Michael Grecco Teaches How To Photograph A Sexy Swimsuit Dramatic Portrait

During our 2014 Fstoppers Workshops in the Bahamas students had the privilege of watching 10 successful photographers share their top photographic techniques. Commercial and celebrity portrait photographer Michael Grecco taught classes on environmental portraiture and sexy swimwear photography, so of course we thought it would be awesome to tag along as Michael explained some of the tips that make his portraits so unique.  

The first time Michael Grecco's work had crossed my path was back when I first became obsessed with photography lighting. Someone recommended his classic lighting book Lighting and the Dramatic Portrait and I remember studying and trying to memorize every lighting setup. What I found so interesting about his book was that it wasn't just a technical study of lighting (how and why to place your light in a particular location), but Michael also took the time to explain the concepts and pre visualization of why he decided to light a portrait in a particular way. Little did I know that some 5 years later I would be learning from Mr. Grecco in person at the Fstoppers Workshop along with 30 other students.

At the 2014 Fstoppers Workshops there were several different classes focused on swimwear and creating alluring beach portraits. Obviously there are dozens of ways to approach this genre of photography, but what I liked about Michael's approach was that he was determined to create a dramatic image almost entirely in-camera. To make this shoot as tricky as possible, we planned it at the worst time of day (around 1 PM). Our original plan was to use California Sun Swatters to block out the mid day harsh sun, but unfortunately we were faced with bland overcast light caused by massive clouds. To make it even more challenging for Michael Grecco, the wind speeds on the beach were approaching 16 miles an hour! For someone who loves using scrims and softboxes this was going to be a fairly challenging situation. Thank goodness for heavy tripods, C-stands and multiple assistants! 

As you can see from the video, Michael's attention to detail is so precise it is almost surgical. His first step in creating a memorable photograph is to knock down the ambient light while still maintaining a fairly wide open aperture.  Since Michael's Hasselblad H5D medium format camera can sync well beyond 1/250th of a second, we wanted to make sure all the DSLR users out wouldn't be left in the cold. By using a neutral density filter in front of his lens, Grecco was able to knock the exposure down a few stops while still keeping his lens open to around f5.6 (this is close to wide open for most medium format lenses). This same technique can be used when shooting at f1.2 or f2.8 on a Canon or Nikon camera.  

The next problem Michael faced was the sky was many stops brighter than the beach and ocean. In order to maintain detail in the sky while exposing for the beach, Michael used a graduated neutral density filter to darken the top 1/3 of the frame while leaving the correct exposure down towards the bottom  If you want to employ this technique into your own work, make sure you get a rotating filter holder that holds multiple square filters. I have not personally used this graduated neutral denisty filter technique in my own portrait work, but I can see how it can easily make your life a lot easier. This filter makes it easy to get the sky perfect in camera instead of having to spend 10 - 30 mins in photoshop dropping in a composited sky. It also helps you give your paying clients a better idea of what the final image will actually look like.  

After getting the base exposure correct for the background, it was now time to light our model Patricka Ferguson. Michael Grecco almost exclusively uses Broncolor lighting. After a week of using pretty much every product in the Broncolor arsenal, Michael decided to light this beach portrait with just a single light. By just using a single Move L 1200 watt battery pack and a small Chimera Softbox, Grecco was able to easily overpower the ambient light while providing the perfect amount of contrast on Patricka. A Chimera Eggcrate Grid was the final piece added to prevent light from spilling onto the ground. It was interesting to see how much a grid can change the overall spill of a light even outside on the beach. That was definitely not a trick I had put into use while shooting outdoors on location. 

Once Michael had the lighting pegged down, it was then time to start blasting off a ton of frames. Michael made it a point to remind us how important it is to work the photograph in the same way you've worked the lighting. You definitely do not want to get this far down the road only to not capture the perfect single frame. The smallest change in the model's facial expression, body language or in this case the scarf she was waving, can make all the difference between a good image and an excellent image.  

Although this photoshoot was planned to take place in the absolute worst of lighting conditions (contrasty overhead lighting), we were all reminded of an important lesson:  a professional photographer should be able to create amazing photographs regardless of what situation they are given. What I love about being able to learn from someone like Michael is that he showed me a completely unique way of approaching a sexy beach shoot that is completely different from what I naturally would have done. I can't stress enough, even as a seasoned photographer, how important it is to assist and learn from other photographers because you are bound to pick up something useful if you remain eager to grow in your craft.  

Here is the final Michael Grecco portrait of Bohemian model Patricka:

Patrick Hall's picture

Patrick Hall is a founder of Fstoppers.com and a photographer based out of Charleston, South Carolina.

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Nice final image...but it looks like a hot girl in front of an impending storm instead of a nice sunny day at the beach.

Well it was an impending storm!

Agreed, but sometimes an impending storm seems more intriguing than calm sunshine


Thank goodness for those assistants. Michael can focus on talking, so they can focus on work :-)

Great work!

Liked his explanation regarding placement of the light.

Nice setup. I would've also considered a slightly lower light aimed straight out with the egg create to miss the sand altogether. A polarizer would've been interesting for the sky as well as doubling as an ND. I thought it was a bit hot on her skin highlights, although that's easily fixed in post. I've had the same problem with black skin, especially with full sun. A makeup artist is your best friend in those moments. :-)

Rather fascinating was the hood over the laptop. It struck me as a modern-day version of what photographers dealt with in the early days with view cameras, who also needed to have a hood over the view camera in order to compose and focus. I anticipate someone capitalizing on laptop hoods soon!

Also, anyone who may be drooling at that medium format digital camera in this shoot, who can't afford one, should consider getting a used MF film camera on ebay and you too can have the same depth of field if you like. You can get up to a 1/500 second sync with most old school MF leaf shutters, so you're not far off the kind of synchro setup he was shooting with. ISO 100 MF film looks quite good. ;-)

sweet spot...

Bascis Swimwear/Model tips - Never put the horizon through the models head - eyes never strong one side or the other (leave at least a little white on each side of the eye) - light the body evenly. For me the lower portion of the body is much too dark. And I would have had the models energy to her left instead of her right or place her in the right of the frame. I also like to be aware of the simple things like clear nails and natural makeup. If this truly a swimwear product shoot then white nails and heavy make up can take away from the product/swimsuit.