With time to kill between jobs last week I went to the National Portrait Gallery to see the BP portrait award and also the Glamour of the Gods, which is a selection of photographs from the Kobal collection of hollywood portraits from the 1920's onwards. There's something wonderfully ethereal about photographs from this era, they have an almost powdery softness that always makes me think of a moth's wing. It's not just the soft-focus I don't think, it's the quality of light and the printing too. The new prints in the show, made from old negs, look immediately different, still gauzy but not so tactile. Photographers at this time were using magnificently massive cameras and alongside the portraits there are some fascinating pictures of the photographers in action.
Clarence Sinclair Bull photographing Clarke Gable and Vivien Leigh for Gone with the Wind, 1939
by Fred Parrish
There are images shot in natural light, or mostly natural light, like Elizabeth Taylor on the beach in a publicity still for "Suddenly last Summer", but most of the images are studio shots lit with incandescent lamps. In the shot above you can see the whole lighting rig more-or-less, I think the light on a stand close to us is the main light but there may be another out of frame, above Gable and Leigh is a spot which looks like it's acting as a kick light on their hair to separate them from the background, it maybe flooding onto the dress too. The little spot by the window over Gable's shoulder might both illuminate Leigh's face and highlight his jaw, or maybe it's another kick for his hair? I can't find the images this set-up produced to check what's doing what so it's a bit of a puzzle. This style of complex, dramatic lighting was exemplified by George Hurrell, who seemed to play fearlessly with shadows, often letting his subjects eyes fall into deep darkness or retouching harsh highlights to a near-metallic shine.
Since I'm always trying to improve my lighting I thought it would be interesting to try to replicate the '50's style portrait so I made some notes at the exhibition and looked through an old George Hurrell book for ideas. I didn't want to copy any image exactly so much as to get a feel for how the lights were positioned and where the shadows fell. I don't have models at hand so I used myself which also meant using a tethered set-up with my 5D and laptop so that I could sit and shoot simultaneously. I might blog about the tethering another time, it's cool to be able to do it. I shot using a monochrome picture style from the camera's menu but without the colour filter option.
For lights I used my Bowens kit but only the modeling lamps, set on proportional output so I could adjust them. I think that power-wise the modelling lamps are about the same as 1940's photographers would have had, close up they gave easily enough light for good exposures 5-6 stops down from full power. Using constant light meant that I could monitor the shadows and highlights and move my head accordingly. I had a main light with a small diffuser out front on one side and a silver reflector bouncing back to fill the shadow. Above me and over my shoulder there was a second light at the same power as my main light which gave a characteristic edge and some key highlights on my face.
I wasn't shy of retouching, since the look of those classic portraits is very worked. Hurrell would exaggerate his highlights using a soft graphite pencil on the negative plate, giving that alabaster shine and I kept dodging until I got somewhere close. I used a skin-retouching methodology that I've mentioned before (I think), it's from Joel Grimes' website and I like it because it allows a lot of control over how much detail you want and how much smoothing you apply. I also applied a film grain using the DxO labs FilmPack plugin and duotoned the final image for a slightly warm tone. Here it is:
Help, they airbrushed my face.
It looks wierdly like my dad. Looking again at the work from the show it's also a much more conservative image than most of them. In particular I've lit my eyes with a nice bright keylight whereas some of the most iconic images in the show leave deep shadows in the eyes. This composition is woefully pedestrian by comparison too, but in my defence, my model wasn't very cooperative. Lighting-wise I think it's nearly there, the Key, Bounce and Kick set-up delivers plenty of modelling. By the way you also get that contrasting gradation on the background where the lit side of the face is against the darker side by "feathering" the edge of the light so that it falls off, this works best when you light at right-angles to the camera view.
Then I spied a bottle of theatrical blood on my desk (you never know when it might come in handy) and, well, this happened:
New Facebook profile picture perhaps?