A Tribute to Hollywood Glamor

A Tribute to Hollywood Glamor


Humphery Bogart by George Hurrell

Humphery Bogart by George Hurrell


Hedy Lamarr, 1940, byGeorge Hurrell.

Hedy Lamarr, 1940, by George Hurrell.


Our family is sort of obsessed with the Hollywood film classics of the 1930’s and 40’s. Even as a kid I had old movie stills of Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart on my walls. I am sure this is part of why I am so into fedoras. I always thought the glamor shots of those classic Hollywood beauties were amazing. But for some reason I never tried to emulate it until this week. Maybe because of the British drama Indian Summers, for which I have been shooting. The drama takes place in the 1930’s, so I thought it might be fun to make some stills of the actors in the style of George Hurrell. Hurrell almost invented Hollywood glamor shots. He used strong directional light, so no soft boxes in his work. This is lighting we would call harsh and something we would not normally use today. Hurrell and other photographers of this time often used something called Paramount lighting, which cast a small butterfly like shadow under the model’s nose. The lights, while sometimes complex, were most of the time pretty simple – A key, a hair and a background light.Often the background was shot through a gobo (go between) to create a shadowed design thrown up onto a wall behind the actor. Of you study these photos long enough you see certain tell-tail signs like strong harsh black shadows around the nose and eye lash shadows on the women. Another characteristic is that often only a portion of the model is lit, leaving the body in shadows. With all this in mind I decided to play around and see if I could recreate this effect using myself and Jessie as models.

I shot these on my Fujifilm X-T1 using the 56 mm. We used three speed lights (i.e. small portable camera flashes.) Two were the radio flashes made by Cactus, the RF 60 and the Phottix Mitros for Canon. I used two Cactus V6 wireless Transceivers – one to fire the flashes and set the power remotely and the other to make the Phottix compatible and be a part of the group. The V6 can learn your flash and then shoot it wirelessly. I started with them all set equally to about 1/68th of full power. I put a David Honel snoot on the key and hair light to narrow the throw of light. I also put a David Honel honeycomb grid on the background light and shot it through an old wooden window lattus we had from India to give the background pattern. Both the hair and the key are pretty high above Jessie. I lowered the key for me as I had too much shadow from the hat’s brim. When shooting with speed lights it is hit and miss, because there is no modeling lamp to see where the shadows are falling. So, it is a lot of trial and error. I then edited them in Lightroom and gave  several a 8×10 crop which was the crop of choice in those days. Over all, I am happy with this look. Any thoughts?

Editors note: After reviewing these photos I fear I posted them too soon without enough reflection. Fernando (see the comments below) was right, they were too sharp. I have since re-edited these by adding to each a -15 clarity factor in Lightroom. I hope this gives it a much softer and more film like feel and look. Thanks Fernando.
















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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.


  1. Fernando

    First of all – I love this look. Glad to see you exploring it. This is one of my favourite styles & I’m often trying to create this look.

    When I look at the images from this period I always detect a softness. I’m not referring to the “vaseline on the lens” glamour softness or even background bokeh. It’s a kind of soft focus, or transitional softness. I’m not sure I can explain it well, but I see it in Hurrell’s images, especially his portraits of Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford & Jean Harlow.

    And, of course, I love the films from this era too.

    • Matt Brandon

      Thanks for commenting Fernando. I agree, but I wonder of it is softness or grace. There was a grace and elegance that I don’t see in glamor today. In fact it tends to be the opposite.

      • Fernando

        Matt, there’s a few different aesthetic considerations here. Certainly working with film will create a different look, which is partly why I half-jokingly suggested on Twitter you might want to try negative clarity values. It might also be to do with the way lenses worked. I’ve mentioned before the way Nikon’s odd 105DC lens can create a fascinating “soft focus” effect when the DC setting is set to mismatch the aperture setting. I’ve never seen the same from any other dSLR style lens.

        The, of course, there is the aesthetic of how we see people as humans. Even when a retro style is employed in fashion, like Vanity Fair does with the spotlight section, it’s ironic and hard. Portraits like Hurrell’s reflect a way of seeing their subjects that was different from a lot of contemporary fashion photography. I’ll leave it there, at the risk of being too pointed.

  2. Vicki

    I have to agree with Fernando.

    And your images, while in the style of the old Hollywood days in pose, have too much background light and too sharp to really be passed off as old Hollywood Glamour shots. (says she who is a complete amateur & not much more than a beginner when it comes to photography – lol). The same with images of Jessie.

    Love to see you re-do them with far darker backgrounds, the faces and clothes less lit and the heads leaning forward slightly.

    • Matt Brandon

      Vicki, I might agree about the softness. Film was definitely a softer medium than digital. But I got to disagree on the background. There were many, many shots by Hurrell and others from that era with light background. Check some of these out:

      Rita Hayworth, or Barbara Stanwyck and Hedy Lamarr these are good examples of Hollywood glamor with light backgrounds. It maybe worth noting, I was not trying to duplicate the the two photos by Hurrell. I only found those after I shot these of Jess and me.

      • Jake

        First; Great Idea! Great Start!
        I do think that the backgrounds (especially the first) is too bright. I think the examples you posted actually support that claim, they have a light background but a very different tone. They are light colored but not as bright.

        Really great idea; love the old movies, and while I’m generally a color person, the B&W portraits from this time are some of my favorite B&W, and I believe the best uses of B&W.

  3. Rene Delbar

    Great exploration, Matt! I never attempted this with speedlights, as continuous light definitely has advantages (for the photographer) here…

    Do you know the excellent work of British X-photographer Damien Lovegrove? Aa a former BBC cameraman and lighting director, he breathes cinematic lighting…He has a short tutorial on YouTube (http://www.prophotonut.com/2013/08/29/hollywood-portraits-remastered-with-the-fujifilm-x-pro1/#more-13520) promoting his full-length video training DVD on the topic, and shows some results on his blog (http://www.prophotonut.com/2013/08/29/hollywood-portraits-remastered-with-the-fujifilm-x-pro1/#more-13520).

    • Matt Brandon

      Rene This guy is great! Thanks for sharing it with US.I might be contacting him.

  4. Jose

    I bet the level of detail of those old shots is really high, is it medium format? so i guess sharpness is only opposed to softness but not concerning detail. on a computer screen everything looks similar, it’d be great to see prints. beautiful pictures btw. cheers.



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