Taking Chances, Classic Lighting and Hairballs: A Closer Look at the Grecco Book

UPDATE: Great news for tablet/phone/pod-toting photographers. Grecco's excellent LatDP is now available on a variety of tablet formats, here.

Having been a good boy this year (or, at least, not getting caught) I got a few things on my Christmas list. One of those items was Micheal Grecco's book, Lighting and the Dramatic Portrait.

I know that many of you are ahead of me on this one. And there has been a fairly spirited discussion on the book on the Flickr Strobist group.

But I have finally read the whole book (in chunks each night before going to bed since Christmas) and wanted to check in with my two cents worth on it. I'll start by saying what the book is not.

It's not a beginning lighting book. There isn't enough info on beginning lighting to start from zero and have a good sense of the technique and the craft. Ditto the info on cameras.

Unfortunately he kills fully a quarter quarter of the book speeding through these two topics. I suspect there was some arm-twisting from the publisher and/or editor, as this is clearly not the main thrust of the book. He gets through it quickly, with too much info for the experienced shooter and not enough for the beginner.

If you are looking for a general book on lighting, this should not be your first read. Maybe not even your second. That said, when he gets to his strength, the book really earns it's keep.

The main body of LATDP is, for me anyway, a treasure trove of info. I have already highlighted the bejesus out of my copy, and will probably make more notes on the second run-through.

Many of you have given glowing reports of the book. From others: Eh, not so much.

I think the book is refreshingly atypical in its approach, and wanted to report on what I have learned.

His main premise is one of learning - and then eschewing - the classic portrait lighting techniques. This is a view that I have been coming around to on my own over the last few years.

I look at it this way: Why go to the trouble to set up lights just to end up with a technically good, yet nauseatingly predictable photo?

I mean, do you ever walk into a place and see soft light coming in from twin 45-degree angles and think, man, that's a hot look?

Of course you don't. You notice edgy light. Back light. Beams. Spots, Mottled shadows doing cool things. That kind of stuff. So why is it that when we first dive into off-camera light, we go for well-exposed, classic, predictable, boring light?

That isn't the kind of light what stops us cold when we are paging through a magazine. But we sure do go to a lot of trouble (and expense) to make it.

I am as guilty as the next person. Well, more was as guilty as the next person. After all, it is "safe" light. And it does look very technically competent, for lack of a better word.

Having just described "Classic" portraiture lighting in the previous paragraph, here's what Grecco has to say about it:
"In most cases when I see this kind of lighting, I get a hairball in my throat. Not only of how predictable it is, but because of what it generally represents: slick, pedestrian lighting that is to me, schlocky!"

And how.

This guy does not just walk the walk, either. He goes on to break almost every lighting rule in the book. And if you think about this for a sec, how could you ever hope to stand out in a crowd without taking this approach?

Don't get me wrong. The crowd is a pretty safe place to be. For weddings, corporate shooting, events, etc - that's where the steady paychecks are.

Do I ever just bang out a classically lit portrait? Sure. All the time.

Why? Usually it is a time constraint - I know classic is safe, and I may not have the resources to go for multiple looks. Also, it frequently fits within the editorial mandate in that I do not want to inject too much vision into something and divert attention from the subject itself, which is the real story.

But more and more, I find myself tired/bored/impatient/downright angry with the idea of "expected" lighting. I think I am spending more time and energy taking chances with my light. And when I do I am generally happier with the result.

Grecco gives example after example of how he chooses to break the rules while on assignment.

One of my favorite examples - and so simple - is how he lit the NYPD Blue stars from the bottom with a hard light to get the upside shadows. (Click above to see bigger.) Then he gobo'd the light from the two guys' faces, then lit the faces from the top with gridded lights.

Well, of course. Why didn't I think of that? In a small setting, you end up with scener mood light coming from below and face light coming from above - both from the camera's horizontal axis.

That's not something you're just going to happen upon. That is the product of always looking for a way to break the rules and create a "look."

I really like the guy's problem solving, too. His is almost all location work, so he gets thrown a lot of curve balls. But Grecco can hit a curve.

Shooting a portrait of a man in a stainless steel freezer, he wraps the area in front of the freezer in seamless white background paper and throws his lights into that for smooth, gradient reflections. Then he shoots through a slit in the paper. But he's not done yet.

On top of that, he grids the guy's face, to pop it. Then, on the lights illuminating the freezer, setting he uses not one but several various shades of blue on the different flashes. This guy is going beyond using blue to connote "cold" and using a whole palette of blues to add layers of depth and three-dimensionality.

Take ringlights for example - something I am starting to play with for the paper's Varsity section. He uses them not as a main light, but as perfect, lens-axis fill to bring dramatically angled light into a contrast range that his camera can handle.

Well, duh. But not that I ever would have thought of that on my own.

He spends a decent amount of time on technique and anecdotal stories about the care and feeding of subjects. This bedside manner stuff is so crucial to producing killer portraits. Great portraits aren't taken - they are given.

Realistically, I will never have Grecco's budget, his assistants, his technical support or his tax bracket. But I also won't have his pressure. Nor will I have subjects with super-inflated egos like the ones he has to deal with.

His step-by-step descriptions of how he has gotten some of these people from "what they want to do" to "what he wants them to do" is valuable stuff to a real-world, working stiff like me.

To read the book, you'd think he regularly gets on his knees and begs for just five more minutes to squeeze in a concept that the subject may have nixed in favor of their own. Or maybe time constraints were bearing down on him. Whatever.

When it comes to making the shot he wants to make, this guy is water finding downhill. Whatever it takes.

While I do not work at Michael Grecco's professional altitude, I am pulling stuff from this book that I will use nearly every day. If I were a corporate shooter, it might apply less to me. Safe is big bucks in the annual report world.

If I were shooting just for me, I'd be eating this stuff up and darn-near wearing it out in practice, in hopes that before I used it all up the thought process might rub off on me.

But shooting environmental portraits for sports and biz at The Sun, and shooting illustrative projects for features, the inspiration from this book will last me a long time.


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Blogger J DM said...

a lot of good meat in your observations, thanks. One good idea a day is more than i can handle, though, so i may just read you on alternate days now. Anything good coming on Saturday?

December 28, 2006 5:49 PM  
Blogger gregr said...

I found this book fantastic. It was actually nice, I thought, to find a book that didn't spend a lot of time on the basic "safe" lighting stuff, and actually really dive into some unique techniques. But rather than breaking rules for its own sake, he explains _why_ he's doing it, which is also nice. And I find much of Grecco's work to be inspirational - it makes me want to get out and shoot more!

December 28, 2006 6:05 PM  
Blogger Mike S. said...

my impression on my first read-thru was more the "eh, not so much" variety. I thought a lot of his textual advice was a bit pat or smarmy. The intro material on cameras was near worthless and for exactly the reason you said, David--too little for rank beginners and way too simplistic for the rest.

I'm warming to the book on rereading it, because the guy is King Photon as far as creating lighting is concerned. So final judgment pending.

December 28, 2006 6:22 PM  
Anonymous Daniel Miller said...

David (or anyone else who own this book), can you share a little bit more about how he gobo'd the faces in the NYPD Blue picture without the gobo being silhouetted on the background? (I find it hard to imagine he'd cut and place custom shaped gobos for each actor.)


December 28, 2006 8:08 PM  
Blogger John W. MacDonald said...

I purchased this book based on your recommendation on your fantastic blog. Thanks! Grecco's book is a very good read even just for the anecdotes on the background thought process. And I laughed out loud about his take on the shoot with Bill Gates (page 126) in the "Shooting Egos" section.

Hello from Ottawa, Canada & frequent Strobist reader,

John W. MacDonald

December 28, 2006 8:25 PM  
Blogger Bold Imagery by Jason Connel said...

Just got the book for Christmas too! I am so fired up to read it!

December 28, 2006 9:22 PM  
Anonymous John Dohrn said...

I got the book for christmas as a gift from my mom along with other books she saw you mentioned on this site (thanks for linking! =D) and, so far, i must say it's a good read. Deffinetly not a beginners book. But, the unique light styles are great, and are something i wanna incorporate into my shooting more often

December 28, 2006 11:15 PM  
Blogger www.kirktuck.com said...

Sorry David, but.....eh. Seemed more like a bold faced PR adventure who's real audience is perspective clients for Michael Grecco. Smacks of over the top-ism. Not all corporate stuff is dull, but not all "lighting for lightings sake" is exciting and good. I thought the NYPD Blues shot was amateurish. But mostly I detested the author's Pollyanna writing style.
It would be a great book to send to a young art director at a major agency (look at me, look at me) and I think that's exactly what Grecco had in mind. His other readers are just collateral additions.

But, to each their own.


December 29, 2006 10:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't comment on the book...its in the mail. But I'd just like to say again that Grecco is an AMAZING photographer. I assisted him in Salt Lake City for an ASMP event. Prior to his arrival, we had set up 4 sets. White on white, black on black, a large group lit with 1 light, and an outdoor portrait in sunset. We only set up stands and background elements, leaving all the modifiers (this was at a rental house so they had EVERYTHING profoto that you could want) just lined up against a wall. He walked in, did a slideshow, talked a bit...and then the demonstrations. He busted out all 4 scenes, on the fly, having never met the models and just plucked out modifiers to his whim. He flowed from scene to scene without pause, even when an audience member would ask him to use something different. Seeing him work was amazing.

His style is over the top, his lighting is often more than most people think is needed, but he does have some amazing images.

December 29, 2006 11:55 AM  
Anonymous Scott Hargis said...

I was also not impressed with the NYPD Blues shot -- if I presented that to my clients, they'd object to that big ugly shadow.
Which brings up a point; in order to shoot at the level that Grecco does, you have to have clients that are also at that level, that will appreciate that big ugly shadow.

edit: errrg! this word-verification/secret code thing kills me! I can't read the letters!

December 29, 2006 12:06 PM  
Anonymous Omar Casasola said...

Unfortunately I have to agree with kirk. I was very exited about receiving the book and how much I would savor each page but after reading it I found it to lack more information on the specific thought process of each shoot and pinpoint details most of us want to know. Then again I am sure Grecco doesn't want all of the info to be handed out to the readers. Even though I am dissapointed a bit I still enjoy reading the book and the photos are excellent. I see it more of a challenge to achieve these images on a budget and with limited equipment. Something I have learned from looking at the photos is that I have to be my own set designer, stylist, lighting assistant and editor. This guy has all of those people specialize in these fields, most of his comments on choosing clothing, backgrounds and make-up seem vague and it might be because he has people do this for him. In all honesty you can learn a lot more from the STROBIST blog and www.zuga.net. Even the previous person to leave a comment www.kirktuck.com has a few good lessons on lighting. I think that you need to see it for yourself to be able to judge it. Don't rely on reviews because we all have different perspectives.

December 29, 2006 2:38 PM  
Blogger jimmyd said...

Love the site! I visit often and recommend it to readers of my blog. I haven't read Grecco's book so I can't comment beyond your observations, some of which, I should add, surprised me. Example: Your "Why didn't i think of that?" response to Grecco's NYPD Blue portrait, as if his film noir approach to the image breaks rules. IMO, using less-often-seen lighting styles don't break rules except, perhaps, the rules of more-often-seen lighting styles.


(Please Note: My blog contains nudity, albeit within the constraints of glamour and art nude genres. It is not intended for anyone under the age of 18 or for those offended my such imagery.)

December 29, 2006 4:20 PM  
Blogger Steve DB (Artwork) said...

I got the book as a Christmas present (sent the link to my wife a month ago as a hint on what to buy for a guy that has almost everything). As you, I was a bit disapointed by the lack of more discussion on lighting techniques but was very interested to see that he often uses a 3 degree grid to pop out a face.

I agree that many times I'd like a very tight gridded light to pop out a face and am going to try to make one from a small flash.

What always interests me is how fast he has to work when photographing VIPs and celebrities.

December 29, 2006 6:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

first ordered in co.uk. never arrived... christmas bummer..., now ordered in .com. Hopefully its not __empty__.

December 29, 2006 7:08 PM  
Anonymous dude said...

I loved the book but was annoyed with the typos. Was this thing rushed to print and not edited?

December 29, 2006 11:44 PM  
Blogger David said...


I am not gonna throw stones in that glass house.


December 30, 2006 12:30 AM  
Blogger righteye said...

i also gave the book to myself for christmas and thought it was very good.
I was glad it was not a beginner book because if so i would not have bought it. Your right on the safe lighting paying the bills. There were some good ideas i got from it though. Mainly lighting each person with his or her own light and not just a wide swath of light. We all get asked to do shots that are not for money and we all like to play with light. I find that sometimes after years of work we just choose not to see the light like we used to. I hope a bit of inspiration goes a long way, even for those playing shots or freebies.

December 30, 2006 8:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

gobo'd? I'm certain it's a stupid question, but I don't know the answer!

December 31, 2006 2:19 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Michael Grecco is featured in this month's "Photos To Inspire" at photoworkshop.com.

And the good news..? This book is available in the UK :)

January 01, 2007 5:51 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Michael Grecco is featured in this month's "Photos To Inspire" at photoworkshop.com

And the good news... this book is available in the UK :)

January 01, 2007 5:52 PM  
Anonymous TC! said...

Thanks for giving it an honest review David.
You know from my previous post on this book that I'm in the the eh camp.
I felt there was very little I could learn from this book but maybe that's just where I'm at on the ladder right now.

January 17, 2007 9:21 AM  
Anonymous stephenB said...

I read this book and learned alot from it. I am at an intermediate, maybe even advanced level in terms of lighting and this book gave me a lot of great ideas and helpful hints.

I just saw his newest book project today at www.nakedambition.com . Its not an instructional book, but it looks very interesting, and the lighting is top notch as usual.

September 24, 2007 9:38 PM  

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