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Reverse engineering 73 year old lighting

Discussion in 'General flash photography, lighting, and technique' started by Uncle Frank, Jul 31, 2007.

  1. I recently came across this picture of my mom, taken in 1934, and am dazzled by how well the photographer captured her youthful beauty with equipment that would be considered primitive by today's standards. I'm attempting to reverse engineer it as a Strobist exercise.

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    It was a studio portrait, and from what I'm told, a very standard pose for that era. The catchlights indicate the photographer used two flash heads, with the one to camera left dialed down for fill. I would have thought it a very high ratio between key and fill for a delicate female subject, but I love the way result emphasizes her cheekbone. The shadows suggest the key light was only slightly higher than the subject's head. I'm a little surprised about the highlights near the model's right eye. The vignette was surely added in the darkroom by some archane method.

    I'd be pleased if you could add to the analysis.

    All in all, it's a shot I'd be proud to produce with modern equipment and Photoshop at my disposal. It proves that craftsmanship was, and still is, the major component in the success of a picture!
  2. I would say the one to the camera's left would have been slightly behind her as her hair is casting a shadow onto her face.

    There is a strobe to the right, but "how far to the right" is an interesting part. There is a shadow cast across her face by her nose (also in the "folds" of her blouse) but not so much so it that it casts a shadow across her body. Perhaps about 45 degrees.

    But then the catch lights confuse me a little.

    Just a novice at this stuff though.
  3. I would doubt that the photographer was using flash heads in those days, Uncle Frank! More likely flood lights with some intricate reflectors.

    My grandfather was a professional photographer from the early 1920's to about 1965. I remember that his studio was on the top floor of the house, and had a glass panel ceiling facing north. Heavy curtains could be pulled to shut the daylight out. Besides the common selection of aluminum floodlight reflectors, he also had a couple of shallow 3-4ft diameter(wooden!) "shells" painted white, with a parabolic shape, mounted with a powerful lamp each. These later were handed down to my father (his apprentice and, after marrying the daughter, also a professional photographer, :biggrin:)  - the "beauty dishes" are older than we think!

    I believe that the light streaks near the right eye come from a hairlight slightly behind the (absolutely beautiful!) model, hence the shadow on left cheek and forehead.
  4. Hi Frank

    despite any tech analysis (who am I to do that?) I'd rather suggest that old portraits are really timeless. I couldn't explain why but those old and faded b/w shots are something that today we miss a lot, notwithstanding all the digital helps and PP gimmicks. Our most beautiful portrait can't just stand with a style that overcomes the decades in this way. As Ford did everytime he saw an Alfa Romeo, "chapeau" !
    I'd really like to know that one of my shots would survive so long to time...
  5. Thanks for adding to the analysis, Neal.

    Rene, I appreciate the insights into studio photography in the old days, and my mom will appreciate your compliments :) .

    Italy, those old shots are a good lesson for us. There's much more that gear to the making of good pictures.
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