Magazine Article


On Location

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Michael Grecco is no stranger to the world of celebrities and big productions. His distinctive work has been showcased worldwide in printed media, on television and the Internet. Fully embracing today's imaging technologies, he has built a high-end digital capture and processing workflow that includes the Leaf Valeo 22 digital camera back and Hasselblad H1 camera. We've been invited "on set" to follow the step-by-step process behind two of his recent digital productions.

Project 1

Jesse McCartney

©Michael Grecco ©Michael Grecco

Overview: This past summer, Michael Grecco produced a series of photographs of singer/actor Jesse McCartney, including the image on our cover. McCartney, 16, plays the role of Bradin Westerly on the WB show "Summerland." The project was done with a number of uses in mind, and to date, images have appeared in assorted promotional materials, including a poster, music CD, and on the record label's website (

1. Get the Job and Hire the Right Team

Jesse McCartney's manager contacted Grecco's studio after seeing his website. Grecco explains, "They were not pleased with some of the existing photography they had done, so I asked questions like, 'What didn't you like?' and 'What would you like done differently?' Asking the right questions will often help get the job because the client knows that you are going to be sensitive to their needs. After some further creative discussions, I then had her speak with my rep to work out other details, such as pricing and usage." Grecco continues, "During my conversation with McCartney's manager, she also mentioned the possible use of a car, so we looked into what type of car would be available.

In this case, someone on our staff was the producer on the shoot; She did some research and after finding a company, photos of classic cars were sent via email to us. After getting approval from the client, we booked the car, as well as a motor home, which is common for celebrity photo shoots. There was very little time to do the shoot - we were called on a Monday and the job was scheduled for two days later.

©Michael Grecco Grecco photographed McCartney in different situations, and ended up with a variety of different looks, suitable for multiple uses. ©Michael Grecco

Grecco emphasizes the importance of knowing how to delegate: "I learned a long time ago to concentrate on what I do best: running my business, taking good pictures and being on the phone with clients." Grecco recommends hiring the right people to help with the rest. The "rest" can sometimes involve ten or more people, each with an important role. Those hired for this project included Tom Stratton, Grecco's lead digital technician, two photo assistants, a location scout and a hair stylist/makeup artist."

2. Choose the Right Location and Equipment

Based on the client's request for an edgy feel to the images, a suitable location was found by the location scout and an all-inclusive permit for an area of Los Angeles was pulled for street shooting. Equipment for the shoot included the 22-megapixel Leaf Valeo 22 digital camera back, Hasselblad H1 camera and an assortment of lenses. Grecco praises the back/camera combo highly: "The H1 and Valeo feels great in my hands, and the images out of the system are gorgeous - the results are very smooth, like with medium format film, even when underlit. I like how the shutter snaps and the speed of the system [about 1.2 sec per frame] allows me to work as I would with film, which is especially important when shooting models and celebrities. In addition, having the histogram pop up on the H1's handle is a great feature. The bright viewfinder and excellent HC lenses also makes focusing, either in auto or manual mode, very easy."

The center part of this image was used for an 11x17 inch vertical poster. Even after cropping, the 22-megapixel file was sharp and detailed. ©Michael Grecco

All the strobe lighting came from two Comet PMT-1200 battery-powered packs and two Comet flash heads with reflectors. Silks were hung on frames to soften the light. Grecco explains the computer setup for the shoot: "A Dual 2Ghz Power Mac G5 and 23'' Apple Cinema Display were kept in the motor home and the Valeo 22 and Hasselblad H1 were tethered to a 15'' PowerBook G4 with an external FireWire drive for each initial capture (shot outdoors with a hood over the LCD).

3. Clean and Calibrate

Once the equipment was set up, the Cinema Display and laptop were calibrated and profiled using the GretagMacbeth Eye-One Pro under the ambient lighting for each environment. The 23'' LCD was done inside and the laptop outdoors. Tom Stratton explains how they then handle the critical issue of keeping the digital sensor clean: "During the setup for the first shot of the day we do three exposures (dark, neutral and light), of a blank, light background. We then bring them into Photoshop and view files at 100 or 200%. If there is any dust present, we blow it off with a bulb-blower (never use compressed air) and we then repeat the procedure. For actual sensor cleaning, we follow Leaf's suggestions in the user manual. Also, before attaching the Valeo 22 to the camera, we thoroughly blow all the dust out of the body, lenses, mirror, ground glass, prism, etc., and we also check for dust periodically throughout the shoot."

Stratton then describes how grey balance was set: "Once overall lighting was in place, we photographed a person holding a GretagMacbeth ColorChecker DC chart. Usually, we just use the greyscale patches around the center of the chart to set grey balance in Leaf's Capture V8 software with the Valeo 22. Photoshop's Camera RAW also has a grey balance tool that we use when processing. Having the big chart also allows us to make a custom profile with GretagMacbeth's ProfileMaker software for individual lighting setups if we are having problems that can't easily be solved in the normal manner."

4. Shoot and Backup

Grecco explains the shooting workflow: "We began by shooting a test shot in each location while tethered to the G4 Powerbook (we call it a "Digiroid"). Once the overall lighting and look was evaluated on the laptop and approved by the client, I added a 10GB Leaf Digital magazine to the bottom of the Valeo 22 and shot untethered, like I would with film. Being untethered allowed me to shoot more freely, and the camera and back had no problem keeping up with the flash units. I will sometimes use the Leaf DP-67 portable display, which works very well, but in this case I chose not to. After each setup, the Leaf Digital Magazine was brought into the motor home, downloaded via FireWire and the RAW files were evaluated by me, my digital techs and Jesse's managers. We shot a total of about 700 images in 4-5 different locations."

With regard to getting exposure right, Tom Stratton notes: "We work really hard to translate Michael's final vision of the image into a lighting setup that gives us good data. We will often start with an image on screen that Michael likes, but a histogram that is not technically useable. We then work the lighting and the processing settings until we see that same image again, but with all the data within usable ranges on the histogram. One area that bears particular attention is highlights on skin. After the image is processed, there should be no areas of skin that exceed 250 in the red channel; If the skin jumps over 250 in the reds, color banding can be introduced in the transition to the highlights and a potentially unmovable color cast can occur in the highlights. Any of these problems can be fixed with hours of retouching per image or with 10 minutes of effort at the start of the shoot!"

iView MediaPro's customizable thumbnail view is shown above. iView's Media view allows users to quickly view images much larger so that sharpness and expressions can be judged. ©Michael Grecco

5. Edit, Process & Deliver

The Leaf RAW files were then processed through Photoshop CS using Dr. Brown's Image Processor 2 ( This is a great little Photoshop Javascript which allows for automated sizing, sharpening and processing of RAWs to multiple file formats in one step. With regard to processing using Leaf's software for RAW conversions, Stratton explains, "The Leaf software does an excellent job processing the Leaf RAWs (especially with regard to noise suppression) and we use it when shooting at ASA settings over 100, or with other selected images. We often choose Photoshop CS for conversions because it does a great job most of the time, and delivers a faster workflow, especially when paired with Dr. Brown's Image Processor."

Grecco notes, "Only obvious outtakes or images I'd rather the client not see were deleted during review, and all remaining files were prepped by our staff, downloaded to an external hard drive and shipped via FedEx to the client the following day. When we are asked to edit, we generally use iView MediaPro 2.6 (above), which is a tool that enables us to view previews of our files in RAW or other formats, and tag them quickly and easily."

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