Recently a guy contacted me on Facebook and asked if I wanted to help him with a challenging portrait he wanted to make. It was a portrait of his grandfather when he was in the Swedish Air Force.
My client is working in the military as well, but the Army, and this is now around 80 years later. So there are differences in uniforms and especially how portraits look.
But that was the fun in it, trying to emulate old portrait lighting with a little (maybe a bit more) retouch to make it look like they had been to the same studio photographer in the 30’s.
The Old Portrait
My client sent me a photo of the photo he had, and he later brought that paper copy to my studio to look closer at.
My first thought was; “how can I try to make a pattern on the background like that so it looks the same”, but after some pondering I chose not to.
I allowed myself to cheat a little, so that part was done in post processing, even if it wasn’t as easy as I had hoped for it to be. But still easier that cut out a shape and get the same pattern with its gradients on the background.
A two light setup
Having reduced the difficulties a bit by focusing on getting the portrait lighting on him right, I settled for two lights. I guess the original photographer used three, one as main light from camera left, another diagonally from behind the model as rim light and the third making the pattern on the background.
My main light was a white Profoto Softlight Reflector, a beauty dish, and the first test image was with a grid as the light on the grandfather had a lot of contrast and deep shadows.
Placing myself in front of the camera for test photos can help a little, but I don’t look much like my client, so it is just a starting point to get the placement of the lights and the ratios right.
Even if I didn’t pose as I should in this photo, I could tell that the length and direction of the shadow under my nose and chin was ok to start with. The rim light was easier.
After some testing with and without a grid on the beauty dish, I settled for using it without a grid. As I would work a little with this portrait in Photoshop, I thought that less contrast is better than more.
So I wanted to soften the main light just a bit, and when I didn’t find any scissors to cut my roll of diffusion gel, I took a semi-transparent umbrella instead and taped that under my main light.
With less contrast, this lighting setup produced a portrait that I felt was easier to work with, as long as the shadows where in the right places. Then I had to modify a bit when the model of the day arrived, as he had a beard and a hat and didn’t have the same type of face I have.
The final portrait
I jump right to the end here and above you can see the result of my studio lighting and some work in Photoshop. As you can see, I added a tone just to match it more to the old portrait. It isn’t exact the same in any way, but just for comparison.
Side by Side
When making both the old original portrait and the new one in pure black and white, they look quite good I think. There are some variations in posing, a bit more tilt of the head in the old one, but the one thing that makes them hard to compare is that the old one has a blur and the new one looks a lot sharper.
My client had the goal of scanning the original and then print both of them for his mother, maybe then they will be easier to place side by side, printed on the same type of paper etc.
All in all, I like the result. It would probably been a lot harder if they both wore the same uniform with hat and all (maybe they are called something else, cap?). And the beard helps (me) a lot.
I don’t know that the 1930’s photographer used for lighting that portrait, but probably not two Profoto D1 and a beauty dish.
Setting light based on a portrait someone else has taken is a good challenge, and I learned a lot from it, even if I cheated a bit.