shapes out that you want and cut them out. I use a Stanley knife or craft knife on a big cutting mat, but you could punch through it with a bread knife and saw away. Typically, I don’t have the shapes fully in focus and so rough edges are not usually an issue.
Now, let’s talk about the relationship between distance to the light, distance to the background and the size of the cookie. When the cookie is close to the light, and away from the background, the projected shadows are bigger and less distinct. As you move it away from the light and towards the background (your “projection screen”) it becomes sharper (as the light source is now smaller from the cookie position). The projected pattern also becomes smaller.
Eventually, as you move it further away from the light, it will be too small to block the light and you’ll have a shadow of a piece of cardboard with holes in it, as light goes past the edges of it as well as through the holes. The size of cookie you need to make then, is driven by how crisp you want the shadows to be, and how big you want the projection to be. The crisper the shadows you want, the further away from the light it will need to be. This makes the shapes smaller, and so the cookie needs to be bigger. For these shots, I’m using a piece of cardboard about 120 by 80 cm, with the shape layout roughly within a 30x50cm area in the middle. I’m using the barn doors to contain the light to the area with the holes.
Of course, if you carry on moving the cookie towards the background to get really crisp shadows, it will be in the shot, so the other way to make the shadows crisper is to move the light away from the cookie. This will also make the shadow slightly smaller as the edges shrink in and sharpen up. Ultimately you are limited by the space you have and perfectly crisp shadows either need a light source, say, 94 million miles away, or a projection system like the LightBlaster. For my goal of nice abstract soft shapes though, these cardboard cookies are ideal.
The rest of the setup
The classic Hollywood Glamour Portrait doesn’t always follow a set formula, however, there are some common characteristics, such as hard light, a key light up high, one, two and sometimes 3 hair/edge lights – quite often blown out, and that background light.
The setup for this shoot is a key light, centred over the model, with barn doors closed right down to project a column of light down the centre of the subject’s face. Even though the light is angled down quite a bit, some light hit the background. I added some Cinefoil over the top of the barn doors to block this off.
Down below, I have a white reflector board (£10 for 3 ~A2 pieces from Hobby craft) for fill. The key light doesn’t really bounce enough light down there, so I added a dedicated fill light in the shape of a Viltrox 116T video light, at full power and matched for colour at 3000K. These little Viltrox lights are excellent btw, adjustable from 3000 to 6000 K and powered from a 12Volt adaptor or Sony N-PF series clip-on batteries. I angle this slightly up towards the model to provide a catch-light in the eyes – which you don’t always get from the key in this setup unless the model is looking up.
Around the back, I have a hairlight on either side and up high. These both have the barn doors closed right down to contain spill. I shot at f/2.2, ISO 64 at 1/100th of a second using the Nikon 85mm f/1.8 AF-D. Low depth of focus is another hallmark of these images
Wardrobe & Makeup
The makeup for these shots is traditionally matt, with dark eyes and lips, and long lashes. This gives a classy look in colour and also gives a great black & white. For hair I normally have the subject wear their hair up to start, and let it down later on. With hair up, we can get a good line down the neck and shoulders from the hair/edge lights.
Costume on this shoot, I concocted from my wardrobe department (i.e. bags of tat in the studio storeroom …). We used a piece of costume jewellery, and some rhinestone pendant earrings and matching bracelets. All of these things can be found new on eBay for a couple of pounds each. Just remember when you’re shooting a headshot, or head and shoulders, no one needs to know the model is wearing jogging bottoms.
If you’re working with a client, however, especially if you provide a makeover as part of the deal, get them dressed up – it helps create the mood – if they feel it, it will show through on the images. The right music will also help set the scene. Sarah’s a professional model though and chose the music so we shot this set listening to someone called Bugsy Malone. He’s not very happy and is keen for you to know how fast his car is.
Smooth skin is part of this look. Back in the day, the photographers and their assistants would have scrubbed the negative, dodged, burned and greased things to get the soft dreamy look. These days we can do this in post. I like to retain the fine texture on the skin and although you can’t really see it on these web-sized images, the pores and hairs are all there.
I use a frequency separation technique to preserve the skin detail and blend the broad tones. I generally select areas of like-tone (i.e. that should be a similar tone) with the lasso tool, with an 8-pixel feather on it and blur it usually with a factor of 10 or so. If I need more blending, I just press CTRL-F to blur again rather than using a bigger value, as this will tend to make it very flat. After I’ve been over all of the skin blending areas of like-tones on the low-frequency layer, I may use the wet-brush at a 50% mix and low flow to even out specific problem areas. I’ll do this on a copy of the low-frequency layer as it often gets out of hand and I need to bin that layer and start again with another copy.
This replaces the traditional balancing dodge and burn activity used to flatten tones (as opposed to regular dodge and burn that increases contrast). Once I’m happy I’ll put a mask on the entire frequency separation group and use a black brush to mask off anything I don’t want the tone-blending to bleed into (eyes, mouth, edges, nose, hairline, jewellery, creases in skin etc). That’s most of the editing – I may darken the lips, and maybe even out skin colour by adjusting red areas of skin away from red, but generally, it’s clean up. I’d also remove obviously stray hairs although I don’t go in for the lego-figure hair look so some flyaway hairs are good.
Then I’ll often extend the image to a 16:9 (HD) format for a more cinematic look. This is so easy these days in Photoshop CC – just use the crop tool to expand the image to 16:9, ensure “content–aware” is checked and ok the new size. Photoshop will extend the image perfectly every time with these plain backgrounds. If your background is a bit busier you may need to expand it a bit at a time rather than go straight for the 16:9 wide-screen.
Next, I’ll add some glow. I currently use Color-Efex Pro 4 to do this using a very small amount of “Glamour glow” and some “dynamic contrast” to lift the shadows. You could do this in Photoshop though – select the highlights, pop them onto a new layer and blur them a bit. Set the blend mode to “screen” and the opacity to a low amount that looks good. Then darken the shadows a bit. It’s very similar.
Finally, I’ll do the black and white conversion. I do this in Lightroom by manually adjusting the profile, although I have also started playing around with overlaying one of the creative B&W profiles on a low opacity as a shortcut (usually the B&W green or yellow filter profiles)