4 Vintage Hollywood Portrait Lighting Techniques

George Hurrell was the master of Hollywood glamour photography in the 30s and 40s. He worked with the biggest stars of the time, including Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, and Greta Garbo, to name a few, and his portraits were beautiful and memorable. Hurrell wasn’t afraid of a little shadow and that’s what gave his portraits such a striking impact. Jay P. Morgan of The Slanted Lens applies Hurrell’s principles using LED lights to get the same effects. Here are the four things you need to know to take fabulous vintage portraits:

1. Positioning

Position the light in the right place. Put it into a butterfly, a 45 Rembrandt, light the model from beneath. Choose a place that shapes the face according to the different portrait positions.

Sometimes, Hurrell got the light up so high it would drop a shadow of the model’s eyelashes onto the cheeks.

hollywood portraits lighting position

2. Quality of Light

Hurrell used strong, hard light. Morgan gets the same light by using Vector lights with a grid and puts black wrap around the backdrop. This gives him a very narrow light.

hard lighting portraiture

3. Exposure and Control

Again, Morgan puts grids on the Vector lights to choke down the area of coverage. It also gives a little less exposure so he sets his camera to ISO 1240 and f/4.0 to get a bright exposure.

He puts the Vectors in close to get a nice highlight.

controlling exposure portraiture

4. You Have to Be OK with Shadows

Hurrell loved shadows, even in the eyes. If the shadows started to fall into the background too much, he would just put a little light on the background to separate the person from it.

hurrell hollywood vintage photography

Morgan did most of these shots with just two lights—a key light and one light on the background.

hollywood glamour portraits lighting setup

Morgan uses a Canon 5D Mark III and Tamron 85mm lens. His key light is the Rosco Vector with a grid and his background light is the Vector with black wrap. Occasionally, he uses a hair light.

These are the four things you need to know to make a beautiful, impactful vintage Hollywood portrait—with LEDs!

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