Recreating the golden age of Hollywood
by Damien Lovegrove
The classic Hollywood portraits from the golden age of film conjure up visions of fantasy, romance and perfection. These evocative images have always been a style that is in great demand among high society. Establishments like Studio Harcourt in Paris set up in the 1930s have met this demand and continue to this day.
In this feature I’m going to share with you the skills, formulas and style traits needed to make up the Hollywood look. I learned how to light the Hollywood way from a retired lighting director when I was undergoing my lighting training at the BBC in the early 1990s.
I’m often asked what makes a portrait ‘Hollywood’ in style? My answer is the finely controlled use of hard light from fresnel spotlights, a narrow depth of field and a high quality monochrome print. Vintage Hollywood also needs appropriate hair, make up and fashion styling to complete the look.
This Hollywood system works well on location too and with the right lighting any location can look like a film set. A unique characteristic that makes Hollywood lighting so special is the use of traditional spotlights with fresnel lenses and barn doors. These luminaries produce a crisp hard light that is controllable using a flood/ spot system and by the shaping of the barn doors. The look needs Fresnel lens lights for authenticity and it’s easy to spot the classic lighting style of the past masters when lit with these luminaries. Five years ago LED Fresnel spotlights weren’t even dreamed of. Now they have largely replaced HMI and the hot tungsten lights of old. The Lupolux LED spotlights are now available with bi colour LEDs so they have an adjustable colour temperature from 3200k to 5600k. The LED revolution is exciting for stills photographers because we can tap into the kind of lighting that was once the reserve of film crews with mega budgets.
The big problem for Hollywood was to make the three dimensions of life look good in two dimensions. This was achieved be separating the foreground and background using tones. Subjects closer to the camera were and still are lit to a higher contrast than the environment or the set that they are in. Pretty much every shot of an actor in a high budget film or TV drama has a back, rim or kick light. These all give the artist a presence in the scene and separate them from the background. Landscape and portrait painters use the same trick. The most distant parts of the scene have the lowest contrast and black is represented as grey.
The steepness of a key light is determined by the set of the sitters eyes. Deep set eyes or ones with false eyelashes need a shallower key light. This ensures a lovely highlight in the eyes. Shallow set eyes can get away with high, steep key lights and still get a highlight. The steeper the light the more chiselled the face becomes with clearly defined cheek bones and jaw lines. So rig your key light as high as you can and still get a highlight in each eye.
Shadows are your friend. Shadows reveal shape and the crispness of a shadow edge is determined by the relative size of the light source. The depth of the shadow, the umbra, how dark it is relative to the lit part is the shadow contrast. I like to create dark shadows that still have significant detail. The quality of the final print will be governed by the control of the deep shadow detail. Never let it sink into a black hole.
A medium telephoto or a standard lens is best for these kind of shots. For the big wide scene that I shot in Bristol Museum at night [Lovegrove in Hollywood 14] I used the moderately wide 23mm lens on my Fuji X-T1 set to f/1.4 and that equates to a 35mm lens on the full frame SLR format. The trick is not to get too close. If you are more than touching distance from your subject you’ll be okay.
If I’m shooting a vintage look I pop some Ella Fitzgerald or Etta James on the hifi in the studio. This helps set the mood. The sitter needs to feel amazing for that energy to come through in the photograph.
Hollywood is not all about the past tough, there is a new genre taking hold among social photographers that fuses classic Hollywood lighting with modern fashion styles. The crisp light from these spotlights closely resembles natural sunlight and makes skin come alive. Hard light has been rediscovered by advertisers too. On the down side hard light can emphasise skin surface blemishes but that’s what Photoshop is for isn’t it? Crisp, beautiful hard light energises photographs and transforms them to a fantasy level.
Here’s how you get the look: Get it right in camera. Don’t rely on post production to achieve magic. Lighting control is the key here so set your camera up first to show exactly what you need to see. Switch the LCD or EVF to black and white and the screen brightness to manual in the middle position. This will give you a great preview of what lighting changes you are making. You can use a tripod too but it isn’t exactly necessary. I find a tripod helps my fine tuning of the shot. It also helps as I shuttle back and forth contrasting and comparing the subtle lighting changes made between shots. I share the images on the back of the camera with my sitter no matter if they are a client, a model or a celebrity. This kind of shoot is a joint venture and often the sitter has changes to suggest to the styling or expression that ultimately make the shot a success.
5 steps to create the look:
1. Set the mood of the shot with the camera position. Shoot from below the eye line to make someone seem powerful, statuesque, strong and confident. If you want to soften someones look to make appear vulnerable choose a high viewpoint and photograph them from above.
2. Carefully set your key light. Always light from above and aim the key light either ‘straight down the nose’ or just off to one side so that the nose shadow touches the cheek shadow to enclose a ‘Hollywood triangle’. Use the barn doors to control any spill.
3. Add a back light or kicker to make the image three dimensional and to help separate the foreground from the background. Use a reflector in the spill from the key light to control the contrast in the scene. then light the background as required.
4. If you are going for an authentic vintage look make up and hair styles are really important. Curls and lashes take time to get right so allow plenty of prep time for your shoot. I research vintage hair and make up styles using Google images.
5. Get the styling right as this is such a big part of the look too. An evening dress makes a good base. I often add a white shrug that I bought in Top Shop, some pearls I bought at Primark and vintage style sunglasses purchased on Ebay.
1. Spotlights with fresnel lenses are best. Fresnel lenses achieve the magnification of a much thicker lens without the weight. The lens rear is stippled to give the light a super smooth soft edged fall off.
2. I use a Tiffen Black Pro Mist filter with ¼ strength to give a subtle diffused look to my Hollywood images. An old lens from the 1950s or 60s used via an adapter can also work well.
3. A Scattergel or other gobo (go between) is used to break up the light to create mood and ambience. This simple piece of kit really delivers the icing on the cake.
4. Barn doors on the back lights stop the chance of flare and help to keep the image shadows under control. Barn doors on the key light keeps the spill light off the background.
5. A reflector just out of shot from the side is great for controlling contrast. I use an original Triflector I bought way back in the 1990s. It works well from the sides as well as from underneath.
Behind the scenes on set:
Take the Hollywood look on location to bring a space to life. Fresnel spotlights have a long throw and can be used to light large areas from a distance. I used just three Lupolux LED spotlights for this shot. It was a commission for a poster campaign for the Bristol Museum events department. I started by rigging Victoria’s key light, a Lupolux LED 650 with a Scattergel This light picks up on the lion and the stairs too. The light at the top of the sketch plan shows Victoria’s backlight. This is a Lupolux LED 1000 in full spot mode rigged two floors up pointing down over the balustrade. The third light in the set is lighting the back wall. I used another Lupolux 1000 LED and a Scattergel from a position out of shot on the right at the top of the stairs. I lit the statue on the half landing with this light too.
On a budget?
If you can’t afford the HMI or LED fresnel spotlights from Lupolux, tungsten fresnel spotlights are still available from Arri and cost less than a Canon or Nikon Speedlight. I recommend the 650, 300 and 150 in the junior series. Speedlights with grids can get you 90% of the look but without modelling lights they can be hard to set up and rely on test and measure to achieve a good power balance. Studio lights are a better option if you want to try and achieve this look with flash because they have modelling lights but you might not be able to achieve f/1.4 even with the flash set to minimum power. There are expensive fresnel adaptors available for studio flash systems but they don’t have the control and versatility of a dedicated light. I’d say use the cheaper 18cm reflectors instead fitted with 20 degree honeycomb grids to get near the look you want. Set the flash power to minimum on your most powerful unit and balance the power of the other units to taste. Using flash will create a darker shooting environment because the modelling lights are a fraction of the power of continuous lights so take care when focussing.
- Barn doors: The metal flaps on a light fixture used to control spill or to create a rectangular shaped light pattern.
- Scattergels: A screen printed acrylic sheet with regular or irregular patterns used to break up the light to created a dappled effect.
- Fresnel: The name of the guy who gave his name to a compact lens made up of concentric rings. Often found in lighthouses, on the front of Speedlights and in film and TV luminaires.
- Luminaire: The posh term for a continuous lighting fixture.
- Kick light: A kick light glances the cheek of the subject from behind and to the side. It creates a light band, often blown out to white from the specular reflections off the skin.
- Back light: A back light is rigged on the opposite side of the subject to the camera irrespective of the direction the subject is facing in.
- Key light: The key light is the principal light and it doesn’t necessarily have to come from the front it can land on the subject from any angle.
- Down the nose: This refers to the direction of a light. If the subjects nose was very long it would touch the lighting stand if a ‘down the nose’ lighting direction is used.
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