Hollywood Glamour Portrait

The pros and cons of working with a beauty dish, and how to use subtractors to reduce the amount of light bounced around in a white-walled studio.

The hardest part of capturing this portrait was stopping Meg from laughing as we took it. Meg is our studio assistant (and all-round superstar), and is normally on the other side of the camera. This shot came about because Meg asked me to capture matching shots of Meg and her mum lit in the dramatic style of 1940s, Hollywood-glamour portraits. Here’s how we did it.

The good, the bad and the ugly: working with a beauty dish

The light was provided by a beauty dish, a unique lighting modifier that you can use with studio lights. Most modifiers soften the light, but a beauty dish reflects it.

It looks like a very shallow bowl, circular and with a plate that covers the flash head (to avoid hotspots). Because of its shape, light falls on your subject most strongly from the centre, with a quick fall-off to shadow. This helps to accentuate your subject’s cheekbones, while its metallic inner coating creates strong contrast that makes your subject’s skin sparkle.

But as is always the case in photography, there’s a compromise to be made. The light from a beauty dish is semi-hard; softer than the light from a flash gun but much harder than the light from a softbox. Because of this, it’s very unforgiving, highlighting any flaws in your subject’s skin tone or makeup. Lucikly Meg has super-smooth skin and great makeup skills, so I could get away with using the beauty dish.

I’ve positioned the light horizontally above and in front of Meg, like a lowered chandelier. It took a little fiddling to get it exactly how I wanted it, with the catchlight just above the pupils of Meg’s eyes.

Subtracting ambient light for complete darkness

We wanted to create an image with complete focus on Meg’s face. Our studio walls are white, so they bounce light from my studio flashes around a little. Although there was no light aimed at the black paper background behind Meg, some ambient light reached it so I darkened it completely in post-production.
I also positioned two subtractors just out of shot on either of Meg. Subtractors are vertical boards to which I peg large sheets of black velvet. This fabric absorbs all the light that reaches it, which is why there’s no fill-in light reaching the sides of Meg’s cheeks and jaw. This means these parts of her face have shadowed to complete black, just like the glamorous Hollywood portraits of Hedy Lamarr and Marlene Dietrich.


Camera Settings

  • Focal length: 340mm
  • Aperture: f/16
  • Shutter speed: 1/125 sec
  • ISO: 50