Chris Knight Produces the Bible of Dramatic Portraiture

Chris Knight Produces the Bible of Dramatic Portraiture

In an industry saturated with educational materials, navigating the minefield to find which resources are valuable, and worthy of your hard earned money, can be rough. As a photographer, I have purchased countless tutorials, books, and magazines. I have poured through blogs, YouTube videos, attended numerous workshops and endured some questionable Facebook Live sessions. When I tell you I have discovered a gem, it isn't because this is my first time mining.

Chris Knight's first book, "The Dramatic Portrait: The Art of Crafting Light and Shadow," is such a gem. Knight, an instructor at both Pratt Institute as well as the New York Film Academy, brings his academic prowess to his writing. He is equal parts intelligent, funny, and informative in his instructional approach. Much like his photography, his book begins with his love for art and art history. Knight believes that to understand where we are going with our portraits, we must first look at our roots in the world of classical paintings.

© Chris Knight

Chapter one of his book begins with a journey in the history of portraiture, just as the subtext of the chapter heading suggests, Knight makes it more fun than one would think. The section is rich in imagery, with accompanying explanations of why each piece is important, but more importantly, it takes less than a school semester to digest. Knight is more than capable of getting his point across without belaboring the subject to boredom. This segment of the book continues in discussions of the evolution of style. Admittedly, I am not as much of an art nerd as I would like to be, so being exposed to the early works of now legendary painters was fascinating. Reminding me that where we end this journey is certainly different than where we start.

Knight moves on in his publication to discuss his mastery of light and how his brain dissects not only the tools he will use but how his mind sees the light not yet there. He walks his reader through how the brain, through the eyes, interprets a photo. He accomplishes this lesson both in written word and visually in a way I have not seen before. Each point he makes punctuated with the power of a photo. The lessons Knight produces in his second chapter are riddled with what can best be described as simplified technicality. What I mean by this is that the author has such a firm grasp on the technical, but his years of instructing have also granted him the unusual ability to put into words concepts that even a journeyman can immediately understand and put into practice. Knight departs from what many other instructors and authors I have seen in the past do, in that his volume doesn't just show you the pretty photos he is capable of making, but instead displays the context of the writing. In the case of his lighting diagrams, he highlights how often some of the lighting is barely visible, but when combined into the whole, yields incredible results. With discussions of falloff, contrast through falloff, flags, and other controls, this chapter alone is a reason to purchase the book.

© Chris Knight

As previously mentioned, I have attended numerous workshops in the past. Very recently I heard a seminar instructor incorrectly describe the classic lighting styles of paramount, loop, Rembrandt, split, and what constitutes broad and short light respectfully within each of these styles. So I know misinformation is out there. What Knight does in this volume is not only clarify what forms each lighting style but how to create it and how to find out when you have slipped out of the classic technique. Knight does warn that if you are looking for exact measurements regarding positions and placements of lighting/modifiers, you are in the wrong place: "If it were that formulaic, photography would not be a craft." The highlight of this chapter for me was the use of the lighting to create mood, not just to light a face. Knight is known for his dramatic flair, so fans of his work will certainly appreciate the insight into the thought process which creates his stunning imagery.

The book continues to progress in a very logical manner. Jumping into color and the use of color to develop the scene, Knight again discusses drawing the reader in and telling the story you intended to tell. Discussing the psychology of color in the same relaxed manner that many talk sports, he breaks down with intent which colors help produce which emotions and how powerful they can be in your imagery.

© Chris Knight

The remainder of the book consists of styling your shoot, picking the right props, the right backgrounds, environments (studio versus location), everything needed to pull the piece together. The section covering Knight's post-processing is a detailed, step-by-step instruction on what he does to create each image. I found his workflow to be surprisingly simple for someone who produces the photographs that he does, giving even more credence to the importance of everything discussed previously within the pages.

© Chris Knight

Knight closes the book with notes on developing your style. There is only one Chris Knight, his style will not be yours, but the roadway to finding your own is located here, within his written words. I have always found an affinity for those so willing to share all the knowledge they have obtained during their quest toward mastery. Knight is certainly on the heels of many of the master craftsmen who have come before him. His recent appearance on CreativeLive shows a student's teacher; someone invested in your growth as much as you are. If you are looking to excel has a portrait photographer, I can think of no better book on the market than Knight's "The Dramatic Portrait: The Art of Crafting Light and Shadow."

You can purchase the book from Amazon.

His in-depth tutorial expanding on the concepts in the book will be available from RGG EDU later this month on June 29. 

All images used with permission of Chris Knight.

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Anonymous's picture

In time for my birthday which is convenient for my wife! :-)

Atelier Dope's picture

Looking forward to this tutorial from RGG EDU and may have to pick up the book when its released in my country next month.

The kindle sample text consists of a potted history that defines modern bad academic writing and shows fairly profound ignorance. E.g. I don't think any educated person would feel comfortable writing the Roman philosophy concentrated on individuals because of the influence of the Greeks - given, for example, that the two big kahunas of Greek philosophy were Plato (who was obsessed with it) and Aristotle (one of whose major works was The Politics, and who spent a big part of his life trying educate Alexander into being a perfect ruler.) And let's not even talk about the Pythagorans.

..He also seems ("seems" because his writing is that bad) to think that the Renaissance came after the Middle Ages, which few modern historians would say unless they got their degrees from the History Channel. ("The Renaissance! Aliens!!!")

Probably this awful, awful chapter is irrelevant to the book's real meat - but in that case, what was it doing there, and by what insanity did he decide that it alone would make a convincing case for buying his book? ***If you're going to try to sell a book on how to shoot portraits, talk about that subject in the part of the book people read to see if they want to pay for the rest.***

Possibly more importantly, if you are going to throw cultural history at audience that is as ignorant as the author of this article seems to think (when he assumes that they disinterested) then you are under a moral obligation to make them less ignorant rather than more...

Justin Berrington's picture

First, let me just admit that I am pretty ignorant to history. It's not something I get all that interested in. But I did find your comments interesteing because they are aimed at discrediting the author of the book. Particularly this section of your post.

"..He also seems ("seems" because his writing is that bad) to think that the Renaissance came after the Middle Ages, which few modern historians would say unless they got their degrees from the History Channel. ("The Renaissance! Aliens!!!")"

So I looked around the internet a bit and from the various sites I visited they all mention the Renaissance coming after the Middle Ages.

This is from Wikipedia:
In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages or Medieval Period lasted from the 5th to the 15th century. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the three traditional divisions of Western history: classical antiquity, the medieval period, and the modern period. The medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages.

Am I misreading what you are saying? Is the Wikipedia page incorrect as well as the other sites that disagree with you? Can you point me in the right direction for correct information?

>> But I did find your comments interesteing because they are aimed at discrediting the author of the book

History is important. People shouldn't lie about it or make false claims based on laziness and pompousity.

..In fact, this chapter seems to serve no purpose except to inflate the author's ego and pad the book. I really can't see why anyone should be kind to him about this. He didn't have to write the silly thing and if he did, then he should have at least got it proof read by a competent person.

>> Is the Wikipedia page incorrect as well as the other sites that disagree with you?

In short, yes. Wikipedia is now virtually useless as a source except on episodes of Star Trek and physics. (Except, ironically, those areas of physics that attract Star Trek fans) The net is full of junk history sites bodged to sell ads for grammerly or whatever; the priority of these people is NOT scholarship! They come up much higher in unskilled net searches because they're promoted more much more aggressively than real academic content - because they are an advertising medium.

..The whole idea of the Renaissance is controversial now. Very few if any historians would say that it existed as a period in the sense of the Bronze Age or Early Medieval Period. They'd say that it was a cultural movement that took place during the High Middle Ages or that was a marketing label invented by Vasari and applied to unconnected works and create a false distinction with previous periods, eg

I could forgive him for this one error, but when he says that the Romans conquered the Greeks without a fight and that the Geek polities of that period were city states, and that Greek philosophy was apolitical - no. I mean, this is the main work of the most important Greek philosopher -

..And this guy had a huge influence on the Neocons. Politics was arguably the main topic of Greek philosophy; to imply it was excluded is as misleading as saying that modern USians are a slender people renowned for their public health care system and grasp of geography. THAT bad.

>> So I looked around the internet a bit

You just learned a valuable lesson. Google does NOT prioritise content based on accuracy! (Digression warning: Im about to cut and paste from a presentation I'm writing) Naive reliance on google results and wikipedia quickly becomes very dangerous indeed. Take a look at eg

.. The one line mention of Ponzi scams often isn't there and the rest of that page is pure scam bait. Compare eg wikipedia's

>> Shipping investments are a form of alternative investments, which are considered to be low risk investments in comparison to high risk traditional investments. An alternative investment is a tangible investment in something other than stocks, bonds or cash, but rather in precious metals, art, antiques, stamps or shipping containers.


..Exactly the investments that wiki page promotes as "low risk" are largely - quite possibly 100% - scams!

(I then go on to discuss how hifi forums suppress postings that would hurt sales of advertisers, and "A Fire Upon The Deep" - but I'll spare you.)

So, anyhoo - I hope you've learned something today! And, yes, I also do weddings and barmitzvahs...

I re-read the kindle excerpt and the man is an even bigger idiot than I thought. He explains the defeat of the Macedonian Successor states as being because the Greeks were more interested in love than fighting, what with being Greek. Leaving aside the racism here, and the irrelevance to the subject of the book -

1. The Romans came within a tiny margin of the losing that war

2. The Greeks were so willing to fight the Romans that they left the term "Pyrrhic Victory" behind as a result - a victory achieved at a horrible cost

More awfulness: "The Greeks mostly just fought themselves as they were a collection of city states" In the period of conflict with the Romans, these "cities" were called Egypt, Syria and Macedonia...

And, yes, this is presented as humour. But it's also presented as accurate. It isn't - its pompous, stupid and wrong. (And it's also not funny.)

Not sure about the book, but the photos sure look great

I would never buy a book about technique from a photographer who uses this much post-processing. I am not anti-postprocessing by any means either. This really is just photo-based digital illustration though.

Christian Santiago's picture

His post processing is actually very minimal. Most of his "look" is done in camera. He does most of his tonal processing with minimal lightroom adjustments, and makes some slight color grades in photoshop. He probably has some of the smallest PSDs I've seen from photographers lately.

And why do you feel that PSD size is a fair measure of closely the original and final image match? If you make a hundred small subtle adjustments won't you get a bigger file than if you one massive global one?

..Not that I care. In fact I'd be more interested in a book that tells you to use a laptop to substitute for possession of a PhaseOne back than vice versa. Anyway, photography is inherently an artificial medium, so I don't ave a philosophical problem.

However, the picture of the brunette does make me think of

No, these were not mostly done in camera. These are heavily manipulated.

Ben Pearse's picture

Yep, thought it was worth a look, pre ordered mine the other day...

Leo Caetano's picture

The book sure looks good, I'm gonna add to my queue. By the way, there's an article on the Profoto website about the photo with Lindsey Adler, complete with behind the scenes and lighting diagram:

Anonymous's picture

So, I just got it a couple days ago. I'm almost finished with the section on the history of art and, while interesting, it's not really why I bought the book. I'm well aware of the benefit of studying art in the pursuit of photography but it's way too long and only mentions portraiture as an afterthought. I hope the other sections are more topical.