BTS: Heisler Photographs Alonzo Mourning

Having just spent a week with Greg in Dubai at Gulf Photo Plus, I have now heard him express the following thought multiple times:

There is light you create that is a photographic reaction to light as it exists in the world, and there is light you create just because it's cool.

I think it's safe to say that this photo he made of NBA star Alonzo Mourning, for ESPN Magazine, is the latter. How he did it, below.


First off, this has always been one of my favorite holy-shit-where-did-he-come-up-with-this lighting schemes that I have seen from him. I don't know if I could ever even conceive this (maybe some experimenting with LSD? I dunno.) And if I did, if I could pull it off. Honest answer: no.

Heisler explains it:


First, and as with the Phelps photo, Heisler meticulously planned this shot in the studio, and transposed the whole scheme to the location.

Interesting tidbit: Heisler long maintained a studio in Manhattan (now it's elsewhere) but he almost never used it to shoot a job. Maybe a couple dozen times over many years. But he would test out ideas and schemes there, nailing down every variable before he transported the idea to the location.

Depending on the complexity of the shoot he might even lay paper out on the ground and mark every light stand and tripod leg. Translation: you don't just fall into light like this while on location. Especially not in the few minutes that a pro athlete would give you to make his photo. Not even Heisler. It's all about serious advance prep.

To me, it's comforting to know that a photo like this doesn't just materialize out of a combination of luck and/or freakish talent. Heisler works and thinks and perseveres harder than any photographer I have ever met. Maybe there are people who work harder, but I have not met them.

Second, that blue key light. Love that. But if you were to try it on a white guy, it'd look like "undercooked fish." Those are Heisler's words, and I love that visual. But suffice to say this is a very specific response to a specific situation. Or maybe he is just trying to keep us from trying it. Which would be even better.

So, you go to all that trouble, then you watch Mourning walk off set after the first Polaroid—to return with a freshly shaven head—and the photo doesn't even make the cover. That's right, ESPN Mag chose a different shot for the cover.

They nixed it as a cover so they could run this one inside as a double-truck vertical photo. As in, rotate-the-magazine-ninety-degrees-to-see-it.

If that is not validation from a magazine for your having made a stopper of a photograph, I don't know what is.


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Blogger caprae said...

Appreciate you posting these. Also learned a bit about lighting for video by watching the lights on Heisler as he was commenting. I'm guessing he set that up as well.

March 13, 2013 8:58 AM  
Blogger Ren A said...

Great post, thank you. I never knew that masters first set up things in studio to see if it works. I just thought they have the eye and previsualise everything in their mind. Some knew learned. And I don't feel such amateur anymore :-)

March 13, 2013 9:33 AM  
Blogger Wally said...

I'd sell body parts to spend a few hours with Mr. Heisler....I could listen him talk about this tuff all day....

March 13, 2013 12:27 PM  
Blogger TB said...

Man I wish I would have atteneded his course at GPP. Hes one funny dude.

I was only half joking when I asked him if he ever considered retiring from photography and become a standup comedian.

A guy youd love to get to know...

March 13, 2013 2:50 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

I attended Greg's two-hour talk in NYC a couple weeks back before his show opening. He is a really great storyteller, and super funny.

March 13, 2013 3:51 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@TB- Dude, we were at the Vista rooftop bar over the hotel drinking beer, like, EVERY night. Where were you?

March 13, 2013 4:55 PM  
Blogger Fenix Fotography said...

Makes me miss the Hornets here in Charlotte. Alonzo was the $#!+ when I was a kid. We're fighting to get them (or at least the name) back.

March 13, 2013 6:10 PM  
Blogger Ian Pack said...

We can all learn a lot from this post and video. Especially about Greg's vision - the ability to pre- visualise is so important. He is a Master of his craft which he translates to film. I used to shoot 4"x5" years ago. I miss it, but don't miss all the heavy gear associated with it and having to load dark slides in less than ideal conditions;-)

March 14, 2013 9:45 AM  
Blogger TB said...


Hey some of us have day jobs! :p

Sadly I had my car that day.

I think its was nice to have the photo Friday on the first day(as opposed to the last day, but it would be nice to have a few more party events throughout the week.

March 14, 2013 10:33 AM  
Blogger Tonia Mc Caskill-Johnson said...

I heart the Greg Heisler videos you post here David. He has a way of explaining the process that's so smooth like butter. It's not complicated it is what it is. Thanks for sharing.

March 14, 2013 12:28 PM  
Blogger belfox said...

Thx for posting, as usual a very instructive BTS.

His comments at 2:45 also show the difference between Greg Heisler and the rest of us : he shot in 8x10 (because he likes the look of it) and he "didn't take a lot of shots, maybe a dozen frames, or 2 dozen, not that much" ..... I don't think he'll ever switch to digital, unless someone creates an 8x10 sensor

March 14, 2013 1:49 PM  
Blogger topu81 said...

Great post

March 14, 2013 2:38 PM  
Blogger Cage said...

Its posts like these that make me miss youtube as its blocked in my country due to a stupid video. And i cant seem to run it through a proxy server either because its embedded. Can someone post the youtube link here??? Maybe that will work through my proxy. I cant seem to find this video through youtube's search as well which is working via proxy

March 15, 2013 7:35 AM  
Blogger TB said...

Cage here you go:

Have you tried witopia for proxy?

March 15, 2013 4:38 PM  
Blogger Lachlan said...

It's posts like this that make me ache to somehow make it to Dubai for GPP. Next year is the hope if I can afford it. Don't suppose you can post a How to plan for GPP post sometime?

Just looking at the photo I was able to see how he'd lit it before watching the video, which comes from following the articles you've written over the years and similar playing with gels to this. Thank you for continuing to post.

March 15, 2013 11:03 PM  
Blogger Cage said...

Thanks db

Whats witopia? I havent done a lot.of research on this since i was assuming it wont be blocked for long. Unfortunately it has been the case. Governments take their time about these things i guess.

March 16, 2013 4:59 AM  
Blogger Good old Clive said...

Fantastic photographer, check his other vids on you tube for thought provoking insights. His advice on technique, the most profound I've heard in a long while, avoid websites, books, courses etc on technique, "It's between your ears." Brilliant! Develop your own, through practice, experimentation, practice and then more practice.
Thank you David for posting.

March 17, 2013 6:47 AM  
Blogger Robert said...

Love Mr. Heisler's work... I love how he used the opposing soft boxes to provide rim light for the subject as well as a halo effect on the background. Brilliant...

March 19, 2013 7:39 PM  
Blogger Jay Grabiec said...

I ran into some light eerily similar to this shortly after reading this post. Thanks for sharing.

March 25, 2013 5:56 PM  
Blogger cityphotos said...

Thanks for this post. I was really impressed by the image and I wanted to learn more about it.

March 30, 2013 9:12 PM  
Blogger Jacob Decker said...

Thank you so much for the post! I loved it so much I popped $500 for some more strobie gear and had to do something like it on a friend.

May 24, 2013 4:03 AM  
Blogger Jacob Decker said...

Thank you so much for this post! I loved it so much I dropped $500 on some new strobe gear and had to try out something like it on a friend.

May 24, 2013 4:05 AM  
Blogger Charles Flaum said...

Thanks for this post!

May 27, 2013 5:16 AM  

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