Old Time Glamour

I've always been a huge fan of the great "Hollywood" glamour photographers like Hurrell and Horst. Their images were iconic, cheesy, and technically excellent - all rolled into one!

If I may digress briefly: one of the big debates in photography surrounds image manipulation. A lot of photographers are proud of the fact that they avoid using photoshop on their images - and some like to imply that photographers that do a lot of manipulations are somehow lesser in skills. To me, that seems to miss a very important point: art is about being creative. If photography is about being creative, then manipulation is also part of that creativity, right? Man Ray is very famous for his early experimentation with solarization of wet-print photographs; if solarization isn't creative manipulation, what is? Ansel Adam's famous Zone System (which was really Fred Archer's Zone system..) is, in fact, a scientific methodology for planning and executing image manipulation using contrast control in film. Back to Hurrell - how did he manipulate his images? In two ways: 1) clever lighting and use of soft-focus in the camera, 2) he used a #1 soft lead pencil on his negatives !! When I first got interested in Hurrell's work, I wondered how on earth he got those creamy textures in the female actress' faces - he used photoshop. Well, what passed for photoshop in 1930.

So I'm not going to apologize about image manipulation. If it bothers you - don't do it.

Giving images the old-time glamour look is a matter of selective softening (where's that #1 pencil!?!) and creating a tonal range that approximately mimics older film. Usually, when someone was shooting with an old 8x10 and hot lights, they were producing very contrasty negatives which were then contact-printed onto lower-contrast paper. The end result was clean creamy highlights with deep dense blacks. The way to get that in photoshop is to stretch the contrast range of your image and pop the highlights with a little of the digital paintbrush.


In this case, the whole process is almost complete after the first stage: picking the image to work on.

(Choices! Choices! CHOICES! - click to enlarge)

One of the big tricks to creating the vintage look appears to be satin fabric. Seriously, the reflective highlights of satiny fabrics just scream "Hollywood" - so a lot of the effect will be amplified if you can get your model wearing the right thing. You also want lighting that has plenty of highlights - but if you don't have them, that's OK, we can create them later.

Monochrome Conversion

Once you've got your monochrome conversion done right, you're more than halfway there. To do monochrome conversion in photoshop, I suggest you avoid the "desaturate" command and use the Channel Mixer. Depending on your scene, certain colors will dominate, so you can't just do a literal conversion - you may need to fiddle around with things a bit. It's a very subjective process.

For example, photoshop's default channel mixer mono conversion just uses the red channel:

(Eeek! Red is too close to pink! - click to enlarge)

Since the model's skin has a lot of pink in it, the red channel washes the image completely away.

I originally wrote this:

Besides, Hurrell and those guys used orthochromatic film - which was blue-sensitive - as opposed to panchromatic film like we use today. "Film?" you ask? Never mind! Hurrell and those old guys shot photos that were sensitive to blue light and completely insensitive to red light. So if we use channel mixer in the blues and greens we ought to get the look we want:

And it turns out that I was wrong. I got a very kind Email from someone correcting me - apparently the hollywood glamour guys used more modern film than I thought. So, I'm no longer sure why the blue channel gives the right mood - but it does:

(Shooting fish in a barrel - blue conversion looks orthochromatic - click to enlarge)

As you can see, most of our work has been done for us by the channel mixer monochrome conversion. But a few parts have gotten kind of murky - most notably her eyes. Let's fiddle with the contrast here and there - Hurrell had his #1 pencil, I have my layer adjustments.


Before we can start penciling on our image, let's make it a bit darker. That's basic manichean philosophy: without darkness there can be no light. If the image is a bit darker overall, the spots where it's brighter will look even brighter to the eye.

(Come into the dark - click to enlarge)

Now her eyes are deeply shadowed. Don't worry about that; we'll fix that next.



Now we create a curves layer that will control our popped-out highlights.

(Curves adjustment layer, before painting - click to enlarge)

The curves adjustment layer is shown fully applied. As soon as we've applied it, select the entire image and fill the curves layer mask with black, as described here and here. Then go through with a brush and paint on the areas where you want the new highlights to take effect!

(Painting with light - click to enlarge)

Your painting effects should be subtle, here. As my Zen Master says "resist the temptation to go too far, but go as far as you can." These images are about drama and style. Places you really want to make things pop is in the eyes, catchlights of the eyes, lips, jewelry, and teeth.



Wrapping up

We're basically done, now. Normally, I would have started with a cleaned-up image, but this one needs to have dust spots and bad pixels removed, and some cropping applied. There are a few small moles and skin blemishes on the model that need to be removed, as well. Hurrell used his #1 pencil for that, too!

(Starting image)

(Final Version Click for full-size)

One wonderful thing about using adjustment layers instead of just working on your final version: you can fix a pimple on your model in the background image and all the changes just get rippled forward through the layers!

Bellwether Farm , Morrisdale, Pennsylvania - where it is snowing like crazy - Jan 26, 2007