Michael Grecco’s “Lighting and the Dramatic Portrait” isn’t a new book. It was first published in print form back in 2006, so it has been around for a while. Recently however, Michael decided to put the book out in eBook form as well.
It’s entirely possible that the original publish date of 2006 might put some readers off, and sure, there is some material in here that’s dated.
For example, there’s an entire chapter in the book called “The Medium,” where he goes over his choice of films, the differences between negatives and transparencies, and some info about a specific film developing process. There’s also a discussion about the whole film vs. digital thing that has, for most people, already been settled.
Overlook all of that (unless, like me, you still shoot some film). The book was originally published at a time when Michael was transitioning his workflow from film to digital, and most pros were still shooting medium and large-format film at the time.
Overlook all of that, and pay attention to the core that makes this book a great read.
It starts with the chapter called “Illumination,” and that’s where the Grecco magic begins to show. Starting with what he calls “Grecco’s Laws of Light,” Michael shows off why this book is still extremely relevant six years after it first hit shelves.
In “Illumination,” and in subsequent chapters, Michael exposes his thought process, techniques, mindset, gear, lighting diagrams, and more. Basically, everything that he can teach about light in a book, he does – and does so without resorting to the tired and clichéd concepts used by so many instructors.
I need to raise a point here – this is NOT a book for beginners. There’s simply not enough here to help you get started. In fact, you should come to this book with some knowledge of the fundamentals of lighting already under your belt. If you haven’t yet put an umbrella at 45 degrees to a subject for a portrait, you should go do that first.
Once you have those fundamentals, though, this book is a gem. It’s not even really a how-to book; it’s more of a “how I did it” book. Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Jet Li, Robert Duvall, and a host of other celebs are featured in the book, but they’re mere visual aids in Michael’s lessons, used as props for his teaching.
That’s really quite cool, because it’s not often that you get to sit down and pore through something like this. “Lighting and the Dramatic Portrait” is a tome full of images that have already appeared in major publications. The case studies presented here provide the back-stories behind real-world images.
Those back-stories are invaluable. You find out, through Michael’s stories, that Bill Gates was kind of stand-offish, that it was a shot made with a Holga toy camera that became a double-spread in Entertainment Weekly, and that Jet Li really, truly, does not need a trampoline.
Read the book. You’ll understand what I mean.
It’s that mix of all of the above that makes this book not just relevant, but still important six years after it was first published. If all that Michael had done was publish a bunch of his images with lighting diagrams attached, this book would be worth every penny.
Instead, he packs in his experience and approach to photography with the technical details, and that makes this worth twice what I paid for it. Yes, you see how he lit Kate Winslet via a lighting diagram, but he then explains why he lit her the way he did. He explains, in great detail, his choices, and how they affect the color, tone, contrast, mood, and texture of his images.
Interestingly, some of the gear Michael talks about is, in fact, still relevant. Of late, a lot of folks are abuzz about things like HMIs, Kino Flos, and strobes with fast duration. All of those are mentioned in Michael’s book; it’s kind of surprising to see him cover gear six years ago that’s gotten popular with a lot of us only recently.
All in all, this is one heck of a book, not just on lighting, but on photography in general. I highly recommend it.