LPIG goes Hollywood

Hollywood Glamour at LPIG

Hollywood lighting
Hollywood lighting

The amazingly beautiful glamour pictures that came out of Hollywood in the 30’s to 50’s have never lost their attraction. There was something about the portraits that those talented photographers produced that, in spite of the handicaps that they had by not having the fancy equipment that we have today, were perfectly composed, produced, and gave them an air that has attracted many books, theories, and attempts at duplication.

Hollywood Portraits was the theme at the October LPIG workshop. Some of the data presented at that meeting will be shared here along with some of the resulting “Hollywood” shots and some candids.


What made the pictures from that era different? This is what we tried to answer. Remember that this was 60-80 years ago. There was no digital, no strobes, computers, or Photoshop…just gorgeous movie stars and very talented artists behind the camera.

Let’s start out with the camera. They mostly used the 8×10 studio camera, with 8×10 black and white sheets of film negative which were kept in individual film holders for each shot. This meant that after the model in posed and the exposures determined, the film holder is inserted in the back of the camera; the dark slide is removed so that the sheet of film in the holder is exposed to the front and the now-closed lens. After the film is exposed, the dark slide is re-inserted and the film holder removed. This all takes time during which the model has to hold still and stay in the same position so that the light doesn’t change. In spite of all the trouble, according to our current standards, 20-30 shots may be taken in one session. One stand may have 45 film holders.

The camera lenses until after WWII were not coated and gave a certain “flary glow”, but otherwise they were fairly good lenses. The limiting factor in the final picture was the type of film that was available at the time.

Before 1930 Kodak Ortho film was used. This produced a very soft picture without much contrast and was not sensitive to red, plus being very grainy. The next film that became available was Kodak’s Super Sensitive Pan, which slightly improved some of the previous problems. This was called SS Pan. Then in the late 30’s Kodak came out with the Super XX that was more sensitive,  had more contrast, recognized the red color and was less grainy.

Post processing was done manually directly on the 8×10 negative itself. There were more retouchers employed by the movie studios than photographers. This was a very specialized occupation. The negative was carefully altered with the use of soft lead pencils, a scraping knife, and the air brush. Some photographers preferred their models use no makeup, because they thought that this was too shiny, all of the makeup was applied by the retouchers. This was one of the distinguishing features of the famous old movie stills from Hollywood. There were no pores and absolutely no freckles or blemishes..

The lighting that they had was also quite different, and this is a large part of what the LPIG project is about. With no strobes, no fluorescence. and no LED lights, they only had their tungsten and arc lights which were very hot and in the case of the arc lamps, caused retinal damage to the models eyes. The direct light that came from their large studio lights was “hard”, and produced sharp shadows, and bright highlights. This has been mostly corrected in modern times with the soft boxes and umbrellas that we use with strobe lights.

In order to copy the characteristics of their old lighting characteristics at the LPIG, we are using some Fresnel lights which have steady light (not strobes), a Fresnel lens in the front that can be focused, and LED bulbs so that the heat factor is eliminated.. Teamed up with barn doors, these lights give a close rendition of those used in the past.

Because of the slow film, (ASA 8-10), exposures had to be fairly long and the apertures were wide open, they had a quite shallow depth of field.  Also because the film had little tonal depth, there was little detail in the darks and the highlight were usually blown out. This contrasty effect was further encouraged by the way that they exposed the picture and developed the film.

BUT, when it got down to taking the picture, the techniques were almost identical to the lessons this year taught at the LPIG workshops. They used the same methods of lighting the faces as we do now….loop, Rembrandt, butterfly (or Paramount), etc., with main, fill, hair, and kicker lights.

What they also had were some very talented artists exploring the new field of still glamour photography and developing new photographic techniques that were constantly changing, and frequently kept secret by the different Hollywood studios. Reading about these times is quite interesting and trying to re-create some of the magic that they produced with their movie stars is our current challenge at LPIG.

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