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Hollywood Portraits

September 21, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

The Basics of Lighting for Great Portraits

When we take portraits there are many different styles of lighting we can utilise to make the sitter look good, but often simplest is best.

The rich and glamorous look of the Hollywood Portraits is one of our favourites and fairly simple to set up.

First, we must thank our wonderful model Jess McLean and also Kat Roberts of Kat's Blush Makeup & BodyArt for the hair and makeup.

The classic and timeless portraits of Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, Lauren Bacall, Clark Gable and James Cagney have stood the test of time, and still have an iconic style today.

The distinctive look of these Hollywood portraits came about due to limitations and constraints rather than by deliberate design.

If you constrict yourself to the conditions that these photographers had to work with, then you can be well on your way to reproducing that beautiful look.

For a start, film was slow, so the apertures of lenses had to be wide and that lead to a shallow depth of field.  Always open your lens up.  Zoom lenses aren't really suitable for this, so get a good prime "portrait" or short telephoto lens.  In addition, opening your lens right up can also make the image stay sharp but go slightly "soft" which is a fantastic look!

Because film was slow, they had to use very bright lights and big lenses in front of the lights to maximise their power.  Fresnel lenses were lighter in weight, but also gave a distinctive pool of light which also help characterise the portraits from this era.  We love the Lupo lights.  They are continuous lights.  So simple because you see where you put the light!  Flash just doesn't work.  It’s like microwave chicken compared to a lovely roast.  You need the continuous lights - and the good news is they can cost LESS than Canon or Nikon speedlights!

Finally, they used a tripod.  I really would like to stress this.  It slows you down and helps you lock your composition.  I'm not sure why I stopped using tripods, it was always the way I grew up and was taught to photograph using a tripod.  When I started putting my camera back on the tripod it was a revelation.  My camera is free and no longer distracts me, and I can concentrate on the portrait.  It makes so much difference and I urge you to try this approach.  You will thank me for it!

The filmmakers needed to make their images three-dimensional, and it seems to be something that is lost in many modern images.  They used a backlight, or "accent" light coming from behind and slightly to the side of their subject to separate them from the background.  Watch films and high budget TV dramas and you will notice this technique everywhere.

Use an exposure meter - not your camera!  Remember, you are measuring the light falling ON your subject and not the amount of light being reflected back!

Get your back light correct first.  Light reflecting off a surface (your model) will always meter about a stop higher, so take the light down until it meters about ½ a stop over.  Now light the face of your subject.

Accent LightsAccent LightsAccent Lights

Here the lights are set up and exposed for the accent light only.



Flat LightingFlat LightingFlat Lighting










This is our model's face without any back lighting.  How many of us are guilty of this "flat" lighting? 




To start - learn the three basic lighting set-ups that will stand you in great stead.

1.      Butterfly / Paramount / Dietrich Lighting

Butterfly LightingButterfly LightingButterfly Lighting Butterfly LightingButterfly LightingButterfly Lighting










This was the style of portrait lighting favoured by Marlene Dietrich.  It was used by all the "Big Six" film studios - including Paramount.  The shadow of the light resembles a "butterfly" under the nose.  If you photograph a female, then call it "Butterfly" lighting.  If your sitter is a man, then call it "Paramount"!  Think of the sitter with a growing "Pinocchio" nose that extends out until it touches the lighting stand.  That’s is where you have to have the light - full on to their face.  To see the full effect you should have the camera straight on to the face, but you can move around sideways, so long as the model's face is filled by the light.  The light should be high and angled down to get a good shadow, but not so high that you lose the catchlight in their eyes or they will appear as sunken dark sockets.  Also make sure you don't make their cheekbones look fat!

You can move the model around so that you are not shooting straight into their face, but remember if she turns her head then the light must follow and be in the same position relative to her face.  This portrait is pure Hollywood!

Portrait with Butterfly LightingPortrait with Butterfly LightingPortrait with Butterfly Lighting Butterfly Lighting sideButterfly Lighting sideButterfly Lighting side














I also like to set the screen on the back of the camera to black & white, and that will also give me a feel for the final effect.  We use an Olympus OM-D and you can customise the look of the final image in camera.

2.      Loop Lighting

Loop LightingLoop LightingLoop Lighting Loop Lighting DiagramLoop Lighting DiagramLoop Lighting Diagram










The nose shadow is all important here.  The shadow should follow the curve of the cheek on the face on the far side of the light.  The shadow should not go too far or you will make the face of the model look broad and flat.  You must set the light high enough to get a satisfactory loop of shadow.  Don't let the model move around or change the angle of their head or the shadow will be lost.  If they have a slightly wider face then put the light on the side of the face furthest away from the camera (this is called "short lighting").  It will slim the appearance of their face and they will love you for it!  I like this as it is probably the easiest to set up, it's great for most people and is nothing too fancy or dramatic.

3.      Rembrandt Lighting

Rembrandt LightingRembrandt LightingRembrandt Lighting Rembrandt LightingRembrandt LightingRembrandt Lighting















I love this lighting!  When done well it gives me such a lovely tingle of satisfaction.  Named after the Dutch Master Painter it is often more suited to male portraits. But we have used it to great effect with girls as it can give a powerful and stunning appearance to a female face.  The side of the face in the shadows has a triangle of light pointing downwards.  To be strict, the width of the patch of light should be no wider than the width of the eye, and the bottom the triangle of light should be level with the bottom of the nose.

There are many other types of lighting you can progress to learn: split, badger, cross, clamshell, flow - the list is endless, but like cooking, if you learn the basics first then you can advance from there.

In the final image we switched back to colour and did a couple of really cool things.  With these Lupo lights we can easily change the colour temperature without having to fiddle around with gels which will reduce the power of the lights.  We set the Key Light to a colour temperature of 3200°K (Tungsten), and put one of Damien Lovegrove's "Scattergels" on another light facing the background.  This was to give a Venetian blind appearance and we set the colour temperature of this light to 5600°K (Daylight).

We set the camera towards the lower end of the range - 4000°K.  This will let the Key Light appear slightly warmer, as if lit from a table lamp in a motel room.  The light on the background will appear bluer, slightly more like daylight.  It's an old film trick and you will see it used in countless movies.  We completed the look and feel of the scene with a period telephone.  We imagined Marilyn Monroe accepting a 'phone call from an unnamed president of that era!

Colour PortraitColour PortraitColour Portrait












Filmset LightingFilmset LightingFilmset Lighting If you would like to read more about this and many other lighting styles, including using natural light, speedlights and a whole wealth of invaluable knowledge on all aspects of beautiful photography then we thoroughly recommend you check this book out -

And as we are proud to be associated with Damien then he has very generously offered a discount of 20% an either of his ebooks if purchased before the 31st October 2017.  Simply email me via the website and I'll give you a discount code you can enter at the checkout.  Enjoy!


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