Gregory Heisler Will Now BTS For You My Most Favorite Photo He Has Ever Shot

To understand the impact this photo had on me when it first came out, you kinda have to get into the head of a Baltimore Sun photographer during the run-up to the 2004 Summer Olympics.

For one thing, this is the only photo which has ever made me shout the F-word in a supermarket checkout line. So yeah, I have been waiting a long time for this BTS.

Oh, and if that weren't enough, there are two more Gregory Heisler vids inside, too...

"A Week at f/11"

Okay, so you can watch this first if you like. But it will probably help to know the context behind the supermarket expletive.

In the run-up to the Phelps Gold Medal Orgy that was the 2004 Olympics, the Baltimore Sun was sparing no coverage for the Baltimore native. This was mostly courtesy photographers John Makely and Karl Ferron, who had shot him damn-near every way they could think of.

Heck, we even ran a full-page horizontal underwater photo of Phelps. As in "you will now turn your newspaper sideways so we can run this edge-to-edge photo of Phelps even bigger."

Suffice to say we were pretty pleased with our photographic coverage. Until we saw this Time cover by Heisler.

And Greg, I know you are reading this. So I would like you to pause and picture me yelling out "F---!" in the Columbia, MD Giant Food checkout line in 2004 when I first saw this cover on the newsstand.

Thus it is with bittersweet admiration that I watched this BTS of how, exactly, Heisler kicked our collective asses in the BaltSun Photo Dept. Having since met Greg (and had my butt handed to me by him in person) at GPP, I'm gonna think out loud for a sec and catalog the things I picked up from this video and from the related conversations with him in Dubai.

How Do I Kick Thee? Let Me Count The Ways

1. Once again, there is not a pure white light in this frame. Which is what makes it look real. Because real light, unlike flash, is rarely white.

2. Prepare in advance. By the time Phelps stepped in front of Heisler's camera everything had been experimented to death and nailed down. Phelps was a solved mannequin. With square boobs.

3. Little-known fact: Heisler maintains a studio (or he did, anyway, as of our last meeting) in New York City. He almost never shoots there. But he uses it to pre-test the crap out of his location shoots before the fact. Just like you do, right?

4. He was originally planning to do this with fluorescent lights. Fluorescent lights. On a related note, Chuck Norris once threw a grenade and killed 50 people. Then it exploded.

5. Tilting the lens of the 8x10 (natch) camera to create the illusion the cheesy water backdrop was in fact, a three-dimensional pool receding into the background: of course.

Win a Free Profoto D1 Kit

The good news: As a tie-in with release of the upcoming series of Heisler BTS videos, ProfotoUSA is giving away a lighting kit with 2 Profoto D1 500ws monos, stands, umbrellas, a case and a Profoto Air Remote.

The bad news: It won't instantly turn you into Greg Heisler. But it can't hurt, right?

You enter here by signing up for their newsletter, which is actually pretty good. It's US only, alas, because this is a ProfotoUSA thing. Not sure if existing newsletter subs are automatically entered, tho. So re-up if you wanna be sure.

And yeah, I said upcoming series. There are three more BTS vids to come. I have seen them; they're all good. Stay tuned.

Last but not least, in addition to the first BTS video in the series, there were two more Heisler vids released today. Both are excellent advice for photographers:

Heisler on Photographic Techniques

Heisler's Advice to Photographers

So, a kickass photo BTS and some food for thought. Happy Sunday.


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Blogger Ramón said...

Thanks, Mr. Hobby, it made Sunday sunnier (and it's summer here).

January 13, 2013 9:17 AM  
Blogger Mommsen said...

Why tilt the lens, not the background?

January 13, 2013 9:19 AM  
Blogger George Pahountis said...

great post thank you!

January 13, 2013 9:23 AM  
Blogger Vince Bauermeister said...

About the background, I understand how tipping the lens would reduce the depth of view and make the top go out of focus. But, why does Phelps still look like the camera was still square to him?

Thanks, David

January 13, 2013 9:31 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Because the back of the camera, and thus the film plane, is still oriented vertically. More here.

January 13, 2013 9:33 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

"A week at f11". Too funny.

January 13, 2013 9:34 AM  
Blogger John said...

Awesome, awesome, awesome! Every single time there is a Heisler video, I walk away with something to think about. Wish I could take a class from him first-person.

I his improvisational techniques to light Phelps, and how the end photo turned out. Really cool stuff!

January 13, 2013 11:37 AM  
OpenID richard said...

@Vince, have a closer look. Phelps' lower parts are blurred, while his head is much sharper. Since the background is sharper down low than up high, I can only assume that the lens was tilted up enough to have the plane of focus go through Phelps' head (which is tack sharp) to the background behind Phelps' feet (out of frame).

January 13, 2013 11:41 AM  
Blogger Addison Geary Photography said...

I was trying to figure out which L series Canon lens that was on the table and why it was there and then it dawned on me,it's a coffee mug.

January 13, 2013 12:15 PM  
Blogger glenn kaupert said...

Great vids. His recommendation of being able to work with the constant changes sounds like life @ a daily newspaper - one of the benefits of working @ a Trbune paper for 30+ years myself - thanks!

January 13, 2013 12:59 PM  
Blogger Nick Collura said...

Heyyy, Shout out to Milwaukee!

January 13, 2013 1:38 PM  
Blogger Joe McCary said...

That was excellent! The only surprising aspect was th
at in 2004 he shot 8x10 camera, I wonder what he would use today...

January 13, 2013 1:40 PM  
Blogger Sara Lando said...

What I REALLY admire about Heisler is the complete lack of bullshit. He knows the craft, cares about it and just delivers and you can see the clarity of his vision when he speaks.
I wonder how much is talent, how much is experience and how much is the magical powers of the bow-tie.

January 13, 2013 1:48 PM  
Blogger arbus said...

Heisler is, simply, The Man. I've had the pleasure of attending three of his talks going back to the 1980's. It was probably Bill Wade who invited him to speak at the Ohio Press Photographer's Association that first time. As a high school kid I attended this seminar and was struck by this guy walking around in a cool suit, fedora, bow tie and glasses. I had never seen anyone like him. Then he spoke later in the day and blew everyone away.

Fast forward to 1988. I attended the first Eddie Adams Workshop where Heisler was an instructor. One evening Heisler holed up in a hotel room until 4 a.m. showing his pictures, telling stories and telling everything he knew. When the lights came up, there was Jay Maisel, laying on the floor. He had been soaking all this up like all of us.

Heisler is pure genius. He takes the complicated and makes it ingeniously simple. That's no easy feat. And he's one hell of a teacher.

January 13, 2013 2:21 PM  
Blogger Stacy Butera said...

Awesome! Very cool inside look at how Heisler captured this shot! The time, work and creativity that went into it. I always learn a new technique or something cool to think about! Thank you!

January 13, 2013 2:40 PM  
Blogger KlauSquare said...

My favourite quote about photography is around 4:50 in the last video: "If your only expectation is the satisfaction of making a picture it will never let you down".
Very, very true.

January 13, 2013 4:28 PM  
Blogger ma galerie photo said...

Thanks a lot, it's so interesting!

January 14, 2013 4:22 AM  
Blogger Martin Prihoda said...

im not sure who this Heisler guy is but i assure you that in a one on one shoot out i would surely defeat him.

January 14, 2013 11:02 AM  
Blogger Larry said...

Great BTS and thanks. "a week at f11" had to laugh.

January 14, 2013 12:00 PM  
Blogger hollphoto said...

No offense Martin, but no, you probably would not. Heisler has consistently proven himself to be one of the worlds premier photographers. I remember seeing him back in the film days. He had a subject with a bright window background that would blow everything away. His solution was to grab a scissor and cut ND gel into a mask. A simple, elegant and unique solution to this problem.

January 14, 2013 12:53 PM  
Blogger Reed said...

And in the spirit of Greg's "You have to improvise"

I gotta love the pieces of paper stuck under the rear leg of the table he's sitting at to keep it from wobbling.

January 14, 2013 2:04 PM  
Blogger Doug Chew said...

Wow, simply awesome. You can tell Heisler lives and breathes photography. What he does is crystal clear in his mind and he can convey that to others which is rare.

January 14, 2013 2:14 PM  
Blogger Nick said...


I think Martin knows very well who Greg is.

January 14, 2013 4:50 PM  
Blogger RexGRP said...

......Oh yeah, the Scheimpflug Principal.

January 14, 2013 8:54 PM  
Blogger Mike Levad said...

Heisler is a BAD ASS! that is all there is to it.

January 14, 2013 9:59 PM  
Blogger Clement said...

It's interesting to see that this outstanding shot happened because of a big constraint (no access to the pool). That's often when real geniuses excel.

January 15, 2013 12:12 AM  
Blogger Gene Fama said...

Personally, I dislike the photo. In fact, I don't care for Heisler's work in general. His subjects tend to look uncomfortable, pent-up, and homelier than usual—not in a cool, knowing way, but in a remote and disassociated way (watching him speak on video I can't imagine he puts anyone at ease). His setups are tortured and bombastic. They become the focal point and overshadow his subjects. I don't want to look at guys in Speedos either. Or read Time magazine. Sorry, different strokes for different folks. :-)

January 15, 2013 12:16 AM  
Blogger Fonk said...

That is flippin' cool.

January 15, 2013 1:22 AM  
Blogger NBPhoto said...

I was just vaccuming my house, and when I got to my "camera room" as my wife calls it (where my stands, lights and mods live) I was cursing my cat for shedding so much in this (Australian summer) 40 degree heat. Then it hit me, I wonder if Gregory H is a cat person, or a dog person?

@David - Did you find that out during GPP?

January 15, 2013 6:20 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

It's crazy that Mr. Heisler doesn't yet have a monograph out. It's way overdue.

January 15, 2013 8:49 AM  
Blogger Serenity said...

I don't actually care for the picture, though i guess i have to acknowledge the tech involved. But it doesn't look like Michael Phelps, the lighting making his crotch glow blue is just... odd, and the way his lower half is out of focus is... odd. (I was just looking, ok? completely objectively.) I agree with a previous commenter who thinks the subject looks uncomfortable. The work and artistry involved in lighting cannot overshadow the point of the exercise-- conveying the character of the man. Otherwise he's just the meat puppet illustrating the photographer's self absorption.

January 15, 2013 10:37 PM  
Blogger Larry said...

Hey David;

Thanks for the Scheimpflug principle link.

Good discussion with my daughter on math!


January 16, 2013 10:46 AM  
Blogger Joe Holmes said...

One of the most important lessons in that video is that Heisler did everything possible in camera. He didn't assume he could just drop in a watery background in post.

January 16, 2013 5:45 PM  
Blogger Greg Bouchard said...

The third video where he talks about shooting for the thrill of shooting is by far the best of the three videos. Seeing the photo is cool, watching him work would be fun, but seeing the passion the great photographers emit is amazing.

January 17, 2013 3:21 AM  
Blogger Gene Fama said...

A commenter says about Heisler, "he didn't assume he could just drop in a watery background in post."

He just made it look like he did. Not sure how he did the shoot but I hope he tried to putting Phelps in an Olympic pool with cold lights aiming up at him from under the water. It is Time magazine, after all. He might not have had to gel those fake-looking highlights under the pecs or that creepy skeletal highlight in the eye socket.

I agree with Heisler: fluorescent lights would have been better and more evocative of the world of indoor swimming—even if it isn't the usual way a fading news weekly would photograph a Speedo mannequin.

January 18, 2013 12:37 AM  
Blogger John Patrick said...

What does BTS mean??? Cannot find a logical explanation on the net.

January 24, 2013 5:29 AM  
OpenID paikiiimagery said...

BTS is Behind the Scene
For those of you who don't care for the photo, I sugest your vision is too narrow. The cover is titled "Pool Shark" and the lighting succeeds in giving Phelps a menacing look in keeping with the title.

January 26, 2013 9:07 PM  
OpenID vyassaurabh411 said...

Wonderful videos.. Every time you listen to people like him you feel inner enlightenment. Thanks David for bringing these videos to us!

February 03, 2013 7:16 AM  
Blogger R. said...

I obviously don't have an 'eye' for photographs, as I don't think that is anything special at all.

I just looked at it, thought "Too squashed on the magazine cover" and looked away. :)

February 16, 2013 6:02 AM  
Blogger White Salmon Photography said...

OMG I cant believe that a cheesy rented backdrop! SOB thats amazing

May 03, 2013 11:13 AM  

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