While the human eye is believed to command incredible resolution and dynamic range, we all too often limit the way we see the world, specifically in the field of photography. It’s great to capture an image with a fair balance of light and shadows, but there are occasions where we will want to reproduce more in our images than what the human eye sees.

Portrait photography offers the unique opportunity to capture subjects and do more than simply represent their likeness. Creative portrait photographers, like the long line of painters and sculptors before them, seize the opportunity to tell a story, to reveal or hint at the subject’s personality. Some stories, of course, are better told than others.

Problem: Bland Portrait Lighting Lacks Purpose

While there will always be talented artists creating wonderful work, a great number of modern portraits seem to lack purpose. Where many of these portraits fall short is not in the composition or posing, but in the lighting, which regularly lands somewhere in between light and airy or dramatic. Within these portraits, the subjects tend to blend into the background.

Solution: Use Lighting to Stylize Portraits

Sometimes (quite often, actually), when searching for inspiration, it helps to look to the work of those who have come before us. In the field of portrait photography, old Hollywood glamour portraits possessed a unique strength and purpose not present in a lot of work today. It is a stylized look, but it demonstrates the power of lighting in creating purpose in portraits, and with the right gear and setup, it is fairly easy to achieve.

Vintage Portrait with a Hollywood Glam Style

Here is how to create vintage Hollywood portraits in 4 easy steps:

1: Dial in Ambient Exposure

The first step in creating images that go beyond what the human eye sees and creating dynamic portraits is dialing in the ambient exposure. Vintage Hollywood portraits relied heavily on contrast and shadows, so we stopped down our exposure to set the foundation for the scene.

2: Add Light

We combined a variety of light sources, both constant and flash, in this multi-point light setup. For the key light, we used a Kino Flo constant light, though we also added CTO-gelled/gridded flash (at 1/64 power) for an extra spot of light to fill in some of the shadows on our subject’s faces. For the rim light, we used an available background light found in the room at the Roosevelt Hotel. It served two purposes as it also looked amazing and worked as a prop in this stylized portrait.

Here is a list of gear you can use to create vintage Hollywood glamour portraits:


3: Pose to match mood/style of the shoot

Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 50mm f/1.2 at f/1.2, 1/500, ISO 100

When it comes to photography styles, we commonly associate light and airy images with a bright and happy mood, and likewise, dark or dramatically lit images with a more serious tone. As playful, whimsical expressions and poses would have probably looked out of place here, we directed the subjects into serious, editorial-style expressions reminiscent of those found in old Hollywood promo or headshots.

4: Post Produce to Complete the Look

The Hollywood glamour portraits we created leaned toward the soft-yet-dramatic side, so we exposed for darker images and directed the client into editorial poses. In Lightroom, we applied the “Soft Portrait” preset, and then we slightly desaturated the image before lifting the shadows to finish the look.

To learn more about how to use single and multi-point lighting to produce high-quality images, check out our lighting workshops, Lighting 101 and Lighting 201. Enjoy both workshops in SLR Lounge Premium alongside our other gold standard workshops.

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