How I Shot, Edited, and Lit This 1950s Inspired Vintage Photoshoot

How I Shot, Edited, and Lit This 1950s Inspired Vintage Photoshoot

In this extensive breakdown, go behind the scenes of a 1950s themed shoot and see how I shot, lit, and edited it from start to finish. 

Whenever I begin to run out of ideas for a photoshoot, the one thing I try to keep in mind is to not try to reinvent the wheel. Instead of worrying about trying to make something that's never been done before, I use the tools have already given to me. I take reference from the past and put my own modern twist on it. There is just something so inspiring about our past, and it is always a joy to recreate it.

For this particular photo shoot, I channeled my creative energy to the 1950s era. I wanted to bring back elements of the past, most specifically, the painterly, soft look and bold colors of that time. The goal was to recreate what a Coca-Cola ad would look like today with a vintage twist. You can see the final images from the shoot below:

Now that you have seen the final results, let's dive into how they were accomplished from the beginning until the end. With the idea now in the back of my head, in the coming weeks, I started assembling my small, but talented crew. The first person on my list to reach out to when putting together a shoot is the hair and makeup artist. So, I connected with local makeup artist Shayna Plotkin, who created a bold and playful look that mirrored the retro-style vision. Next, I had to find a model. I was lucky enough to reconnect with an old high school friend and someone who I have worked with before, Alison Liquori. She had the perfect wardrobe and look to pull off this fun and energetic vibe. Lastly, I knew I couldn't construct the sets and lighting setups myself, so my other friend, Selethel Plotkin, offered to help. After the crew had been assembled, before I knew it, shoot day had arrived. 

The crew enjoying some ice cold Coca Cola on a quick shoot break.

The Equipment 

Camera: Canon 5D Mark III

Lenses: Rokinon 24mmSigma 35mm f/1.4,  Canon 100mm Macro f/2.8L

Lighting:  Godox AD200 TTL Pocket Flash Kit x3

Modifiers: Elinchrom Rotalux 59" Indirect Softbox 

Grip: Avenger Turtle Base C-Stand Grip Arm Kit  x3, Gravity Backdrops-Red 5-in-1 Reflector 

The Camera Settings 

Starting on the bottom end of the exposure triangle, whenever I begin exposing for the light in my scene, I always start off with my ISO setting. Since I set out to achieve a majority of the vintage look in camera, I wasn't afraid to pump my ISO to 1,250 to allow some natural grain to come into the scene. The next thing I had to adjust for was how much depth of field I wanted in the final images. To manipulate how much of the image was in focus, I adjusted my aperture. To get the whole face, bottle, and headpiece in focus, I knocked down my aperture to f/8 and left it there for the majority of the shoot. Lastly, to balance out my quickly darkening ambient light, I brought down my shutter speed to 1/200th of a second. I wanted my ambient exposure to be practically pitch black, but not lose all of it. After the settings had all been dialed in, this is where the lighting came into play.

The Lighting

In this series, I constructed three relatively simple lighting setups that I could easily break down and set up in the two locations around my house.

The First Setup

In the first set, I wanted to make it look like the model was sitting in front of a television after a long day at work. Since I don't own a vintage 1950s television, I had to make it look like I did in camera using some simple lighting tricks. When I started to think about the way a television would illuminate my subject, I jotted down three things in my mind. First, I knew the light had to come from below and would create a harsh shadow on the background. Secondly, that the light should be focused and not spread around the scene. Lastly, that it should have a colder tone emitting from it. 

To achieve those three specific things, I started with the first step: putting the light down low. To get it below the camera, I brought in an avenger C-stand, and angled the light pointing up at a 45-degree angle. Once the light was set, I went down the list to number two and three: focusing the light and making it blue. To make the light centered on my subject, I placed a ten degree grid over the top of the strobe. When I was happy with where the light was falling in the scene, I taped a quarter-stop CTB gel to the grid. When I fired the flash, the entire ambient light of the scene was flooded with a blue glow. 


The Second Setup

For the second setup, the main objective was to have an even, large source of light illuminating the scene. With this style of lighting, it gave me a painterly vintage effect in camera. First, I placed my key light, which was a Godox AD200, and was shot into an Elinchrom Rotalux 59" Indirect Softbox on axis with the camera. I then pushed it back about two feet from the camera and angled the light down toward the model at a 45-degree angle. When the light is placed like this, it significantly softens the shadows under the model's eyes, neck, and nose. Next, to make her stand out from the background, I boomed a second Godox AD200 light directly overhead and another just behind the model. The light that was coming from above gave a soft glow on the top of the models' hair. To add to the effect, the light that was placed behind the model shined through the Coca-Cola glass bottle, and gave it a glistening glow. 


The Editing Process 

When the shoot was over, I looked at the raw images in Capture One, and while they looked decent out of camera, there was one thing missing: the final color grade and a few minor adjustments to the overall contrast and light quality. I pulled the images into Photoshop and began messing around with adjustments like grain, color adjustments, and dodge and burn to bring the look together. I have listed my step-by-step editing process below:


Step 1: Adding Grain and Sharpening 

The first thing I did after opening the image in Photoshop was sharpen the face, Coca-Cola bottle, and her shirt, then bring out the texture in the hand-painted backdrop. If you want to read more about this sharpening technique, see the step-by-step tutorial in a previous article I wrote. 

Step 2: Dodging and Burning 

For those of you that are not familiar with this technique, in simplest terms: dodging lightens the highlights, and burning darkens the shadows and midtones. The purpose of dodging and burning is to bring the attention to the areas of the picture that you want and draw the attention away from the places you don't want. In this case, I chose to highlight the model's face and the bottle. To start, I made two blank layers and set each to the Soft Light blend mode. Next, I used the dodge tool with a 14 percent opacity and one hundred percent flow and painted with white on the lightest areas. To burn, I did the same with the burn tool, but I painted with black on the shadow areas. The key here is to create a smooth gradation from light tones to dark tones. 

Step 3: The Final Color Grade 

Once the image was starting to taking shape, the last thing I looked at was the color grade — the thing that pulled the entire look together. The color palette that I was following for this set was a simple red and teal split. The red and warm tone came from the background, head piece, and skin tone, which contrasted the blue shirt. So, when color grading, I wanted to bring out this color harmony that was already present in her wardrobe. The full list of color layers are shown below. 


Do you have any further questions or comments regarding how this shoot was set up? Leave them below in the comments! I would be more than happy to answer them!

Team Credits - Photographer, Retouching: Eli Dreyfuss | Model: Alison Liquori | Makeup: Shayna Plotkin | Assistant: Selethel Plotkin

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Mike Ditz's picture

Nice work, looks like a fun project. The red background model and the colors look vintage but I think the thing that makes it look more modern than vintage is that your key light is a 59 inch softbox. In the 50s 60s a lot of the lighting was being done with fresnel hot lights, which are quite a bit harder than a softbox. I am not saying that you should use a 1k solarspot but there are fresnel strobe heads that'll give you the vintage (like Hollywood glamour lighting) look. But back then they would the airbrush the heck out it anyway!

Some smoke curling up from the cigs would be a nice touch too.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Interesting point about the perhaps I should have taken off the diffusion baffle. But, like I mentioned, I wanted the vintage vibe, but also sad modernity to it.

I'll add in the smoke from the cig! Good idea!

Deleted Account's picture

I Like!!

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Glad to hear!

Spy Black's picture

I'm at a loss as to how these look like vintage 50s images. Can you post some reference files that you used from the 50s? These look nothing like 50s imagery to me.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

The color toning? The costume?

Spy Black's picture

Yeah, I'm not seeing it. Don't get me wrong, I think the images look fine and the work is lovely, I'm just not getting a '50s feel from it. That's why I mentioned the reference files.

But it just may be me, you may have done a better job of it than I'm seeing, I don't mean my comment as a put down or anything like that.

I'm in a similar situation trying to recreate imagery of Victorian era fairies, based on paintings from the era. Can't say I've nailed it yet.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

For me, when I create images from the past, like i mentioned in the article, i go for the feeling that period made me feel. But, I hear what you're saying.