Old Hollywood

On July 24th I did an old Hollywood inspired session with the lovely Laci.  This session was inspired by several of Lindsay Adler’s YouTube videos where she walks through how she got the old Hollywood look, using a fresnel lens modifier and an optical spot. Also, this was a perfect time to work with Laci, as both she and I are fans of the vintage Hollywood look. 

When I reference the term old Hollywood or classic Hollywood look, I’m referring to the style pioneered by George Hurrell in the 1930s and 1940s. This look relied on precision lighting, spotlights, and dramatic shadows.  I also used the works of Clarence SinclairBull and Milton H.Green as references for this session.

For this session I used:

Photography Equipment

Cannon 80D


2 strobes

2 c-stands

1 dome reflector

1 Set of barn doors

1 30-degree grid

1 50-inch umbrella with sock

1 strip box with grid

1 flag

1 light stands

2 speedlight

1 Backdrop stands

Grey backdrop


2 posing cubes 

The set up

For the pure classic Hollywood look, I would have needed to use a fresnel lens modifier, which I do not own.  While I do own some fresnel lens, purchased from a theater going out of business, they are only the lens and not contained in useful light modifier for a strobe.  Thus, I relied on bell reflector with a 30-degree grid and barn doors to shape the light coming from the main strobe.  This combination let create a spot of light, while providing me control on how the light spread across the scene.  By just using the one strobe I would have very dark and dramatic shadows, I decided to add a second strobe with a socked-umbrella on it to act as fill light, just to ensure the subject didn’t completely blend into the background, and you could see some details.  I also used a speed light in a strip box, whose job was just to provide rim lighting to the model. I then had one final speed light, whose sole job was to provide an interesting light pattern on the background. 

Now normally all this would be great, except my two speed lights kept losing sync with my trigger and not firing.  Thus, I did not have consistent lighting looks throughout the session and lost the background pattern which is a hallmark of the old Hollywood style.  I did end up giving up on the two speed lights, and only shooting with the two strobes, which still gave me a reasonable approximation of the look I was going for.

Finally, I kept the background and set pieces very simple, as the focus of this style of photo is the lighting.  That is why I went with a grey backdrop and the simple posing cubes.


Starting Configuration

Camera Settings

For this session I used ISO 200 with an aperture of F8 and a shutter speed of 1/1250s.  My focal length very from 18mm to 110mm with the most common lengths being 28mm.

The Photos

I shot all the photos in color, but converted them to black and white, to play further into the old Hollywood style.  The photos look good in both black and white and color but I feel the black and white images have a bit more impact.

This first image is my favorite from the whole session. It also reminds me of an image of an actress from the 1940s, but I cannot remember who and cannot seem to find the reference image. To get this image I placed my main light slightly behind the model, so it would be in a short light position. (Short light is lighting technique where the far side of a subject's face is lit relative to the camera.) While keeping the socked strobe in the same front position to fill the shadows slightly. In post, I worked on the color version first, where I did all the basic edits of white balance, adjusting contrast, color, and applying lens correction.  I then applied a strong vignette. When I was happy with the color version, I converted the image to black and white using “Adobe Standard B&W.” I then further refined the image by adding two light masks. The first I added behind the subject to add that slight halo seen in the image.  I did this to provide a bit more separation between the model and the background. I then used a second mask to enhance the sliver of light falling across the model’s face.  From there I pulled the image into Photoshop to clean up the image by removing some stray hairs, and doing minor skin smoothing using Adobe’s neural filter.

This second image required a lot of work on my part.  Right out of camera it was a decent image, but I because of the angle I shot it at I ended up with my background stand and a light stand in the image, which had to be removed.  Again, even though this is a black and white image I did all the basic edits on the color image before converting it to black and white. Once I was happy with the color image, I converted the image to black and white and further refined the image. In the black and white image, I added a small mask that spread from the top of the model’s head to right below her shoulder to enhance the highlight on the side of her face.  I then pulled the image into Photoshop, were I used content aware fill to remove the stands. I also felt the image was a little soft, so I ran it through Topaz Sharpen AI to remove that softness.  Finally, I wasn’t completely happy with the lighting, as I felt it could be a touch more dramatic, so I pulled the image into Boris Optics which allowed me enhance the lighting.  In Boris Optics I used the spot light tool, a lot easier then render in Adobe Photoshop, to enhance the light I had coming from my left, and make it look more like a movie spot light.  I then pulled the image back into Photoshop to do the final clean up of the image by removing stray hair, filling in the screw on the box and cleaning up the seam created by using content aware fill.  After all these steps I had a nice final image.

The last image I’m going to leave you with is a color image, with a lot of drama. I left this image in color because, if I turned it to black and white you would not be able to see the color and detail of the dress. Yes, we did do an outfit change during the session, where Laci changed from the form fitting red number with the fishtail silhouette, to this vintage couture 1950s gown. This last image was her idea as she wanted a picture of the back of the gown. This image is lit using the main strobe with the bell reflector to my left, and then the second strobe with the socked umbrella to my right.  In lightroom I did all the standard edits from adjusting the exposure, white balance, and color.  I then added a slight blue/orange color grade and a medium vignette before pulling it over into Photoshop. In Photoshop I cleaned up a few stray hairs, removed a leg of a light stand sticking into the frame, a stray feather from the boa that was used earlier, then ran a neural filter to refine the skin tone.  

Overall, I’m happy with how the images from this session turned out, but not happy with my speed lights consistently dropping sync with my trigger.  I need to determine why the speed lights are dropping sync, while the strobes are not.  Because of the frustrations with the speed lights during this session, I ended up buying a third strobe, a Westcott FJ400.  I would have bought another Phottix strobe, however the company no longer produce studios strobes, and only makes LED solutions.

Like I said I’m very happy with how the images turned out, there are a few areas I think I could improve but that will be for the next session.  A few images from this session will be published in the August black and white issue of Vigor Magazine.  You can see all the final images both color and black and white here: Old Hollywood.



Model: Laci (Instagram - @laci.neal)


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