The ingredients for a Hollywood glamour portrait

This image was shot with an 85mm f1.4 lens at f1.4 on a Nikon D800 camera. My subject was the lovely,   Dan’Yelle McNeely,   who is a photographer in the Tacoma, WA area. Hair and makeup by   Erin Hunt

This image was shot with an 85mm f1.4 lens at f1.4 on a Nikon D800 camera. My subject was the lovely, Dan’Yelle McNeely, who is a photographer in the Tacoma, WA area. Hair and makeup by Erin Hunt

I think most photographers, no matter what they photograph, can appreciate the vintage ‘40s Hollywood glamour portrait, made famous by legendary photographers – like George Hurrell. I think re-creating portraits like this can also be an important educational experience for upstart and even seasoned pro photographers because the crisp, direct lighting style used requires precision placement to shape the face beautifully. You quickly learn what works, and doesn’t work, when lighting the physiognomy.

I recently did a couple of workshops on and where I demonstrated a plethora of lighting styles and techniques. The Hollywood glamour style is always one of my favorites as it’s beautifully transformative and a great exercise in posing, lighting, and styling. I’ve put together a breakdown of the basic ingredients so you can play with it yourself too.

  • A good makeup artist who understands the style and makeup for B&W photography
  • Vintage looking clothing with the 30s or 40s style
  • A vintage looking chair or chaise longue to pose on
  • One or two light sources that are crisp. I prefer using a beauty dish or small diffused light source for the main light (will explain later)
  • Some Lightroom or Photoshop retouching skills and/or actions and presets for vintage Hollywood B&W looks
  • A subject willing to turn on the “sassy”!

The traditional Hollywood portrait is all about the eyes. Well, to be fair, other stuff will be important too, but the eyes are where your emphasis really should be. You want to pose your subject so that the face is generally closer to the camera and the eyes have primary focus. Even if you are doing a full length pose, highlighting a beautiful dress and the body that fills it, the eyes must draw you in and keep you mesmerized. 

In many of the original images from the era, you don’t see very shallow depth of field. However, I really like to use this as a modern twist on the style. I often photograph at f1.4, f1.8, or maybe f2.0 to keep everything but the eyes somewhat soft and mysterious. I also enjoy using my Lensbaby to really tweak the area of focus for even more interesting variations. Try it a few different ways to see what you prefer. 

Posing will be dramatic, often un-natural feeling, and usually uncomfortable for the subject to hold. If it hurts, you’re probably doing it right! We always joke with our subjects that the poses that feel the weirdest often turn out the best. Of course, this rule doesn’t apply to all portraiture, but with Hollywood glam, it’s no pain, no gain! Even if the pose doesn’t necessarily cause physical pain, it won’t be a position your subject would naturally just fall in to while waiting for the bus. You need to work it and ask them to work it with you. 

Now comes the fun part, lighting! The beauty of this crisp, direct lighting style is that there is little room for error. If you don’t position your main light just right, the face will not be flattered and the style will not be realized. Hurrell really favored the “butterfly lighting” style, which is exemplified by placing the main light source directly in front of the subject, above the eye line, aiming at their nose. When lit correctly, you’ll see a “butterfly” shaped shadow just directly under the nose that does not cross the lip line. The light should also be placed so that you can just see the catchlight in the top portion of the eyes. Sometimes, you may not see the catchlight and instead will see dramatic shadows cast by the long, lush eyelashes. 

I find it really helpful to have an assistant holding the main light so that I can play with placement easily and see the affect it has on the face and the mood of the portrait. Of course, your assistant needs to be keenly aware of where they hold it so it is repeatable and consistent, but that is great training for them as well. By placing the light slightly to the side, instead of directly in front of the face, you create more Rembrandt style lighting – with a triangular patch of light on one cheek and shapely shadows on the side of one jaw. This is also fun to play with and adds more depth and dimension to the face. 

Take several images and play with your light positioning, examining the results after each move. You’ll quickly see patterns that you like, that flatter your particular subject more, or emote the Hollywood style better. 

The classic hollywood images were usually done with “hot” lights, with little or no diffusion. They created hard, defining shadows that required expert placement of the lights and serious retouching artwork to make the final image look appealing. I personally prefer to use a diffused, small light source that still gives me the dramatic shadows, but with a softer, more forgiving light quality. I’ve used a beauty dish, small softbox (about 8”-10”), and more recently, my new product with Wescott, the LunaGrip with the flash head set for maximum zoom to shrink the light signature, creating beautiful soft shapely shadows. 

The brand new LunaGrip marrys your speedlight and diffusion disk for beautiful light anywhere

The brand new LunaGrip marrys your speedlight and diffusion disk for beautiful light anywhere

A second light can be added for a hair light or accent light. I usually use a speedlight with a Rogue Grid attached to it which helps to beautifully focus my beam of light just where I need it, without adding unwanted spill light in the image. Beam some of this on your subjects hair to add sheen and glamour.

Once you’ve captured the image you want, the post-processing is equally important. Classic Hollywood portraits were hand-retouched extensively, softening every little imperfection the harsh, direct lighting revealed. They were also given a little dreamy, romantic glow (often done in camera with nylon stockings held over the lens or over the enlarger lens when printing). I like taking the digital route and using one of my vintage Lightroom presets or Photoshop actions. For the portrait at top, I used my “BW Ethereal” preset from the Vintage Delish Lightroom preset package and “Porta Soft” from the Workflow Collection presets. 

Adding vintage glamour portraits to your repertoire is not only a great option for your clients, but a wonderful way to learn about the subtleties of light and posing while having a lot of sassy fun in the process!

New product test: the Omega Reflector

I was just on creativeLIVE, this time doing a fun class on DIY photographic lighting gear. We made all kinds of groovy things on the cheap, proving that great lighting doesn't necessarily require expensive gear. One of the techniques I've used in the studio for years, as have many other photographers, is to cut a hole in a large reflector panel, or V-flat, and photograph the subject through it. When you bounce some studio light or sunlight in to the face of the panel, it reflects back on the subject with a soft, wrapping, beauty light. You also get, as a bonus, catchlights in the eyes that look similar to a ring light.

Taking this entire contraption on location, however, is another story. Enter the Omega Reflector, designed by Jerry Ghionis and produced by Wescott. The Omega Reflector is billed as the "world’s first 10-in-1 'shoot through' reflector", and it truly is one of those products where you smack your forehead and go, "Duh! Why didn't anyone do this sooner??" Thank you Jerry.

The Omega is a large rectangular diffuser, with multiple cover surfaces giving you a plethora of reflective options: gold, silver, black, and white are all at your fingertips. The unique feature, however, is the velcro attached window in the middle that you can rip off faster than an Elvis belly dancing costume and photograph right through it. When you use it in this manner, you only need one light source to create beautiful hair light, soft wrapping main light, and twinkling catchlights in the eyes.

I used the Omega during my class on creativeLIVE to demonstrate how it compares to the traditional hole-in-a-foam-core method and the results were beautiful. Even more beautiful, however, is the Omega folds up in a compact package, slides in your camera bag, and goes with you everywhere. 

This past weekend, I was photographing children for a local charity called Sparrow Clubs. I've been working with them for years and they truly are an amazing organization designed to encourage and support kids in helping other kids with medical needs. I photograph with natural light, keeping things as simple as possible to avoid making the children uncomfortable. Usually I use a large reflector, and maybe my large scrim. I brought along the Omega to see how it would work and discovered it not only created the perfect light for children, but gave me a fun "window" to play peek-a-boo through! The kids were fascinated by it and I got some wonderful images. My son came along to assist me and he was able to hold the Omega and simply move with me as I adjusted to my subjects movement.

The Omega seems to be constructed with high quality materials and the flexible wire framing holds well without twisting. Re-folding the reflector to fit back in the bag is a little more complicated than your typical round disc, but after a few tries you get the hang of it. It does take a bit more time to set up when you have to remove the layers of windows from each surface, but I've started to just leave it stored with them off, since I use it that way most often anyway. I can then apply the appropriate window material if and when I need it for a full, traditional reflector. 

If you don't want, or need, to use the Omega in the shoot-through configuration, you can velcro back the windows and you have an extra large diffuser, or multiple reflector surfaces. This truly makes the Omega the most versatile lighting tool I've ever come across. Seriously.

In my brief time with the Omega Reflector, I've realized that it will be my new "desert island lighting tool" – the one thing I would take with me if I could only take one thing. 

The Omega is only available at and is currently at introductory pricing of only $99. A great deal. Ωooohhhhmmmmmm

The Omega Reflector works great for close-up images of children. Notice the signature catchlights in the eyes. I used a Nikon D800 with 85mm f1.4 lens at f1.4 and aperture priority. Natural light only. Final image was enhanced with my Lightroom Presets package.

The Omega Reflector works great for close-up images of children. Notice the signature catchlights in the eyes. I used a Nikon D800 with 85mm f1.4 lens at f1.4 and aperture priority. Natural light only. Final image was enhanced with my Lightroom Presets package.

Do you know one of these amazing people?

Ah, of my favorite days of the year falls on a beautiful Autumn Sunday. This was our 13th year to host Family Photos in the Park Day in Bend, OR. The project started over a decade ago to provide free family holiday portraits to families in need in our local area. We rally together with other local photographers and volunteers to photograph them throughout the day and ultimately provide them with a free picture package and digital files so they can inexpensively make holiday cards or other prints on their own. This year we photographed over 200 families yesterday! 

I really love this project because it not only provides the obvious gift to the families, but it also brings together like minded friends and photographers to spend the day having fun and doing something truly awesome together. Photographers also say it's one of the best learning experiences for them as well – having to photograph 30-50 families in one day quickly hones your location portrait skills! 

Each year I look forward to seeing my repeat "customers" who bring their families back and seek me out at my photo station. It's such a joy to see how they've grown and they truly inspire me with their hearts and smiles. One such family comes every year and is headed up by a couple of matriarchs in their 70's and 90's who have adopted and care for several children with Down syndrome. This year they told me they ALSO have 6 dogs! Talk about energy and compassion!

I am truly grateful today for the generous help of our volunteers who make time in their schedules to give back to the community with us.  We certainly could not do this project without them and they all have a special place in my heart!

If you are a photographer, or heck – anyone wanting to start a project like this in your town, email me and I'll be happy to share the information on how we organize this and provide samples of all the documents we use to connect with families through local charitable organizations. 

If you know one of these good folk, give them a power hug! 

The superstars of Family Photo Day! Some volunteers had to leave before we took the photo so they are not digitally represented, but still wholly appreciated!

The superstars of Family Photo Day! Some volunteers had to leave before we took the photo so they are not digitally represented, but still wholly appreciated!

The photographers were:

Alycia White - Echo Photography

Bob Fowler

Jesse Laird

Jessica Heigh

Kimberly Teichrow - Kimberly Teichrow Photography

Marina Koslow - Marina Koslow Photography

Nathan Smith

Sandra Kunz

Kevin Kubota

Other volunteers & assistants:

Kecia Kubota - Groove Consulting

Judy Kubota

Clare Kubota

Kai Kubota - Go Summit High! 

Cindy Girror

Kevin Desrosiers

Karen Brown - Team Kubota

Miranda Brown - Go Summit High!

Patch Heatherman

Staci Demarco - Team Kubota

Kathryn Osborne - Team Kubota

Trish Crawford - Team Kubota

Anna Miller (Alycia's sister)

Chris David

Michael Conkey

Cali Clement (Team Kubota) and her sister, Abby Elvebak