Striking images of starlets such as Jean Harlow and Hollywood royalty like Clark Gable are all thanks to the photography genius of photographers like George Hurrell. His classic portraits were a key marketing tool for MGM and Warner Brothers studios to create buzz about their movies.
As blogger FilmCamera 999 states “Those photographs were masterpieces of art, giving the subjects an added air of grace and grandeur. It is strange that stars nowadays do not tend to be photographed in that manner; perhaps it’s because we live in another time, another era.”
The style is still very much in demand however. If you’ve been trying to figure out how to create these stunning images look no further. Here’s a breakdown on how to achieve this classic portrait style.
Do Some Research
Gather a few images that you’d like to try to re-create. Also look at photographers such as CS Bull and Laszlo Willinger (Marilyn Monroe’s photographer).
The portraits were typically black-and-white and hi-contrast. The hair and skin highlights were blown-out (usually to hide flaws and wrinkles in their faces). The shallow depth-of-field (due to the limits of their large format cameras most likely) created dreamy, out-of-focus backgrounds.
More often than not, the stars did not make direct eye contact with the camera and looked away as if pondering how they were going spend their millions! Hands were used strategically to frame the face, prop the head or add emotion.
The camera was usually positioned lower than the subject to create more drama in the image.
Setting Up the Shot
Hollywood photographers used Fresnel lights used for stage lighting. The lights have a very distinct look and are focusable, giving the light a soft edge along with a soft shadow. The Fresnel lens produces a very even light that is different than a hard speedlight, or a flash head with a softbox.
The same look can be achieved with a softbox, grid and strategic use of go-bo’s (a screen or mat covered with a dark material for shielding a camera lens from excess light or glare.)
A large softbox with a honeycomb filter will concentrate light and control light spill. Be sure to look for one with a silver inner reflector and detachable inner diffuser for adjusting softness level. Another technique to add some extra glow to your subject’s face is a reflector board such as Savage’s Dull Silver board. Clamp the board to a stand and place slightly below and close to the subject’s face.
A key component for this look is to create the beautiful, glowing highlight on the subject’s hair and separate them from the dark background. Place the light slightly off to the side of the subject so that only the edge of the light from the softbox catches the subject’s face — feather it upwards and more to the left, away from your subject. It will also give an edge to the clothing further creating separation.
Elegantly draped cloth backdrops are easy to create. Try practicing with a silky fabric clipped to a backdrop stand and pinning the fabric to fashion elegant folds. Or, for real simplicity try a large, white muslin backdrop. With the depth of field in these shots the background almost always is well out of focus anyway, so it doesn’t matter what you use too much. (To keep the background from falling completely into blackness, use a speedlight shining directly on it and adjust setting accordingly.)
Hollywood images were airbrushed extensively to give the allusion of flawless skin. Practice and make good use of Photoshop’s airbrushing and band aid tools. Beware, over airbrushing your image can remove too many details causing the skin to look plastic and unrealistic. Try this online tutorial to master the art of achieving natural and smooth skin.
For more in-depth knowledge on this style, check out the book Hollywood Portraits, by Roger Hicks and Christopher Nisperos where they break down famous shots and how they were lit.