Friday, December 29, 2006

There's Nothing New: It's All Been Done Before

One of my favorite photography blogs is Strobist. It's chock full of useful information for shooters of all levels of skill and experience. If you're serious about lighting-enlightenment and you don't regularly visit Strobist, I recommend you begin doing so. (Is "lighting-enlightenment" a redundant pairing of words?)

In his most recent offering, the Strobist provides a review of Michael Grecco's book, "Lighting and the Dramatic Portrait." But in his informative review, the Strobist makes some statements that, frankly, surprise me coming from someone as knowledgeable as himself.

For example, he describes a Grecco lighting setup used for a portrait of two, NYPD Blue stars:

"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. Then he gobo'd the light from the two guys' faces, then lit the faces from the top with gridded lights."

The Strobist then goes on to say, "Why didn't I think of that?"

I dunno, dude. Why didn't you think of that? What rules were broken? The rules of Rembrandt-style lighting? What Grecco did was utilize a film noir inspired lighting approach for the portrait. That's hardly breaking rules. It might be utilizing a less-often seen lighting style but it doesn't break any so-called rules.

According to the Strobist, Grecco chastizes the use of "classic" lighting styles with statements like this:

"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!"

Classic is schlocky? I'm gonna have to mull that one over for a while.

Look, I'm not coming down on Michael Grecco. He's a terrific shooter and certainly knows what he's doing and I'd be lying if I said I don't envy his success as a photographer. His images are way cool and I'm sure his book has tons of great information. But sometimes I think these celebrated shooters become a little too enamored with themselves and their work and they begin believing they're inventing all kinds of new styles and techniques when, in fact, they're not. What they do know how to do is artfully execute, manipulate, and adapt the various styles and techniques that were devised by others who came before them. They also know when to do it differently and when to play it safe.

I agree that always utilizing commonly-seen lighting styles is less apt to make your work standout. But shooting with less-often-seen lighting techniques doesn't mean your breaking rules. It simply means your willing to go out on a limb, stylistically, and doing so might be a good thing. It might also be a not-so good thing depending on the circumstances, how well you pull it off, and where you are on the photographer food chain. I'm the last guy to tell anyone to always play it safe, although playing it safe is often what many clients expect and that's certainly another consideration. My philosophy is this: First give the client what they want and expect. Then, if there's time, give them something else. Of course, if they love that "something else," it might then become the thing they want and expect and that leaves you with trying out other things for the "something else." Conversely, if they hate the "something else," you still gave them what they wanted and it all remains good.

The black widow-like model in the image at the top is Caroline. I snapped this image 3 or 4 years ago with a 10D.

1 comment:

James said...

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Lighten up cowboy! I have the book, yes I found it through strobist and couldn't help throwing it onto an already ridiculous holiday order. :) For starters:
"What rules were broken? The rules of Rembrandt-style lighting?"

Actually what he was talking about was:
"Standard, commercial portrait lighting places the key light at a 45deg angle, to the side of. and higher than, the subject, but not so high as to make shadows in the eyes. It is then filled by another light close to the camera, on the other side. The fill is classically one stop below the key ... Because the fill side of the face is darker than the key side, conventional wisdom then puts the hairlight, or backlight, on the darker side of the face one stop brighter than the key."

That is what Michael Grecco finds slick, pedestrian, and schlocky. Also bare in mind that he is trying to push the reader out of this box. The subtitle of the book is "The Art of Celebrity and Editorial Photography". Why would magazines hire him if they could get the same work done at the local mall for an order of magnitude less?

Also he acknowledges taking from other genres and in the blurb on that NYPD Blue pic states that "This created a great shadow up the seemless, resembling an old film-noir police-movie look without underlighting their faces and making a horror-picture look.

It's a decent book, I think you're just reacting to a couple of context-less quotes.

-James