In this article, you’ll learn how to create dramatic photos in the style of old Hollywood black-and-white glamour portraits. Think about the Golden Age of film and my favorite movie of all time – Casablanca!
If you have never seen the original b/w version (don’t watch the colorized one it’s just wrong) I highly recommend you watch it. Pay close attention to the lighting in every scene and especially when Ingrid Bergman is in it. That is what you’re going to learn how to do now!
What exactly is a Hollywood glamour portrait?
We are talking about true Hollywood glamour portraits, so we have to go back to the early days of film. Think about stars like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Jane Russell, Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn, and Ingrid Bergman, as well as Humphry Bogart, Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, etc.
The photographer who created glamour portraits and photographed all the Hollywood stars of the 1920s to 40s is George Hurrell. So when we are discussing this kind of portrait I’d be remiss not to talk about him. He was a master of light and posing and is someone who has been an inspiration to me in my own career.
I have this book of his work George Hurrell’s Hollywood: Glamour Portraits 1925-1992 – it’s a wonderful coffee table item!
So let’s look at a few of his iconic portraits and dissect them. When you understand how the images were created, then you can reproduce them.
What similarities do you notice about all the images above? The main elements in his portraits all include the following:
- Black and white
- High contrast or dramatic lighting
- Use of strong shadows
- Frequent use of a dark or completely black background
- Often you’ll see hard light used as well (smaller light source, more defined shadows)
- Mostly solemn or reflective expressions (you won’t find big smiles in his portraits)
- Focus on close-ups of the face mostly
Hurrell did do full-length portraits of course, but if you look at his body of work you’ll see more close-ups). He was also not the only Hollywood photographer. Here are a few other Golden Age photographers for you to check out.
Why black and white?
Back in the heyday of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, color photography wasn’t an option yet so it was all black and white. Now, of course, in the age of digital, we have a choice. If you want to recreate a true old Hollywood-style portrait then you’ll want to go with b/w.
What I suggest is that you capture all the images in color using the RAW camera format.
If you want to see a preview of how it will look when you’re photographing, set your camera’s picture style to Monochrome. That will give you a b/w playback of your images in-camera, but the RAW files will still have all the color data.
This is the ideal situation because then you can do the b/w conversion in the post-processing phase. That gives you more control over how the different color tones are interpreted and adjusted – something you cannot do in-camera.
Why black and white anyways? Because you can get really dramatic and go over the top with contrast and it just works so well! Because it’s artistic. Because it’s old-school Because it’s gorgeous!
So if you haven’t done a lot of b/w work, now is the time to give it a go!
For this kind of portrait, you’ll need at least two (three if you want to do a white background) studio strobes OR two speedlights and a reflector.
These are the kind of studio lights I have. They are really compact and portable and if you get the kit, it comes with a great wheeled case to pack it all up into.
If you are not ready to invest in studio lights yet, you can use a pair of speedlights like the ones shown below. But the disadvantage of speedlights is you cannot see the light before you take the photo – so placement is a bit trickier but not impossible.
Make sure you have a large enough space to work in so you can move the lights around and get the subject at least 6 feet away from the background.
*NOTE: I use a portable grey muslin background set up on background stands as seen above. But you can use a plain wall if you don’t have a background.
Then you have a choice of doing a high-key (mostly light tones) or low-key (mostly dark tones) setup. Let’s take a look at both options.
Low-key dramatic portrait lighting setup
For this kind of portrait, you’ll need two lights (studio strobes, LED lights, or portable speedlights) and a medium to dark background or wall. I did my setup with a muslin background, which is medium grey (like the one above).
Using a small softbox (24″ is a good size for this) on each light set them up as follows:
- Position one light about 30-45 degrees from the camera as the main light on the subject.
- Place the second light behind the subject on the opposite side of the main light. Raise it up high, make sure it is out of the frame, and aim it at the side/back of the model’s head.
- Make sure the subject is at least six feet (more is better) away from the background and that no light from the main light is hitting it.
Your setup should look something like this:
You want to create a nice pattern of light on the model’s face with the main light. Then the hair or rim light should outline the edge of the model and separate them from the background.
NOTE: Having a separation light is very important when you’re doing low-key photography. This is especially true if your subject has dark hair and/or is wearing dark clothing. Without this light, they will blend into the background. Of course, you could choose to let that occur, but make sure you’re doing it as a conscious artistic choice, not a mistake.
In the images below you can see that the light is hitting her hair and her back. This adds texture to her hair and a gorgeous highlight that makes her skin glow (it already does this just helps bring out her natural glow).
Before you get started take a few test shots and watch out for these pitfalls:
- Light from the hair light hitting their nose (you do NOT want this).
- Too much light hitting the background (block it somehow or angle your lights differently).
- Flare in the camera from the hair/rim light hitting the lens (block it and make sure you’re using a lens hood).
- Not enough light hitting the hair (lack of separation) – turn up that light and/or bring it closer to the subject.
- Too much light hitting the hair (blown out highlights) – lower the power on that light and/or move it back.
Once you have the basic set up you can vary it by changing the pose, the position of the model, and the angle of their face (try a profile). There are some examples of that shown below.
The images on the left below are not quite profile images. They are what is called ¾ view or ¾ face. The ones below right are proper profiles. You see only one side of the face.
You’ll also notice a difference in the pose of the profile portraits above and the one below. In the one above, her body partially faces the camera. In the image below, her body is posed facing the background. But in both cases, their gaze is aimed directly to the side (90 degrees from the camera).
You can also use this kind of lighting setup for two people as well as full-length poses. Just pay close attention to the light on their faces and adjust as needed.
I added a background light to the image above using the masking tools in Lightroom. If you want to know how I did that – watch this video:
Use the portrait as a starting point
Finally, you can use your low-key portrait as a starting point for more complex ideas. Do you recognize the images below? These are the base images I used for making some creative portraits.
We did these poses and setup, then I added in the light painting. I used the same lighting setup as described above – one main light on her face and one behind her on her hair.
These were the base for some light painting portraits that I created. Because the lighting was mostly dark and moody, and there was little or no light falling on the background this was the perfect setup for adding light painting, as seen below.
Read more: How To Create Amazing Light-Painted Portraits Step-by-Step.
The second style of lighting you can use for your black-and-white Hollywood glamour portraits is called high-key. This is the opposite of the examples above.
Usually, this involves a white background, light-toned clothing, soft lighting, and lower contrast. But there are no hard and fast rules so you get to do it your way.
Below you can see the lighting setup I used. The backdrop was the same medium grey muslin – I just aimed two strobes at it and hit it with enough light to overexpose it and make it white.
In the diagram above you can also see two black gobos (simple black cards) placed between the lights and the subject. That is to make sure no light from the background lights falls on the subject or hits the camera causing lens flare.
If you want less contrast add in a fourth light as a fill light on the shadow side of the face, or use a white reflector to lift the shadows a little bit. I chose not to use a reflector and stayed with the strong, high-contrast lighting.
This entire photoshoot came about because I saw this photo of Angelina Jolie and was inspired to do something similar. Remember, you can use other images to give you ideas – then put your own spin on it.
Actress Crystle Lightning agreed to be my model for this project and I’m very grateful for her time. I loved collaborating with her. She was great to work with because she’s so photogenic and was willing to work with me to bring my ideas to fruition.
How do you think we did in recreating the portrait? It’s not identical but I wanted to include Crystle’s gorgeous long hair and use it to create some curves. I punched the contrast up even higher in post-processing to achieve this dramatic look.
We tried several different poses, here is another that I really like from this set. On this one, I lowered the contrast a little in processing and added a light edge vignette to soften it a bit and add an airy feel.
Are you inspired?
Even if you never aspire to do this kind of photography, you can still learn something from studying my images and others like them.
Learn about the quality of light – hard versus soft – and when to use each to create the image you want.
You can learn about low-key (dark and moody) versus high-key (light and airy) and apply that to your images even when doing macro, street, or nature photography.
What else can you learn from this lesson? What did you learn? Post your answers in the comment area below.
The bottom line is, are you inspired? I hope so! Now go create something!