How To Take Classic Hollywood Portraits With Black And White Photograpy

Hollywood celebrity portraits from the 30's, 40's and 50's had a classic look that seems to be missing from portrait photography today. But with a few borrowed techniques from the master photographers of Hollywood's golden era, you can take classic Hollywood portraits.

The dramatic effects of these early photographs were achieved with lighting, makeup and minimalistic backgrounds. By studying these early photographs, and a little experimenting, you can achieve these same effects.

It is interesting to note, however, that these early photographs were often extensively re-touched. Despite the studio's claims against the practise, retouchers were employed by all of them, often outnumbering the photographers.

Lighting Terms

Key Light is the light that sets the shadows on the face.

Fill Lights fill in the shadows caused by the primary lights.

Background lights are used to light the background.

Effects light is used to highlight specific areas such as the hair.

Clara Bow 1905 - 1965

This portrait was taken by photographer E.R. Richee in 1927.
This portrait was taken by photographer E.R. Richee in 1927.

To capture the soft beauty of this portrait, I used a key light set just a few feet from the model's face. Two fill lights were used to eliminate shadows. The black background and clothing puts all the emphasis on the model's face. Her features stand out with dark lipstick and smokey eye shadow. 

How To Take Classic Hollywood Portraits
How To Take Classic Hollywood Portraits

Clara Bow - 1924

The key light in this photograph is set high to shine down and light up the model's face.  A fill light was set to light up the side of the face and eliminate shadows.  Once again the dark background highlights the face.

How To Take Classic Hollywood Portraits
How To Take Classic Hollywood Portraits

Marlene Dietrich 1901 - 1992

To capture Marlene Dietrich's aloofness, the model in this re-creation was asked to look away from the camera. The key light is set in front of and just a little off to the left side. Two effect lights were used to highlight the hair.

How To Take Classic Hollywood Portraits
How To Take Classic Hollywood Portraits

Lauren Bacall 1924

This portrait was taken in 1945 by Bert Six.
This portrait was taken in 1945 by Bert Six.

Having the model look right at the camera gives her the classic Bacall look.  Two lights were used for this shot.  The key light was set to the left of the model.  The fill light was low and pointed up lighting the chest and chin.

How To Take Classic Hollywood Portraits
How To Take Classic Hollywood Portraits

A fan was used in this photograph to add a dramatic effect to the hair.  The model is facing the key light which is set high and shining down.  An effect light is used to light up the hair in the back.  A fill light is used low and slightly to the left.

How To Take Classic Hollywood Portriats
How To Take Classic Hollywood Portriats

In this portrait the model is again looking directly at the camera.  The key light is set in front and slightly to the right.  Two fill lights are used, one low and pointed up, which eliminates the shadow under the nose, and the other is set high and pointed down at the top of the head.

Classic Hollywood Portraits
Classic Hollywood Portraits

Related Articles

Black and White Photography - Darkroom Basics

With the right equipment and a small amount of space, you can develop your black and white prints at home.

Famous Hollywood Pin Up Girls

These beautiful ladies graced magazines, calendars, and the inside of GI's lockers.

Hollywood Portraits of the 1920s

Hollywood at its most glamorous

More by this Author


Comments 5 comments

MercuryNewsOnline profile image

MercuryNewsOnline 6 years ago from Toronto, Canada

Intreresting black and white photos. I used to travel around Canada on photo assignments using print films-large and medium formats.I now use digital but miss the excitement generated by print films.


lafenty profile image

lafenty 6 years ago from California Author

I just feel that digital doesn't have the depth of film.


lovelypaper profile image

lovelypaper 6 years ago from Virginia

You certainly know your photography. Great hub. I like the first photo - very glam.


lafenty profile image

lafenty 6 years ago from California Author

Thanks, lovelypaper, I will pass that on to the model.


collegatariat profile image

collegatariat 4 years ago

Beautiful pictures! They all have the glamour look and feel of old Hollywood. You did a great job.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working