The Digital Journalist
Lighting and the Dramatic Portrait
January 2007

by Michael Grecco

Photo by Paula Lerner

It was the dimly lit, murky, orange-colored environment, the trays full of tart smelling liquids, and the surprise of how a piece of paper mysteriously transformed itself into a photograph that got me hooked on the magic of photography. I was in summer camp in upstate New York, a twelve-year-old boy, more or less uninterested in sports, but fascinated by science. Photography was alchemy to me, the type of science I could only imagine and never thought I could be a part of. Now I was learning and loving it. Borrowing the camp's little plastic camera, I shot everyone in sight and then I rushed back to the darkroom to watch the images appear. This was my favorite part. Back home, I begged my family for a 35mm camera of my own. I come from a very practical, tight-knit, Italian family, just north of New York City. Mom and Dad wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, not a photographer. “What are you going to do with a camera?” they asked. In their minds there was no practical reason for a twelve-year-old kid to have an expensive camera, especially when they didn't even own one of their own. But after much pleading and negotiating, I finally got my first real camera, a Mamiya/Sekor 35mm single-lens reflex with interchangeable lenses, and I haven't stopped shooting since that day.

My love of the medium took me to my local library where my favorite books were those in the Time-Life photography series. I would sneak volumes out of the library without actually checking them out so I could hold onto them, and “own” this amazing work. Staying up late at night, just staring at image after image, I knew that this was what I was destined to do. I had to be a photographer. The images that particularly engaged me, both on an emotional and intellectual level, were in Duane Michael's books, especially his piece called, The Illuminated Man. I held on to those books for many years, finally returning them to the library after I got my first job as a full-time staff photographer and could afford to buy a set for myself. I felt I could not live without them.

At the age of 18, just when I thought I had my life all figured out, I went to college (Boston University's School of Communications) and things got turned around. Entering school I thought I knew it all. After all, I had been shooting since I was twelve! So I skipped Photography I and went right into Photo II, a class in photojournalism. My teacher was Ken Kobré, the author of Photojournalism: The Professionals' Approach. With my art background, I kept wondering why shapes and design elements played second fiddle to “editorial content,” and why artistic concerns were not highly valued. I was beginning to learn that the medium of the newspaper really had very different concerns from that of the art world.

Ken helped me get my first job—as a stringer for The Associated Press in Boston—which led to a four-year staff position at the Boston Herald. It was a very exciting time. I covered everything from the Super Bowl, the World Series (both as the picture editor and shooter), and the NBA Playoffs to Hurricane Gloria, violent KKK and anti-nuclear protests, and politicians—including the governor of Massachusetts and the president of the United States. I was even part of Ronald Reagan's presidential pool, traveling in his motorcade—a priceless experience that built a confidence I did not previously possess. Because I was shooting so much, under conditions that were almost never under my control, I learned to let go and go for it, to take more risks. The job trained me to grab the shot rather than not. It also exposed me to some of the most interesting and artistic people in the New England area. I learned a little about a lot, in a very short time. That life experience was indispensable and gave me insight into the world around me, which, to this day, makes me a better person and a better photographer. After a few years I had won many awards for my news coverage, but felt like I would never be a great photojournalist because my heart just wasn't in it. I was not what the great Cornell Capa called “the concerned photographer.” I did not want to change the world by exposing its conflicts or poverty. I wanted to create images rather than capture moments. I wanted to get back to some of my subtler, more artistic roots; to communicate more on an emotional level, and not in such a literal manner.

So, I packed my bags and moved to Beverly Hills, that is (Santa Monica actually). When I first got to town, I worked as a freelance photojournalist to survive, but knew I had to develop a style of my own to earn a reputation as a “people” shooter. To do this, I had to learn how to use lights, and I was not interested in continuing the two-umbrellas-at-45°-angles style I had learned from fellow photojournalists in Boston. Luckily, while transitioning to my ultimate passion for portraiture, I was doing unit photography on film and television sets. That experience was indispensable. It taught me new ways of lighting that were not flat. I learned all the tricks and techniques that the Hollywood electricians, grips, and gaffers used. It was an eye-opening time.

Now it was time to start my journey toward becoming a portrait photographer. It was scary—I had no idea what my work would look like, or if I even had it in me. At first, I did environmental portraits, mostly for business magazines. Because some of those environments were so small, I employed my newly acquired tricks of “spot lighting” and “carving” light, both of which I had learned on film sets. The most important thing that began to take place, though, was the change in my thinking process. I started to consider very carefully what was in my frame and how I was going to light it, and how the image itself should be styled—including the props, wardrobe, hair, and makeup. That reevaluation was the vehicle that delivered me to where I am today. I'm telling you my history because it helped shape both my career and this book. My life experiences have given me a unique perspective on lighting and photographing people. I openly share what I know with you here: my thought process, how I discovered my techniques, how I go about solving problems, how I come up with my ideas, and how I deal with my subjects, clients, and team.

The book is divided into sections that deal with specific equipment, issues of style, and types of subject matter. Each chapter is illustrated with my work; many include diagrams of the lighting setups. There is a Glossary of photography and lighting terms, a Griptionary of technical equipment and terms, and an index at the back of the book. In both the text and picture captions, I discuss the technical details that I employ in creating my images, as well as the gut, intuitive sense that helps guide me. As technical as photography can be, I try to stay in touch with my instincts, and I make many of my creative decisions on an emotional level. There are also some surprising stories about how some of these great images came about—through accidents and mistakes, or even sheer luck.

Because portrait photography is my career, I always work with a team of people who each play key roles in helping me capture the shot I'm after. My portraits are the result of the collaborative effort between the photo assistants, set builders, location scouts, hair and makeup artists, wardrobe stylists, art directors, and photo editors—even the subjects and clients—who work under my direction. You may not be at a point in your photography where you can put together a team like this, but that doesn't mean you can't get a great shot. You also may not own all the lighting and camera equipment I use in my work, but you can rent it. You can take what I reveal and apply it to your own situation. Becoming a portrait photographer is a process, not an end result. This career, or this life, I have chosen is so challenging that it has forced me to be conscious and creative in everything I do—to be open to the happenstance of life and use it in my creative process. You are the benefactor of this consciousness. I lay it all on the line here, but remember, what I am sharing is not a fixed group of ideas, but an ever-changing and constantly growing process. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

[Michael Grecco is a featured photographer of Canon's 'Explorers of Light,' a select group of 60 top American photographers. Visit Canon's 'Explorers of Light' Gallery:]

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