how to shoot vintage Hollywood glamour photography

ppl_1940-060-edit-copyA few months back some friends and I did a test shoot, recreating a vintage Hollywood portrait. While mentioning some specifics from the shoot I’d also like to share a few general thoughts about approaching a test shot like this. Every photographer has their own way of doing things but here are a few things that have worked well for me.


It all starts with an idea and grows from there. I had a new beauty dish to test out and my friend Kelly (a talented photographer and stylist) and I were looking for a project to work on together. To me, a beauty dish conjures up images from the 40’s, a time before softboxes and strobes. A vintage portrait seemed like a perfect application and an opportunity to try and connect with the work of portrait artists like George Hurrell.

Some photographers like to manage every detail of a shoot like this but I really rely on and enjoy the collaboration with others. Plus, I realize where my strengths and weaknesses are. Kelly had a friend she felt would be perfect for the look and she also took responsibility for lining up the clothing. We knew from the outset that hair styling would be key to pulling off the look, so Kelly offered to find a hair stylist interested in contributing. I would put my energy into studying the technical look and lighting from the era.

After years in the business I do have relationships with other creative people that are sometimes interested in working together on projects like this. You don’t have such relationships, you say? Well, if you know anyone with an interesting look or a hobby that’s worth photographing, why not ask them if they’re interested in working together? Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The important thing about testing for me is that, well, it’s testing. A chance to try some new things out and experiment. That’s always been my primary goal, the value of the experimentation. Yes, the hope is to make at least one good photograph but, more importantly, I view it as an opportunity to test equipment and / or ideas in a non-pressure situation. Kind of like the dress rehearsal for a play.

ppl_1940-047-edit-copyDoing the research

An online search and a trip to the library turned up plenty of vintage Hollywood portraits for study. A closer, objective look at the photographs revealed a few surprises. This is a pretty common part of the process for me. You see, I had an image in my head of what a vintage portrait looked like and it was pretty accurate, overall. But the camera angles, in particular, were lower than I would have thought. Eye contact with the camera wasn’t as common as I’d envisioned. Research pays off.

Study reinforced that depth of field was generally shallow in the vintage images because large format cameras were used. High contrast was the order of the day because of the photo materials available and to “blow out” details in the skin. And, of course, airbrushing was utilized extensively to eliminate blemishes. I printed up a few images as technical reminders and would have them on hand as references at the shoot.

Time for the shoot

With everyone gathered, the collaboration comes to life. Carmen, our talent, was perfect for the role and the hair styling was spot on.

Kelly rounded up a few different choices for clothing so we could make final decisions together. Having options is important in case something might photograph better than another choice. Patterns may not work as well as imagined, certain fabrics may produce a difficult moire pattern or a particular cut of fabric might not behave well in the chosen pose. It’s good to have choices.

So, what did we find once the photography began?

I think of a shoot like this in two parts: first, let’s get the basic technical details worked out and then it’s time to move on to the aesthetic part (clothing, hair and posing). Yes, each part will be continually refined, but I like to feel comfortable with the technical aspects first. Then, when it’s time to really get rolling, fuller attention can be give to the model.

I struggled with the look for a bit, to be honest. We watched the images pop up on the screen in full color while shooting tethered to the computer. The color threw everyone off a bit since our final image would be black and white. Ninety-nine percent of the time we shoot directly to Phase One Capture One software in the studio and it works perfectly. In this case, even though the Canon 5D camera was set to shoot RAW in black and white, the previews still popped up in color. Apparently, Capture One doesn’t recognize this particular setting automatically in the previews. This was news to me and a good thing to find out in a test situation.

ppl_1940-030-edit-copyEven though I could say, “we’ll just convert them to black and white in post-production” (or convert the occasional image while shooting), it was still preferable for everyone to view a more accurate image as we shot. In order to get the previews to show up in black and white we switched to Canon’s own supplied software, DPP (Digital Photo Professional) and Canon Capture. It was free and available and we keep it loaded on the computer as a backup, just in case. Seeing the images immediately in black and white brought a higher degree of comfort to everyone.

I chose to shoot using a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro Lens, a personal favorite (both the focal length and the lens itself). This is a really sharp lens, though, and we found ourselves focusing on the hard, crisp look to the photos. This was distinctly different from the vintage images. I dialed down the power on the strobes until the depth of field was more shallow (working around f4 to f5.6). This lessened the area of sharp focus but there was still a sharp “bite” to the images. Again, this could all be solved in post-production and everyone was reminded that the vintage portraits had undergone extensive airbrush retouching. But I wanted everyone to have a more accurate vision of the final product so I did what any film shooter would have done: time to reach for the soft focus filter. This would soften edges nicely while keeping the image sharp enough.

For this I used a homemade filter of black stocking stretched over the front of the lens. We also have a white stocking for softening. The black gives more contrast than the white and, with it in place, we began to see more accurate results.

Calumet 15

A Calumet Travelite 1875ws Three-Head Portrait Kit was used for lighting with a beauty dish (Calumet 15″ (38cm) Soft-Lite Reflector (79 degree)) on the main light and 40 degree grid spot on the background and a snoot on the hair light (when used). I played with lighting, sometimes blowing out details I would normally try to retain, all in the pursuit of greater historic accuracy. How far can you push it? Testing is the time to find out. As you can see, I’m trying to do what’s possible to create the look in-camera instead of in post-production. This is completely up to the particular photographer and their personal preference. Some photographers may prefer to simplify the shooting process and do more in “post”.

Don’t fall into the technical trap

There is a trap to trying to do everything in the camera, though, especially when going for a very specific look. At some point I have to realize that I’m not using a large format camera, hot lights or orthochromatic film. This is 2008, after all, and there aren’t any awards being give for historic accuracy. Getting too mired in the technical aspects of the shoot will leave little energy for concentrating on the look of the clothing, hair and posing, the next step.

We all pitched in with thoughts on posing and how hair and clothing looked best. It’s great to hear feedback from everyone involved because these test shoots can also serve as an audition. Will we want to work together on future projects, either tests or paying assignments? How do we work as a team?

Good stuff

I was happy with this test in all respects: the teamwork, the final images and the experience and knowledge gained along the way. What you see here has had very little retouching, just a run through Lightroom 2 for basic correction (increased contrast and vignetting) and a quick retouch in Photoshop Elements on my blogging laptop.

A busy shooting schedule doesn’t always allow for shooting tests but we work them in at least a couple times a year because it’s a great way to sharpen the saw. It’s all about having fun and learning, a process made even more rewarding through the collaboration with others.