Glamour of the Gods Hollywood Portraits – Unravelled

Sep 13, 2011 | Continuous Lighting, Location, Studio | 15 comments

I’ve often worked hard at unlocking the code of the Hollywood portraits to examine their DNA. In this post I discuss how we can recreate the classic look today using simple continuous lights. I have three images from the John Kobal collection to asses. These along with many others are in exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London until the 23rd October 2011. I’ve chosen one from the 30’s, one from the 40’s and one from the 50‘s and I’m starting with this portrait of Marlon Brando shot by by John Engstead in 1950

Marlon Brando – Click on the picture for a larger image in a new frame that you can view alongside my description.

An uncharacteristically high viewpoint and the low placement of Marlon in the frame creates a softer more vulnerable picture. This is further added to by Marlon’s slumped posture. This combination contrasts with the deliberate and strong gaze that draws the viewer in. Marlon is like a resting Lion. Supremely powerful with a fine physique and arms that could rip any man apart. He looks gentle and friendly too and that is almost certainly as a result of the nature of John Engstead, the photographer.

Marlon – a four light portrait:

Lamp 1: The principal or key light has been set quite steep above and to the left of camera. Judging by the crisp nose and chin shadow it has created I’d say it was a 2k Fresnel lamp on full flood. The barn doors have been used to keep the light off the top part of the ornate pillar that Marlon is leaning on. The full flood setting of this lamp gives a beautifully even light right down to the base of the photograph.

Lamp 2: The back wall of the set is probably lit from below using a single ground row soft light. The close proximity of the light source reveals the texture of the wall and the parabolic reflector gives an even illumination up the wall.

Lamp 3: A ¾ kick light rigged above, behind and to the right of Marlon gives us the hair shine and rim lighting on his left arm and leg. This light has a principal purpose to separate  Marlon from the background. The spot of flare top right in the print is from the backlight. One major issue that all film makers faced was to give the illusion of a three dimensional scene on a two dimensional screen and it was soon discovered that back lighting was the key to achieving this. Watch any TV drama today including the soaps and you will still see backlight in nearly every shot. The lower the production budget the less back light there will be because it takes a lot of time to rig and set back lights without seeing stands and cables.

Lamp 4: Is the contrast control light and was often called a hard fill light. You need to see the close up of Marlon’s face to see the true effect of this subtle yet vital lamp. It was almost certainly a Mole Richardson 1Kw Pup on a floor stand with castors. This small Fresnel lensed lamp was in everyday use in most film and TV studios throughout the world right up until the early 1980s. You can clearly see the crossover of this lamp in the under chin shadow. Set nearly two stops less intense than the key light this light fills in the eye sockets, nose mouth and chin shadows. The tiny but significant highlights in Marlon’s eyes tell the whole story.

How would this shot be composed and lit differently today?

I expect the top ¼ of the frame would be cropped out and current lighting styles would have Marlon lit from his left and not from his right as shown. Lighting from his left, or camera right would have the effect of balancing out his facial features. His mouth line has a definite tilt that has the effect of making the left side of his face appear to be the smaller side. By lighting into the left of Marlon’s face would give the illusion of more symmetry and reduce the dominance of the right side of his face. Small details like choosing a lighting angle can make big differences to the success of any shot. The fill light would almost certainly be from a softer light source to avoid creating clearly defined second shadows.


Picture two is Clark Gable and Joan Crawford photographed by George Hurrell in 1933

Clark Gable and Joan Crawford photographed by George Hurrell in 1933. Click on the picture for a larger image in a new frame that you can view alongside my description.

I find this picture both sad and beautiful. It depicts what might have been, regrets, a loss, intimacy yet distance. The strong full embrace by Clark and the delicate touch of Joan on his face, the distant gaze and far away thoughts. It’s an actors portrait, a portrayal of the movie scene perhaps.

Clark and Joan – a three light portrait:

Lamp 1: The lighting angle of the key, or principal light favours Joan although they have missed their marks by a foot or so. The key light is a spotted Fresnel light that renders a slightly softer shadow and a more gradual fall off than a barn doored flooded light. The centre of the spot is just out the left of the frame and the original negative will have Joan rendered much darker than she is shown here. With a lower amount of light comes a lower contrast that can’t easily be repaired by dodging and burning in the print stage alone.

Lamp2: A secondary hard fill light is from the right and is about the same height as the camera. The effect of this light can be quite clearly seen on Clark’s hands. The couple are too close to the background to get a backlight in.

Lamp 3: The background is lit by a glancing fresnel spotlight from high and to the left.

How would this shot be composed and lit differently today?

A backlight is the most obvious addition. It would give some sheen to Joan’s hair and define the shape of her neck more clearly. A better placed key light would give the shot a bit more contrast and clarity too. I’ve seen later prints of this image that have been over corrected with punchier contrast and they have lost some of the magic as a result.


Picture three is Rita Hayworth photographed by Robert Coburn in 1946

Rita Hayworth photographed by Robert Coburn in 1946. Click on the picture for a larger image in a new frame that you can view alongside my description.

The glamour of post war Hollywood is captured in all it’s glory in this classic portrait of Rita Hayworth. That fabulous silk gown is cut on the bias to reveal Rita’s wonderful body shape. I love the decadence of the shot with Rita letting the fur coat drag on the floor. The pose is timeless too, the sweep of Rita’s body line, her asymmetric shoulders and the tilt of her head are a magical combination.

Some age old classic style elements play out here like the hands rule: If hands are held above the waist they should point upwards and if below the waist they should point down.

Rita – a three light portrait:

Rita is lit by a classic three point lighting set up.

Lamp 1: The principal light is at up and to the left of the shot and slightly behind Rita. Smoke is best lit from behind and the key light does an excellent job.

Lamp 2: Is a twin light to lamp 1 and is rigged on the right hand side of the picture and a bit further back. Both lights are fresnel spot lights rigged at full flood and tightly doored in to give vertical slots of light on Rita. Keeping the lights at quite a distance ensures an even illumination from top to toe.

Lamp 3: Is a spotted hard fill light pointing right down Rita’s nose. It is feathered off the bottom half of the picture from the top of the legs down. The light and Rita’s shadow will have landed on the black cyclorama probably made from the famous Bolton Twill. This fabric has excellent light absorbing properties and is still in use in the film and TV industry.

Cutting the frame at the ankles has kept the unsightly forward leading shadows out of the picture and has given Rita the appearance of longer legs at the same time. It’s still a common technique today.

The bust part of the dress could do with a bit of centralising but apart from that I’d change very little. I’d possibly swap the fresnel hard fill light for a hard edged spotlight like the follow spots found in theatres. This would give a more stage performance kind of look. I’d keep the spill from the follow spot in the back of the frame on the cyclorama too.

If I could have a print of one of these three original classic photographs it would have to be the Marlon Brando portrait. A great man captured for all time at his peak of good looks. It would be very hard to find an actor with such emotive gravity today to repeat this image. Photography blesses us with this wonderful legacy. Decoding historical photographs is a great way to learn the lighting techniques of the masters, pioneers of our art. You now have the perfect opportunity to do just that because the original prints of these Hollywood portraits and many more from the John Kobal Foundation are exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London until the 23rd October.


1. Lora Brisland by Damien Lovegrove

In it’s simplest form the light from a full flood fresnel lensed light gives clean sharp shadows. I’ve recreated the Holywood cheek triangle look above where Lora’s nose shadow strikes her cheek shadow but not her top lip. The shadows on the unlit side of Lora’s face form a triangle. There is no fill light in this shot but there is a hint of backlight just noticeable on Lora’s back.

2. Sarah Beaufoy by Damien Lovegrove

For this retro film star look above I shot Sarah from above the eye line. I set the Arri 300 key light straight down Sarah’s nose line to minimise shadows. The chin shadow was filled with reflected light from Sarah’s shoulder. The kick light from an Arri 150 gives the picture depth and separation from the out of focus background. I used my 100mm macro lens wide open at f/2.8 to add to retro look.

3. Lora Brisland by Damien Lovegrove

I took this picture of Lora Brislandabove  a few years ago and it exhibits the dreamy qualities that come from a shallow depth of field. The key to it’s success is the intensity of our interaction and while I’m shooting this frame no one else exists in our little world. Shooting into the unlit side of Lora’s face has narrowed it and emphasised her fabulous cheek bones and jaw line. Her luscious lips complete this classic look.

4. Chloe Jasmine Whichello and Jay by Damien Lovegrove

Movie promotional photographs often have a narrative, a story in the image that gives the viewer privileged information that the characters are seemingly unaware of. In my vintage picture above taken at Bury railway museum, the leading lady played by Chloe Jasmine Whichello thinks that the leading man played by Jay may be looking at her but she can’t look round to see for sure. Plus he can’t see the interest that our actress is expressing. I lit Chloe with an HMI fresnel lensed light from the right of the shot and sunlight gave Jay the backlight needed to set him apart from the background.


The film stages were often lit to 1000 Lux using big luminaries typically 5kw & 2.5Kw suspended on pantographs. Fortunately we can get a similar look in a smaller space using smaller lights. I use fresnel lensed lights from Lupo and Arri. The Lupo’s are daylight balanced lights and will give about the same light level as was used to create the classic Hollywood images at a working distance of about 4m from light to subject. Typical exposures are 1/60th at f/4 with ISO 400. If you opt to use tungsten lighting, the Arri 1kw, 650w, 300w and 150w fresnels are the best tools to use. Expect to be working at a lower light level with tungsten lights with a typical exposure of 1/30th second at f/4 and ISO 400. I use both HMI and tungsten lights on location choosing to match the ambient colour temperature in the room. This is often HMI by day when light levels are higher anyway and tungsten by night when candles, table lamps and chandeliers illuminate the ambient scene.

The Lupo 800 and the Arri 300.

The Lupo 800 on the left costs about £700 and is a daylight balanced lamp. The Lupo utilises an HMI bubble to generate its pure white light. The bubble lasts for about 6000 hours and costs about £40 to replace. HMI is a very energy efficient lamp type and the Lupo 800 at just 150w gives the equivalent quantity of light to a 800w tungsten source, hence it’s name. It is easy to convert the Lupo’s daylight to a tungsten colour balance simply by clipping a gel to the barn doors. A full CTO (colour temperature orange) gel will cut out about 1 stop of light and this will make the light output just a bit brighter than the Arri 300. The Arri 300 at just £320 is a smaller and more robust light by comparison yet still delivers a fabulous beam from it’s fresnel lens. The Arri bulbs last for about 150 hours and cost £12 or so. I get through about three or four a year. So the cost of ownership over a ten year period of both lamps will be about the same.

With thanks to the John Kobal Foundation and the National Portrait Gallery. The book of the collection is well worth having and is available here.

Please feel free to comment below.



  1. Rob Wheatman

    3 years on and I find this. What a fabulous and intriguing insight into these timeless images.
    Thanks for sharing

    • Damien

      Cheers Rob,

      I wanted to get this on the blog because the knowledge I was given at the BBC by the ‘old boys’ was valuable and from an era. Have a great Christmas and stay inspired :)


  2. Christopher Nisperos

    Nice work, Damien. Try using less light, if you can.



    • damien

      Hi Christopher Nisperos,

      Thanks for your compliments. I’ve got the light level where I am comfortable shooting hand held and I’m loving the balance of light and shade too :)

      Best regards,


  3. Jo

    I loved this exhibition and was fascinated to read your analysis of the lighting – thank you! Love your no.3 shot too. I’ll be experimenting to recreate that one!
    I’ve spent the evening reading through your blog and would just like to say thanks for sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm.

    • damien

      Thanks Jo.

  4. Rich Scorer

    I saw this collection last week at the NPG at it was amazing, Hurrell, Bull and Bachrach were amazing.

    But what I was disappointed to find was the standing cases in the exhibition had the retouched negatives and the proofs marked up for editing, did not make it in to the book. As someone that has only used digital it was amazing to see and good to see that “photoshopping” has been around almost as long as photography.

    As always I am still loving the blog.

    • damien

      Hi Rich,

      As you say, neg retouching has been around for ages. I’m glad you like this classic lighting style too.

      Cheers, Damien.

  5. Steve

    I love this kind of ‘old glamour’ lighting. Really appreciate the breakdown of how you have achieved the results.

    • damien

      Thanks Steve :)

  6. Fergus

    Fascinating pics from Hollywood. There is another book (out of print, but listed by amazon) by Roger Hicks & Chris Nisperos which attempts to dissect the lighting setups from some of the Kobal collection pics of stars called ‘Hollywood Portraits’.
    Love your pics too Damien.

  7. darren bell

    Love this article – the rita hayworth image is stunning, always liked that one!

    the one of Lora (no.1) is beautiful (as are the rest!)

    • damien

      Thanks Darren and Fergus.

      I’ve bought a Kobal collection book on Martin’s reccomendation. It’s a great era and the magic of hard lights was almost lost throughout the 90s and 00s due to the proliferation of the soft box. Expect more ‘classic lighting from me in the coming months throughout the winter. Thank you for your comments and contributions.

      Kindest regards, Damien

  8. martin

    John Kobel’s ‘Film Star Portraits of the 1950s’ is a fabulous source of inspiration and a bargain at under a tenner on Amazon.

    • damien

      Thanks Martin,

      I’ve bought the book plus a few others too while I was on Amazon. Late night inspirational retail session!

      Cheers, Damien.


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